Definition of Tone

In literature, tone is the attitude or approach that the author takes toward the work’s central theme or subject. Works of literature can have many different types of tone, such as humorous, solemn, distant, intimate, ironic, arrogant, condescending, sentimental, and so on. Any emotion that humans can feel can be an example of tone in literature.

All works of literature have a tone. Authors use elements such as syntax, diction, imagery, details, and figurative language to create tone. Authors must use words to convey emotions and feelings, and the choice of these words constitutes the tone the author has toward the work’s main subject.

Works of literature are not limited to having only one tone. Tone may shift throughout a work as the narrator’s perspective changes, or as the plot becomes more complex, dramatic, bizarre, etc. There also may be more than one tone that an author takes toward a work at the same time. For example, a novel can be both humorous and dark, or both sentimental and formal.

Difference Between Tone and Mood

Tone and mood are very often confused. While definition of tone is the attitude the author has toward the work, the mood consists of the feelings the work produces in an audience or reader. Authors use tone as well as setting, theme, and voice to produce a certain mood. In cinema directors can add the use of music, editing, and images to help create mood. For example, horror movies almost always include suspenseful and anxiety-producing music. If, instead, bright jazz music were playing while a character is in danger, the audience would not feel the mood of suspense.

Common Examples of Tone

When we tell stories from everyday life to others, we always do so with some sort of attitude toward the story. For example, if someone had gotten flowers from a potential suitor and was retelling this to a friend, that person would tell very different stories depending on his or her feelings toward the suitor. If he/she were interested in the suitor, the story would be told with excitement and optimism. If he/she were not interested, the story would be told with eye rolls and perhaps irritation or embarrassment. Consider these opposite tones when dealing with the same type of situation:

  • “I’m so glad that jerk was fired; now I won’t have to deal with him anymore.” Vs. “It’s terrible that Tony was let go; he was such a great colleague!”
  • “The movie was amazing! I was laughing so hard I cried!” Vs. “You can only watch infantile humor for so long before you want to punch yourself in the face.”
  • “The principal just called to say that our son was in a fight. I can’t believe he would do that.” Vs. “I’m proud of Billy for sticking up for himself. That bully had it coming.”
  • “I’m so excited that he called! I’ve been hoping to hear from him.” Vs. “Why is that weirdo calling me again after all this time?”

Significance of Tone in Literature

The tone that an author uses greatly influences what kind of story he or she tells and how the audience perceives it. For example, there have been multitudes of books and movies produced about World War II. The tones used in the different pieces range quite a bit, however. Here are four works of literature set during WWII, and how their differing examples of tone lead to vastly different works:

  • Maus by Art Spiegelman: Melancholy, Anguished—Maus is a son’s story as he reflects on the horrors that his father lived through. The son struggles with the knowledge of these horrors, and thus the work is quite somber.
  • The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank: Youthful, Optimistic—In retrospect, the reader knows that things ended tragically for Anne Frank. Her diary, however, is full of hope, even as she deals with an incredibly difficult situation.
  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut: Deadpan, Spare—Kurt Vonnegut was present for the firebombing of Dresden, and relates the events of that night, as well as the rest of the book, in extremely unemotional terms. He is very matter-of-fact about the horrors of war, which allows the reader to inhabit the anger and sorrow of the destruction.
  • Catch-22 by Joseph Heller: Satirical—Similar to Slaughterhouse-Five, Catch-22 lays bare the absurdities of war. Though the tone can be humorous at times, the subject matter is very serious and this contrast creates the effect of parody.

Examples of Tone in Literature

Example #1

Having thus lost his understanding, he unluckily stumbled upon the oddest fancy that ever entered into a madman’s brain; for now he thought it convenient and necessary, as well for the increase of his own honor, as the service of the public, to turn knight-errant.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes: Ironic

In this example of tone, Cervantes calls Don Quixote “a madman” and says he has “lost his understanding.” The narrative voice clearly thinks that Don Quixote’s decision to become a knight-errant is foolish, and much of the novel pokes fun at Don Quixote’s attempts to prove his valiance. Cervantes creates an ironic distance between himself as the author and Don Quixote’s heroic quest.

Example #2

The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne: Skeptical

In this early excerpt from The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne describes a new colony that hopes to be a Utopia, yet first constructs a cemetery and a prison. These are two things that one might assume a Utopia would not need, and thus the author sets up expectations that things will not go as the citizens of the town hope.

Example #3

I couldn’t forgive [Tom] or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Disillusioned

The narrator of The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, changes tone throughout the novel. At times he is in great admiration of Jay Gatsby, while at others times he scorns the wastefulness and foolishness of the upper class. Here he calls Tom and Daisy “careless people” and clearly feels no love lost for either of them. After he passes the summer in their company his tone has changed so that he is not in admiration of their lifestyle at all anymore.

Example #4

Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Nostalgic

The narrator of To Kill a Mockingbird is a young girl, Scout, though the story is told in retrospect. The novel is a coming-of-age story where Scout begins to understand the injustices in the world. In this tone example, Scout acknowledges the things that she took from neighbor Boo Radley without having given anything back. Though she is talking about literal things here, her nostalgia about not having done enough for Boo extends to intangible things as well.

Test Your Knowledge of Tone

1. What is the difference between the tone definition and the definition of mood?

A. They are identical concepts.
B. Tone is the attitude that an author takes toward a work and mood is effects produced in the reader.
C. Tone is the way characters say things and mood is how they feel.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. What is the best word for the tone in this excerpt from The Great Gatsby?

He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor.

A. Ironic
B. Disillusioned
C. Appreciative
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: C is the best answer.[/spoiler]

3. Which one of these lines is the best example of a nostalgic tone?

A. I didn’t go to the moon, I went much further—for time is the longest distance between two places. (The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams)
B. He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.
(1984 by George Orwell)
C. Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real. (All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy)
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: Though all three quotes deal with the past and the passage of time, A is the correct answer. There is no nostalgia associated with Orwell’s or McCarthy’s quotes.[/spoiler]