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Understanding Dickens' tenses


Luis M. writes: 

(...) But the question about the value of that "as" at the beginning of the fragment is still mysterious to me. You say it has a temporal value. All right, but then we have a problem in the temporal construction, since the verb corresponding to the subordinated phrase introduced by "as" is past ("As I walked to and fro..") and the verb of the main sentence is present ("I wonder"). I mean, David wonders NOW of the crowd and the people in it, and not THEN when he was walking to and fro between Southwark and Blackfriars and in obscure streets.

If that "as" means "when" or "while" and the verb is in past tense, isn't it strange that the main verb should not be in the same past tense? You can say: "When I look back at those times, I wonder etc"; but can you say: "When I walked by the streets, I wonder..."? Shouldn't it be "wondered", in this case?

Anyway, if I choose to give that "as" a modal/causal value, things don't look better...

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Dickens' text under discussion is: 

" As I walked to and fro daily between Southwark and Blackfriars, and lounged about at meal-times in obscure streets, the stones of which may, for anything I know, be worn at this moment by my childish feet, I wonder how many of these people were wanting in the crowd that used to come filing before me in review again, to the echo of Captain Hopkins's voice!" (David Copperfield, ch.11)

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Dear Luis,

(...) Yes [you can say: "When I walked by the streets, I wonder..."] if you think to whom Dickens/David is talking to and see the whole development of the sentence... Dickens starts talking to us - and he describes: "as I walked to and fro, ... and lounged about" - then he sees the stones. What he suffered becomes vivid, becomes present - for anything I know - and suddenly he stops seeing us, he is seeing just his kid-self who is present before him, and talks with himself "I wonder how many" etc.

It is an example of psychological time where syntax can follow strange ways. That Dickens let this sentence as it is and did not conform to the Royal Book of Tenses, is one of the reasons he wrote a great book.

It can also be very illuminating on how Dickens worked. It is obvious that he let himself be absorbed by the story while he was writing in a mode we'd call today "automatic" - after we removed from it its shallowness, ignorance and light speed!

Just an opinion.Add a note!


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