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I'm reading Jennifer Haigh's short story Sublimation, and I came across a sentence that grabbed my attention.

"Their son's habit isn't news to her, not really, though she always imagined he'd outgrow it. Children left everything behind, eventually. Her attic is full of board games and sports equipment and Boy Scout uniforms, a veritable zoo of stuffed animals she can't bear to throw away".

In this case, could the usage of the word "left" here in the simple past easily be substituted by:

children always leave everything behind

or

children always end up leaving everything behind

?

I've been trying to read between the lines as to why the author used the simple past in the sentence in bold. What is she trying to emphasize?

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    I think it's just an elegant way of saying "children always end up leaving everything behind". It's more concise. – Michelle Dec 2 '14 at 19:52
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    The writer is emphasising that this is a story set in the past, and that her fictitious character thought "Children leave everything behind" in that past/imaginary setting. Using past tense is appropriate, if the author wants to avoid the reader supposing that this thought might be something added by narrator and/or to increase the "distance" between the fiction being read about, and the reader's current context. – FumbleFingers Dec 2 '14 at 19:57
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    I would call it the "aphoristic past". Notice how it's bookended by two historical present uses. It's a way of presenting the character in the act of thinking a "wise thought", even though it's the narrator speaking. – TRomano Dec 2 '14 at 20:07
  • I have a problem with the "not really" in "Their son's habit isn't news to her, not really, . . .." I mean, what purpose does it serve? I have no problem with "Their son's habit isn't really news to her . . .," however. – rhetorician Dec 8 '14 at 6:51
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Children left everything behind, eventually.

In my opinion it is a way of pushing the reader's point of view to sometime after the event stated, namely after "children left everything behind". It is difficult to tell exactly what meaning was intended, even though it is clear that it is what the character was thinking and probably means something close to:

Children would leave everything behind eventually, or so they were supposed to.

The author probably chose to use the simple past tense to emphasize the finality of "leaving everything behind".

Alternatively, one may say that in all these cases including the one in your book, the past tense does refer to the past, and so all of them are stating a truth about the past, implying that it holds into the future as well. If understood that way, then the past tense in the book should seem natural, indicating her past experience regarding children:

Children left everything behind eventually, at least in her experience.

Some examples of proverbs that use this are:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost; for want of a shoe the horse was lost; and for want of a horse the man was lost.

Worrying never did anyone any good.

Hard work never did anyone any harm.

The course of true love never did run smooth.

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