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She was not so sure as her husband that they did right in thwarting so strong an inclination. She had read of great painters whose parents had opposed their wish to study, the event had shown with what folly; and after all it was just as possible for a painter to lead a virtuous life to the glory of God as for a chartered accountant.

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

I can't make out this sentence especially the 'with what folly' part.

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I'm going to include more of the preceding context:

Aunt Louisa sat by in silence, anxious and unhappy. she saw that Philip was beside himself, and anything she said then would but increase his anger. Finally the Vicar [Aunt Louisa's husband] announced that he wished to hear nothing more about it and with dignity left the room. For the next three days neither Philip nor he spoke to one another. Philip wrote to Hayward for information about Paris, and made up his mind to set out as soon as he got a reply. Mrs. Carey [Aunt Louisa] turned the matter over in her mind incessantly; she felt that Philip included her in the hatred he bore her husband, and the thought tortured her. She loved him with all her heart. At length she spoke to him; she listened attentively while he poured out all his disillusionment of London and his eager ambition for the future.

"I may be no good, but at least let me have a try. I can't be a worse failure than I was in that beastly office. And I feel that I can paint. I know I've got it in me."

She was not so sure as her husband that they did right in thwarting so strong an inclination. She had read of great painters whose parents had opposed their wish to study, the event had shown with what folly; and after all it was just as possible for a painter to lead a virtuous life to the glory of God as for a chartered accountant.

It is clear that the paragraph is giving some thoughts of Philip's aunt (Aunt Louisa Carry, wife of the Vicar, William Carey) regarding Philip's desire to go to Paris and study art. Since the aunt doubts her husband's strong opposition to the idea, we expect the paragraph to present some sort of positive view of the matter.

The phrase in question is a "parenthetical remark" on the preceding sentence. Thus, using actual parentheses:

She was not so sure as her husband that they did right in thwarting so strong an inclination. She had read of great painters whose parents had opposed their wish to study, (the event had shown with what folly); and after all it was just as possible for a painter to lead a virtuous life to the glory of God as for a chartered accountant.

So we get

The event itself of great painters' parents opposition to their children's wish to study showed with what folly the parents opposed their children's wish to study.

The above is rather long-worded and repetitive. But the parenthetical phrase shortens it considerably. Note, a "parenthetical phrase" (1) provides a commentary on something just mentioned and (2) does not actually have to be in parentheses. See Wikipedia. Here, the author uses a comma to set the remark off from the material that it comments on.

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This is pretty hard because the style is so old sounding. The passage seems to be talking about how parents often try to prevent their children from becoming painters, even though the life of a painter is just as virtuous (according to Christianity) as an accountant's.

I think

X showed with what folly

is a shortened form of

X showed with what folly it was to [action taken by someone]

Which in modern English is

X showed how foolish it was to [action taken by someone]

So I think the whole phrase means:

The event showed how foolish it was for the parents to try to suppress their child's desire to become a painter

Implying that the event showed that it was very foolish to try to suppress a child's desire to become a painter.


If you want to know why that idiom works that way, I'll try to explain:

Whenever you have a question like "how tall is John?", you can push the verb forward to get the implicit answer to that question. For example, you can take the question "How tall is John?" and make the implicit answer "how tall John is", which means "John's height". The following two are equivalent

I know John's height

I know how tall John is

The idiom "X showed [implicit answer]" implies the answer to the corresponding question is significant/noteworthy. For example:

John's test scores showed how smart he is

means

John's test scores showed that he is very smart

So basically the passage is using the above construction, with the implicit answer "with what folly it was to [blah]", which corresponds to the question "With what folly was it to [blah]", which in modern English is "How foolish was it to [blah]".

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  • According to your theory, can you say 'John's test scores showed how smart' without 'he is' as a shorten form? Or does it only happen in a certain old literature? – whitecap Nov 6 '15 at 21:48
  • I think the shortened form only works if the phrase is parenthetical. "John's test scores showed how smart" feels incomplete. But you could maybe say "John is the most intelligent kid in my entire school; his test scores show how smart, but his social skills are lacking". That makes sense to me, but still feels like old literature even somewhat poetic. – Senjougahara Hitagi Nov 6 '15 at 22:04
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The event had shown with what folly ...

Event refers to this

She was not so sure as her husband that they did right in thwarting so strong an inclination.

but not directly. Something (presumably) bad happened when she and her husband thwarted the inclination, but it is not specified precisely what. (Earlier in the story probably says exactly.) Whatever happened, it deserved to be called an event.

A folly means "a foolish decision"

So ...

She had read of great painters whose parents had opposed their wish to study, the event had shown with what folly

She (the wife of the first sentence) is saying that "great painters whose parents had opposed their wish to study" are also "thwarting ... inclination" (this is the folly) - and that the bad unspecified event mentioned above is something that probably happened to the great painter's parents as well.

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  • A positive about this reading is that, I think, it ties the singular (not plural) event back to a preceding, "singular" thwarting. But the intervening clause literally gets in my way of reading this sentence as you do. But I'm not a big fan of the author; maybe this is one reason why. – user20792 Nov 9 '15 at 18:49

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