I looked at the long dirt road that crawled across the plains, remembering the morning that Mama had died, cruel and sunny. They had come for her in a wagon and taken her away to be buried. And then the cousins and aunts and uncles had come and tried to fill up the house. But they couldn't.

Slowly, one by one they left. And then the days seemed long and dark like winter days, even though it wasn't winter.

This is from a novel "Sarah, Plain and Tall". Does this "fill up the house" mean "fill up the house spiritually",that means "cheer the family, or "physically"? I mean "physically" is the cousins, aunts and uncles.

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    There is insufficient context provided by these two sentences to answer your question definitively. In the absence of any additional information, I would assume it means to fill physically. So, either it was a large house or there were not enough cousins, aunts and uncles. "Fill up the house" can certainly be used in a spiritual sense (e.g. 'Lord, fill up this house with your spirit."), but this more commonly refers to a house of God, e.g. chapel, church, etc.).
    – James
    Jul 6 '18 at 18:24

Why do you think the meaning must be one or the other? Why not both?

Many English words have more than one meaning, and many authors have leveraged this to their advantage in their prose. The practice goes back at least as far as Shakespeare.

You are correct: there is more than one way to "fill" a house after the death of a loved one. Grieving homes can be filled with comfort or with people. Where you might be off a little bit, though, is when you asked us to tell you which of the two meanings is intended here. An accomplished writer, rather than choosing words that might point to one meaning while excluding the other, might instead opt for a phrasing that keeps it vague, so that either (or both) of the interpretations may be applied. Great writers will do this on purpose; decent writers might unintentionally luck into it every now and then.

Whichever is the case here, only the author can say for sure. But it wouldn't shock me if a writer left this vague, so that one might ponder about whether the visitors were offering their company or their condolences.


Given the sparse context, I would say that 'fill up the house' would possibly mean 'make the house seem less empty', an endeavour which unsurprisingly failed, given that what appears to have been its main (or only) occupant was freshly buried.

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