Why Am I Crying? It’s Only a Mystery!


I recently found myself crying—not sniffling, but full-out two-Kleenex tears—over the last chapters of not one, but two books. Both books were part of a series of mysteries starring Miss Maisie Dobbs as the intuitive, insightful sleuth.

I got to wondering about what it is that makes me get so emotional over a book. True, I cry easily: puppy dog commercials; touching memes on Facebook; I even cried when Maks and Meryl took the mirror ball on Dancing with the Stars.

Still, a murder mystery? The stories are fairly well written and have principal characters drawn with some depth; the mystery keeps me guessing until the very end. But it’s the emotional identification I have with the heroine that brings me to tears as she brings compassionate closure to each case.

By contrast, I thought back on my lack of emotional response to recent reads. For example, I read most of The Sea by John Banville, a winner of the Man Booker Prize, and found that it left me cold. The language is beautiful, though at times arcane. Lyrical sentences painting magical mental pictures. I was quite in awe that Banville used such precision in his choice of words to convey an exact image, allegory or metaphor. Yet I couldn’t finish the story. I felt no emotional response to the main character.

And there are those stories to which I react with very negative responses, even throw-it-across-the-room anger: The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson comes to mind.

I grew more curious about the effects of literature on emotions: why and how some writing stirs various emotions, while other stories leave emotions untouched. So I googled ‘emotion in literature’ and made an interesting discovery. The origin of the term, emotion, in appx 1575, is emouvoir in French meaning variously to disturb, to stir up, or to excite. Before that, emovēre in Latin, meaning to remove or displace, also to create a public disturbance. In the context of these definitions, good literature does exactly this – it disturbs my complacence.

Finally, I ran across a couple of interesting articles on emotion in literature. The Bankstreet College of Education published research on children’s literature in which the following statement caught my attention: “Stories about individuals who have been marginalized … allow readers to tap into the universality of such characters, rather than viewing them as “the other.””

And this from Martha Alderson’s piece on The Writers Store entitled “Connecting with Audiences Through Character Emotions : “The most powerful way to reach an audience is through the characters’ emotions. For only when we connect with the characters on an emotional level, does the interaction become deep and meaningful.”   [http://www.writersstore.com/connecting-with-audiences-through-character-emotions]

Talking about emotions in literature with a friend who is also an author, she said, “[all writing] is a conversation between the reader and the author.” In discussing this whole idea with a different friend, her take is that “writing [is] the conduit for a writer to bring emotional experiences from her realm to the reader’s for the reader’s consideration.” As she says, food for thought.

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