She [my mother] quadrupled her already fabulous record and she was
awarded the fairest prize of all – a ride in an army airplane.
Oh, we were proud kids! Even vicariously this was an eminence we could
hardly stand. But my poor mother – I must tell you that there are
certain things in the existence of which my mother did not believe,
against any possible evidence to the contrary. One was a bad Hamilton
and another was the airplane. The fact that she had seen them didn’t
make her believe in them one bit more.
In the light of what she
did I have tried to imagine how she felt. Her soul must have crawled
with horror, for how can you fly in something that does not exist? As
a punishment the ride would have been cruel and unusual, but it was a
prize, a gift, an honor, and an eminence. She must have looked into
our eyes and seen the shining idolatry there and understood that she
was trapped. Not to have gone would have let her family down. She
was surrounded, and there was no honorable way out save death. Once
she had decided to go up in the nonexistent thing she seemed to have
had no idea whatever that she would survive it. (John Steinbeck, East
I can see the subjunctive mood, but why does the infinitive have perfect tense? Being the subject in the sentence, it seems to have simple tense – not to go.
This is a very subtle effect. The key is the following construction with have: it would have let her family down.
Let’s put ourselves in the mother’s position. At the moment the choice presents itself, she might think, first:
“Not to go will let my family down.” … that is, “If I do not go it will let my family down.”
Translate that into the narrative past and you get:
Not to go would let her family down. … If she did not go it would let her family down.
But as Steinbeck has characterized the mother, this is not a choice open to her: She was trapped … She was surrounded, and there was no honorable way out. It is in fact a classic irrealis, a counterfactual. That is expressed in the present with a past form:
“If I did not go it would let my family down.”
Past-in-past is expressed with the past perfect:
If she had not gone it would have let her family down. > Not to have gone would have let her family down.