Reasons for these two past perfect tenses


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


Posted 2013-03-28T14:14:26.230

Reputation: 25 811



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.

StoneyB on hiatus

Posted 2013-03-28T14:14:26.230

Reputation: 176 469

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 – 2013-03-28T14:47:42.340

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. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-03-28T15:01:33.207

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! – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-03-28T15:06:48.223

@Listenever See my above comment. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-03-28T15:07:07.940

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. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-03-28T16:10:50.207

My fingers had fastened comes at a time prior to Mrs Reed's reaction either hoped for or actual. I think lay outside the sheet is a non-restrictive clause which could be removed, and so isn't really helping to establish anything about the time line. – Jim – 2013-03-28T16:21:34.123

@FumbleFingers I fancy that stumble is more a matter of punctuation than syntax. If Brontë used full stops instead of semicolons and colons, and Had she pressed were capitalized at the beginning of the sentence, I think you'd probably recognize it right off. Length of sentence is I think the biggest difference between 19th- and 20th-century literary English (ignoring Joyce and Faulkner as outliers). – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-03-28T17:33:10.520

@StoneyB: No question. Actually, I think I'm not helped by the fact that the ELL font doesn't show punctuation marks very distinctly on my monitor (either that, or my eyes are getting old! :). Also (I'm slightly ashamed to admit this!) I suspect I don't tend to parse prose on a computer screen as carefully as I would if I was reading text from a known competent writer in dead tree format. It would do my head in to start worrying about the grammaticality of comments here on ELL, for example - even the best of us make mistakes in such casual contexts, and many of us are by no means "the best". – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2013-03-28T17:42:34.220

@FumbleFingers I (whose eyes are probably even worse than yours) find the punctuation problem to be universal in computer fonts, especially in smaller sizes. I occasionally pick up books from my youth and sigh with happiness when I can actually see a semicolon as a pair of rich, black marks with an emphatic curly tail. – StoneyB on hiatus – 2013-03-28T17:48:12.330