Definition of Mood

As a literary device, mood is the emotional feeling or atmosphere that a work of literature produces in a reader. All works of literature produce some sort of emotional and psychological effect in the audience; though every reader may respond differently to the same work of literature there is often a similar type of mood produced. For example, in a thriller most readers will feel some sort of suspense, while dramatic novels may produce a sense of sentimentality. Authors use many different factors to create mood, including setting, theme, voice, and tone.

Difference Between Mood and Tone

Though mood and tone are related and often confused, they are very different literary devices. Tone refers to the author’s attitude toward the work, while the definition of mood is that it is the emotions provoked in the reader. Thus, the difference can be understood in this way: tone is how the author feels, while mood is how the reader feels.

Common Examples of Mood

There are many different things that affect our emotions on a daily basis. Politicians use their speeches to create a certain feeling in the audience, including everything from hope to anger. Politicians try to provoke these feelings to advance their own agendas, win votes, sway opinions, and so forth. Advertisers also try to produce certain emotions such as nostalgia or fear to influence customers to buy their products. Here are examples of mood in these two cases:

Political speeches

In his presidency, Barack Obama has given speeches to arouse many different types of moods. In this first example, he is trying to make his listeners feel hopeful and united:

The pundits, the pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into red states and blue states; red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too. We worship an “awesome God” in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states. We coach Little League in the blue states and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America.

In the following example, President Obama had just released his official birth certificate and was trying to make Americans feel annoyed and frustrated that he had to address this issue instead of more pressing matters:

I know that there’s going to be a segment of people for which, no matter what we put out, this issue will not be put to rest.  But I’m speaking to the vast majority of the American people, as well as to the press.  We do not have time for this kind of silliness.  We’ve got better stuff to do.  I’ve got better stuff to do.  We’ve got big problems to solve.  And I’m confident we can solve them, but we’re going to have to focus on them — not on this.


Many advertisements, such as the following one from Listerine in the 1950s, try to inspire fear in the consumer so they will think they need a certain product so as not to fail:

Jane has a pretty face. Men notice her lovely figure but never linger long. Because Jane has one big minus on her report card – halitosis: bad breath.

Other advertisements try to make customers think about how much happier they will be when they have the product. Here are some examples of this strategy:

  • Disneyland: The happiest place on earth.
  • Coca Cola: Open happiness.
  • McDonald’s: I’m lovin’ it.
  • Holiday Inn: Pleasing people the world over.
  • KFC: Finger lickin’ good.

Significance of Mood in Literature

Much of literature’s power rests in its ability to provoke and inspire different emotions and psychological states in the reader. Readers often appreciate literature more when the emotional and psychological payoff is greater. For example, if a character is killed off in the first few pages the reader won’t feel much emotion. However, if the book establishes good characterization and the reader feels a connection to a particular character, the reader will be much more affected emotionally if the character dies later in the book.

All literature creates some sort of feeling in the reader, whether it is positive, negative, or neutral. Even indifference is an example of mood. The mood that a work provokes often changes many times throughout the book.

Examples of Mood in Literature

Example #1

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to Time thou grow’st.    
So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,    
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

(“Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare’s famous “Sonnet 18” is a poem that provokes a feeling of love and sentimentality in most readers. Shakespeare does this by describing his feelings of eternal passion for his beloved.

Example #2

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea—
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

(“Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allen Poe)

Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “Annabel Lee” tells a tragic story of love and loss. The mood that this poem provokes in the reader is generally one of sadness and nostalgia. Poe inspires this mood by establishing a somber psychological setting and showing the art of the relationship up to Annabel Lee’s death.

Example #3

They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
“And what difference does that make?”

(Catch-22 by Joseph Heller)

Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 is famous for its absurd situations. In this piece of dialogue, the protagonist Yossarian explains that he’s upset about being targeted. The character of Clevinger thinks he’s paranoid, but Yossarian shows the logic behind his fear. This exchange provokes a feeling of bemusement in the reader.

Example #4

He rolled in his bed, twisting the sheets, grappling with a problem years too big for him, awake in the night like a single sentinel on picket. And sometime after midnight, he slept, too, and then only the wind was awake, prying at the hotel and hooting in its gables under the bright gimlet gaze of the stars.

(The Shining by Stephen King)

Stephen King’s The Shining is a novel that creates a lot of suspense in the reader. This particular mood example creates tension by describing both the feelings of the character and the outside setting.

Test Your Knowledge of Mood

1. What is the correct mood definition?
A. The author’s attitude toward the subject of the book.
B. The emotions that the work of literature provokes in the reader.
C. The way the characters in the book feel about their situation.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. What is the best word for the mood that the following passage from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet might inspire in a reader?

JULIET: What’s here? A cup, closed in my true love’s hand?
Poison, I see, hath been his timeless end.—
O churl, drunk all, and left no friendly drop
To help me after? I will kiss thy lips.
Haply some poison yet doth hang on them,
To make me die with a restorative.

A. Anger
B. Excitement
C. Sadness
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: C is the correct answer, as this quote comes from when Juliet discovers that Romeo has died.[/spoiler]

3. Consider the following excerpt from Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven”:

 Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December;
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.

What is the best word for the mood that this passage inspires?
A. Somber
B. Jubilant
C. Peaceful
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]