8 Surprising Literary Easter Eggs

AbeBooks
AbeBooks

Video games and movies aren’t the only media to contain inside jokes, allusions, and puzzles; some literary giants are in on the act, too. Whether it’s an odd quotation, invented place, or mysterious pattern, these tidbits—which can escape detection on a first reading—often have a special significance for the author. Eagle-eyed readers have long been searching for and sharing these literary Easter eggs, and we’ve rounded up eight sneaky and surprising examples below.

1. A CHARACTER FROM A PREVIOUS NOVEL // THE GREAT GATSBY

The Great Gatsby cover
Amazon

"Then wear the gold hat, if that will move her;
If you can bounce high, bounce for her too,
Till she cry 'Lover, gold-hatted, high-bouncing lover,
I must have you!'"
– Thomas Parke D’Invilliers

In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald includes an epigraph (usually a quotation from another writer at the start of a book or chapter) by Thomas Parke D'Invilliers. So far, so normal—except that Thomas Parke D'Invilliers was another character invented by Fitzgerald. D’Invilliers appears as an “awful highbrow” poet and friend of Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise, which was published in 1920, some five years before The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald never publicly admitted authoring the epigraph, despite the fact that numerous people asked him for details of D’Invilliers so they might seek permission to use the quote themselves. However, Fitzgerald’s authorship was confirmed when a rare signed and inscribed copy of The Great Gatsby came to light in which Fitzgerald finally claims the epigraph as his own—by scribbling the word “myself” below the imaginary poet’s name.

2. AN ACROSTIC POEM // THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS

Through the Looking Glass book
Simon & Schuster

The huge success of Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass meant that author Lewis Carroll was always being asked who the main character of Alice was based on. Carroll was generally coy about giving an answer, although many suggested that she was based on family friend Alice Liddell. It later emerged that he had first invented the story while amusing the Liddell girls on a boat trip down a river. Attentive readers soon noticed Carroll was not so coy after all—he had included an acrostic poem at the end of Through the Looking-Glass entitled "A Boat Beneath a Sunny Sky," in which the first letter of every line spells out “Alice Pleasance Liddell."

3. A LITERARY FEUD // BETJEMAN BIOGRAPHY

John Betjeman The Biography cover
Amazon

Bevis Hillier, the official biographer of poet John Betjeman, took the Easter egg one further when he concocted an elaborate hoax to fool rival Betjeman biographer A.N. Wilson. Hillier forged a love letter from Betjeman to a work colleague, which found its way into Wilson’s hands. Thinking he had a scoop, Wilson published the letter in his book. Unfortunately, journalists reviewing Wilson’s book soon noticed that the first letter of each sentence in the forged letter spelled out “A N Wilson is a sh*t,” and Hillier later revealed he had orchestrated the hoax in revenge for a terrible review Wilson had written of his Betjeman biography.

4. A SHOUT-OUT TO A SIGNIFICANT OTHER // THE HANDMAID’S TALE

The Handmaid's Tale cover
Books-A-Million

In Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, fans puzzled over the significance of some graffiti that main character Offred sees etched into a desk. The letters read “M. loves G., 1972.” Wily readers later noted that Atwood (M) had started a life-long relationship with fellow author Graeme Gibson (G) in 1972.

5. AN EPIGRAM REFERENCING THE JFK ASSASSINATION // ON THE STORM PLANET

Quest of the Three Worlds cover
Amazon

Cordwainer Smith was the pseudonym used by East Asia scholar and psychological warfare expert Paul Linebarger to write science fiction novels. In his 1965 novella On The Storm Planet (often included in the collection Quest of the Three Worlds), Smith added references to the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy using an epigram inserted into the text. The first letter of each word in one seemingly-normal string of sentences spells out “Kennedy shot,” and a few pages later another epigram adds “Oswald shot too.” Amazingly, this hidden message does not disrupt the flow of the writing, making the Easter egg even harder to spot.

6. RUNES HIDING A MESSAGE // LORD OF THE RINGS

The Fellowship of the Ring cover
Amazon

J. R. R. Tolkien was a language professor at Oxford University, and his love of words and language inspired his novels. On the original title page of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien inscribed two of his invented writing systems in the borders, which at first glance appear to be mere pretty decoration. However, some clever fans have since translated the lettering to reveal his hidden message. The full translation reads: “The Lord of the Rings translated from the Red Book of Westmarch by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. Herein is set forth the history of the War of the Ring and the Return of the King as seen by the Hobbits.”

7. A FORESHADOWED PROTAGONIST // IT

It cover
Simon & Schuster

Stephen King is well-known for including numerous Easter eggs in his novels, often linking characters and places from one book to the next, creating a complex criss-cross of allusions and references. One of King’s most random Easter eggs is included in his novel IT (1986), in which one of the tormented children is Eddie Kaspbrak, who King casually mentions lives next door to Paul Sheldon and his family. Paul Sheldon then turns up as the unfortunate protagonist in King's novel Misery (1987) just a few years later.

8. COLLEGE DOPPELGÄNGERS // LESS THAN ZERO

Less Than Zero cover
Pan Macmillan

Bret Easton Ellis reimagined his own alma mater, Bennington College in Vermont, a number of times in his books, renaming it Camden College. Known in the 1980s for being one of the most expensive American schools, Bennington was also famed for its openness to experimentation and, some say, debauchery—elements Ellis used in his plots. "Camden College" first appears in Less Than Zero (1985), but also crops up in The Rules of Attraction (1987), American Psycho (1991), The Informers (1994), and Glamorama (1998). Strangely, Ellis isn’t the only one to use “Camden College” in his books—fellow Bennington alum Jill Eisenstadt (in From Rockaway, 1987) and Jonathan Lethem (in The Fortress of Solitude, 2003) also use Camden as a cipher for Bennington in their novels. Nor do the Bennington doubles end there: Donna Tartt, another classmate of Ellis, also uses a Bennington-esque college in The Secret History (1992), but she names it Hampden.

The One Harry Potter Character JK Rowling Regrets Killing Off

Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images
Angela Weiss, AFP/Getty Images

Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't read or watched the Harry Potter series: Many beloved characters die. From Dobby to Snape to Dumbledore (and the list goes on), Potterheads have reason to shed a tear during nearly every book and/or film. It was surely upsetting for JK Rowling to write these deaths, but she has spoken out about the one character she actually regrets killing off.

According to IGN, Rowling once wrote on Pottermore about how she regretted killing Florean Fortescue. If you don't remember him, you're probably not alone; he's the owner of an ice cream parlor in Diagon Alley, and a minor character. So why, out of the multiple heartbreaking deaths she concocted, does the acclaimed author feel so strongly about killing off Florean?

"I originally planned Florean to be the conduit for clues that I needed to give Harry during his quest for the Hallows, which is why I established an acquaintance fairly early on," Rowling explained. "The problem was that when I came to write the key parts of Deathly Hallows, I decided that Phineas Nigellus Black was a much more satisfactory means of conveying clues. I seemed to have him kidnapped and killed for no good reason. He is not the first wizard whom Voldemort murdered because he knew too much (or too little), but he is the only one I feel guilty about, because it was all my fault."

So basically, Florean was created as a plot device that ultimately was not needed in the end. As he faces death "for no good reason" according to Rowling, it seems his character's demise was just the result of a little narrative reorganization. As Rowling of all people should know, there could have been worse ways to go.

A 17th-Century Noblewoman's Rare Poems About War-Torn England Can Be Read Online

Hajotthu, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain
Hajotthu, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Hester Pulter wasn't famous for anything in particular, but the 17th-century aristocrat's poems have historical value for other reasons. Pulter wrote about science, religion, politics, the English Civil War (fought from 1642 to 1651), and even the execution of Charles I, which wouldn't be all that unusual, except for the fact that she was a woman. And a woman of high social standing at that.

Although her poems can now be read online for free via The Pulter Project, the noblewoman probably never meant for them to be published back in the 1600s, according to Samantha Snively, a Ph.D candidate in Early Modern Literature at the University of California, Davis.

"In order to avoid slander, the few women who did publish usually wrote about topics more aligned with proper womanly values: household guides, devotional books and diaries, or memoirs of their husbands," Snively wrote for The Conversation. "An aristocratic woman like Hester would have been expected to behave modestly, keep quiet, and focus on her household rather than write about political conflicts and scientific experimentation."

According to Smithsonian magazine, Pulter's poems went largely unread for centuries until 1996, when a graduate student at the University of Leeds pulled them from the shelves of the university's Brotherton Library while undertaking a project to digitize 17th-century poetry manuscripts. The online portal includes both digital versions of Pulter's original manuscripts as well as transcriptions of her writings.

Pulter, who was likely born in or around Dublin in June 1605, wrote most of her poems in the 1640s and 1650s at the height of the English Civil War. As such, her poems reflect her "deeply felt responses to the carnage and chaos of the mid-seventeenth century, as to the afflictions and losses in her own life," The Pulter Project notes.

Despite being the daughter of a chief justice on the king's bench in Ireland, Pulter was critical of different political factions, including the Parliamentarians and the ruling class, while also revering monarchs like Charles I.

Snively noted that Pulter's body of work contains "early feminist ideas and addresses, in complex ways, how society constricts women's behavior, devalues their work, and diminishes their intellectual value."

Pulter—the daughter of James Ley, who became the first Earl of Marlborough—gave birth to 15 children and rarely left her home. In one poem, she laments, "Why must I thus forever be confined / Against the noble freedom of my mind?"

[h/t Smithsonian]

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