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Colin ‘Cubby’ Wall had decided that he wanted to go and say goodbye to Barry’s body too. Mary, usually compliant and agreeable, had found this excessive. Her voice had grown shrill on the telephone to Tessa; then she had begun to cry again, and said that it was just that she had not planned a large procession past Barry, that this was really a family affair . . . Dreadfully apologetic, Tessa said that she quite understood, and was then left to explain to Colin, who retreated into a mortified, wounded silence.
     He had simply wanted to stand alone beside Barry’s body and pay silent homage to a man who had occupied a unique place in his life. Colin had poured truths and secrets he had confided to no other friend into Barry’s ears, and Barry’s small brown eyes, robin bright, had never ceased to regard him with warmth and kindness. Barry had been Colin’s closest ever friend, giving him an experience of male comradeship he had never known before moving to Pagford, and was sure he would never have again. That he, Colin, who felt himself to be perpetually the outsider and the oddball, for whom life was a matter of daily struggle, had managed to forge a friendship with the cheerful, popular and eternally optimistic Barry, had always seemed a small miracle. Colin clutched what was left of his dignity to him, resolved never to hold this against Mary, and spent the rest of the day meditating on how surprised and hurt Barry would have been, surely, at his widow’s attitude. (The Causal Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling)

Whom do ‘his’ and ‘him’ refer to?
(1) If they are not reflexive pronouns, they can’t be Colin at all, and so do they refer to the late Barry?
(2) Does ‘to him’ the complement of ‘clutched’? I’m afraid it may be not, not yet seen the case in dictionaries. Then does ‘to him’ a modifier for ‘his dignity.’ If the latter would be right, does ‘one’s dignity to somebody’ make sense? What does it mean? If neither of them are proper, what goodness does the clause mean?

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  1. Colin clutched what was left of his dignity to him.

(1) If they are not reflexive pronouns, they can’t be Colin at all, and so do they refer to the late Barry? (2) Does ‘to him’ the complement of ‘clutched’? I’m afraid it may be not, not yet seen the case in dictionaries. Then does ‘to him’ a modifier for ‘his dignity.’ If the latter would be right, does ‘one’s dignity to somebody’ make sense? What does it mean? If neither of them are proper, what goodness does the clause mean?

The grammar

Firstly the Original Poster's point seems to be a good one. If his and him refer to Colin, why aren't they reflexive pronouns? If they don't refer to Colin, who do they refer to?.

In fact, these words do refer to Colin. The first word his does not have to be reflexive, because it is a determiner. These are not usually bound by other nouns and so do not need to be reflexive. Consider:

  • She(i) shook her(i) head.
  • He(i) liked his(i) elephant.

More importantly than that, Colin is not in the same (minimal) clause as his dignity. His dignity occurs in the relative clause what was left of his dignity. A word which has the same index as word in a different clause, does not need to be reflexive. Consider this example:

  • He(i) liked [ what they said to him(i) ].

This is perfectly grammatical because he is in a separate clause from what they said to him. Him cannot be reflexive, even though it refers to the same person as he.

However, that second word him, in the Original Poster's example, actually is in the same clause as Colin. This is how the clauses are:

  • [Colin clutched [what was left of his dignity] to him].

So the question is: can him refer to Colin here? The answer is: yes, it can. In this sentence to him is a 'locative prepositional phrase'. In other words it is a prepositional phrase that tells us about a place or direction. When pronouns occur as part of a locative prepositional phrase like this, we do not need to use a reflexive pronoun, even if the pronoun is in the same clause as the other noun:

  • He(i) put the books down next to him(i).

Because him is part of the locative phrase next to him the sentence above is fine.

So the answer to the Original Poster's question is that both his and him do actually refer to Colin. What little dignity he had left and to him are both complements of the verb clutch. In particular what little dignity he had left is the direct object. We can write the sentence like this to show the indexing:

  • Colin(i) clutched what was left of his(i) dignity to him(i).

The sentence meaning

If you clutch something, it means you hold it tightly because it is precious or important to you. For example, little children will often clutch their parent's hand if they are in a strange or unusual place. Often we clutch things to our chest or our body to keep them safe. This means we hold them against our body, or our chest.

In the Original Poster's example, Colin isn't really holding anything at all. It is a metaphor. The writer is imagining Colin's dignity as a physical thing. The image is that Colin is holding his dignity tightly against his body, because it is very important to him - especially because he doesn't have much left. The real meaning is that Colin tried to be dignified, even though he had lost his dignity in this situation.

Hope this is helpful!

  • I thank you very much. Yours are always well arranged accounts. – Listenever Nov 13 '14 at 12:38
  • @Listenever Yours are always very good questions! – Araucaria Nov 13 '14 at 12:44
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They refer to Colin. "his own dignity". To him = to himself.

P.S. This is another of Rowling's (IMO) not quite idiomatic uses of language. To clutch means to grip tightly with one's hand, i.e. to use the hand like a claw.

"clutched ... to him" is not quite how the act of clutching works.

One might have expected there a sentence with two verbs that mean "to hold": Colin clutched what was left of his dignity and held it closely to him(self).

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