3

. . . ; she [Helen] brought my coffee and bread. “Come, eat something,” she said; but I [Jane] put both away from me, feeling as if a drop or a crumb would have choked me in my present condition. (Jane Eyre)

There’s no mention that Jane had what Helen had brought in the book, yet the phrase ‘would have choked’ implies that Jane took those things without choking, doesn’t it?

4

What is involved here is an interplay of present and past forms of verbs which is complicated by the facts that a) what we call ‘past’ forms are employed both for past reference and for hypothetical modes, and b) modal verbs don’t behave quite the same way as ordinary verbs.

  1. If I eat what she has brought me, it will choke me. … You are contemplating eating what is before you in the present, and predicting the outcome, so all verbs employ present forms: has is a present form, employed with a perfect construction to indicate a past event with effects in the present, and will is a present form, indicating a future consequence expected in the present.

  2. If I ate what she has brought me, it would choke me. … You have, in the present, decided not to eat what is before you, and explaining why. The past forms of eat and will are employed to indicate that they are counterfactual conditionals: things which are not true, though they might be.

  3. If I ate what she had brought me, it would choke me. … You are looking back on the events narrated in Sentence 1 and narrating, in the present, what you thought then, in the past, so you backshift all the present forms into their past forms.

    And now this is the hard one:

  4. If I had eaten what she had brought me, it would have choked me. … You are looking back on the events narrated in Sentence 2 and narrating, in the present, what you decided then, in the past, and why. To backshift past forms in conditionals you employ a past perfect form for your IF clause and the modal past form + the present perfect form of your lexical verb for your consequence clause.

  • I would think the 3rd scenario is only possible when I don't quite remember whether I ate it or not, looking back on the events. If I did eat that time, I will not say "If I ate what she had brought me." now. What do you think? – Kinzle B Mar 21 '14 at 5:28
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    @ZhanlongZheng Remember that our context here is a novel, where Jane is recounting her feelings at a time in the past; In example 3, the narrative has not yet arrived at a point where the decision not to eat has been made, as it has in the original and in example 4. – StoneyB Mar 21 '14 at 13:05
  • I think I get it. That is because at that time Jane did consider whether she would eat it or not. If she had not even thought about that, the 3rd scenario would have been impossible to exist. Therefore in this case, when Jane is recounting her past, she can only say If I had/had not eaten what she had brought me. Being hypothetical depends on whether the idea of eating it or not occurred to her at that time. Am I right? @StoneyB I think I am exhausting all the possibility here. – Kinzle B Mar 21 '14 at 14:13
  • I think I got it. Can I rephrase the original one to this: Helen brought my coffee and bread, but I put both away from me. (I knew that if I ate what she had brought me, it would choke me. or I knew that if I had eaten what she had brought me, it would have choked me.) I think these two sentences mean nearly the same thing. What do you think? @StoneyB – Kinzle B Apr 13 '14 at 10:38
  • @ZhanlongZheng These two sentences are my 3 and 4. Both represent present (ST) narratives of past (RT) events. #3 recounts her thoughts before the decision is made, while the possibility of her eating is still open: "If I eat this (now) it will choke me"; #4 recounts her thoughts after the decision is made, when the possibility is closed: "If I ate this (now) it would choke me." – StoneyB Apr 13 '14 at 11:37
3

No, "would have choked" doesn't imply that she took those things. It implies that she felt that she would have choked (in the future) if she had even a drop (of coffee) or a crumb (bread).

So basically, she would have choked if she had those things and since she didn't had any of those things, she didn't choke.

  • Is this a possible sentence? : “I put both away from me, feeling as if a drop or a crumb would choke me in my present condition.” – Listenever Mar 2 '13 at 9:29
  • Yes, it is. Why do you think it is not? – Mohit Mar 2 '13 at 9:33
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    @Listenever- you could rephrase that sentence as: I took the bread and coffee that Helen had brought and moved them far away from where I was sitting/lying because with the way I was currently feeling, I felt like if I tried to eat or drink anything, even a single drop of coffee or a single crumb of bread, I'd probably choke on them and that is something I wanted to avoid. – Jim Mar 2 '13 at 16:24

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