Guardian books blog: Sad Scenes in Books

Thinking sad thoughts about Death on the Nile, but in a beautiful dress

Today’s entry appears on the Guardian Books Blog, and is about scenes in books that make you cry. I put forward my own suggestions, and the readers came up with a lot more in the comments. This is part of it:
The most celebrated big hitter in terms of desolation is the final line of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock.

She walked rapidly in the thin June sunlight towards the worst horror of all.

But is it not over-the-top, a piece of blatant reader manipulation? For nuance, the last line I prefer is from Henry James's Wings of a Dove:

But she turned to the door, and her headshake was now the end. "We shall never be again as we were!"

It's worth all the 400-plus pages and the over-complex dictated sentences that have led up to it.

And Greene himself wrote this genuinely heart-rending thought in The End of the Affair, with its wonderful evocation of Blitzed and blacked-out London:

Death never mattered at those times – in the early days I even used to pray for it: the shattering annihilation that would prevent for ever the getting up, the putting on of clothes, the watching her torch trail across to the opposite side of the common like the tail-light of a low car driving away.

It's far more real than Brighton Rock, expressing a feeling you think someone might actually have had.

Gretta thinks about Michael Furey

Two of the best further suggestions came from Sara O’Leary, with a line from Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise in which her brother goes from being a little boy to being a name on the Boer War memorial in the village square. And Col of Col’s Criminal Library had me smacking my face because I’d forgotten John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, a book that we both love.

More that I’d have liked to include:

In the children’s book Charlotte’s Web, by EB White, the spider has to die, and yes, White makes you care, and it comes like this:
No one was with her when she died.
(NB Your children will laugh at you crying as you read it out to them).

And John Burningham’s children’s picture book, Granpa, has two lines the equal of that famed (mythical?) Ernest Hemingway story about the shoes:
“Harry, Florence and I used to come down that hill like little arrows. I remember one Christmas…”

“You nearly slipped then, Granpa.”

In The Bible, the story of King David (in the two books of Samuel) has killer scenes - David mourning his friend Jonathan and later his son Absalom in language that burns down the ages. And there’s the tragic story of Uriah the Hittite, with Nathan’s heart-stopping moment of accusation: “YOU ARE THE MAN!” Guilt is not hidden - a lesson to adulterers everywhere, and also to those who think Kings are more important than common Hittite soldiers.

Another look at love in a time of war comes in Han Suyin’s almost-forgotten novel of the Malay Emergency, And the Rain My Drink. This is her eloquent, dreadful summary of what can happen in bad times:
I was dry and desolate, emptied of pity or compassion, knowing at last that there are places on the earth, in time and space, where is no space nor time, nor light nor air, nor any ground to grow for the strange weed called love.

Newland Archer, in Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence,
Turn-of-the-century beauty breaking hearts
survives a lifetime spent apart from the woman he secretly loved:
It seemed to take an iron band from his heart to know that, after all, someone had guessed and pitied… and that it should have been his wife moved him indescribably.
Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile challenges her reputation as pure puzzlemaker, with very real characters and feelings. Poirot allows himself to get emotional, and the murderer, once identified, says to him: ‘Don’t mind so much M Poirot! About me I mean. You do mind don’t you?’ And Poirot says (against all his principles, and in contrast to all his other cases): ‘Yes.’

I’d love to hear in the comments which moments in books make you cry….


  1. Great post again, Moira. Cheers for the hat-tip re Owen Meany.
    I'm tempted to look up Lark Rise. David Nicholl's One Day had me complaining of grit in my eye. Enjoyed the film but felt the book was more powerful at a couple of poignant moments.
    I've gotten sad watching The Notebook with my family, but haven't read the book by Nicholas Sparks, so am unsure if it has the same tug.

    1. Films can be worse than books, I have a few there. I am not a great animal lover, but my children used to watch a Disney film called Homeward Bound/Incredible Journey, and I could not watch the final scenes without being in floods. My children used to enjoy watching out for the first tears...

  2. Moira - So very glad you included that scene from Death on the Nile. Really moving! There's also this very sad scene in Karin Fossum's Don't Look Back when a father who's lost his daughter to murder is talking to a funeral director about arranging matters. It's unspeakably moving without being mawkish...

    1. Thanks Margot - I haven't read the Fossum but I should. Avid readers are always wary of anything over-manipulative, I think - as you say, avoiding the mawkish. Real emotion is something to look out for.

  3. This is a fascinating post, Moira. I can't think of sad scenes in books I've read though one that does come to mind is Erich Segal's LOVE STORY, especially the line "Love means never having to say you're sorry..." that had readers eating out of the author's hands. His MAN, WOMAN AND CHILD was quite poignant too.

    1. Thanks Prashant. And you're right, Love Story certainly did it for people of my generation. I haven't read anything else by him.

  4. The ending of The Railway Children, when the father returns and Bobby meets him on the station always makes me feel shivery.
    And there is a section in Vasily Grossman's wonderful Life and Fate which made me cry last summer.

    1. Railway Children! Can't believe I forgot that one, and that you are the first person (after 240 comments at the Guardian and another 20-30 elsewhere) to suggest it. Tearing up just thinking about it: 'My Daddy. It's my Daddy.'
      Not read the Grossman - sounds as though I should?

    2. Life and Fate is a big commitment - 855 pages - I read it over last summer, but it is a marvellous novel. I've written about it on my blog.

  5. Great post here and at the Guardian, Moira. I think stories go right out of my head as soon as I read them, and I don't remember many that make me cry. One mystery that comes to mind would be a spoiler. And of course I did cry when I read Charlotte's Web to my son... many years ago. I do remember some tears at the end of The Little Shadows.

    1. Thanks Tracy - what was interesting for me was that a lot of the comments on the Guardian suggested books that had made me cry too, but I had forgotten them completely. I cry easily and shamelessly, then I think I forget....

  6. I seem to spend my life crying over books and films, but think the first time was when I read "Seven Little Australians" by Ethel Turner. I've just looked at the last two chapters online, and was surprised at how many details I remembered, from about forty years ago. And of course I started crying again.

    1. I've heard of that book but never read it. Probably better not - I've got quite enough things to make me cry, people's comments made me remember many a weepy session.


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