Help Me Out

December 8, 2009 @ 9:10 pm | Filed under:

A while back I read something—it might have been in a book, but I’m pretty sure it was in a post or article online somewhere —that put a name to the emotional response a reader or viewer may have to a particularly moving part of the story. You know, the way you tear up at an episode of Little House on the Prairie. (What, you don’t tear up at those? My husband mocks me ruthlessly because I always, always, always do.) Or an old Hallmark commercial. Or the ending of Stone Fox.

If you’re a sap, like me, then you get choked up easily—for me it’s whenever someone in the book or movie makes a kind of noble gesture or sacrifice, like when Jo March sells her hair, or when Hugh Grant’s character walks onstage with the guitar during Marcus’s excruciating talent show performance in About a Boy. Whatever it was I read recently, it named this response and described it in a way I hadn’t heard articulated before, and it made me go YES! That’s IT!

Not catharsis—that’s deeper, more enduring, and is usually a response to a serious and intense event in a story, not the often cheap plot points that elicit my sappy tears. But a real and definable response nonetheless, with (probably) a Greek term to name it. Not sentimentality, though of course that is closely related. A response to a noble act, that’s the part I remember. Is this ringing any bells? Did any of you read the post I’m half-remembering?

I was trying to think of it today when my girls were teasing me for getting choked up while reading aloud Gloria Whelan’s picture book, The Miracle of Saint Nicholas. Every year, we read this, and every year I cry.

If you don’t know what article I’m talking about, then how about chiming in with your favorite sentimental, move-you-to-tears moments in books and movies?

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50 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Jane says:

    You know, Daddy’s not the only one who teases you for crying during Little House on the Prairie…

  2. sarah says:

    I’m sorry I don’t know the name for it (how cool that it has a name!) and I can’t even give you examples of my favourite sentimental moments with books and movies – because I cry Every Single Time. I cry at the end of *every* book and movie. I often even cry at the end of short stories. Hopeless, I know. 😉

  3. Michelle says:

    My children tease me because I always cry while reading books to them about immigration. Growing up I remember watching Little House on the Prairie every Monday night with my family. My mom cried every week and I am sure we teased her. Now I must know the name of this condition.

  4. Beth says:

    I tend to cry over quite a few books and movies, but it really gets me when I cry over children’s picture books! Two that have made me cry are The Christmas Tapestry by Patricia Polocco and Miss Fannie’s Hat by Jan Karon.

  5. MFS says:


  6. MFS says:

  7. Sara says:

    I cry all. the. time. The kids always watch me instead of the movie to see if I’m crying yet!

    One book that always gets me isThe Christmas Miracle of Jonathon Toomey. It’s a good thing it comes with a CD of Darth Vader reading it, so i don’t have to. I can barely make it through.

  8. Linda says:

    Every year, without fail, BOTH my husband and I cry at “It’s a Wonderful Life”. And yes, I cried at “Little House” as well- even as a kid!

  9. Paula in MN says:

    There used to be a commercial for DuPont, I think. All you saw was this patch of brown. The camera pulled farther and farther away, and soon the brown turned into a jacket, then a fireman running with a burning house behind him. He opened his arms, and inside his jacket was a sleeping baby. Just thinking about it makes me tear up again.

  10. Paula in MN says:

    There used to be a commercial for DuPont, I think. All you saw was this patch of brown. The camera pulled farther and farther away, and soon the brown turned into a jacket, then a fireman running with a burning house behind him. He opened his arms, and inside his jacket was a sleeping baby. Just thinking about it makes me tear up again. I wish I knew the name for that emotion!

  11. Jennifer says:

    I cry over The Miracle of St. Nicholas too! Every single time I read it. And it still surprises me – just the surge of love and honor and sacrifice surrounding our beloved priests.
    I cry when the mother is driving to pick up her grandson just after Shelby died in Steel Magnolias. And when the cranberries fall ouy of the turkey in The Long Winter.

  12. Margaret in Minnesota says:

    I also cried when I read that book last night! Just like you! And just like Jenn!

    Okay, I’m gushing. That, too, is indicative of a temperament such as ours.

  13. Melissa Wiley says:

    MFS, pathos, hmm, that’s almost it, or rather I think I’m blurring two things together. This article or post—shoot, where WAS it??—talked about something a little different, a term I hadn’t encountered before, so it can’t have been pathos—but I’m thinking now that it must specifically have addressed the response to noble sacrifice (since those are the words that keep popping into my mind) and not the broader field of emotional appeals that would be examples of pathos.

    So, as I think this through, Jo selling her hair would fall under this mystery term I can’t remember, but what moves me about The Miracle of Saint Nicholas isn’t “recognition of noble sacrifice or generosity”—I think pathos applies there. (Since what gets me sobbing isn’t the big reveal at the end; it’s the one-by-one arrivals of the villagers with the treasures they’ve squirreled away. By the carpenter’s arrival, I’m awash.)

    A specific subset of pathos pertaining to selflessness? Is that what I’m groping for, a word for that?

    Sara, JONATHAN TOOMEY, yes! It’s no use my even trying to read that one out loud.

  14. joy says:

    I’ve cried while reading Little House to my kids and I always choke up at the end of Ootah’s Lucky Day when Ootah tells his story to his father and the hunters and his father tells him that he’s done a man’s work and tomorrow he will hunt with the men.

  15. Melissa Wiley says:

    IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: the most tear-inducing moment for me is when the run is starting on the Building & Loan, and the older woman asks for just exactly enough to get through the week, just a few dollars. Sniffle.

  16. Donna says:

    I know exactly what you mean since our family gathered together to watch our annual “Muppets’ Christmas Carol” last night. No matter how many times I’ve watched it, I still cry during three particularly tender moments in the movie. Even talking about the moments gets to me! It’s all of our family’s favorite rendition of Dickens’ classic. My married daughter at the age of 26 is the first to remind us to put it on the calendar as a family event.

  17. marsha says:

    when you find the word, let me KNOW!!

    And yes, I always cry when Hugh Grant comes onstage in that movie!!
    Also reading “Edward Tulane”.

  18. Lisa says:

    epiphany?? Can’t wait to learn the answer!

  19. Jamie says:

    Clown of God!! Can’t get through it without at least a lump in my throat and I’ve read it aloud more than a hundred times to my crew.

  20. Melissa Wiley says:

    Nope, it wasn’t epiphany. The response is more gutteral, emotional, not self-revelatory—more like a recognition, I think, of that quality within us that makes a person care, in that moment, more about another person than his own safety or advancement. The end of Stone Fox is the perfect example of the type of literary moment I’m thinking of: (MAJOR STONE FOX SPOILER COMING)


    when the Indian carries the deceased dog across the finish line, thus ceding the race to the little boy and saving Grandpa’s farm.

  21. Sherry says:

    I cry, or at least get choked up, whenever there’s a real tragedy: something broken, usually relationships, that can’t be fixed.

    I cry at the end of Gone with the Wind when Scarlett has destroyed her marriage, and even long-suffering Rhett can’t or won’t put it back together again.

    The movie The Way We Were also makes me cry because of an irreparable relationship.

    Amazing Grace (the song) sometimes makes me cry for the opposite reason. It’s amazing that God can take something so very broken and make it into something new and beautiful.

  22. MelanieB says:

    Oh I wish I could help you. And I do so hope you find your answer so you can share it with the rest of us.

  23. MFS says:

    The folks at Psychology Today maintain that it’s empathy, but I know you know that word. Still, an interesting short article:

    “In research that will soon appear in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, those who saw the highly emotional part of the video had a 47% increase in oxytocin as measured in blood. Controlling for distress (which was associated with elevated stress hormones), empathy was highly correlated with the spike in oxytocin. This is the first evidence for the speculation, often from my mouth, that oxytocin is a physiologic signature for empathy.”

    And in Literature and the Brain, Norman Holland amplifies Coleridge’s idea of “poetic faith” — not so much the willing suspension of disbelief needed to engage with literature (although he *does* discuss this) but the ability (even need) to engage with characters, to feel what they feel.

    Which is, of course, empathy.

    I bet you wish you put that article in your commonplace book, eh?

    Heh, heh, heh.

    It actually sounds like a link from Arts & Letters, but I’ll be durned if I can remember it. The last one that really spoke to me concerned the importance of sustained narrative and how that is lost in a blog-, Twitter-, social-network world.

    Best regards,


  24. Anna says:

    Ugh, ugh…. I might know what you mean, but I am not sure. In my own head, it seemed to be a made up term by the author. So while it made sense to me, I didn’t file it away very well.

  25. MFS says:

    Just one more comment: I know you will appreciate the synchronicity and synthesis at work.

    I remembered an old M-mv entry, “Endings are a catharsis,” which was inspired by a SF Chronicle article. In my entry, I recalled the conclusion of EB White’s “Once More to the Lake,” Ellman’s comments on Joyce’s brilliant epiphanies, and, of course, the conclusion of Joyce’s “The Dead.” And as I reread the entry, I happened to glance out the window, through which I can see “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

    If you can bear all of the jargon inherent in lit crit, especially of the gynocritical variety (think Showalter), you might want to check out Chapter Two of Robyn Warhol’s Having a Good Cry. (You can read it on Google Books.)

    Enough out of me.


  26. Katy says:

    You may already be aware of this, but I saw in a “making of” It’s a Wonderful Life that the scene you are referring to (where the lady asks for $17.50 or whatever) was totally improv! His response (of hopping over and kissing her)was totally spontaneous because he didn’t know what she was going to say and was surprised himself. I think the realness really comes across in that scene!

  27. Veronica Mitchell says:

    I cannot read Tennyson’s Guenivere aloud without getting choked up. Every time.

    Also, Kaye Gibbons’ Virtuous Woman when Jack believes that Ruby came back from the dead to share his bed, and then realizes it was just tangled sheets. Sob every time.

  28. Amy C. says:

    What a great topic! I don’t know the term for this feeling, but I’ll bet you a dollar that if it’s not a Greek word, it’s a German one.

    I’m definitely the pathetic type, myself . . . I cry at all of ’em. The tear-jerker of the day (and every year at this time) is The Adventures of Nicholas by Helen Siiteri (the story of the red suit especially gets me). If you don’t have this book, do NOT do another thing until you have found it and made it yours. 🙂 Jonathan Toomey, Only Opal, Train to Somewhere . . . I dissolve at these above all. And at the drums in John Lennon’s Starting Over. 🙂 (But music in general is even worse than lit and movies, especially while pregnant . . . the Alphabet song could make me cry while pg.)

    Must stop typing before I tear up just thinking of examples . . . do share if you find the answer!

  29. Mae says:

    A book moment worth bawling over is the part in Farmer Boy when Almanzo discovers Eliza Jane concealed the stain he made on Mother’s parlor wallpaper. My sister and I always thought the Wilder kids had the best fights, but they sure had the best making-up moments, too!

  30. Kathy says:

    Oh my goodness. That spot in “It’s a Wonderful Life” always gets me too. And so many of the others too! I swear, I didn’t used to be that way. In fact, we always teased my mother for crying so much. I keep telling my husband it’s his fault–this didn’t happen before I met or married him!

  31. Melissa Wiley says:

    Melissa, there’s no such thing as enough from you. You were my best hope; I figured the odds were high the link in question was something I learned about at M-MV. 🙂 Arts & Letters Daily is another possibility. Last night I wondered if it was something from the first few chapters of GREAT BOOKS, but I skimmed and did not rediscover it.

    At any rate, your contributions are helping me articulate exactly what quality of response I’m remembering from that post. I look forward to reading the article you linked above, and to revisiting your catharsis post as well.

    And yes, I am kicking myself for not keeping my commonplace book more faithfully! I bet I hastily bookmarked it instead, a bad habit I need to break. Too many dozens of bookmarks to wade through. I used to use Clipmarks to copy quotes onto the blog, but I guess I stopped doing that when I switched from Typepad to WordPress. Huh.

    Here’s to better quote-chronicling in 2010!

  32. Melissa Wiley says:

    Kate, now I am dying to watch It’s a Wonderful Life (about that time again, anyway) to see that scene all over again! I have always loved the way Jimmy Stewart leans over the counter and kisses her. It *looks* spontaneous, for sure.

  33. Teri says:

    Verklempt? I love that word, and I use it every time I possibly can. As a previous poster said, if your word isn’t Greek, it’s probably German (or Yiddish)!

    And I also choke up at that scene where Eliza Jane saves Almanzo by hiding the stove blacking smudge on the wallpaper. And when Mr. Edwards brings them their Christmas presents.

  34. Melissa Wiley says:

    That Eliza Jane wallpaper scene is EXACTLY the kind of scene I’m talking about. Yes. Especially given the way the two of them squabbled all the time.

  35. Cathy says:

    I always was a big ol’ crybaby but since becoming a mother, I sob at the drop of a hat. Full on scrunched face, snotty nose, ugly crying, while trying to read The Velveteen Rabbit (my 8 year old son still sleeps with his loveworn bunny lovey every night); the Rod Stewart song “Forever Young”; when Charlotte dies… *SOB!*

  36. Melissa Wiley says:

    Here’s the link to that M-MV post on catharsis. Breathtaking prose there, deftly juxtaposed. Thanks, Melissa. I’m now in the mood for a dose of Joyce (I’ve been reading Ulysses in intense bursts, spaced weeks apart, all year.)

    As for White, this reminds me I wanted to put one of his essay collections on my birthday/Christmas wish list. Any favorites, anyone? Becky of Farm School, are you reading blogs these days? I’m guessing you’ll have an opinion on this topic. 😉 (This question needs to be its own post.)

  37. Melissa Wiley says:

    ::::groaning and laughing::: My Google efforts to locate that mystery article are now directing me HERE to this post. Lesson learned: henceforth I take better notes!

  38. Hannah says:

    Man, I just cannot be original tonight. Oh well. The last scene of It’s a Wonderful Life. I look forward to it every December.

    It’s probably also the phenomenon that would occur if I dared to read Love You Forever to my kids, but I’m not big on weeping in front of them so I’ve avoided that painful experience!

  39. Rebecca says:

    I just teared up watching Elf.

    Who would have thought that Will Ferrell could ever make me cry?

    Melissa, I really really want to know this term. This will drive me crazy… please do post if you figure it out. Thanks!

  40. Deborah C. says:

    Since we’re talking Christmas movies, how about the original Miracle on 34th Street? I always bawl at the scene when Kris Kringle starts speaking German to the little orphan immigrant German girl, and then they sing a German song about Santa Claus together.

    And here’s one that sounds so silly: the Schoolhouse Rock video “Three is a Magic Number.” When they get to the part where it says:

    “A man and a woman had a little baby/ Yes they did/ They had three in the family/ And that’s a magic number”

    My kids always watch me when this song comes on and still can’t figure out why I’m crying. It does seem like as I get older I cry at more and more things!

  41. Jeanne says:

    Um, it’s a small “piercing” — hhhmm, I don’t know if I know the word or not, but you make me hungry for it! A little turn, a little twist of the heart, that piercing of recognition of the moment. A knowing of the real impact of what is happening.

    hmph. Don’t know. Was trying but can’t get there.

  42. Pam says:

    Good grief, I haven’t even read Stone Fox and I teared up at the spoiler!

    Jonathon Toomey, I think I cry now when I get it off the shelf.

    Seven Little Australians by Ethel Turner, has the most moving death scene ever.

    All Those Secrets of The World, Jane Yolen- when the child doesn’t recognise her father when he returns from the war. Oh, that gets me. What an everyday sacrifice he made.

    Don’t you think reading out loud makes it worse?

  43. DnSmum says:

    Just had to throw in the Thanksgiving story that I NEVER get through without my voice cracking, the long pause, the twisted frown meant to prevent me from crying, and the deep breath as the tears roll down my cheeks before I can continue on. Its a short story called “A New Pioneer” by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. I challenge you all to read it without tearing up!

  44. Beth says:

    Chuckling a bit over this post, as I just had one of those “tearing up” moments today, while reading a chapter of “A Little Princess” to my daughter. You know the part (spoiler alert)…Sara has found out her father is dead and Miss Minchin has banished her to the attic as a servant. She’s been pale and stalwart through everything until Becky (the servant girl she befriended when she was still a “wealthy/fortunate” pupil) comes to her in tears, the first person who has shown real grief and understanding over Sara’s loss. When Sarah finally lets out a sob and says she’ll never be a princess again, and Becky cries and tells her she’ll *always* be a princess, I just lose it. Every time.

    I guess everyone knows that the lady who asks for $17.50 from the Bailey Building and Loan turned out to be Grandma Walton in later years? Oh my, I do love that movie. And it IS a wonderful life!

  45. Melissa Wiley says:

    Rebecca, Elf is good? We’ve not seen it. I do get a kick out of Will Ferrell.

    Jeanne, I like your “small piercing.” That’s apt. I really am starting to feel crazy at the haziness of this remembered article—usually I know exactly where I read something and that’s part of what is so maddening in this instance.

    I remember sitting right here on my bed reading it, WHATEVER IT WAS. Argh!

  46. Melissa Wiley says:

    DnSmum, a Dorothy Canfield Fisher story! This I must read! Thanks for the tip.

  47. Karen Edmisten says:

    Jonathan Toomey, yeah. Cry when I’m in the same room with the book. And Miracle of St. Nicholas. And Silver Packages. My girls were amazed that I got through a read-aloud of Best Christmas Pageant Ever this year without sobbing. Had I taken some sort of anti-heart-stab medication that morning? Not sure how I pulled that off.

    Can’t wait to find out what that word is!

  48. Joy says:

    I have my own term for this phenomenon: hyper-emotional. I’ve been like this all my life. My mother almost had to take me out of the theater when I was about 5 when she took me to see “Dumbo”. At *5* I completely lost it when Dumbo was separated from his mom and she rocked him through the bars of her door and sang “Baby Mine”. At *5*!!! Hubby and daughter tease me unmercifully, son is so flumoxed at the idea I actually watch/read stuff *on purpose* that make me cry. And it’s not just cry…I *sob*. Maxwell House Commercial: Lonely old lady, Christmas time, neighbor invites her for coffee, while she’s out the WHOLE neighborhood decorates her house. I cried so hard you’d think she was my OWN grandmother. I used to fight it and be embarrassed by it. Not anymore…it’s who I am. It’s what makes me “me”.

    If you ever find the article…please be sure to update us!

  49. Tracy says:

    Nope, don’t know the word, but can I just tell you how teary I am getting right this second reading all of your responses? Not just the examples you’ve all given on what makes you weepy, but finding out I am not alone in my ‘affliction’ is a dear revelation. Y’all are my Sisterhood of Tears!