Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The "It was" and "There Was" Brouhaha

Discussion erupted on one of my writing loops about the rightness or wrongness of using the terms "there was" or "it was" (or variations thereof) in writing. I take the side that such constructions are fine. They serve a purpose, more than one even. They can work as placeholder pronouns (the "dummy pronoun"). They can be phrases that refer to an existential condition that doesn't require a clarifying antecedent.

Since the matter arose on a loop of fiction writers, I decided to take a tour of the canon of literature and see how the masters of the art--Dickens, Twain, Bronte, Crane, Conrad, Eliot, Tolkien, Woolf, etc--side on the matter. Do they use "there was" and "it was" in those problematic ways.

Yes. Yes. Yesyesyesyesyes. Yes.

(With no apologies whatsoever to Joyce.)

I hereby offer the examples I gleaned from the classics:

First Line of JANE EYRE (my fave classic novel):
There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

First sentence of LORD OF THE RINGS by JRR Tolkien:
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

From the first page of CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT by Mark Twain:
It was a soft, reposeful summer landscape, as lovely as a dream, and as lonesome as Sunday. The air was full of the smell of flowers, and the buzzing of insects, and the twittering of birds, and there were no people, no wagons, there was no stir of life, nothing going on.

From the opening pages of ETHAN FROME by Edith Wharton:
It was during their night walks back to the farm that he felt most intensely the sweetness of this communion.

From page one of THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE by Stephen Crane:
There was much food for thought in the manner in which he replied. He came near to convincing them by disdaining to produce proofs. They grew excited over it.
There was a youthful private who listened with eager ears to the words of the tall soldier and to the varied comments of his comrades.

From the opening page of THE SECRET GARDEN by F. H. Burnett:
There was something mysterious in the air that morning.

From the opening page of THE TURN OF THE SCREW by Henry James:
It was thrown in as well, from the first moment, that I should get on with Mrs. Grose in a relation over which, on my way, in the coach, I fear I had rather brooded...
...But it was a comfort that there could be no uneasiness in a connection with anything so beatific as the radiant image of my little girl, ...

From the first page of HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad:
On the whole river there was nothing that looked half so nautical. He resembled a pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthiness personified. It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom.
Between us there was, as I have already said somewhere, the bond of the sea.

From the first paragraph of MOBY DICK by Herman Melville
With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this.

From page two of THE ADVENTURES OF PETER PAN by J.M. Barrie:
For a week or two after Wendy came it was doubtful whether they would be able to keep her, as she was another mouth to feed...
...There was the same excitement over John, and Michael had even a narrower squeak; but both were kept, and soon, you might have seen the three of them going in a row to Miss Fulsom's Kindergarten school, accompanied by their nurse.

The first page of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ by L. Frank Baum:
There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cookstove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner. There was no garret at all, and no cellar--except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path.

From the first page of THE ADVENTURES OF TOM SAWYER by Mark Twain:
There was a slight noise behind her and she turned just in time to seize a small boy by the slack of his roundabout and arrest his flight.

The first paragraph of A TALE OF TWO CITIES by Charles Dickens:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair...

From chapter one of ROBINSON CRUSOE, by Daniel Dafoe:
It was not till almost a year after this that I broke loose, though, in the meantime, I continued obstinately deaf to all proposals of settling to business, and frequently expostulated with my father and mother about their being so positively determined against what they knew my inclinations prompted me to.

From the first page of MIDDLEMARCH by George Eliot:
It was hardly a year since they had come to live at Tipton Grange with their uncle, a man nearly sixty, of acquiescent temper, miscellaneous opinions, and uncertain vote.

From the first page of THE CASK OF AMONTILLADO by E. A. Poe:
It was about dusk, one evening during the supreme madness of the carnival season, that I encountered my friend.

From the second page of FRANKENSTEIN, by Mary Shelley:
There was a considerable difference between the ages of my parents, but this circumstance seemed to unite them only closer in bonds of devoted affection. There was a sense of justice in my father's upright mind, which rendered it necessary that he should approve highly to love strongly. Perhaps during former years he had suffered from the late discovered unworthiness of one beloved, and so was disposed to set a greater value on tried worth. There was a show of gratitude and worship in his attachment to my mother...

From the beginning pages of DRACULA by Bram Stoker:
I did not sleep well, though my bed was comfortable enough, for I had all sorts of queer dreams. There was a dog howling all night under my window, which may have had something to do with it; or it may have been the paprika, for I had to drink up all the water in my carafe, and was still thirsty...
...It was on the dark side of twilight when we got to Bistritz, which is a very interesting old place.

First page of ANNE OF GREEN GABLES by L.M. Montgomery:
There are plenty of people in Avonlea and out of it, who can attend closely to their neighbor's business by dint of neglecting their own; but Mrs. Rachel Lynde was one of those capable creatures who can manage their own concerns and those of other folks into the bargain.

First sentence of THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS by Lewis Carroll:
One thing was certain, that the white kitten had had nothing to do with it: -- it was the black kitten's fault entirely.

From page one of ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND by L. Carroll:
There was nothing so very remarkable in that; nor did Alice think it so very much out of the way to hear the Rabbit say to itself, `Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!'

From page two of MRS. DALLOWAY by Virginia Woolf:
For it was the middle of June. The War was over, except for some one like Mrs. Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed; but it was over; thank Heaven-over. It was June. The King and Queen were at the Palace. And everywhere, though it was still so early, there was a beating, a stirring of galloping ponies, tapping of cricket bats;

From page one of RAVELSTEIN by Saul Bellow (Nobel Laureate):
I filled up a scribbler with quotes from Mencken and later added notes from spoofers or self-spoofers like W. C. Fields or Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, Huey Long, and Senator Dirksen. There was even a page on Machiavelli's sense of humor.

From page two of HALF A LIFE by V.S. Naipaul (Nobel Laureate):
There was a lot more about the temple and the crowds and the clothes they were wearing, and the gifts of coconut and flour and rice they had brought, and the afternoon light on the old stones of the courtyard. Everything the maharaja's headmaster had told him was there, and a few other things besides. Clearly the headmaster had tried to win the admiration of the writer by saying very good things about my various vows of denial. There were also a few lines, perhaps a whole paragraph, describing--in the way he had described the stones and the afternoon light--the serenity and smoothness of my skin.

From the first page of A GRIEF OBSERVED by C.S. Lewis:
There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.
There are moments, most unexpectedly, when something inside me tries to assure me that I don't really mind so much, not so very much, after all. Love is not the whole of a man's life.

From page one of ZLATEH THE GOAT AND OTHER STORIES by Isaac Bashevis Singer (Nobel Laureate):
Somewhere, sometime, there lived a rich man whose name was Kadish. He had an only son who was called Atzel. In the household of Kadish there lived a distant relative, an orphan girl, called Aksah. Atzel was a tall boy with black hair and black eyes. Aksah was somewhat shorter than Atzel, and she had blue eyes and golden hair. Both were about the same age. As children, they ate together, studied together, played together. Atzel played the husband; Aksah, his wife. It was taken for granted that when they grew up they would really marry.

A teeming chorus of literary masters answers from within the pages of their beloved works: Yes. Use "there was." Use "it was." Don't be afraid. If the telling of your tale calls for it, use these language tools.

On my desk at this very moment is my copy of WINTER'S TALE by Mark Helprin, which begins thusly: "There was a white horse..."

On my nighttable at this very moment is a King James Bible, whose first page speaks in an English that pre-dates the Brontes and Dickens, and it says:

And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.

And you know what? There was.


April said...

Have you ever considered a career in law? :-)

Great job on stating your opinion and then finding irrefutable prrof that picky people need to pick on something else.

Mirtika said...

April, I've been told many times since I was a teenager that I should be a lawyer. I just couldn't get worked up about it. :)
I sure would have a nice retirement portfolio about now if I had followed that path, though. :D


Anonymous said...

Melville, Twain, Helprin. You're in good company. Carry on.
"As you were".

Camy Tang said...

Man, you spent all that time looking up and typing all those examples? You rock. Or else you're certifiable. :)


Brenda Coulter said...

Fantastic post, Mir. And it was a real treat, getting to read the opening lines of so many of my favorite novels in one sitting. ;-)