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The school nurse had seen what Aunt Petunia's eyes -- so sharp when it came to spotting fingerprints on her gleaming walls, and in observing the comings and goings of the neighbors -- simply refused to see: that far from needing extra nourishment, Dudley had reached roughly the size and weight of a young killer whale.

As I understand it, the word 'that' is a relative pronoun to lead the clause: "far from needing extra nourishment, Dudley had reached roughly the size and weight of a young killer whale". This part of the sentence seems to say Dudley had reached roughly the size and weight of a young killer whale, so he doesn't need extra nourishment. But I'm not quite sure if my understand is correct.

Another thing I'm wondering is - assuming 'that' is used to introduce a clause here - why it put "refused to see: that..." instead of "refused to see that:... ". Is there any special rule for it or just a stylish matter?

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    No, it's wouldn't be valid to make the change you've suggested. Remove the syntactically irrelevant clause delineated by dashes, the stylistic choice of Past Perfect over Simple Past, reduce "tautologous" her eyes saw to she saw, etc. You end up with something like She saw what Petunia refused to see: that Dudley was fat. Where the colon and the relativizer that are "optional", but the entire highlighted clause is syntactically bound to preceding what (i.e. - it restates whatever it is that Petunia can't see). – FumbleFingers Dec 3 '18 at 14:24
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    Note that the use of a colon here is definitely a "stylistic choice". I'd be willing to bet that in almost any other context, Rowling would have used a dash rather than a colon - but because she's already included a parenthetical clause enclosed in dashes earlier in the same sentence, that would look orthographically clumsy. This is entirely a matter of orthographic conventions, of course. In speech, it would be read out exactly the same regardless of how it was punctuated. – FumbleFingers Dec 3 '18 at 14:30
  • @FumbleFingers Did I get the meaning of that part in question correct? – dan Dec 3 '18 at 14:44
  • You got the overall meaning more or less correct, but I think you misunderstood the syntax. It's all about the a difference between The nurse saw [that] he was fat and What Petunia disregarded / didn't see was [that] he was fat. – FumbleFingers Dec 3 '18 at 16:49
  • @FumbleFingers I see. But Im confused by the answer below, because it says 'that' forms a prepositional phrase. What do you think? – dan Dec 3 '18 at 21:30
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As is often the case with long complex sentences, we can understand it better by removing the less essential parts:

The school nurse had seen what Aunt Petunia's eyes -- so sharp when it came to spotting fingerprints on her gleaming walls, and in observing the comings and goings of the neighbors -- simply refused to see: that far from needing extra nourishment, Dudley had reached roughly the size and weight of a young killer whale.

If we rewrite this sentence with only the bold words, we get:

The school nurse had seen what Aunt Petunia's eyes simply refused to see: that Dudley had reached roughly the size and weight of a young killer whale.

Now we have a relatively simple sentence. It's just saying that Aunt Petunia was in denial about Dudley's size, but the school nurse wasn't. However, there are some additional details that would be interesting to the reader, so the complex parts are added. The phrase far from needing extra nourishment is there to provide an extreme contrast. Aunt Petunia liked to provide Dudley with so much food that she must have thought that he needed extra nourishment, i.e. that he was undersized. The contrast then shows how far off Aunt Petunia's assessment was. Not only did Dudley not need extra nourishment, he was so oversized that he was already as big as a killer whale.

The other phrase with additional detail is also to provide contrast. Normally Aunt Petunia has the sharpest eyes around; she can spot anything. It is thus all the more remarkable that she cannot spot the clear facts right in front of her, that Dudley is way too big.

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'That' can certainly be a relative pronoun, but in this case, it's modifying all of 'far from needing extra nourishment' as a prepositional phrase, and contrasting with the 'what' earlier in the sentence. What didn't Petunia notice? That Dudley was gigantic.

  • I don't understand how come it could be a prepositional phrase. I think 'that' here covers the whole clause "far from needing extra nourishment, Dudley had reached roughly the size and weight of a young killer whale". – dan Dec 3 '18 at 21:28
  • But it isn't a modifier. It's a clause. I think that far from this point, this could be called a clause. :) – Lambie Feb 1 at 17:50

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