Copulas in Amy Hempel's Tumble Home
Hempel takes full advantage of the many hidden expectations and functions of linking verb constructions, which can be deceptively complex.
A copula, also commonly known as a “linking verb,” functions to join the subject of a clause to the predicate. On the face of it, it is surprising that in her novella Tumble Home, Amy Hempel uses a lot of verbs of being, since these are generally discouraged in English classes, labeled weak or dull. However, Hempel takes full advantage of the many hidden expectations and functions of these constructions, which can be deceptively complex. Sometimes, she uses a copula simply to give the reader a breath after a hitting them with a complex use of a lexical verb or a dense image. Other times, she will use it to clear the verbal real estate in order to make way for a big, juicy predicate. Still other times, the copula is used to play with the reader’s expectations about new and old information, particularly in a sub-class of copular constructions called “clefts.” I will reserve this last class of examples, clefts, for a future post.
Copulas are often maligned because they do not independently carry any meaning, but only perform the grammatical function of linking two parts of a sentence. The types of copulas that we typically refer to when we talk about verbs of being are the predicative kind, either equating two things, “equative” (e.g. Mary is my doctor) or ascribing an attribute to a noun phrase, “attributive” (e.g. The sand is hot). An example of the former follows:
After many years vacant, what was once a parlor hung with portraits of the founder, the place the girls received their guests, is now a lounge we call the Hostility Suite (238).
This sentence is complex in terms of imagery and clause structure. And it is equative: the former parlor = the current lounge. However, the image and the equation combine to maximize the humor of the final phrase, “Hostility Suite,” which has room to land. The invisibility of the main copular verb allows time to be spent with the idea of a Hostility Suite standing in the place of a once distinguished parlor. The use of the copula is important in balancing the rest of the sentence.
An example from Hempel’s work of the attributive kind of copula also has a lot going on, phrase-wise, and ends with humor:
I told him I looked forward to meeting them [Warren’s parents], even though it always seemed that the very things others find charming about your parents—the feyness, the provincialism, the odd takes on everything—are the things that make you want to rustle up a firing squad (244).
In this example, the copula is in a subordinate clause; the main verb is told. The idea of the rustling up of a firing squad at the end is deeply embedded in the sentence’s structure, but is shepherded in by the copula. Too much verbal action before that image would detract from the shock of the character’s surprisingly violent, if tongue-in-cheek, reference. We get a taste of her anger, her deep frustration.
A final related example involves not complex structure, but an image that needs space: “The worst I ever saw was a body without a head” (239). We need the extra room in the sentence evacuated of a contentful verb to make way for the horror of this image. In fact the key paragraph, which broaches the roots of the narrator’s distress, is itself replete with copulas:
Are you wondering why a person who is already small would want to make herself look smaller? That should become clear. Not everything I know is something I want to see. Though on highways and, once, on a mountain road, I have strained to see things I didn’t want to see. The worst I ever saw was a body without a head. That was when I realized that I don’t mind seeing everything as long as everything is there for me to see (239).
Although copulas generally have a reputation for being weak verb choices, Hempel’s copulas serve the narrative by letting a humorous, surprising, or upsetting image concentrate the impact of a sentence and deliberately dispense the energy and tension of paragraphs and, ultimately, of the story.
Note: Page numbers cited are from the following edition: Hempel, Amy. The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel. Scribner, 2007.
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