Definition of Atmosphere

Atmosphere in literature is the feeling, emotion, or mood that an author creates in a narrative through descriptive language. Thus this literary device is, in a sense, the emotional atmosphere in which the action takes place, as well as the emotional atmosphere that the audience is encouraged to internalize while reading. Though the atmosphere is usually established very quickly in a work of literature, it can change throughout the text depending on the scene or stage of character development.

The word atmosphere comes from the Greek words atmos, meaning “vapor,” and sphaira, meaning “ball” or “globe.” Of course, the definition of atmosphere more commonly refers to the literal envelope of gases surrounding a planet. However, the literary understanding of atmosphere comes from the more metaphorical use of the word in which it means the ambience, aura, climate, or feeling of a place.

Common Examples of Atmosphere

Atmosphere is not just a literary term; it is also important in other works of art such as films, television, and art exhibits. Museums have certain atmospheres that they curate almost as much as the art that hangs on the wall, while movies and shows use music, lighting, and types of camera work to portray a certain atmosphere. For example, you would expect very different music to accompany the credits of a horror movie and a romantic comedy. Similarly, The Blair Witch Project was famous for using very shaky camera shots so as to produce a disquieting sense of fear in the viewer.

Orators can also set the atmosphere of a speech in certain ways so that the listener may expect a certain type of rhetoric. For example, compare the opening statements of two very different speeches that create two distinct atmospheres:

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

Martin Luther King, Jr. “I have a dream” speech, 1963

I’ve been living in Los Angeles for two years, and I’ve never been this cold in my life. I will pay anyone here $300 for GORE-TEX gloves. Anybody. I’m serious. I have the cash.
Before I begin, I must point out that behind me sits a highly admired President of the United States and decorated war hero while I, a cable television talk show host, has been chosen to stand here and impart wisdom. I pray I never witness a more damning example of what is wrong with America today.

—Conan O’Brien, Dartmouth College commencement speech, 2011

Significance of Atmosphere in Literature

Atmosphere is a very important and necessary part of any work of literature, though it is not always intentionally created on the part of the author. Many different elements contribute to atmosphere: the diction and setting that the author chooses, the descriptions of people and things, the way that characters speak to each other, and so on. The first paragraph of a play, short story, or novel, will usually establish atmosphere almost immediately; it is important for the reader to know if he or she is getting immersed into a comedy, tragedy, historical work, fantasy, or any other genre.

Examples of Atmosphere in Literature

Example #1

CHORUS: Two households, both alike in dignity
(In fair Verona, where we lay our scene),
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life,
Whose misadventured piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.
The fearful passage of their death-marked love
And the continuance of their parents’ rage,
Which, but their children’s end, naught could remove,
Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage—
The which, if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

The prologue to William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet is an excellent example of atmosphere creation. It perfectly sets up the disastrous events that will occur and makes the reader aware of the sad nature of what is to come.

Example #2

I was sick—sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me. The sentence—the dread sentence of death—was the last of distinct accentuation which reached my ears. After that, the sound of the inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum. It conveyed to my soul the idea of revolution—perhaps from its association in fancy with the burr of a mill wheel. This only for a brief period; for presently I heard no more. Yet, for a while, I saw; but with how terrible an exaggeration! I saw the lips of the black-robed judges. They appeared to me white—whiter than the sheet upon which I trace these words—and thin even to grotesqueness; thin with the intensity of their expression of firmness—of immoveable resolution—of stern contempt of human torture.

(“The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe)

Edgar Allen Poe is known for his dark and macabre stories and poems. In his short story “The Pit and the Pendulum” a man is sentenced to death during the Spanish inquisition. The first paragraph of the story, excerpted above, sets up an atmosphere of horror, especially in the final line where the black-robed judges appear whiter than a sheet and “thin even to grotesqueness.” The reader can only expect a tale of horror to ensue.

Example #3

They were raised on small, poor ranches in opposite corners of the state, Jack Twist in Lightning Flat, up on the Montana border, Ennis del Mar from around Sage, near the Utah line, both high-school drop-out country boys with no prospects, brought up to hard work and privation, both rough-mannered, rough-spoken, inured to the stoic life. Ennis, reared by his older brother and sister after their parents drove off the only curve on Dead Horse Road, leaving them twenty-four dollars in cash and a two-mortgage ranch, applied at age fourteen for a hardship license that let him make the hour-long trip from the ranch to the high school. The pickup was old, no heater, one windshield wiper, and bad tires; when the transmission went, there was no money to fix it. He had wanted to be a sophomore, felt the word carried a kind of distinction, but the truck broke down short of it, pitching him directly into ranch work.

(“Brokeback Mountain” by E. Annie Proulx)

The beautiful short story “Brokeback Mountain” by E. Annie Proulx is a stoic, Western tale of two cowboys who fall in love. E. Annie Proulx’s first paragraph is a lovely atmosphere example which shows just what kind of characters these two men are, and just what kind of desolate place they live in. This atmosphere does not hint at the love story that is to come, but instead at the way each man approaches his life and struggles.

Test Your Knowledge of Atmosphere

1. Which of the following statements is the best atmosphere definition?
A. The feeling or mood elicited by a certain text.
B. The speaker or narrator’s attitude toward a certain subject.
C. The reaction between different gases in an environment.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following statements is true?
A. Atmosphere is not found in theatrical plays.
B. Atmosphere is usually established at the very beginning of a piece of literature.
C. Atmosphere is dependent on the way a character feels about the setting.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Consider the following Harvard graduation speech opening from 2004:

Booyakasha – Professor G indahouse aiii. Big shout out de Harvard massiv I iz done a capital ‘H’, coz Harvard iz a place innit – u see I ain’t no ignoranus. Things like ‘apple’ and ‘orange’ don’t start with a capital letter, unless dey iz at de start of a sentence – but some of you brainboxes probably know dat already innit. Me name be Ali G and me represent da UK. U! K! Whateva. For those of u who didn’t study geography da UK is a place over a 100 MILES away from here, da capital of it is? Anyone? No, not u geography square! ….yes, it’s Liverpool.

Which of the following atmospheres is the speaker establishing?
A. A serious atmosphere, as befits the seriousness of the occasion.
B. A dark atmosphere wherein something terrible is going to happen.
C. A lighthearted atmosphere wherein the students can laugh.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. This speech was delivered by the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen as his alias Ali G.[/spoiler]