Faye was not bright, but she was far from stupid. She went to the sheriff and got herself cleared. There was no sense in taking chances. She knew something was wrong about Kate, but if it didn't harm the house it really wasn't Faye's business. Kate might have been a chiseler, but she wasn't. She went to work right away. And when customers come back again and again and ask for a girl by name, you know you've got something. A pretty face won't do that. It was quite apparent to Faye that Kate was not learning a new trade.
There are two things it is good to know about a new girl: first, will she work? and second, will she get along with the other girls? There's nothing will upset a house like an ill-tempered girl.
Faye didn't have long to wonder about the second question. Kate put herself out to be pleasant. She helped the other girls keep their rooms clean. She served them when they were sick, listened to their troubles, answered them in matters of love, and as soon as she had some, loaned them money. You couldn't want a better girl. She became best friend to everyone in the house.
There was no trouble Kate would not take, no drudgery she was afraid of, and, in addition, she brought business. She soon had her own group of regular customers. Kate was thoughtful too. She remembered birthdays and always had a present and a cake with candles. Faye realized she had a treasure.
People who don't know think it is easy to be a madam-just sit in a big chair and drink beer and take half the money the girls make, they think. But it's not like that at all. You have to feed the girls-that's groceries and a cook. Your laundry problem is quite a bit more complicated than that of a hotel. You have to keep the girls well and as happy as possible, and some of them can get pretty ornery. You have to keep suicide at an absolute minimum, and whores, particularly the ones getting along in years, are flighty with a razor; and that gets your house a bad name.
It isn't so easy, and if you have waste too you can lose money. When Kate offered to help with the marketing and planning of meals Faye was pleased, al-though she didn't know when the girl found time. Well, not only did the food improve, but the grocery bills came down one-third the first month Kate took over. And the laundry-Faye didn't know what Kate said to the man but that bill suddenly dropped twenty-five per cent. Faye didn’t see how she ever got along without Kate.
(John Steinbeck, East of Eden)

Does the sentence mean that Kate might have been a chiseler until she came in the whorehouse, but not after she came in here? If the answer is yes, do we say reference-times are same and the event times are different?

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    Might have been here is the way an irrealis present-reference might is shifted back to past tense. Present: "Kate might be a chiseler, but she isn't." Past: "Kate might have been a chiseler, but she wasn't." Jun 7, 2013 at 21:42
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    @StoneyB: it doesn't make any more sense when shifted to the present, either. "Might be" means I don't know whether she is or isn't a chiseler; it's absurd to follow that up with a statement that reveals I do know.
    – Martha
    Jun 7, 2013 at 23:53
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    @Martha Might be doesn't mean I don't know - it means It's possible. Anything's possible: I might be wrong (it's been known to happen); but I'm not. Kurt Vonnegut: "Overhead he heard the cry of what might have been a melodious owl, but it wasn't a melodious owl. It was a flying saucer from Tralfamadore." Jun 8, 2013 at 0:37

2 Answers 2


"Kate might have been a chiseler, but she wasn't." doesn't imply that Kate became a chiseler after going to the whorehouse. It means she could have been a chiseler, but she was not.


OP has misunderstood the referent of she, which refers to Faye, not Kate. The meaning is more obvious if it's written using italics to show where the emphasis lies...

1: Kate might have been a chiseler, but she wasn't. (i.e. - even if Kate was a chiseler, Faye wasn't)

The alternative reading (which makes little sense in this context) could be emphasised as...

2: Kate might have been a chiseler, but she wasn't. (i.e. - actually, Kate wasn't a chiseler)

Grammatically, both readings are perfectly possible. I've dismissed #2 partly because it's a slightly unusual thing to say in any context - so a speaker/writer would very probably include some extra term (such as actually, in fact, as it turned out, etc.) to clarify that the "unexpected" sense was intended.

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    I have to go with @kiamlaluno on this. It could be more logically punctuated: "She knew something was wrong about Kate (but if it didn't harm the house it really wasn't Faye's business); Kate might have been a chiseler, but she wasn't: she went to work right away." But Steinbeck likes short periods. Jun 7, 2013 at 16:26
  • I think the alternative reading does make sense and is intended.... Something was wrong about Kate. It could have been that she was a chiseler, but the evidence quickly proved otherwise: she went to work right away, she was friendly, she was thoughtful, she was industrial. (Having read the book myself recently, this is what I recall as my natural reading.)
    – Hellion
    Jun 7, 2013 at 16:33
  • Given the punctuation, the only possible grammatical interpretation is that the "she" refers to Faye; however, given the context, it's clear that Steinbeck meant the second alternative ("Kate might have been assumed to be a chiseler, but she wasn't: she went to work right away."). It's just not very good writing. I had to read the whole passage to figure out what was meant, because the natural reading is what FumbleFingers said.
    – Martha
    Jun 7, 2013 at 16:36
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    @Martha, both interpretations being discussed here are perfectly valid grammatical readings. The pronoun she could very easily, and quote grammatically, refer to either woman. Aren't the ambiguities in language just charming? Jun 7, 2013 at 17:46
  • @Martha: This sentence might be ungrammatical, but it isn't. And it might have been ungrammatical when Steinbeck wrote it, but it wasn't. Jun 7, 2013 at 21:44

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