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English Literature

How something is said is as important as what is said. Nowhere is this more true than in literature. Understanding a text's tone is crucial to understanding its themes and overall meaning.

We are already familiar with tones when it comes to a person's speech: serious or playful, calm or passionate, praising or scolding, and so on. But what role does tone play in literature? A useful starting point is to look at literature as a sort of speech. How does the speaker treat their subject, characters, and their reader?

Tone reveals your attitude towards what you are speaking about and also your attitude toward, and relationship with, the person listening to you. In literature, we use the term 'tone' to describe the attitudes communicated by the narrator, the author, and of the text itself, towards the subject matter, characters, and the readers.

Tone in literature

Tone is one of the most important literary elements of a text. Every spoken utterance and text has a tone, whether it is very simple, or a complex tone that is difficult to decipher.

Tone is:

1. The attitudes expressed by a speaker, a scene, or a piece of writing towards its subject and the listener.

2. 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.

The first definition is a broader definition. It is the one used when we talk about a person's tone in a conversation. But this definition can also be used to analyse the tone of a first-person narrator in a text. The second definition refers specifically to the overall tone of a literary text.

Let's take Emma (1815) by Jane Austen as an example. In Chapter 7, the characters play a game where each person must go around and share three dull things. Emma insults Miss Bates by saying that she will have a hard time limiting herself to sharing only three dull things (because she's so boring).

  • 1st definition: We can say that the tone of Emma's comment is vitriolic and malicious.
  • 1st definition: We can also say the character or tone of this scene is tense and awkward.
  • 2nd definition: If we want to talk about the novel's tone overall, however, we might say that it has a critical but gently mocking tone.

Within a single literary text, there can be different layers of tone at play. The way we speak reveals how we feel about:

  1. what we are talking about,
  2. the people we are talking about,
  3. and the person we are talking to.

This is also true for literary texts. The way a text is written reveals an attitude towards its subject, characters, and readers.

Attitude towards subject

The question of a text's attitude towards its subject is a question of its ethics, that is, the stance that it takes on a certain topic. How does the text treat the topics, themes, events, or issues it deals with?

To stay with the example of Emma, how does Austen treat the topic of marriage and society? How does the way the novel is written and its plot communicate a certain attitude towards marriage, social status, and etiquette?

Does it take its subject seriously, or is the subject handled with playfulness and lightheartedness?

Attitude towards characters

What is the author - or the text's - attitude toward the characters? Is a character portrayed sympathetically, or is there a tone of disdain and disapproval for their actions?

The question of a text's attitude towards its characters is also often a question of ethics: does the author - or the text - endorse or disavow the characters and their actions? This is particularly important in texts that deal with controversial subject matters.

Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov is a novel told from the perspective of a middle-aged man who is romantically obsessed with the 12-year-old Dolores Haze. The book is controversial because Nabokov does not overtly condemn the protagonist. He leaves the novel up for interpretation.

Another question to ask is, does the author, or the text, distance themselves from the characters and their behaviours, refusing to take responsibility for their actions and the worldview they promote?

Attitude towards readers

The way we speak reveals our attitude to the person we are speaking to. In literature, this is the same: the way a text is written reveals something about its attitude to the people to whom it is explicitly or implicitly addressed. It also reveals something about the kind of relationship that the text wants to establish between itself, its characters, and the reader.

Impersonal tone

A text written in a formal style, with straightforward, factual language, perhaps narrated in the third-person, implies a distant impersonal relationship to the reader. The tone of government letters, for example, is impersonal.

Personal tone

In contrast, a first-person text that reveals intimate details about the narrator implies, or seeks to establish, a close relationship with the reader.

Moreover, we can ask, what does the author - or the text itself - want from the reader? Do they want someone to confide in? Does the text want to convince the reader of something?

Two very different classics, published a century apart, Jane Eyre (1847) and Lolita (1955), are both told from an intimate, first-person point of view.

In Jane Eyre, this intimate perspective works to make the reader feel like they're friends with the lonely Jane. What Jane wants from the reader is a friend to confide in.

In Lolita, Humbert Humbert's personal and intimate account forces a close relationship with the reader that they might not want. Humbert's writing is full of obscene details, and this intimate tone serves to unnerve the reader. Besides, Humbert overtly addresses the reader as 'ladies and gentlemen of the jury'. What Humbert wants from the reader is for them to understand his perspective.

What is the difference between tone and mood?

Tone is the attitude expressed by a speaker or author towards the subject and the listener or reader. Mood, on the other hand, is the emotional quality that is evoked by an instance of speech or by a text. Tone is the cause, mood is the effect. Sometimes, the tone and the mood of a speech or text are the same or similar: for example, a light-hearted tone creates a light-hearted, laid-back mood. However, we cannot say that an overly-critical tone creates a critical mood, but we can say that a formal tone creates an uncomfortable mood.

Creating tone in literature

Every aspect of a literary text can influence its tone.

  • What the text focuses on, what the text ignores
  • Style
  • Setting
  • Irony
    • verbal irony
    • situational irony
    • dramatic irony
  • Word choice
    • Figurative language, imagery, metaphor, and symbolism
  • Connotations
  • Sentence structure and length
  • Dialect
  • Context
  • Narrative and plot structure.

Although a single element, technique, or even a single word has the power to shift tone, it is usually created by the combination of many different elements.

In poetry, emphasis is placed on the sounds and musical qualities of words, which makes sound an important part of a poem's tone.

If there is a lot of sibilance, the tone created is usually a pleasant, approving tone. On the other hand, cacophonous words with harsh-sounding consonants like 'k' and 'g' create an unpleasant, critical tone.

In the case of drama, scripts often come with instructions for the tone that should be communicated for a particular line or scene.

Types and examples of tone in literature

One question to ask about a text's tone is whether its tone matches or clashes with the content of the writing.

If lofty language is used to describe a trivial event, the tone created clashes with the content of the writing.

Some key opposing types of tone are:

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

These are just some examples; you can use most adjectives you can think of to describe tone.

Let's have a closer look at some types of tone.

Serious and critical tone

In William Blake's poem titled 'London' (1792), the speaker describes depressing city scenes.

How the Chimney-sweepers cry

Every blackning Church appalls,

And the hapless Soldiers sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls

- William Blake, 'London' (1792).

The poem's gloomy imagery of death, decay, and illness reveals that the speaker feels miserable about London, creating a hopeless, depressed tone.

Satirical tone

A satirical tone conveys a critical, mocking attitude.

Satire

In literature, satire is a mode of writing that aims to ridicule, expose, and critique flawed traits, behaviours, and actions. This is often done implicitly through the clever use of techniques such as wit, humour, irony, exaggeration, and incongruity.

If a text has a satirical tone, this means that the text should not be read for its surface meaning, but for its layer of satirical meaning.

A Modest Proposal (1729) is an ironic, satirical essay by Jonathan Swift. In the essay, Swift proposes that poor families in Ireland should eat their babies. Swift is being ironic, he doesn't really think poor families should eat babies. He suggests this absurd solution to satirise heartless attitudes towards the poor.

A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends; and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

- Jonathan Swift, 'A Modest Proposal' (1729).

The language used is hyperbolic and obscene, creating a satirical tone.

Uncertain and complex tones

Sometimes an author will set a clear tone for their story or poem. Other times, the tone will be deliberately complicated, so it is up to the reader to determine how they want to read the text.

Since the Modernist literary movement, many authors try to hide their own views and attitudes about their subject and characters, letting the writing speak for itself.

Modernism

An experimental artistic movement that took place from the late-19th to the mid-20th century. Modernist writers made their texts deliberately ambiguous, multi-layered, and open-ended. This approach required the reader to actively participate in the creation of a text's meaning.

It is hard to pin down Joseph Conrad's attitude towards his characters in Heart of Darkness (1899). The same is true for Virginia Woolf's attitude towards the eponymous character of Mrs Dalloway (1925). Readers and critics alike struggle to pin down Woolf’s tone. Many make the mistake of aligning her beliefs with those of the people she portrays, and of the narrative voices in her books.

What this tells us is that sometimes a text's tone is up for interpretation. Sometimes, authors merely want to tell interesting stories about interesting people, and explore their unique subjectivities, without letting their attitudes dictate how the reader should interpret the characters and the text on a whole.

The purpose and importance of tone in literature

Tone is used to communicate a text's purpose and meaning. Authors try to establish a particular tone that will suit the meaning that they want to create in their story or poem. By establishing a tone, the author also attempts to exercise some control over the reading experience and the interpretation of the text.

However, when authors deliberately try to hide their own opinions and attitudes in a text, they have relinquished control over how a text should be interpreted, encouraging the reader to assess their own attitudes towards the text, instead.

Understanding tone is crucial to understanding a text's meaning. If we misinterpret an author's tone, we might miss the entire point of a literary text.

Tone - Key takeaways

  • There are two helpful definitions and uses of the word tone we can apply to the study of literature:
    • First, tone refers to the attitudes expressed by a speaker, a scene, or a piece of writing towards its subject and the listener.
    • Tone also refers to 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.
  • There can be different layers of tone within a text; the narrator's tone, a scene's tone, and the overall tone.
  • Tone is created through a myriad of literary techniques; most notably, style, language, plot, and narrative structure.
  • Some key types of tone: serious vs. light-hearted, critical vs. praising, and satirical.
  • Many books have a complicated, indeterminate tone. The reader must interpret the tone for themselves, rather than focus on the attitude of the author and the text.

Tone

Some key components of tone to look out for are the tone's formality or informality, and its seriousness or playfulness.

You can describe tone with a variety of adjectives, such as praising or critical. It is important to avoid describing mood when we want to describe tone, though. Mood is the feelings and atmosphere created, tone is the attitudes expressed towards the subject one is talking about, the people one is talking about and who they are talking about it to.

The tone of a literary text is the attitude that it expresses towards its subject matter, characters, and the reader. The style of a literary text refers to the way that a text is written. Style influences a text's tone. For example, a formal style may create a formal, impersonal tone.

A scene or a speech is said to have a sinister tone if it hints at a threat. For example, if a door shuts abruptly in a dark, secluded castle, a sinister tone is created. Similarly, if a character says that they will get their revenge on someone, their tone can be described as sinister.

An author can take many different tones in their writing. For example, their writing might have a serious critical tone, as in William Blake's poem 'London' (1792), which describes that city with images of death and decay. Or an author might take an ironic, satirical tone, as in Jonathan Swift's 'A Modest Proposal' (1729), which ironically suggests that the poor should consider eating children if they are starving.

Final Tone Quiz

Question

How can we broadly define tone?

Show answer

Answer

The attitudes expressed by a speaker, a scene, or a piece of writing towards its subject and the listener.

Show question

Question

What is tone in literature?

Show answer

Answer

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.

Show question

Question

Tone reveals a text's attitude towards...

Show answer

Answer

  • the subject of the text
  • the characters of the text
  • the reader

Show question

Question

The question of a text's attitude toward its subject is a question of...

Show answer

Answer

...ethics, that is, the stance that the text or author takes on a certain topic.

Show question

Question

Tone reveals something about the kind of relationship that the text wants to establish between...

Show answer

Answer

...itself, its characters, and the reader.

Show question

Question

What are some possible features of an impersonal tone?

Show answer

Answer

  • formal style
  • straightforward, factual language
  • third-person narration

Show question

Question

What is a personal tone?

Show answer

Answer

  • a tone that implies or seeks to establish a close relationship with the reader

Show question

Question

What is the difference between tone and mood?

Show answer

Answer

Tone is the cause, mood is the effect. Tone is the attitude expressed by a speech, mood is the emotional quality evoked by a speech.

Show question

Question

What are some examples of literary elements and devices that can influence tone?

Show answer

Answer

  • what the text focuses on and what it ignores
  • style
  • setting
  • irony
  • word choice
  • connotations
  • sentence structure and length
  • figurative language
  • dialect
  • context
  • narrative and plot structure.

Show question

Question

In poetry, what is an important aspect of tone?

Show answer

Answer

The sounds and musical qualities of words.

Show question

Question

What is an example of a poem with a serious and critical tone?

Show answer

Answer

William Blake's poem 'London' (1792).

Show question

Question

What is a satirical tone?

Show answer

Answer

  • A critical and mocking attitude.
  • Satire is a mode of writing that aims to ridicule, expose and critique flawed traits, behaviours and actions.

Show question

Question

Sometimes, authors do something in their texts that make it difficult to tell what their attitude towards the subject and the reader is. What is this?

Show answer

Answer

Since the Modernist literary movement, many authors try to hide their own views and attitudes about their subject, and their characters and let the writing speak for itself. this can make it difficult to identify a text's tone.

Show question

Question

What is the purpose of tone?

Show answer

Answer

  • to communicate a text's purpose and meaning
  • to create a tone that suits the message they are trying to convey
  • to establish control over.

Show question

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