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I have another question about the complicated sentence in To Kill a Mockingbird. The complicated sentence is in the paragraph below.

Being Southerners, it was a source of shame to some members of the family that we had no recorded ancestors on either side of the Battle of Hastings. All we had was Simon Finch, a fur-trapping apothecary from Cornwall whose piety was exceeded only by his stinginess. In England, Simon was irritated by the persecution of those who called themselves Methodists at the hands of their more liberal brethren, and as Simon called himself a Methodist, he worked his way across the Atlantic to Philadelphia, thence to Jamaica, thence to Mobile, and up the Saint Stephens. Mindful of John Wesley’s strictures on the use of many words in buying and selling, Simon made a pile practicing medicine, but in this pursuit he was unhappy lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel. So Simon, having forgotten his teacher’s dictum on the possession of human chattels, bought three slaves and with their aid established a homestead on the banks of the Alabama River some forty miles above Saint Stephens. He returned to Saint Stephens only once, to find a wife, and with her established a line that ran high to daughters. Simon lived to an impressive age and died rich.

(The complicated sentence is "Mindful of John Wesley’s strictures on the use of many words in buying and selling, Simon made a pile practicing medicine, but in this pursuit he was unhappy lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel".)

Does the word lest mean "in order to make sure that something will not happen" in the sentence "but in this pursuit he was unhappy lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel"?

Is the word might omitted in the sentence "lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God"?

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    The be employed as a finite verb marks the clause as 'subjunctive', so you are right to think that it has the sense of might b or should be. – StoneyB Jan 23 '16 at 17:49
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    Lest is rarely used nowadays, so it's not surprising that most of us are not familiar with it. My advice is: try to read it as "for fear that". – Damkerng T. Jan 23 '16 at 17:59
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The sentence:

Mindful of John Wesley’s strictures on the use of many words in buying and selling, Simon made a pile practicing medicine, but in this pursuit he was unhappy lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel.

will be much easier to understand if we replace these following parts:

  • Mindful of ~ "Being mindful of" (i.e., "Being careful about", "Heeding")
  • strictures ~ "criticisms"
  • (the use of) many words ~ "(perhaps unethical) advertisement; marketing hype"
  • made a pile ~ "made a lot of money"
  • lest ~ "for fear that" (i.e., be afraid that something might happen)
  • be tempted ~ "might be tempted"
  • as ~ "such as"
  • the putting on of ~ "wearing"

which allows us to read the original sentence like this:

Being mindful of John Wesley's criticisms on the marketing hype in buying and selling, Simon made a lot of money practicing medicine, but in this pursuit he was unhappy for fear that he might be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, such as wearing gold and costly apparel.


To answer your direct questions:

Q: Does the word lest mean "in order to make sure that something will not happen"?

Not quite so. The second definition given by Longman is closer, i.e., "used to show that someone is afraid or worried that a particular thing might happen". (Or in short "for fear that", as I choose to use in the interpretation above.)

Q: Is the word might omitted in the sentence "lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God"?

Not really. Lest is often used with verb in its subjunctive form (i.e., its plain form). Here is an example from another dictionary: he spent whole days in his room, wearing headphones lest he disturb anyone. Note the form disturb (rather than disturbs). Having said that, reading this be as if it were might be is possible and quite practical for learners.

(Hope this helps. And welcome to ELL!)

  • Dear Sir, thank you very much for your help. I really appreciate it. – Li Xiaodong Jan 24 '16 at 1:53
  • Dear Sir, the word " might " is not omitted in the sentence " lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God ". Thank you so much for your help again. – Li Xiaodong Jan 24 '16 at 2:22
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Lest has the meaning let it not happen. A phrase which gets used from time to time is

Lest we forget
Lest we forget where we came from

meaning let it not happen that we forget our roots

Adding might may sound more familiar to most people

Lest he might be tempted

Which has the meaning of possibly being tempted. However, one must keep in mind that these are Methodists that are being talked about, and with that understanding, being tempted is not a question of if but of when. Simon is successful but unhappy, which may make him especially susceptible to materialistic temptation, and with temptation there is a price to be paid (think: fire and brimstone).

  • Dear Sir, thank you very much for your help. I really appreciate it. – Li Xiaodong Jan 24 '16 at 1:55
  • Dear Sir, what does the word "it " in the sentence " being tempted is not a question of if but of when " refer to? Thank you so much for your help again. – Li Xiaodong Jan 24 '16 at 2:31
  • "It is not a question of if but of when". If "it is a question of if" it means something might happen or it might not happen: if it happens. If "it is a question of when" only means the time something will happen. The sentence means that something will definitely happen (not a question of if ) the only thing to worry about is when does it happen – Peter Jan 24 '16 at 2:46
  • The it is whatever you are thinking about / writing about that is going to happen – Peter Jan 24 '16 at 2:49
  • I am really sorry. My question should be " what does the word " if " in the sentence " being tempted is not a question of if but of when " refer to? – Li Xiaodong Jan 24 '16 at 2:53

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