"The Eclipse" by James Fenimore Cooper is an autobiographical vignette that describes the reactions of villagers near Lake Otsego to the solar eclipse of 1806. The major themes of the essay are the majesty of God and the insignificance of man as brought out by such a wonder of the heavens. Cooper's first-person narration begins before the eclipse and then builds up to the grand event.
As the essay opens, the narrator and everyone else in his family are in anticipation of an extraordinary event about to happen. He describes the normal state of the village and its surroundings in the light of this approaching marvel. The morning of the eclipse he sees a single star in the sky, which makes him think of planetary distances. The sun rises in a clear sky, and Cooper's family and friends assemble outside as they would for a special holiday. Some craftsmen continue to work, but when the moon touches the sun, all work ceases and everyone comes outside.
Cooper then pauses for an interlude about a condemned killer who has been taken out of a dark jail cell to witness the eclipse. The wretched, pitiful, guilt-wracked man has been given a brief reprieve, but he had not seen the sun for a year. Cooper writes that "for him the curtain which veils the world beyond the grave had been lifted." The author uses the anecdote of the killer to illustrate the profound spiritual nature of the event.
As the eclipse proceeds, everything familiar becomes shadowed and changed. Stars appear and the moon seems huge. This is when Cooper gives emphasis to his spiritual themes. He writes that he has a clear view of "the majesty of the Almighty, accompanied with a humiliating, and, I trust, a profitable sense of my own utter insignificance."
The darkness is awe-inspiring and frightening, but the reappearance of light is like the mercy of God.
It seemed to speak directly to our spirits, with full assurance of protection, of gracious mercy, and of that Divine love which has produced all the glorious combinations of matter for our enjoyment.
He adds that "at such a moment the spirit of man bows in humility before his Maker." In closing, Cooper sums up his essay's main themes:
Never have I beheld any spectacle which so plainly manifested the majesty of the Creator, or so forcibly taught the lesson of humility to man as a total eclipse of the sun.