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Literature / John Charrington's Wedding

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"Alive or dead I mean to be married on Thursday!"
John Charrington

"John Charrington's Wedding" is a Short Story from the pen of E. Nesbit. It was originally published in the September 1891 issue of Temple Bar and in 1893 was included by Nesbit in her anthology Grim Tales. Alongside "Man-Size in Marble", "John Charrington's Wedding" is one of Nesbit's two most praised works of horror. It is a retreading of the folktale motif of a corpse returning to claim his bride, told strongly: at a brisk pace, rich in symbolism, and with a good helping of British Humour.

After many proposals, John Charrington convinces May Forster to marry him. He asks his close friend Geoffrey to be his best man. All is set for a perfect ceremony, but two days before the wedding date John hears that his godfather, who lives out of town, is in his dying days. As the man's sole heir, John is obliged to visit despite May's and Geoffrey's belief that he should prioritize his wedding. John does not return the next day, causing disquietude until May and Geoffrey each receive a telegram from John on the morning of the wedding assuring them he'll be on time. Geoffrey is to pick him up at the train station and get him to the church, but John doesn't arrive. Convinced something bad has happened to his friend, Geoffrey rushes to the church to inform the bride only to discover that the wedding already is in progress. The crowd waiting outside with rice and slippers informs Geoffrey that John arrived timely, but looking like death. Geoffrey confirms that for himself when John and May leave the church and goes with May's father to outrun and welcome the wedding carriage when it arrives at the Forsters' home. Despite that they and the coachman know the carriage never stopped, John is no longer inside and May lies dead with a face betraying pure anguish. To add to the dread, an urgent telegram arrives notifying them that John died in an accident while on his way to the train station two hours prior. All the same, there's nothing left to do but make funeral arrangements and May and John are buried together within a week after the wedding.


"John Charrington's Wedding" provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Bearer of Bad News: As he is instructed to by letter, Geoffrey goes to the train station to await John's return and rush him to his wedding. For two trains, John does not arrive and Geoffrey knows he is sincere about the wedding, so that can only mean something unexpected and bad happened to his friend. He does not look forward to informing the bride.
  • Born Lucky: John gives two reasons as to how he always ends up getting what he wants: perseverance and more luck than anyone else can lay claim to.
  • Character Narrator: The story is told from the perspective of Geoffrey, a close friend of John and former suitor of May. He is to be the best man at the two's wedding, which is why he has a front row seat to the events as they unfold.
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  • Color Motif: When May leaves the church, her whiteness is thorough, from her wedding outfit to her pallor, except for the orange blossoms that make up her bridal bouquet and/or wreath. This symbolizes the telegram that's on its way to the Forsters' home. In the time period of the story, urgent telegrams were delivered in orange envelopes and the message that the man who is set to marry that day has just died certainly is urgent.
  • Death and the Maiden: "John Charrington's Wedding" follows the folktale motif of a corpse returning to claim his bride. In this case, John Charrington has vowed to get married to May Forster no matter what happens, so when he dies two hours before the wedding is to take place, he gets up as an undead specter and heads to the church to get married still. May Forster herself dies from fright while alone in the wedding carriage with John when he leaves no doubt that he is dead.
  • Death by Falling Over: John dies when he falls off a dogcart and hits the pavement with his head. As an undead, he has a black mark above his eyebrow from the impact.
  • Determinator: John prides himself on his perseverance that gets him what he wants every time. The latest thing he wanted was for May to accept his marriage proposal, which he got by trying again and again, and the next thing he wants is to see his marriage through. Thrice he declares that not even death will stop him and so it does not. When John perishes two hours before the wedding, he shows up anyway.
  • Disease Bleach: May is a noted beauty with special attention paid to her radiant blonde hair. When she is alone in the wedding carriage with her new husband and receives confirmation that he is as dead as he looks, the fright turns her locks white as snow and then it kills her.
  • Downer Ending: May dies from fright upon realizing she married a revenant and is buried alongside her husband.
  • Exact Words: Of all the times John reassures May or Geoffrey that he'll be back in Brixham in time for the wedding, "Alive or dead I mean to be married on Thursday!" is the only one with an accidental meaning. "Alive or dead" does not refer to John, but his godfather Branbridge, who is on his deathbed. John means to say that even if his godfather dies in the next two days, that won't keep him from getting married to May. However, lifted out of that context, the line becomes a vow that even if John himself dies in the next two days, that won't keep him from getting married to May. To emphasize the alternative reading, Geoffrey later recalls the line as "I shall be married, dead, or alive!"
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: John arrives at his wedding as an undead, but although everyone can tell, no one is willing to believe such could be the case. The wedding ceremony therefore proceeds as intended. Yet, when the newlyweds leave the church and the wedding bells should ring, it is instead the sound of a death knell that echoes. This isn't the sound the bell ringers were trying to make, so they hightail it and refuse to resume their task.
  • Faint in Shock: Upon learning that the man she just married is already dead while she's alone in the wedding carriage with him does not only cause May to faint but to die outright.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • May and John go on several dates to the cemetery to enjoy the quiet beuty of the thyme-covered hill it's located on. They are buried there less than a week after their wedding.
    • Up to three times John says something relating to how death won't stop him from getting married. He dies two hours before the wedding and arrives at the church as a revenant.
    • When Geoffrey concludes that something bad must have happened to John, he know he has to inform May and really doesn't want to be the bearer of bad news. He'd almost prefer that "the carriage would upset and break [his] head" so that he is excused. About half an hour later, he learns that John died just like that, falling from a dogcart and smashing his head on the pavement.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: Geoffrey and May's father open the wedding carriage, which they know stopped at no point between the church and the Forsters' home, to find May dead from fright and John nowhere to be seen. With John already looking like a dead man during the wedding and the unknown way he arrived back in Brixham, the only conclusion is the unfathomable: that John died and returned from the grave just to get his marriage. The two go, as Geoffrey puts it, "half mad with the horror and mystery of it."
  • Gray Rain of Depression: Geoffrey returns to Brixham a day before he is to be John's best man and it's raining. It doesn't bother him that much at first, but when late at night he goes to see if John's returned home too as per their plans and learns that John has yet to be heard of, the rain augments the growing concern for his well-being.
  • Gut Feeling: May begs John not to go visit his dying godfather at Peasmarsh Place because she has a bad feeling about it. John, however, believes he has an obligation and is not one for superstition anyway. May turns out to be right two days later when John falls off a dogcart and dies when his head hits the pavement.
  • Light/Darkness Juxtaposition: Upon learning of the sincerity of May's love for John, Geoffrey continues on his way home, passing "on into the shadow fully enlightened."
  • Love Triangle: As the most beautiful woman of Brixham, May has a lot of suitors. When John wins her heart and hand, he asks his close friend Geoffrey to be his best man. Geoffrey accepts, but although he is happy for the both of them and does his best to make the ceremony a success, he continues to carry a torch for May.
  • Perspective Reversal: In the first few days after May agrees to marry John, the question on everyone's mind is if the somewhat arrogant beauty actually cares about John. Her feelings are proven to be genuine, but John's sincerity becomes disputable. When he returns as an undead to marry May and causes her death, those in the know come to wonder what his intentions regarding her ever were about.
  • Playing Hard to Get: May Forster rejects John Charrington's marriage proposals time and time again until one day she doesn't. This does leave the town wondering if she's up to something, but Geoffrey witnesses an intimate moment between the two and knows that her affection is genuine.
  • Rule of Three: John thrice declares that he'll defy death to get married to May, although only one of those times he actually means to do so. That one time is the first of the three, spoken to May while they're on a date at the cemetery: "My dear, my dear, I believe I should come back from the dead if you wanted me!" The second time is also spoken to May and occurs when he has to leave Brixham for a quick visit to his dying godfather in Peasmarsh Place. Upon being asked if he's sure he'll be back in time, he replies: "Nothing shall keep me." As for the third time, it is spoken to Geoffrey while they're on the train out of Brixham. Geoffrey asks what he'll do if his godfather dies in the days up to the wedding and Geoffrey would have reason to mourn and an obligation to make funeral arrangements. John insists the wedding won't be postponed: "Alive or dead I mean to be married on Thursday!". Geoffrey later recalls the line as "I shall be married, dead, or alive!"
  • Together in Death: Within a week of their wedding, May and John are buried together at the cemetery where they used to go on dates.
  • Undeathly Pallor: John arrives at his wedding the worse for wear, given that he's dead and only still up walking among the living in order to get his marriage. His ill pallor and overall scruffy appearance unnerves the guests, but no one wants to admit to the impossible, so they propose he's been in a fight or downed a bottle too many. It is both an ease and an unease that the bride May, who is definitely alive for the duration of the wedding, is just as unnaturally pale as John is.
  • Watching the Sunset: Some days after accepting John's umpteenth marriage proposal, May and he go on a date to the cemetery, which is located on a thyme-grown hill, to watch the August sunset together. As fate has it, May takes a seat on a gravestone while John lays himself down at her feet, which portends the circumstances and outcome of their marriage.
  • Wight in a Wedding Dress: Despite being dead, John returns to Brixham to get married to May. He arrives looking like death and the state of his suit isn't any better, but while it unnerves everyone, no one wants to utter anything but a reasonable explanation. And so the wedding proceeds and ends with the newlyweds leaving in their wedding carriage. It is in here, where it is just the two of them, that John confirms to May that he's dead, frightening her to death. He himself disappears from the carriage before it comes to a halt at May's family home.