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Mood

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English Literature

When a novel moves us to tears or when we are so terrified that we can barely turn the page, we discover that we have been immersed in that novel's mood. We know that the characters are not real, and we are not really in any immediate danger, yet literature - and other art forms like film and television - can drive us to the same depths of feeling that we experience in our own lives.

By paying attention to how a text makes us feel, we can better understand its overall meaning. What is mood, and how do authors try to create mood in their texts?

Definition of mood in literature

Mood is a key literary element.

Mood

In literature, the mood is the emotional quality evoked by a scene or the entirety of a work of literature.

A synonym for mood is atmosphere. As we might be plunged into a humid atmosphere in a jungle, a text plunges the reader into an atmosphere of its own creation.

The mood is a special effect. Other elements work together to create the mood of a text, rather than it being a standalone element.

The mood is all about making the reader feel a certain way. When we talk about mood, we refer to the emotional relationship between a text and the reader. Authors try to design a particular emotional experience for their readers through the plot, language, and other literary techniques.

How mood operates in a text

A text does not always have one set mood; the mood can change throughout a text. By the time you are finished reading a poem or a novel, however, you will have a sense of the overall mood that you are left with.

It is important to consider that we can talk about different layers of mood:

  1. the mood of a certain passage or scene
  2. the build-up of mood throughout the text
  3. the overall mood of the text.

For example, if the opening passage of a text has a sinister mood, but it is dispelled when it is shown that it is just a character pretending to be spooky, then the scene's mood changes from sinister to comical.

Purpose of mood in literature

Authors try to create a specific mood in their texts to:

  1. engage the reader and immerse them in the story.
  2. create a mood that contributes to the text's overall meaning

In engaging the reader's emotions, a text is not passively consumed but rather experienced. Mood can take the reader from an impersonal relation to a text to an intimate one.

A text's mood can also evoke empathy from the reader. When the text invites the reader to react to a character's fate in a certain way, or when the mood matches the characters' feelings, we can say that a text employs the mood to evoke empathy from the reader.

Through mood, a text can take the reader outside of themselves and give them a better understanding of what it is like to be another person.

How mood is created in literature with examples

An author can use any literary element or technique to create the desired mood.

Plot and narrative elements

It is worth analysing how plot events - the way they are set up and framed - create the right mood.

The lead up to Jane and Rochester's wedding in Jane Eyre (1847) by Charlotte Brontë has a foreboding tone, creating an uneasy and sinister mood. Rochester's wife - Antoinette Maison - sneaks into Jane's room two nights before her wedding and examines her wedding dress:

There was a light on the dressing-table, and the door of the closet, where, before going to bed, I had hung my wedding-dress and veil, stood open; I heard a rustling there. I asked, ‘Sophie, what are you doing?’ No one answered; but a form emerged from the closet; it took the light, held it aloft, and surveyed the garments pendent from the portmanteau. ‘Sophie! Sophie!’ I again cried: and still it was silent. I had risen up in bed, I bent forward: first surprise, then bewilderment, came over me; and then my blood crept cold through my veins.

- Charlotte Brontë, Chapter XXV, Jane Eyre.

The wedding setup shows that something will go wrong, and their union will be prevented. Something is "off" about the whole wedding, even on their wedding day; Rochester rushes her and barely treats her like a 'human' (Chapter XXVI).

Word choice

It is no surprise that the writer's word choice in a text impact its mood. Word choice includes everything to do with language, including figurative language, imagery, etc.

A single image can create an intense mood.

In Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad, Marlow is a sailor tasked with retrieving a deranged ivory trader, Kurtz, from the heart of the Congo jungle. He sees 'round carved balls' on sticks surrounding the cabin as he approaches Kurtz's station. These objects are weird enough, but the mood plunges into dark and sinister when Marlow realises these are the heads of Kurtz's victims:

I returned deliberately to the first I had seen—and there it was, black, dried, sunken, with closed eyelids—a head that seemed to sleep at the top of that pole, and, with the shrunken dry lips showing a narrow white line of the teeth, was smiling, too, smiling continuously at some endless and jocose dream of that eternal slumber.

- Joseph Conrad, Chapter 3, Heart of Darkness (1899).

Setting

The setting is the location where a scene or the story takes place. Gothic and horror genres provide a perfect example of how setting can be used to create the mood. Haunted, deserted, and derelict buildings populate Gothic and horror novels. They terrify without failure.

This is an excerpt from the opening lines of the Gothic horror novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson:

Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

- Shirley Jackson, Chapter 1, The Haunting of Hill House (1959)

From these opening lines, an uncomfortable and sinister mood is established. The eeriness of this description comes in part from its vagueness; what does it mean for a house to be 'not sane'? Who or what is the entity that walks there alone? We get the sense that the house is a living entity that rejects its visitors and submits them to an unbearable level of solitude within its walls.

Tone and mood

A text's tone impacts its mood.

The tone is the overall attitude expressed by the author of a text - or by the text itself - toward the text's subject matter, characters and the reader.

Some types of tone are:

  • Formal vs informal,
  • Intimate vs impersonal,
  • Lighthearted vs serious,
  • Praising vs critical.

Tone and mood are two different things, but they are closely connected. Sometimes, a text's attitude towards its subject matches the mood it creates. Other times, we have to use a different adjective to describe the mood.

A text with a formal tone does not create a formal mood; we can't describe a mood as "formal", but we can explain how the formality of a text makes us feel. It might make us feel dispassionate toward the text.

Irony

The use of irony can have an important impact on a text's mood.

Irony occurs when the apparent significance of something is at odds with its contextualised significance.

For example, if someone says, 'Wow, lovely weather." when they're standing drenched in the rain with a sullen face expression, we can interpret their statement as ironic. The apparent significance of what they have said - that the weather is pleasant - is at odds with its actual meaning, which we can grasp from the context of the rain and their expression: this person thinks the weather is awful.

When a speaker makes a remark which is deliberately at odds with what they mean, this is verbal irony. If a lot of verbal irony is used in a dialogue, this can create a playful mood.

Dramatic irony can also be used to create the mood. Dramatic irony comes from the audience knowing more about a character's situation than the character does. This can create a comic or tragic mood, depending on how it is used.

It's fun to watch a nasty character make a fool of himself when he thinks he's showing off. In such a situation, dramatic irony creates a humorous mood.

On the other hand, dramatic irony can also create a sad, distressing mood when the audience knows about the awaiting tragic fate while the character is blissfully unaware.

This is called tragic irony.

Types of mood with examples

There are many diverse types of moods in literature. Some positive moods in literature include:

  • Romantic
  • Idyllic
  • Serene
  • Lively
  • Reverent
  • Nostalgic
  • Playful

Negative moods

Some negative moods include:

  • Gloomy
  • Sinister
  • Dangerous
  • Melancholy
  • Mournful
  • Lonely
  • Bitter

The list goes on! Let's look at some examples.

A bitter, angry, pessimistic mood

How do you think former Poet Laureate of the UK, John Betjeman, felt about the town of Slough from this poem?

'Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!

It isn't fit for humans now,

There isn't grass to graze a cow.

Swarm over, Death!'

- John Betjeman, Lines 1-4, 'Slough' (1937).

The speaker's tone is overtly negative. The poem is scathing and critical of the businessmen that profited from the town's industrialisation. The mood created is bitter and angry.

Hopeful, uplifting, positive mood

Emily Dickinson's poem '"Hope" is the thing with feathers' (1891) creates a hopeful, uplifting mood through the use of bird imagery.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -

- Emily Dickinson, Lines 1-4, '"Hope" is the thing with feathers' (1891)

Dickinson's extended metaphor of hope as a bird in the soul creates a hopeful, uplifting mood. With Dickinson, we are invited to honour the human capacity for hope to lift us out of bad times, as if on the wings of a bird.

Light-hearted, mocking, comical mood

Alexander Pope's narrative poem, 'The Rape of The Lock' (1712), is written in the mock-heroic form to satirise the triviality of the poem's subject. In the poem, Pope mocks a real feud between two aristocratic families by ironically exaggerating the importance of the trivial offence: a Lord has stolen a lock of a Lady's hair.

'Rape' in the title means 'theft'.

This is how the theft of the lock of hair is described:

The peer now spreads the glitt'ring forfex wide,

T' inclose the lock; now joins it, to divide.

Ev'n then, before the fatal engine clos'd,

A wretched Sylph too fondly interpos'd;

Fate urg'd the shears, and cut the Sylph in twain,

(But airy substance soon unites again).

The meeting points the sacred hair dissever

From the fair head, for ever, and for ever!

- Alexander Pope, Canto 1, 'The Rape of the Lock' (1712).

The tone of the poem is ironic. The speaker says that the theft is the worst thing to have ever happened; they mean that it really isn't a big deal. Thus, the mood created is a light-hearted, comical mood.

How to analyse mood in literature

Some useful questions to guide your analysis of the mood in literature are:

  • How does the writer want you to feel? Are they successful in making you feel a certain way? Or does your mood not match the text's mood?
  • Where do shifts in mood take place, and how do they contribute to the overall mood and meaning of the story?
  • How do our feelings toward plot events or characters influence how we interpret a text?

To analyse mood, pay attention to its creation through plot, diction, setting and tone.

Mood - Key takeaways

  • The mood is the emotional quality evoked by a work of literature.
  • Mood operates on different levels in a text, it can change and undulate, but by the end of the text, you should be left with a sense of its overall mood.
  • The author tries to create a specific mood to engage the reader and add to the overall meaning of the literary work.
  • The mood is created through plot and narrative elements, word choice, setting and tone. Irony can also have a profound effect on a text's mood, especially if it is used to create a playful or tragic mood.
  • Some examples of types of mood are reverent, nostalgic, playful, and bitter.

Mood

Mood is the emotional quality evoked by a literary work.

An author creates mood through different literary elements and devices such as plot and narrative elements, and the use of diction, setting, tone and irony.

You can identify mood in literature by paying close attention to the feelings evoked by certain plot elements, certain scenes, and to the feelings evoked through literary devices such as word choice, setting, tone and irony.

You can analyse mood in literature by asking the following questions of a text: 

How does the writer want you to feel? Where do shifts in mood take place and how do they contribute to the overall mood and meaning of the story? How do our feelings toward plot events or characters influence how we interpret a text?

An example of mood in literature is a sinister mood. In The Haunting of Hill House (1959), a sinister mood is created in the opening passage of the novel, which describes Hill House as 'not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within'.

Final Mood Quiz

Question

What is mood in literature?

Show answer

Answer

The emotional quality evoked by a work of literature.

Show question

Question

What is a synonym for mood?

Show answer

Answer

Atmosphere.

Show question

Question

What are the layers of mood that operate within a text?

Show answer

Answer

  • the mood of a certain passage or scene
  • the build-up of mood over the course of the text
  • the overall mood of the text.

Show question

Question

What are the two key purposes of mood in literature?

Show answer

Answer

1. To engage the rader and immerse them in the story.

2. To create a mood that contributes to the text's overall meaning.

Show question

Question

By engaging the reader's emotions, a text is not passively consumed but...

Show answer

Answer

... experienced.

Show question

Question

What kind of emotional response can mood elicit in the reader?

Show answer

Answer

Empathy. 

Show question

Question

How can you approach analysing mood in a text?

Show answer

Answer

By paying attention to:

  • how the text makes you feel
  • where shifts in mood take place
  • how the emotions the text makes us feel influences the way we interpret a text.

Show question

Question

How is mood created in literature?

Show answer

Answer

  • Plot and narrative elements
  • Word choice
  • Setting
  • Tone
  • Irony

Show question

Question

What is irony?

Show answer

Answer

Irony occurs when the apparent significance of something is at odds with its contextualised significance.

Show question

Question

What are some examples of positive moods you can find in literary texts?

Show answer

Answer

  • Romantic
  • Idyllic
  • Serene
  • Lively
  • Reverent
  • Nostalgic
  • Playful

Show question

Question

What are some examples of negative moods you can find in literary texts?

Show answer

Answer

  • Gloomy
  • Sinister
  • Dangerous
  • Melancholy
  • Mournful
  • Lonely
  • Bitter

Show question

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