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I shook my head: I could not see how poor people had the means of being kind; and then to learn to speak like them, to adopt their manners, to be uneducated, to grow up like one of the poor women I saw sometimes nursing their children or washing their clothes at the cottage doors of the village of Gateshead: no, I was not heroic enough to purchase liberty at the price of caste. (Jane Eyre)

What are the uses of these four to-infinitives? The syntax is not clear to me. How is this sentence put together?

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The infinitive clause, often with subject implied rather than stated, is a common literary figure for placing a hypothetical action before the reader (or, in narrative or drama, before another character or oneself) as a question, or for contemplation.

To be or not to be: that is the question.

The character or reader is depicted as turning the possible action over in his mind: “Suppose I were to do such-and-such?”.

The figure may be multiplied for rhetorical effect; two classic instances in English literature are Hamlet's and Claudio's soliloquies:

   To die: to sleep;
No more; and, by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub ...

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thoughts
Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!

So in Brontë's passage Jane is examining, one after another (seriatim is a nice word for impressing your professors), various aspects of what it would really mean for her to embrace poverty, and concluding that the price of liberty is too high.

  • Arguably you could say there's implicit elision of "I could not see how" before each "to". But given the final clause, I think the "missing" text would be more appropriately expressed as "I feel a certain obligation [to do this, that, and the other]". Such substitutions don't really work for the Shakespeare stuff anyway, but in the end you're quite right that the underlying process is one of presenting hypothetical scenarios. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Feb 14 '13 at 22:31
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    @FumbleFingers Yes, that's the difference between the novel and the drama; in the drama, the actor has to pick a reading, in the novel the reader picks his own. – StoneyB on hiatus Feb 14 '13 at 22:42
  • Nice juxtaposition! I'm (belatedly) watching a lot more movies now than I used to back in the days when I was an insatiable reader, and I do indeed find that although it can often be more "engrossing" (or at least, easier to become engrossed), drama does tend to cast the audience in a more "passive" role. Basically, the director, actors, and others do much more of the work for you, but inevitably you end up with their take more than your own "creative interpretation". I do enjoy them, but really, movies are for lazy readers! – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica Feb 14 '13 at 22:55
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In this passage, Charlotte Brontë emphasized the gap between gentlefolk and the poor by giving four reasons, one after another, rather than just one example.

Use of to for the latter three verbs is optional: that is, if she had preferred to do so, she could have written “to learn ..., adopt ..., be uneducated, grow up...” instead of “to learn ..., to adopt ..., to be uneducated, to grow up...”. However, the rhetorical parallelism of the passage is improved by repeating the to before each verb.

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