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To have had enough to eat would have been to have reached paradise at once.
Source: A Dog of Flanders: A Story of Noël, by Ouida

Does this mean if they had had enough to eat, it would be like they had reached paradise at once?

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    Yes. That's what it means.
    – jimsug
    Jul 9 '14 at 0:43
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Suppose A = B

Now form the sentence like this - A would have been B

A = To have had enough to eat.

B = To have reached paradise at once.

Now replace A and B, you will find the sentence you have quoted.

To have had enough to eat would have been to have reached paradise at once.

Does it make sense?

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What the sentence itself stands to do is show the reader how if there was enough to eat would have been comparable to having reached paradise. If one is to elaborate this would mean that the feeling that one would attain from having had enough food to eat would be the same as one reaching the elation/bliss that is related to the imagery around the word paradise.

In simplest terms the writer is saying that the happiness one would have had from having a full meal/enough to eat would be the same as being in paradise.

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I agree with the answers above and appreciate the analysis.

Subjectively, as a reader, I feel a severity of circumstance because of the structure of the sentence. It feels almost like a light or passive remark yet because of this somehow backwards phrasing delivers a weighted message. For me I feel it could be inferred that they might be starving, surely have been hungry for a terribly long time, and can't imagine hope or change at this point. They certainly aren't expecting miracles nor heaven.

Again, this is purely my own opinion of what the sentence says. The sentence doesn't seem awkward to me. I like it.

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The sentence is a very straight-forward shift of following sentence into past tense:

to have enough to eat would be to reach paradise at once

Very consistently, the past tense is formed changing "have" to "have had", "be" to "have been" and "reach" to "have reached".

Both occurrences of "to v-infinitive" become "to have v-past-participle".

The reason is that this is the correct grammar for shifting "to v-infinitive" units into the past tense.

For instance "to be great" shifted into the past becomes "to have been great", and not "to was great", which is simply ungrammatical.

I don't know the exact rule, but intuition is telling me that "to" must be coupled with a verb in the present tense, and the auxiliary "have" serves that purpose.

Additionally, "would be" goes to "would have been", because "would" also needs a present tense pairing; it never takes a past tense verb as in the ungrammatical "would was".

In terms of meaning, the meaning of the present tense version is:

  1. The speaker of the sentence is taking the point of view of someone: the subject. The subject could be the speaker, or someone else with whom the speaker empathizes. (The semantic subject of the sentence, not a grammatical subject.)
  2. The speaker is conveying the fact that the subject doesn't have enough to eat.
  3. The speaker imagines the unrealized situation that the subject does have enough to eat.
  4. The speaker compares that situation to reaching paradise, essentially saying that the unrealized situation is very good compared to the real situation.

With the past tense version, the speaker makes a very similar remark, except that it is about a situation which occurred entirely in the past:

  1. The speaker of the sentence is taking the point of view of someone: the subject. The subject could be the speaker, or someone else with whom the speaker empathizes.
  2. The speaker is conveying the fact that at some point in the past, subject did not have enough to eat.
  3. The speaker imagines an unrealized past situation in which the subject did have enough to eat.
  4. The speaker compares that unrealized past situation to reaching paradise, essentially saying that the unrealized situation is very good, from the subject's perspective, compared to the real situation that was.
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This is very unusual English grammar!

Not having enough to eat is a bad thing. Having enough to eat is a good thing. Most people usually have enough to eat. Some people usually don't have enough to eat and are happy about it (they want to lose weight). Some people usually don't have enough to eat and are unhappy about it (the people in the story are very poor). They want to have enough to eat (either grow it or buy it) and having enough to eat would be like reaching heaven. The writer is telling the story 'after the event', so 'Having had enough food to eat would have been like reaching paradise immediately'. 'To V' forms usually sound more formal than 'V-ing' forms, so more formally: 'To have had enough to eat would have been to have reached paradise at once.'

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