though clear enough in a literal sense, in a figurative one were difficult to fathom

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Irelia20150604

Senior Member
Chinese
The quotation comes from Charlotte Brontë – Jane Eyre (Chap. 29) | Genius

Quotation: The three looked at me, but not distrustfully; I felt there was no suspicion in their glances: there was more of curiosity. I speak particularly of the young ladies. St. John’s eyes, though clear enough in a literal sense, in a figurative one were difficult to fathom. He seemed to use them rather as instruments to search other people’s thoughts, than as agents to reveal his own: the which combination of keenness and reserve was considerably more calculated to embarrass than to encourage.
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Hi everyone! I don’t quite understand the bold part. “literal” and “figurative” here are vague to me. How to make it clear? My try is as below.

The sentence => What St. John’s eye expressions appeared to mean was clear enough, but their underlying meaning were difficult to fathom.
 
  • You are close. The eyes were clear, literally, i.e. physically (what an eye doctor would say).

    Their 'underlying meaning' (intent, etc) was not so clear. 'Figuratively' suggests a metaphor or analogy. Hence figuratively, we could not say, "The eyes were clear."

    For example "Her eyes were hard" literally would refer to some condition where eyeballs had hardened to the touch.

    "Her eyes were hard" figuratively would suggest, for example, a harsh attitude, intent to punish, and so on.
     
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