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For this text:

... dreaming of houses uncluttered by reality, by half a lifetime of memories, perhaps.

What does this mean? It means that the one who was leafing through Country Living magazine was dreaming of houses uncluttered and comparing it to his house in his reality? And perhaps in his half-a-lifetime of memories?

The context is excerpted from David Mitchell's novel The Gardener (my emphasis):

Satin white, Persian purple, oil-paint yellow. When I planted these birches they were broomstick-height, and now look at them. They tap our bedroom window on stormy nights. Hyacinths on (what I fondly call) my rockery. Boy-blue and girl-pink. Through the kitchen double-doors I watch you eating supper – carrot and coriander soup – and leafing through Country Living Magazine, dreaming of houses uncluttered by reality, by half a lifetime of memories, perhaps. But my, how well you look. White hair endows you with the demeanour of a friendly witch. Our geriatric radio – a wedding-present from my brother – is twittering away to itself.

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    No, ‘by’ here introduces the agent of a passive construction. It means brand new houses that have not been yet been cluttered up by all the things that reality brings with it, and all the memories that are attached to a house you have lived in. In that way, of course, it is an indirect comparison to the persons current house (most likely), but that is nothing to do with the word ‘by’. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 12 '13 at 12:55
  • @Janus Bahs Jacquet: Yeah, I think you're right. I immediately thought that the construction could have been expanded by adding a third, fourth, fifth, etc. "by," as in "dreaming of houses uncluttered by reality, by half a lifetime of memories, by experiences repressed, by half-forgotten traumas perhaps. That the author chose to stop at two was a stylistic choice. Whether it was a good choice is likely a matter of opinion. – rhetorician Aug 12 '13 at 13:15
  • This is not a passive construction!------Through the kitchen double-doors I watch you eating supper – carrot and coriander soup – and leafing through Country Living Magazine, dreaming of houses uncluttered by reality, by half a lifetime of memories, perhaps. – River Golden Aug 12 '13 at 13:15
  • Yes, it is a passive construction. There is no auxiliary verb, which may confuse matters, but it is what is known as a bare passive clause. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 12 '13 at 13:21
  • My fault, I think tis a passive construction now, but it's a concealed passive construction?becuase the "dreaming" is instead of "dreamed", and in fact, it's not the business about "dreaming", it's a concealed passive construction just because of the word "by", right? and can i understand the sentence in this way: ------in the one's reality and perhaps in the one's half a lifetime of memories , the one's house is cluttered up, and this provokes the person to dream of houses uncluttered which are in the Country Living Magazine actually. ----right? – River Golden Aug 12 '13 at 13:42
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The 'by half a lifetime of memories' is just one of many things that would not be present in the narrators (as this is a first person narrative) new dream home, being a projection of his own thoughts and desires that he places upon the spouse, hoping his spouse may share the same feelings about a new home as an escape from their current reality.

The narrator is actually the one dreaming of what would make 'houses uncluttered by reality', and the 'perhaps', which questions if the realities of the current home could really be left behind, and not just follow along with him to the new home. A self-imposed question to himself if the new home could really be what he dreams of.

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In this context the word "by" could almost be changed to the word "with". Although this scentence does seem to provoke a comparison there isn't any direct comparison here.

  • As stated above, the OP wanted the meaning of the passage, not the grammer behind it. – Epiphany Sep 2 '13 at 10:15
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English past participles are inherently passive. Contrast a man-eating tiger with a moth-eaten jacket. The word "by" allows a passive construction to introduce the subject. "The jacket was eaten by moths." Their house is reality-cluttered. It is cluttered by reality and half-a-lifetime of memories.

  • OP wanted the meaning of the passage, not the grammer behind it. – Epiphany Sep 2 '13 at 10:14
  • I did say that "by" introduced the subject of the verb "to clutter," but I guess I should have been more explicit. A simple, direct answer would have been "No, 'by' isn't used for comparison here. It makes "reality . . ." the subject of the passive verb "uncluttered." Is that better? :-) – Greg Hullender Sep 2 '13 at 16:24
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In the context you've given, 'by' is a preposition identifying the cause by which the house may have become 'uncluttered'. She is browsing a magazine of model homes and feels the houses are uncluttered (a subjective description of a home) due to the lack of memories shared in them.

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