As a child I regularly wept over books. The death of Beth in Little Women, of Matthew Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables, of Charlotte the spider in Charlotte’s Web and of Bobs the horse in Mates at Billabong all had me soaking the hankies. As an adult I do not weep as much – have I grown less empathetic or more stony-hearted?
But there are still some books that make me weep. That terrible emptiness at the end of The Diary of Anne Frank when you realise yet again that Anne was never going to come back to continue her diary, dead Catherine deep in a coal mine at the end of Zola’s Germinal, the death of Melanie in Gone with the Wind, and the tragedy of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s powerful Sunset Song. But today I cry for other reasons as well – I shed tears reading the last pages of the last Harry Potter novel because I was just so sad the pleasure had come to an end (and I cry for sheer joy that the exquisite perfection of Emma read by Prunella Scales on audio exists in this world, but that’s a rather different matter).
The internet provides many lists of books that are “guaranteed to make you cry” but I’m afraid I remained dry-eyed through To Kill a Mockingbird, The Kite Runner, Of Mice and Men, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Book Thief. I believe that vast numbers of teenagers have cried through book and movie of John Green’s The Fault in our Stars about two teenage cancer patients, but I haven’t read that one – my Mum died from cancer and books on that topic are too close to home. I know I would cry!
But is there a value in crying over the fates of fictional characters? I think there is! Books make us feel, make us aware of the preciousness of life while we have it, make us feel glad to be alive. Men tend to repress tears and our society approves of such repression, so for men books can be a much-needed emotional outlet and weeping over a novel can be therapeutic. Tears mean that we have been deeply moved by a book, that its contents have resonated in a powerful way and that that particular book is a worthy object of our feelings. In the past readers were not so reticent about shedding tears. Rousseau’s fan mail holds many confessions of all the weeping that went on in response to his novel Julie. It was the same with Richardson’s Clarissa in which the heroine takes hundreds of pages to die (no-one could claim they didn’t see it coming!) and with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin when Little Eva died. Charles Dickens should have been given shares in a handkerchief-making company, because so many of his readers sobbed over Little Nell and Jo and the other children who die young. Weeping over books used to be taken for granted.
Novelist Henry Green insisted that prose “in the end should draw tears out of the stone” and I am glad that I can still respond deeply and tearfully to a novel. Sometimes we all need a good cry!
Do you weep over books? If so, which ones stir you? I’d love to hear which novels have had you reaching for the tissues. Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
Mates at Billabong by Mary Grant Bruce
The Diary Of A Young Girl by Anne Frank
Germinal by Zola
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Harry Potter Boxed Set: The Complete Collection by J.K. Rowling
Emma by Jane Austen, read by Prunella Scales
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
The Fault in our Stars by John Green
Julie by Jean Jacques Rousseau
Clarissa by Samuel Richardson
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
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