And woe betide anyone who got in your way!

Tea Addict

Senior Member
Republic of Korea Korean
Hello everyone. I would like to know what "And woe betide anyone who got in your way!" means in the following sentences:

‘To my Julia,’ she says, raising her glass. ‘Ever since you were a little girl you’ve known exactly what you wanted. And woe betide anyone who got in your way! I’ve never been like that – what I want always changes from week to week, which is probably why I’ve always been so bloody unhappy.

- Lucy Foley, The Guest List, Chapter 14

This is a thriller novel published in 2020 in the United Kingdom. One hundred and fifty guests gathered at some remote and deserted fictional islet called Inis an Amplóra off the coast of the island of Ireland to celebrate the wedding between Jules (a self-made woman running an online magazine called The Download) and Will (a celebrity appearing in a TV show program called Survive the Night). The day before the actual wedding day, at the rehearsal dinner, Jules' mother suddenly gets up from her chair and starts a speech, to Jules' chagrin.

In this part, I wonder what this sentence exactly means.
I learned from other threads regarding "woe betide" that is an archaic expression meaning "someone would face a disaster," but I am not sure whether Jules' mother here is saying that Jules has really inflicted harm on somebody that blocked her way towards her success, or she is wishing in a humorous way that anyone that blocks Jules' way towards her success would face disaster. Or I think it could have some other meaning that I couldn't even guess...

I would very much appreciate your help. :)
 
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  • Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    It does not directly say that Jules herself would inflict harm on anyone who got in her way, but it does say that harm would be inflicted on them. The sentence "woe betide anyone who gets/got in your/my/his/her/their way" is common, often as a warning for the future rather than saying how things were in the past. The archaic form is meant to be humorous, a way of making light of the situation. However, it is not meant to be treated as fiction; Jules was probably something of a bully.
     

    Tea Addict

    Senior Member
    Republic of Korea Korean
    Dear Uncle Jack,

    Thank you very much for the explanation.
    So she means harm would be inflicted upon anyone who would get in Jules' way in the future!
    However, it is not meant to be treated as fiction; Jules was probably something of a bully.

    But then, if it implies Jules has been a bully, could it be that the sentence implies both the past and the future, meaning "You knew what you wanted and you had to get it from an early age. So you wouldn't (meaning habitual past and hypothetical future) forgive anyone who would get in your way, because you certainly got rid of them by any means"?
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    So she means harm would be inflicted upon anyone who would get in Jules' way in the future!
    Well, it is in the future from the point of view of having decided what she wanted, but Jules' mother is talking about the past, and quite likely, primarily the time when Jules was younger. Grammatically, the present perfect with a time period can include the present, but if Jules' mother wanted to refer to the future, she would probably have rearranged the sentence to use the present tense rather than the present perfect.

    It is hard to say without knowing more about the character of Jules' mother. Perhaps Jules' mother is sending out rather barbed comments, disparaging her daughter and perhaps warning Will what he might expect in future, but on the face of it, it is just a rather harmless comment about what Jules used to be like, meant to sound funny rather than wounding.
     

    Tea Addict

    Senior Member
    Republic of Korea Korean
    Dear Uncle Jack,

    Thank you very much for the explanation.
    So she might be saying that, in the past, Jules never let others get in her way, rather than saying about the future.

    I was confused whether she is talking about the past or the future because "woe betide" does not seem to have a tense, but now I understand that she is talking about the past, all thanks to your help.

    I was also wondering whether Jules' mother was saying that she would not allow anyone to get in her daughter's way, or Jules herself did not allow anyone to get in her way, but I guess the latter is the case. :D It is such a difficult expression!

    It is hard to say without knowing more about the character of Jules' mother.

    I wonder if this might be helpful, but here is the rest of the speech made by Jules' mother:

    ------------------------------

    ‘To my Julia,’ she says, raising her glass. ‘Ever since you were a little girl you’ve known exactly what you wanted. And woe betide anyone who got in your way! I’ve never been like that – what I want always changes from week to week, which is probably why I’ve always been so bloody unhappy.

    ‘Anyway: you’ve always known. And what you want, you go after.’ Oh God. She’s doing this because I’ve banned her from doing a speech at the wedding itself. I’m sure of it. ‘I knew it from the moment you told me about Will that he was what you wanted.’

    Not quite so clairvoyant as it sounds, seeing as I told her, in the same conversation, that we were already engaged. But Mum has never let inconvenient facts get in the way of a good story.

    ‘Don’t they look wonderful together?’ she asks. Murmurs of assent from the others. I don’t like the way the emphasis seemed to land on the ‘look’.

    ‘I knew Jules would need to find someone as driven as her,’ Mum says. And was there an edge to the way she said driven? It’s difficult to be sure. I catch Charlie’s eye across the table – he knows of old what Mum is like. He winks at me and I feel a secret fizz of warmth deep in my belly.

    ‘And she has such style, my daughter. We all know that about her, don’t we? Her magazine, her beautiful house in Islington, and now this stunning man here.’ She puts a red-nailed hand on Will’s shoulder. ‘You’ve always had a good eye, Jules.’ Like I picked him out to go with a pair of shoes. Like I’m marrying him just because he fits perfectly into my life—

    ‘And it might seem like madness to anyone else,’ Mum goes on. ‘To haul everyone out to this freezing godforsaken island in the middle of nowhere. But it is important to Jules, and that’s what matters.’

    I don’t like the sound of that, either. I’m laughing along with the others. But I’m secretly bracing myself. I want to stand up and say my own piece, as though she’s the prosecuting barrister, and I’m the defence. That’s not how you’re meant to feel, listening to a speech from a loved one, is it?

    --------------------------------

    So, based on these remarks of hers, would "woe betide" similar to meaning "Those who got in her way in the past couldn't survive in one piece!" intending slight criticism against Jules' drivenness...?
     

    kentix

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    Yes, it's not that she was a bully, at least in the way it's usually used regarding children in the U.S. - being mean to other kids for no reason because you're bigger or stronger or more popular. Instead, she was very, very ambitious, and she didn't let other people get in the way of her achieving her goals - even if that sometimes caused problems for them - hurt feelings, missed opportunities, whatever. If it came to a choice between getting what she wanted and respecting someone else's feelings or goals, she would choose her own. One example that could have occurred when she was younger is that she "stole" another girl's boyfriend.
     

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    "woe betide" does not seem to have a tense
    That is correct. I think it is the (present) subjunctive, being the expression of a wish (in its original use), but in any case it has come to be used as a fixed expression and applies equally to the past as to the present.
    So, based on these remarks of hers, would "woe betide" similar to meaning "Those who got in her way in the past couldn't survive in one piece!" intending slight criticism against Jules' drivenness...?
    No, it's not nearly that fierce in tone. Kentix describes it well.

    Her speech does appear to be critical to at least some degree, and it is clear that Jules doesn't quite know how to take it.
     

    Tea Addict

    Senior Member
    Republic of Korea Korean
    Dear kentix and Uncle Jack,

    Thank you very much for the additional explanations!
    Then Jules' mother is saying that Jules was a very ambitions person from her early age, and did not hesitate in pursuing her ambition even if others' feelings were to be hurt as a consequence.
    And she is being slightly critical, and Jules here is becoming irritated and confused as to how to take her mother's words.
    I think I am now grasping its meaning all thanks to your help! I sincerely appreciate your help. :)
     

    kentix

    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    Always keep in mind her mother is an actress and an inherently dramatic person. She is prone to saying things in exaggerated ways that others might not choose.
     

    se16teddy

    Senior Member
    English - England
    implies both the past and the future
    I would say that "got" is ambiguous.
    - It might be plain past tense: anyone who got in your way risked a comeuppance. "Woe betide" is used in this past sense, though grammatically that use of the subjunctive might be dubious.
    - Or it might be free indirect speech: your attitude in those days was "woe betide anyone who gets in my way".
    - Or it might be more future-in-the past: if anyone got in your way they would have to be careful.
     
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    Tea Addict

    Senior Member
    Republic of Korea Korean
    Dear kentix and se16teddy,

    Thank you so much for the explanations.
    I would say that "got" is ambiguous.
    - It might be plain past tense: anyone who got in your way risked a comeuppance. "Woe betide" is used in this past sense, though grammatically that use of the subjunctive might be dubious.
    - Or it might be free indirect speech: your attitude in those days was "woe betide anyone who gets in my way".
    - Or it might be more future-in-the past: if anyone got in your way they would have to be careful.
    I mean... wow... that is very deep and reasonable! So it could be viewed in three different perspectives.
    I was thinking only about the first option, but it could also be a free indirect speech, her mother saying Jules' words and changing the verb tense accordingly, and also a future-in-the-past version, probably a hypothetical future in the past if I understand correctly.

    Come to think of it, the second and third options seem very plausible...
    After all, it would have been Jules herself who brought disaster to anyone blocking her way, so "woe betide --" could have been Jules' mindset being verbally expressed. (free indirect speech) But it could also be the description on the part of her mother, looking Jules at that time and imagining what it would be like if someone were to block her way. (implying a warning for other people, perhaps?)

    But then, all three options seem very plausible... Oh my, I'm lost again. :D
     
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