3

I'm reading Arthur Conan Doyle's LOT NO. 249, and I'm having some troubles understanding the first paragraph.


  1. Of the dealings of Edward Bellingham with William Monkhouse Lee, and of the cause of the great terror of Abercrombie Smith, it may be that no absolute and final judgment will ever be delivered.

    Let A stand for "the dealings of Edward Bellingham with William Monkhouse Lee".
    Let B stand for "the cause of the great terror of Abercrombie Smith".

    And maybe, we can rewrite it as:

    It may be that no absolute and final judgment will ever be delivered of A and B.
    = It may be impossible to make an absolute and final judgement on matters A and B.

    which may mean that it's hard to really understand or form a definite opinion on matters A and B?


  1. It is true that we have the full and clear narrative of Smith himself, and such corroboration as he could look for from Thomas Styles the servant, from the Reverend Plumptree Peterson, Fellow of Old's, and from such other people as chanced to gain some passing glance at this or that incident in a singular chain of events.

    Does it mean

    The story will narrate Smith's perspective which is full and clear. The story also has evidence from the servant, from one fellow of Old's, and from other such people who might have had witnessed some incidents part of a big happening (consisting of many events).


  1. Yet, in the main, the story must rest upon Smith alone, and the most will think that it is more likely that one brain, however outwardly sane, has some subtle warp in its texture, some strange flaw in its workings, than that the path of Nature has been overstepped in open day in so famed a centre of learning and light as the University of Oxford.

    This sentence is the really confusing one. I vaguely understand the first part of this sentence. As for that "path of Nature [...]" clause, I really have no idea.

    But, in the main story/narrative, the focus must be Smith's experiences/perspective. Most can reasonably argue that one brain no matter how sane it seems from the outside is likely to have slight distortions—and thus one person's narrative is questionable, something experienced and agreed on simultaneously by multiple people has more credibility. And even someone from so famous a institute as Oxford may have a flawed .... brain???


  1. Yet when we think how narrow and how devious this path of Nature is, how dimly we can trace it, for all our lamps of science, and how from the darkness which girds it round great and terrible possibilities loom ever shadowly upwards, it is a bold and confident man who will put a limit to the strange by-paths into which the human spirit may wander.

    Clueless on this one.


Is my interpretation of this paragraph right? What exactly do these sentences mean? Could you break them down or simplify them?

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+50

I agree with djna's answer as far as the interpretation, so let me just go through the English with a fine tooth-comb (to hyphenate the phrase as Lynne Truss opts for in her contrary way...).


Of the dealings of Edward Bellingham with William Monkhouse Lee, and of the cause of the great terror of Abercrombie Smith, it may be that no absolute and final judgment will ever be delivered.

Yes, your reading is correct. The key observations here are indeed that (a) the sentence is inverted — the two "of" clauses complement "delivered"; and (b) "to deliver a judgement of X" means "to give a definite opinion or analysis of X". The reference is legal terminology.


It is true that we have the full and clear narrative of Smith himself, and such corroboration as he could look for from Thomas Styles the servant, from the Reverend Plumptree Peterson, Fellow of Old's, and from such other people as chanced to gain some passing glance at this or that incident in a singular chain of events.

Again, your reading is right. The only thing I would say you didn't capture in your paraphrase is that the "chain" of events implies a sequence, a causality, and not just co-occurrence as in a "big happening". Without knowing the work, it seems likely that this is relevant since we are probably going to get an explanation of what led the characters to do whatever they did.

It's also not clear from your paraphrase that you are thinking of the right sense of "fellow": a don, a member of the governing body. (Sorry if you did have this in mind.)


In the third section you make two mistakes:

Yet, in the main, the story must rest upon Smith alone, and the most will think that it is more likely that one brain, however outwardly sane, has some subtle warp in its texture, some strange flaw in its workings, than that the path of Nature has been overstepped in open day in so famed a centre of learning and light as the University of Oxford.

  • In the main doesn't mean "in the main storyline" but "on the whole; for the most part; generally"

  • "than that the path of Nature has been overstepped in open day in ... Oxford": According to this sentence, the alternative to assuming that Smith's narrative is the questionable result of an oddly functioning brain is not to have recourse to the corroborators; that's what the start of this section rules out. It is to assume that something contrary to nature happened, even in a respectable, public place. In other words, did he recall it incorrectly or did the unlikely happen?

I think we can infer from the next section that "nature" doesn't mean the laws of physics but the tendencies of human nature.


For section 4:

Yet when we think how narrow and how devious this path of Nature is, how dimly we can trace it, for all our lamps of science, and how from the darkness which girds it round great and terrible possibilities loom ever shadowly upwards, it is a bold and confident man who will put a limit to the strange by-paths into which the human spirit may wander.

A paraphrase in the style of your first two sections:

Considering that (human) nature is mysterious and difficult for us to approach, even with all our science, and that the confusing areas hold great and terrifying possibilities, it would be overconfident to say there's a limit on how strangely a person can act.

Without an indication of which parts of the source are hard, here are a couple of guesses.

  • "the darkness which girds it round" is archaic. Gird nowadays is used without "round" if it's used at all in this sense. "Girds it round" didn't make it into my paraphrase but if it did it would be "surrounds it".

  • "loom ever shadowly upwards": "loom upwards always like a shadow." No, this is not any more transparent to a native speaker, particularly with the invention shadowly. If I had to give an interpretation I'd say "upwards" suggests that these uncharted human behaviours tower over and intimidate us, or else are further and further out of reach.

  • "it is a bold and confident man who will do X": "it requires a bold and confident man to do X."

  • a by-path is a track off the main trail — a "little-used path" according to Collins.


If any questions remain about how any phrase from the source results in the given interpretation, comment or update your question and I'll throw that in.

  • I do understand the meaning of 'fellow' in this context. – Soha Farhin Pine Sep 14 '17 at 3:42
  • Why does the other answer say "We ourselves do not have access to the other witnesses, Smith has attempted to obtain their stories and his account reflects his findings....". My paraphrase says "The story has the evidence from..." – Soha Farhin Pine Sep 14 '17 at 3:50
  • @Soha Ah, I missed that. The other answer is more likely, because of the phrase "such corroboration as he could look for". There's a slight possibility that this is "look for" in the sense of "hope for" and someone else did the actual fact gathering, but I wouldn't favour that reading. – Luke Sawczak Sep 14 '17 at 4:05
  • Interesting document on Indian Fellows! It may well be a word you use more often than I. – Luke Sawczak Sep 14 '17 at 4:06
3

You've been given a couple of good answers. I'll take a crack at #4 where you said you were "clueless".

Yet when we think how narrow and how devious this path of Nature is, how dimly we can trace it, for all our lamps of science, and how from the darkness which girds it round great and terrible possibilities loom ever shadowly upwards, it is a bold and confident man who will put a limit to the strange by-paths into which the human spirit may wander.

It will help to split the text up into its pieces and uninvert some of the inversions:

Yet [i.e. however] when we think 
  ... how narrow and how devious this path of Nature is,
  ... how dimly we can trace it 
        for [i.e. despite, even with] all our lamps of science
  ... and how great and terrible possibilities loom ever shadowly upwards
        from the darkness which girds it round,

it is a bold and confident man
   who will put a limit to the strange by-paths
       into which the human spirit may wander.

The full weight of the Yet-clause rests on those two adjectives of the matrix clause: a man would have to be bold and confident (something which this narrative voice, with all of its reservations, is trying not to be) to be willing to circumscribe the human mind, given Nature's deviousness, given the limits to our knowledge, and given the terrible shadowy looming possibilities which envelope Nature .

2

You have understood the general meaning of most of this quite dense writing. I'll elaborate more on them:

  1. You say "hard to understand". I more feel that we cannot understand because we are not in the full possession of the facts, and it is now impossible to obtain those facts.

  2. All we have is a Smith's account, which appears to be full and clear. We ourselves do not have access to the other witnesses, Smith has attempted to obtain their stories and his account reflects his findings. The problem is...

  3. ...can we trust Smith? He seems to be sane, but the story is so strange it seems more likely that his brain's workings are flawed; the brain's workings have deviated from what is "Natural", he brain has left the "Natural Path". In broad day (that is in broad daylight), in Oxford—a centre of logic and reason, a brain is malfunctioning.

  4. But who are we to say what is Natural? Do we understand how the mind works. We can only "dimly" understand the proper path, so how can we say that Smith's mind has deviated? We shine our science on the workings of the mind but only see part of the truth, and the pieces we do not see are great and terrible. We are over-confident if we claim to be sure that Smith is deranged.

The overall intention is to say "You may think this story is impossible and that Smith must be mad. But are you sure you know what is mad and what is real?" Cue spooky music ...

Also remember that Conan Doyle became convinced of the supernatural and seances. In real life, he was accepting of the supernatural.

  • I see...but could you say how exactly you derived the meanings from the sentences? – Soha Farhin Pine Sep 14 '17 at 1:59
  • 2
    I think you're misreading 3. I read it as saying that most would think it's more likely that there's something wrong with Smith's perceptions than that "the path of Nature has been overstepped" which I take to mean something supernatural has happened. So, it's more likely Smith's wrong than nature went wrong. – user156389 Sep 14 '17 at 3:26

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