In "In the Midst of Alarms" (1894) by Robert Barr, the author is describing a man who couldn't make a friendly conversation with a girl, although he was usually a good talker:

It flashed across the mind of Yates that this was intended as an intimation that he might see many things outside to interest him. He felt that his visit had not been at all the brilliant success he had anticipated. Of course the quest for bread had been merely an excuse. He had expected to be able to efface the unfavorable impression he knew he had made by his jaunty conversation on the Ridge Road the day before, and he realized that his position was still the same. A good deal of Yates’ success in life came from the fact that he never knew when he was beaten. He did not admit defeat now, but he saw he had, for some reason, not gained any advantage in a preliminary skirmish. He concluded it would be well to retire in good order, and renew the contest at some future time. He was so unused to anything like a rebuff that all his fighting qualities were up in arms, and he resolved to show this unimpressionable girl that he was not a man to be lightly valued.

I can't understand this bolded phrase, or does "know" here mean "admit"?

1 Answer 1


There is a difference between not knowing you are beaten and not admitting it, if the denial includes not admitting it to oneself. This is the difference between a literal and figurative usage.

While ‘refusing to admit one is beaten’ can be lauded as a strength and being seen to ‘never give up’, there usually comes a point at which admitting defeat is prudent, as the character here discovers. The description of him ‘never knowing he is beaten’ is therefore figurative, as the passage demonstrates that he does, in fact, know when he’s beaten.

Literally rather than figuratively, not knowing one is beaten, can be a very negative thing. In Samuel Butler and the Meaning of Chiasmus by Ralf Norrman we read

On not knowing when one is beaten: This is all very well, but one of the first businesses of a sensible man is to know when he is beaten and to leave off fighting at once. Not to know when one is beaten is made an excuse for some on the most unjustifiable conduct that can be imagined

  • Does this mean that he don't realize his defeat, so he continue to fight till he wins? Dec 29, 2020 at 18:15
  • 1
    @AhmedSamir fair points. Hopefully clearer now.
    – Spagirl
    Dec 29, 2020 at 18:24

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