Tone

Definition of Tone

Tone is a literary device that reflects the writer’s attitude toward the subject matter or audience of a literary work. By conveying this attitude through tone, the writer creates a particular relationship with the reader that, in turn, influences the intention and meaning of the written words. However, though the writer’s tone may reflect their personal attitude or opinion, this literary device may also strictly apply to conveying the attitudes and feelings of a certain character or narrator. Therefore, it’s essential for readers to look closely at the literary choices made by the writer so as not to unfairly assign a tone to them and to interpret tone judiciously.

Writers use several techniques to convey tone, including word choice, figurative language, punctuation, and even sentence structure. This helps to establish a narrative voice, so that the reader not only understands the words as they are presented in a work but also their meanings, as intended by the writer, character, or narrator. A defined tone allows readers to connect with the writer and/or their narrators and characters.

For example, in his short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Edgar Allan Poe utilizes tone as a literary device to convey the way the narrator feels about the old man and his eye.

His eye was like the eye of a vulture, the eye of one of those terrible birds that watch and wait while an animal dies, and then fall upon the dead body and pull it to pieces to eat it.

The tone of this passage reveals that the narrator fears and is distressed by the old man’s eye. This is conveyed by Poe’s use of a vulture as a figurative comparison and the violent imagery associated with the remaining wording. As a result of this defined tone in describing the old man’s eye, the reader understands the narrator’s simultaneous feelings of revulsion and fascination. This establishes the narrator’s attitude and motive for the reader, which helps to reinforce the actions and events of the story.

Common Examples of Tone Used by Writers

Just as tone of voice can express sentiment and emotion in speaking, tone can do the same in writing. Here are some common examples of tone used by writers to convey feeling:

  • nostalgic
  • regretful
  • joyful
  • envious
  • persuasive
  • dry
  • playful
  • assertive
  • pessimistic
  • petulant
  • facetious
  • inspirational
  • sympathetic
  • ironic
  • conflicted
  • fearful
  • reverent
  • nervous
  • anticipating
  • derisive

Famous Examples of Tone in Movie Lines

One of the challenges that writers face regarding tone as a literary device is how to ensure that the reader “hears” the narrative voice properly. Without the natural inflection, emphasis, etc., of the human voice, tone can be difficult to convey in writing. In contrast, movie lines allow actors to utilize tone to an extent that it sometimes overshadows the words being spoken. Here are some examples of tone in lines from famous movies:

  • “Go ahead, make my day.” Sudden Impact
  • “That is so fetch.” Mean Girls
  • “May the Force be with you.” Star Wars
  • “Just keep swimming.” Finding Nemo
  • “I still believe in heroes.” Avengers
  • “There’s no place like home.” The Wizard of Oz
  • “You can’t handle the truth!” A Few Good Men
  • “I’m the king of the world!” Titanic
  • “To infinity and beyond!” Toy Story
  • “What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?” No Country for Old Men

Difference Between Tone and Mood

As literary devices, tone and mood may seem interchangeable. Though they are similar, they are independent of each other and serve different purposes in a literary work. Tone signifies the point of view of the writer, whereas mood serves to convey the atmosphere of a written work and its overall feeling or vibe. Writers rely on figurative language and other literary devices to evoke mood in the reader, whereas dialogue and descriptors are typically used to convey tone.

Many of the words used to describe a literary work’s tone can also be used to describe mood, such as passionate, wistful, nostalgic, etc. In a narrative work, a character’s tone is conveyed to the reader through specific dialogue and descriptions of the character’s body language, facial expression, and so on. Mood, however, does not always align with the tone expressed by a writer, narrator, or character. For example, a writer may set a mournful mood through a work’s genre, setting, context clues, and plot details; yet, certain characters may be unaware of the sad circumstances and their dialogue may reflect a completely different tone.

Examples of Tone in Literature

As a literary device, tone is an important aspect of the narrative voice of a literary work. This allows the writer to inform the reader and communicate attitudes and feelings that might otherwise be limited in conveying with just words. Here are some examples of tone in literature:

Example 1: A Modest Proposal (Jonathan Swift)

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.

Swift’s “proposal” that poverty in early 18th century Ireland could be mitigated by butchering the children of poor Irish families and selling them as food to wealthy English citizens is intended as satire, and the narrator’s tone reflects this. Swift presents his satire as an economic treatise with the appearance of formal, distant, and systematic tone. However, the underlying tone of Swift’s writing reflects that of disillusionment, irony, and even provocation toward the reader.

In this literary work, the emotionally distant and acerbic wording of Swift serves to enhance the writer’s intense criticism regarding the legal and economic exploitation of Ireland by England. In this way, Swift’s “proposal” is meant to evoke strong emotion among readers and thereby invoke a call to action as a result. As a literary device, tone is effective in this work in its impact on the reader of shock and discomfort as a means of bringing about societal awareness and change.

Example 2: The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)

We are travelers on a cosmic journey, stardust, swirling and dancing in the eddies and whirlpools of infinity. Life is eternal. We have stopped for a moment to encounter each other, to meet, to love, to share. This is a precious moment. It is a little parenthesis in eternity.

In this passage from The Alchemist, Coelho utilizes descriptive and figurative language to establish a tone of wonder and awe at the metaphysical relationships in the universe. By asserting to the reader that “we” are metaphorical travelers that are all part of the infinite cosmos, Coelho is able to convey the connection humans have to all that has existed and all that will exist. This allows the reader to feel connections with the writer’s words, their meanings, and the universe itself through the literary work. In addition, the inclusion of the image that human interaction is a momentary and temporary encounter “to meet, to love, to share” implies that people’s lives are brief and precious against the scope of the universe and a parenthetical interruption of a larger narrative. This calls for the reader to reflect on how they choose to impact, even briefly, the people and world around them.

Writers often find it challenging to express universal meaning in a literary work with denotative and connotative wording. In this passage, Coelho utilizes tone as a literary device to convey a universality to human existence as it relates to time and space. This is appealing to the reader in the sense that it conveys belonging and connection to all things while also acknowledging the existence and importance of the individual at momentary points along the continuum.

Example 3: Beloved (Toni Morrison)

And in all those escapes he could not help being astonished by the beauty of this land that was not his. He hid in its breast, fingered its earth for food, clung to its banks to lap water and tried not to love it. On nights when the sky was personal, weak with the weight of its own stars, he made himself not love it. Its graveyards and its low-lying rivers. Or just a house – solitary under a chinaberry tree; maybe a mule tethered and the light hitting its hide just so. Anything could stir him and he tried hard not to love it.

In this passage of Morrison’s novel, the narrator’s description of Paul D’s conflicting feelings towards the American landscape in which he lives sets a significant tone for the reader that reflects his inner pain. Paul D is a former slave, and readers of the novel would not expect his character to feel anything but animosity towards the people and land that have enslaved him. However, as the narrator informs the reader, Paul D internally struggles to “not love” America for its beauty and, essentially, its broken promises of freedom, liberty, and equality.

By incorporating a maternal image in this passage of Paul D hiding, fingering, and clinging to America for survival, Morrison evokes in the reader the feeling that America has “birthed” Paul D and wants to care for him. However, the reason he can’t embrace and love America as a motherland is because of the hypocrisy in its treatment and rejection of him. The tone of Morrison’s words conveys Paul D’s deep conflict and struggle between his simultaneous attachment to the American landscape and what it claims to represent and resentment of the reality and hypocrisy of slavery. By using this literary device, Morrison is able to connect through the narrative voice with readers who may not be able to otherwise understand the complexity and anguish of Paul D’s feelings.