I had once vowed that I would never call her aunt again: I thought it no sin to forget and break that vow now. My fingers had fastened on her hand which lay outside the sheet: had she pressed mine kindly, I should at that moment have experienced true pleasure. But unimpressionable natures are not so soon softened, nor are natural antipathies so readily eradicated. Mrs. Reed took her hand away, and, turning her face rather from me, she remarked that the night was warm. (Jane Eyre)

Are the two past perfect because of the past tenses below, or because of some other reasons?

(Past tense)--------------------(the past of the Past tense)
I thought it no sin-------------I had once vowed
Mrs. Reed took her hand away----My fingers had fastened

1 Answer 1


I think you've got it. The Reference time (narrative time) here is the sequence of moments marked with the past tense. The past perfects mark their events as occurring before the corresponding past moments:

                      NARRATIVE TIME
I had once vowed           before   I thought it no sin ... now
My fingers had fastened      before   [her hand] lay outside the sheet
[a counterfactual and
a general observation, and then]
       Mrs. Reed took her hand away, and ... remarked

Actually, her hand may be presumed to have lain outside the sheet before Jane took it ... but in the sentence what is relevant is that it lies there in Reference time.

  • I still think '[her hand] lay outside the sheet' is previous to 'My fingers had fastened.' : then the perfect tense might express Jane was holding Mrs.Reed's hand for some time until she took it away.
    – Listenever
    Mar 28, 2013 at 14:47
  • 2
    @Listenever: I think you're misinterpreting lay there. It doesn't refer to any previous action (of Mrs Reed laying her hand somewhere). It's just a reference to the fact that the hand was lying there - by implication, both before and after Jane grasped it, until Mrs Reed moved it away. Mar 28, 2013 at 15:01
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers I think we're all right. There are just some temporal relationships that require more trouble than they're worth to make perfectly clear in what's supposed to be a moving story, not a clinical history! Mar 28, 2013 at 15:06
  • @Listenever See my above comment. Mar 28, 2013 at 15:07
  • 1
    @StoneyB: Quite - I imagine I wasn't alone among native speakers when I stumbled a bit over "had she pressed" (instead of "if she had pressed"). The two preceding highlighted instances of had already refer to different "earlier" times, and that third one refers to a "hypothetical" time. The temporal relationships are obvious enough at the level of semantics/logic, but they do get a bit complex when you try to chart them and analyse the verb tenses. Mar 28, 2013 at 16:10

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