Leilani Burke/Sun Staff Photographer

September 21, 2023

Literary Sunsets

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Spending time watching the sunset-topped slope has been a quiet moment each evening. But my phone camera fails to capture the cloud-piercing pink rays and scattered chatter of the people on the hill. Throughout literary history, writers have been particularly active in the long lineage of people trying to capture the feelings of sunset. Given how visually overwhelming sunsets can be, representation through words can often tell far more than photographs. 

In H.E. Hilton’s The Outsiders, a shared sunset is used to break down socioeconomic barriers. In a town split between two opposing social groups, the “Socs” and “Greasers,” the interactions between them are violent and hateful. However, the first glimpse of understanding is found through the shared experience that the sunset provides two characters. As Ponyboy, a member of the Greasers, stands beside the clean and high-class Cherry Valance, they talk honestly about how they feel as outsiders in their own groups. 

Despite their differences in most facets of life, they both admit to watching sunsets. Ponyboy says, “Maybe the two different worlds we lived in weren’t so different. We saw the same sunset.” A vulnerable remark of authenticity is not something valued by those around them. In a town where everything is claimed by someone, who can claim the sunset? If no one can, then maybe the sunset is the first thing that can be shared. 

Looking out at the many groups of people who come to the slope for sunset, it is clear that the company is far more important than the sight they are sharing. There is something in the light that makes us pause, gather and stare intently as the tiny dot dips behind the mountainous horizon. In The Anthropocene Reviewed, author John Green notes how “sometimes when the world is between day and night, I’m stopped cold by its splendor, and I feel my absurd smallness.” And perhaps it is because of that feeling of smallness that so many view the sunset with others; that if we must face the temporariness of light, at least we can make it a shared experience.

There is a French saying referring to sunset that translates to “the time between dog and wolf.” Once used as a warning for children, it implies that in low light, it is difficult to tell a friend from a foe. Sometimes the beauty of the light can distort what we truly see. In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, the image of the sunlit horizon is used to show how we hope for a place beyond the present. The novel’s opening line, “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board,” begins a metaphor continued throughout the story. Hurston suggests it is the tendency of men (as is later contrasted with women in the novel) to place their dreams in a faraway reality, a place that is unlikely to ever be reached. She argues that the place where the sun settles will forever elude us, yet we will still spend time pursuing its possibility. 

Despite broadly differing from one another, all these perceptions of sunset share the idea of reflection. The songwriter Will Oldham explores a similar theme in the song “New Partner,” as a fading sun is used to represent the last memories we hold of people from our past. Oldham sings, “Now the sun’s fading faster, we’re ready to go,” as sunset acts as an hourglass leaking sand. While daylight is closing, we reflect upon the past, but when the sand is gone, we must move on and use what we reflected on to guide us in the dark.  

I think of these literary sunsets as I attempt to explain the ones I witness here. Often these descriptions provide me just as much comfort as the actual sun itself; they show that the feeling of peace I struggle to articulate is a communal desire. One thing that all of the texts embody is the theory of biophilia: the idea that humans have an innate need for connection with the natural world —in this case, our closest star. Whether it is a divided town, personal isolation or the irrationality of our dreams, logical solutions are not always possible; instead, we search for peace in things outside of our world. So, as the sunset comes earlier each day and my visits to the slope are soon to dwindle due to the cold, it may be useful to reflect upon the writers who also find solace in daylight’s ending glow.

Luke Dennis is a Freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].