Wednesday, November 25, 2009

When art makes us cry

Death of little Nell I had a professor at university, a dapper academic who taught a Restoration Literature class.  We studied Goldsmith and Sterne and Richardson.  Plays, novels. Tristram Shandy,  She Stoops to Conquer, Robinson Crusoe.  Dr. Pullen was a decent lecturer, but he didn’t say anything that really caught my attention…

Until the day he confessed that he hated reading one of those famous Victorians, Charles Dickens. 

“I hate Dickens because he’s the only author who can make me cry,” he announced.

I tried to picture this poised little man weeping over the death of Little Nell, and the famous quip of Oscar Wilde’s came to mind:  One would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without dissolving into tears...of laughter. Dickens had never plucked at my heartstrings either, but Dr. Pullen? What was going on here?

Dr. Pullen didn’t hate Dickens, I finally realized. Quite the contrary: he loved this writer who could move him to tears.

I too love writers – and painters, and playwrights, and composers – who can make me cry.  Vaughan-Williams’ The Lark Ascending comes to mind.  Alex Colville’s Moon and Cow.  Certain passages of Shakespeare and, an all-time favourite,  J.D. Salinger’s The Laughing Man.

But the art that moves me may very easily be dismissed by someone else’s inner Oscar Wilde.

I believe it’s an equation: one part art plus one part personal experience equals an individual, visceral, emotional response. Some readers might complain about sentimentality (think Little Women and Dickens and even Anne of Green Gables), but I think every equation is as different as every reader.

So forget Oscar Wilde, you writers out there.  If you can make your readers cry, you’ve forged the ultimate connection, and that’s something to celebrate.


  1. I cried buckets reading The Book of Negroes. I sobbed reading the ending of the Friday Night Knitting Club. When Jem dies in Rilla of Ingleside I had to put the book down.

    I think it's why I seldom see the movie versions of books that I've adored. They so rarely get it right...

  2. Very true, Diva. Although I confess to a little dampness at the corners of my eyes when Dumbledore delivered the famous "...much harder standing up to your friends" speech in the first Harry Potter movie. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I think the Harry Potters and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy got it right...some of the others, not so much. Lawrence Hill was on Canada AM this morning, and apparently the Book of Negroes will be a film and he's doing the adaptation. If HE does the adaptation, it will be right, as long as the have the right actress to play the heroine.