When I was reading, I noticed that some adjectives can be understood in different possible ways.

For example, the word “stark” in the sentence though he appeared the image of stark and uncompromising severity.

If looked up in a dictionary, “stark” can be explained as “complete and total”, or “unpleasant;real, and impossible to avoid”. Both meanings seem to fit in the sentence.

So I am wondering, how to tell the exact meaning of a word in a sentence? How can I know I’m not misunderstanding the text?

  • side note: that's not a complete sentence, please edit your question to add the entire sentence. Also, I do not see how exactly "complete and total" fits in that sentence. – Cardinal May 14 '20 at 16:31
  • The two meanings are related and both apply. Native speakers look at context. What do you do in your own language? – Lambie May 14 '20 at 23:04

The quote is from a rather long sentence (105 words) by Virginia Woolf in "To the Lighthouse":

Library of Congress sample quote

It's part of a description of a six-year-old child. The meaning of the sentence is that the child had an active internal mental life, made up of images that he was sentimental about; that is put in contrast with his "stark" and "severe" external appearance.

I think this sense of "stark" fits here:

American Heritage Dictionary "stark" (2b)

2.b. Severe or unmitigated; harsh or grim

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