This passage is from The Children's Bach by Helen Garner:

Some things, Morty,’ he said, ‘strain a person’s sense of humour.’
He swept through the room. The three of them sat foolishly, with fading smiles. It was dark, and the rain had stopped. Vicki stood up and switched on the lamp in the corner: the disorder of the room, its stuffiness and neglect, would have made her feel guilty had she not been already half drunk: as it was, she witnessed minor twinges of the appropriate emotions occurring distantly, as if to some other girl in a similar circumstance.

Does "as it was" mean "because she was half drunk"? Does the whole part in bold mean, because she was half drunk she felt some real emotions (a sense of pain) that she imagined it is occurring to a girl far from her and in a situation like her and not to herself?

2 Answers 2

  1. The meaning of "as it was" has been asked about on the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange site in 2013: Meaning of “as it was” in context. In short, "as it was" is the past tense of "as it is", here used in the second of the two senses given by Merriam-Webster:

    2 : with the situation that exists now

    We have enough to do as it is without your latest orders!

    I'd paraphrase it as something like "in the actual circumstances (as opposed to previously mentioned hypothetical ones)", or more succinctly perhaps "in fact".

  2. In context, "the appropriate emotions" refers to what was mentioned in the previous clause, the feeling that she would have felt if she'd been in a more normal mental state. The state of her room "would have made her feel guilty had she not been already half drunk" (emphasis mine), so the "appropriate emotions" would be ones of guilt.

  3. The bulk of the sentence is "she witnessed minor twinges [...] occurring distantly, as if to some other girl in a similar circumstance". As you surmised, this means that her drunken state caused her to feel a disconnect from herself and her emotions. Minor twinges of guilt did affect her somehow, as they would have done if she'd been sober, but her disconnected mental state allowed her to feel them as if from the viewpoint of a third-party observer.

    The choice of words makes this clear, as well as the direct meaning of the sentence: normally one wouldn't "witness" one's own emotions, but instead feel or experience them. Vicki's drunkenness makes her sufficiently distant from herself to feel that she's "witnessing" her own emotions, as if they're someone else's emotions - specifically, those of "some other girl in a similar circumstance".


Yes, your understanding is correct. If she had not been half-drunk, she would have felt guilty about the untidiness of the room. But because the drink subdues her ability to feel emotions clearly, she experiences that guilt only vicariously, as though she was observing somebody else feeling guilty rather than feeling it herself.

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