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The following sentence from James Joyce's "The Dead" is giving me trouble (as in, I can't seem to parse it in my head).

He set to his supper and took no part in the conversation with which the table covered Lily's removal of the plates.

When "with which" (or "in which" or "for which", etc.) is used, my understanding is that there must be something that another thing is with. For instance, in "The example with which I am concerned is X", the word "example" is with the example X.

However, in Joyce's sentence I cannot tell with what the "conversation" is. "[T]he table covered Lily's removal of the plates" isn't a noun phrase(?), which I think is causing the trouble in my understanding. My guess is that "conversation" is with "Lily's removal of the plates", but I still can't seem to fully parse the sentence.

So my question is: Is the above sentence grammatical? Could it be a regional variation in phrasing (Joyce was Irish; I live in the US)?

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If that one causes you problems, I suggest you abandon Joyce before you get to Finnegans Wake - even ELU probably won't be able to help you with that one! – FumbleFingers Jan 4 '13 at 4:37
up vote 12 down vote accepted

I believe the sentence is stating that the table — meaning the guests sitting and conversing at the table — are covering up the sound of Lily's removal of the plates. The table is the subject, covering Lily's removal of the plates with the conversation.

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read "with which" as "by which" – mgb Jan 4 '13 at 4:30

I think the source of your confusion is that "the table" is actually a metonym for "the people at the table".

Lily removed the plates. The people at the table "covered" Lily's removal of the plates by making conversation (so that her actions were largely ignored). Whoever "he" is was focused on eating his supper, so he took no part in that conversation.

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