Ian McEwan’s usage of “must” as a simple past

Reading Ian McEwan’s “The Children Act”, I found this sentence:

“If Jack, sprawled across from her, seemed absurd in this conversation, then how much more so MUST she appear to him.”

Being italophone, I struggled a bit in attributing the appropriate tense value of “must”.

Does it have to be interpreted as a simple past?

If that is the case, what might have been McEwan’s stylistic reason in not opting for “had to”?

Thank you in advance for your kind help.

Vincenzo

Answer

The must is used as a modal, so tense distinctions don’t apply the same way (so much so that while once it was a past-tense form, it’s present is now obsolete and not found in modern English at all).

More to the point, the “appear” is bare infinitive.

It would be more normal to have it as, “…then how much more so must she have appeared to him”.

Does it have to be interpreted as a simple past?

The first clause is simple past, but the second has no tense.

…what might have been McEwan’s stylistic reason…

There’s a few reasons why we might switch tense or use none. From that sentence alone we might imagine a change in temporal viewpoint. We can see this more with a bit more context:

Then there was age. Not the full withering, not just yet, but its early promise was shining through, just as one might catch in a certain light a glimpse of the adult in a ten-year-old’s face. If Jack, sprawled across from her, seemed absurd in this conversation, then how much more so must she appear to him.

Since she’s considering the effects of age, while we’re told about how Jack appeared at the time being discussed, she’s not going to get younger between the “then” of the story and the “now” of the story-telling. This subtly underlines the fact that “the effects of age” are not going to go away in the future, but rather they will increase. And so to answer whether it should be “interpreted as a simple past”, it is something that is in the past and outside of it as well.

Another common use for switching tenses in fiction is to switch between past-tense accounts of events and present-tense accounts of thoughts. What McEwan is doing something similar. It gives the thoughts greater immediacy.

It’s still a bit of an artistic stretch here, but with someone who deliberately bends the rules of grammar as McEwan does with his heavy use of fragments and heavy ellipsis*, it’s far from the greatest stretch you might come across.

But to complete your question…

what might have been McEwan’s stylistic reason in not opting for “had to”

Had to can be used in a lot of places where must is used. Let us consider:

If Jack, sprawled across from her, seemed absurd in this conversation, then how much more so must she appear to him.

If Jack, sprawled across from her, seemed absurd in this conversation, then how much more so she had to appear to him.

If Jack, sprawled across from her, seemed absurd in this conversation, then how much more so had she to appear to him. [an alternative “had-to” version]

There are a few differences here:

One is that “have to” for “must” is considered informal to some and some others just wouldn’t think of it.

Another is that this is especially so with the must of necessity than the must of obligation; that is many people would not use “had to” with the must of “it must be hot outside” but would of “I must/have to finish this report”. (Some would; it’s something people disagree on). It’s the former meaning of must at work here.

Another is that I had to rephrase because while McEwan followed “how much more so” immediately with the must I couldn’t do that with *had to”. I either had to have all of it after she or split the had to. Splitting is arguably inelegant in itself. The must form has a nice pattern; [state described] [must] [another state described]. The had to form loses this.

A consequence of that, is that that second description of a state, “…she appear to him” loses its brevity.

I think neither of the two had to alternatives have the same impact, even if we allow “had to” in such a case which, as said, many would not.


*From near the beginning of the same story:

Probably a fake. Below it, centered on a round walnut table, a blue vase. No memory of when she last put flowers in it. A Bokhara rug spread on wide polished floorboards.

It works very well, though an English teacher would run out of red ink if they had much of that given to them. Indeed, McEwan breaks the rules very well, but if you don’t yet know the rules yet, he’s a bad model to follow. There are though Italian writers who do the same thing (I’m pretty sure I can remember Italo Calvino do so, though I only read him in translation, and a long time ago).

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