A full solar eclipse will be visible in Mexico, the United States, and Canada on April 8, 2024, and I’m thrilled about it.
The last one was in 2017, and I took my five-year-old twins and drove all the way up to Oregon and camped in a field to watch it. It was one of the most memorable and beautiful and surreal experiences of my life.
Because of that experience, I’ve looked for descriptions of solar eclipses in literature. There are more than you would expect!
1. Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse”
My favorite writing about solar eclipses comes from Annie Dillard. In her collection of essays, “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” she writes an essay about journeying to Washington in 1979 to witness a full solar eclipse.
The essay’s full of quick-witticisms, like this one, my favorite: “Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relationship to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.”
I can 100% agree that’s true. A full eclipse is simply shocking and life changing.
Here’s the excerpt of the passage speaking directly about the eclipse:
From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching. It was a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That is when there were screams. At once this disk of sky slid over the sun like a lid. The sky snapped over the sun like a lens cover. The hatch in the brain slammed. Abruptly it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the sun belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world … We got the light wrong. In the sky was something that should not be there. In the black sky was a ring of light. It was a thin ring, an old, thin silver wedding band, an old, worn ring. It was an old wedding band in the sky, or a morsel of bone. There were stars. It was all over.Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse” in “Teaching a Stone to Talk”
2. James Fenimore Cooper, “The Eclipse”
In the early 1800s, James Fenimore Cooper witnessed a total eclipse in New York and wrote about it for Putnam Magazine. His daughter found it among his papers after his death and it was published posthumously. Like Dillard, he doesn’t stop with the mere physical description, but extrapolates from the event to try to say something about our very existence. Here is an excerpt from “The Eclipse:”
At twelve minutes past eleven, the moon stood revealed in its greatest distinctness — a vast black orb, so nearly obscuring the sun that the face of the great luminary was entirely and absolutely darkened, though a corona of rays of light appeared beyond. The gloom of night was upon us. A breathless intensity of interest was felt by all. There would appear to be something instinctive in the feeling with which man gazes at all phenomena in the heavens. The peaceful rainbow, the heavy clouds of a great storm, the vivid flash of electricity, the falling meteor, the beautiful lights of the aurora borealis, fickle as the play of fancy, — these never fail to fix the attention with something of a peculiar feeling, different in character from that with which we observe any spectacle on the earth.
3. Virginia Woolf, Diary
In 1927, Virginia Woolf traveled from London to North Yorkshire to see a total solar eclipse, and wrote about it in her diary. It was the first solar eclipse in almost 200 years, and another one wouldn’t happen for another 72 years. Woolf’s account of the eclipse serves as a remarkable example of how a natural phenomenon can deeply affect an individual, particularly someone as sensitive and perceptive as Virginia Woolf.
But now the colour was going out. The clouds were turning pale; a reddish black colour. Down in the valley it was an extraordinary scramble of red and black; there was the one light burning; all was cloud down there, and very beautiful, so delicately tinted. The 24 seconds were passing. Then one looked back again at the blue: and rapidly, very very quickly, all the colours faded; it became darker and darker as at the beginning of a violent storm; the light sank and sank; we kept saying this is the shadow; and we thought now it is over – this is one shadow; when suddenly the light went out. We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was dead.
That was the astonishing moment: & the next when as if a ball had rebounded, the cloud took colour on itself again, only a sparky aethereal colour & so the light came back. I had very strongly the feeling as the light went out of some vast obeisance; something kneeling down, & low & suddenly raised up, when the colours came. They came back astonishingly lightly & quickly & beautifully in the valley & over the hills—at first with a miraculous glittering & aetheriality, later normally almost, but with a great sense of relief. It was like recovery.
4. Issac Asimov, “Nightfall”
Issac Asimov also wrote about a solar eclipse in a sci-fi story about a world that was perpetually in sunlight, and the gigantic moon that would block out the sun. The short story is called “Nightfall”. Eventually, it was expanded into a novella, but not by Asimov himself, but by a ghostwriter.
It’s really about the psychology of disaster, of how humans respond when faced with their source of light being blacked out and being thrust into darkness.
“Imagine darkness – everywhere. No light, as far as you can see. The houses, the trees, the fields, the earth, the sky – black! And stars thrown in, for all I know – whatever they are. Can you conceive it?”
“Yes, I can,” declared Theremon truculently.
And Sheerin slammed his fist down upon the table in sudden passion. “You lie! You can’t conceive that. Your brain wasn’t built for the conception any more than it was built for the conception of infinity or of eternity. You can only talk about it. A fraction of the reality upsets you, and when the real thing comes, your brain is going to be presented with the phenomenon outside its limits of comprehension. You will go mad, completely and permanently! There is no question of it!”
5. Mark Twain, “A Connecticut Yankee”
The first solar eclipse I ever read about was when I was twelve. I was reading Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
In this novel a time traveler from the 19th century saves his life from a murderous king by predicting a solar eclipse. The King and others are astonished by his power to control the sun, and thus spare him.
It grew darker and darker and blacker and blacker, while I struggled with those awkward sixth-century clothes. It got to be pitch dark, at last, and the multitude groaned with horror to feel the cold uncanny night breezes fan through the place and see the stars come out and twinkle in the sky. At last the eclipse was total, and I was very glad of it, but everybody else was in misery; which was quite natural. I said:
“The king, by his silence, still stands to the terms.” Then I lifted up my hands—stood just so a moment—then I said, with the most awful solemnity: “Let the enchantment dissolve and pass harmless away!”
There was no response, for a moment, in that deep darkness and that graveyard hush. But when the silver rim of the sun pushed itself out, a moment or two later, the assemblage broke loose with a vast shout and came pouring down like a deluge to smother me with blessings and gratitude; and Clarence was not the last of the wash, to be sure.
6. Lloyd C. Douglas, “The Robe”
In “The Robe” by Lloyd C. Douglas, he writes of the eclilpse that happens in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. I don’t find the prose particularly memorable for this one, but he does describe the desperation of those stunned by the sudden darkness.
Turning about, with swimming eyes, he started down the hill. It was growing so dark now that the narrow path was indistinct. He flung a backward look over his shoulder, but the descending gloom had swallowed up the knoll.
By the time he reached the city streets, night had fallen on Jerusalem, though it was only mid-afternoon. Lights flickered in the windows. Pedestrians moved slowly, carrying torches. Frightened voices called to one another. Demetrius could not understand what they were saying, but their tone was apprehensive, as if they were wondering about the cause of this strange darkness. He wondered, too, but felt no sense of depression or alarm. The sensation of being alone and unwanted in an unfriendly world had left him. He was not lonely now. He hugged the robe close to his side as if it contained some inexplicable remedy for heartache.
7. Stephen King, Dolores Claiborne
I love that here, King weaves the solar eclipse into the storyline. The whole story is building up to a climactic murder that takes place at the exact moment of the full solar eclipse.
I started walkin again. Our shadows had completely disappeared, and the big white rock where me n Selena had sat that evenin the year before stood out almost as bright as a spotlight, like I’ve noticed it does when there’s a full moon. The light wasn’t like moonlight, Andy—I can’t describe what it was like, how gloomy n weird it was—but it’ll have to do. I know that the distances between things had gotten hard to judge, like they do in moonlight, and that you couldn’t pick out any single blackberry bush anymore—they were all just one big smear with those fireflies dancing back n forth in front of em.
Vera’d told me time n time again that it was dangerous to look straight at the eclipse; she said it could burn your retinas or even blind you. Still, I couldn’t no more resist turnin my head n takin one quick glance up over my shoulder than Lot’s wife could resist takin one last glance back at the city of Sodom. What I saw has stayed in my memory ever since. Weeks, sometimes whole months go by without me thinkin about Joe, but hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of what I saw that afternoon when I looked up over my shoulder and into the sky. Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt because she couldn’t keep her eyes front n her mind on her business, and I’ve sometimes thought it’s a wonder I didn’t have to pay the same price.
The eclipse wasn’t total yet, but it was close. The sky itself was a deep royal purple, and what I saw hangin in it above the reach looked like a big black pupil with a gauzy veil of fire spread out most of the way around it. On one side there was a thin crescent of sun still left, like beads of molten gold in a blast furnace. I had no business lookin at such a sight and I knew it, but once I had, it seemed like I couldn’t look away.