1

"In her lonesome cottage, by the seashore, thoughts visited her such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England; shadowy guests, that would have been as perilous as demons to their entertainer, could they have been seen so much as knocking at her door."

  1. What is 'that' indicating in the sentence?

  2. Is 'they' indicating 'shadowy guests'?

  3. Why are the two commas used there? Are they just for pause? not for grammatical reason?

  4. Why is 'the position of could' inverted ?I mean it should be "they could have been seen so much as knocking at her door." Is there any reason?

Here is the sentence in context:

Much of the marble coldness of Hester's impression was to be attributed to the circumstance that her life had turned, in a great measure, from passion and feeling to thought. Standing alone in the world--alone, as to any dependence on society, and with little Pearl to be guided and protected--alone, and hopeless of retrieving her position, even had she not scorned to consider it desirable--she cast away the fragment of a broken chain. The world's law was no law for her mind. It was an age in which the human intellect, newly emancipated, had taken a more active and a wider range than for many centuries before. Men of the sword had overthrown nobles and kings. Men bolder than these had overthrown and rearranged--not actually, but within the sphere of theory, which was their most real abode--the whole system of ancient prejudice, wherewith was linked much of ancient principle. Hester Prynne imbibed this spirit. She assumed a freedom of speculation, then common enough on the other side of the Atlantic, but which our forefathers, had they known it, would have held to be a deadlier crime than that stigmatised by the scarlet letter. In her lonesome cottage, by the seashore, thoughts visited her such as dared to enter no other dwelling in New England; shadowy guests, that would have been as perilous as demons to their entertainer, could they have been seen so much as knocking at her door.

closed as too broad by FumbleFingers, godel9, ColleenV Apr 8 '18 at 22:57

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    You're asking too many questions at once. Briefly, that is a relativiser (a conjunction introducing a relative clause), they does indeed refer back to "shadowy guests", and the commas before that and after entertainer are a "matched pair" delineating a parenthetical / optional clause. The stylistic inversion could they... represents IF they could... Consider, for example, Had you limited yourself to asking about only one of these issues, I wouldn't have closevoted.** – FumbleFingers Apr 8 '18 at 13:52
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    ...note that your text is over 150 years old, and even by the literary standards of the time would have been seen as being at the very least "highly stylised". By today's standards, it's purple prose - that you definitely shouldn't aspire to emulate. – FumbleFingers Apr 8 '18 at 14:17
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    Semantically, shadowy guests is equivalent to vague unwelcome thoughts. All text after the semicolon is simply a restatement / expansion / clarification / of preceding thoughts, where the semicolon could in principle be replaced by a dash or period. And if that text had been shorter (and thus easier for the reader to parse), the comma might not have been needed. Consider In her cottage, thoughts visited her. Thoughts that she did not welcome. A comma definitely doesn't work there, but you could optionally include one if you qualified them as Unpleasant thoughts. – FumbleFingers Apr 8 '18 at 14:45
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    ...thus we see that simply including an adjective in the preceding noun phrase / NP referenced by that significantly affects whether or not you can include a comma / pause in speech before it. Which probably implies that the "rule" you've been taught is limited in scope. – FumbleFingers Apr 8 '18 at 14:50
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    @EvaristeGalois be aware that "The Scarlet Letter" was written in 1850 when florid and circumlocutory prose was not only accepted, but expected (and is a common headache for students forced to study the novel in high school English literature classes). It would sound strange to write like this today. – Andrew Apr 8 '18 at 15:53
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1)

That is introducing a relative clause, therefore it's a relativiser. As a matter of fact, ME doesn't necessitate a comma put before it, however, earlier it was the grammatically correct sentence construction. That could be replaced with which (which does need a comma if it is a non-restrictive clause).

2)

They relates to shadowy guests that relates to thoughts.

3)

The first comma is explained under 1), the third is put there because that part of the sentence is an inversion of the second conditional. If there were an if, no comma could be used.

4)

...but the writer used inversion, that is, a comma has to be put there. Inversion heightens the feeling or sensation of the work's literary value and it's no surprise if inversion comes up in a literary text. Here are some additional sentences to see how inversion works:

Should you have any problem, please don't hesitate to contact me. (1st conditional)

Were you my son, I'd show you what good manners are. (2nd condition)

Had you read the book, you would know what it is about. (3rd condition)

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