Preview Quiz 3

As a preview to what will be discussed in Part Two, try to answer this question:

What might be another name for the tone or atmosphere of a passage?

  1. betting
  2. Mood
  3. Climax

Begin reading Part Two to learn more about tone and how it is revealed.

The purpose of this section is to develop the information you have learned in Part One. Specifically, we will discuss how tone is revealed in literature; how tone adds meaning to ideas; and how you, the reader, can analyze tone in everything you read.

Tone and Atmosphere

In short stories, novels, and plays, tone is called atmosphere. It is the general feeling or "mood" which a passage develops. Like tone, it appeals to the reader's imagination and to his emotions and may be described in words like cheerful, gloomy, frightening, exciting, eerie, stuffy, cold, and so on.

Atmosphere may be developed directly through description: "A fierce August sun beat down on the travelers as they staggered across the desert. It was hotter than any of them could ever remember." Atmosphere may be created also by a character's own words. The opening paragraph from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" provides a good example:

True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?

From the way the narrator presents his case against madness, we know that he is mad. He establishes an uncomfortable atmosphere of nervousness and madness.

Tone and Emotions

In literature tone and atmosphere are seen most clearly in the author's artistic handling of words. A writer carefully selects his words to stir the reader's emotions and imagination. He wants the reader to feel love, hate, joy, sorrow, and so on. He may suggest these emotions indirectly through carefully written expressions, or he may use key words like "love," "hate," "joy," "sorrow" to state the emotions directly.

The opening sentence of a paragraph often helps to reveal tone and atmosphere. Usually the tone suggested in the opening sentence is intensified as the writing continues. The following example from a short story entitled "The Garden Party" illustrates this idea.

The weather was ideal. They could not have had a more perfect day for a garden-party if they had ordered it. It was windless and warm, the sky without a cloud. Only the blue was vented with a haze of light gold, as it is sometimes in early summer.

Preview Quiz 4

As a preview to what will be discussed next, try to answer this question:

In the paragraph above, how could the atmosphere be described?

  1. Dark and gloomy
  2. Chilly and mysterious
  3. Peaceful and serene

Continue reading to discover the correct answer.

Notice that the atmosphere of the story is established in these opening sentences. Even the first sentence by itself establishes a peaceful, serene atmosphere.

Tone and Structure

The structure and flow of sentences help to reveal tone and atmosphere. Tone is seen in the length of sentences. Short, choppy sentences create a sense of action, excitement, and sometimes suspense. Long, flowing sentences, on the other hand, suggest slow movement, peacefulness, and contentment.

The following paragraph from The Yearling shows how short choppy sentences can create fast action and suspense. Jody, the boy, has gone hunting with his father, Penny. Their two hunting dogs, Old Julia and Rip, are with them.

A clear space opened at the creek's bank. Jody saw a vast black shapeless form break through. Penny halted and lifted his gun. On the instant, a small brown missile hurled itself at the shaggy head. Old Julia had caught up with her enemy. She leaped and retreated, and in the moment of retreat, was at him again. Rip darted in beside her. Slewfoot wheeled and slashed at him. Julia flashed at his flanks. Penny held his fire. Me could not shoot ....

Compare the paragraph from The Yearling with the following description. Notice how longer sentences create a slow-moving, dreary, wet atmosphere.

It was a warm, wet, windless afternoon. A soft, feathery drizzle floated in the greyness until it dampened and eventually soaked through everything it touched. The rushes in the sea-marsh were bowed down with it. The small, black cattle looked cobwebbed with it. How stumpy too these cattle looked, the whole herd sunk nearly to their knees in a soft patch. And far in the distance the once-solid Welsh hills were but a long low line of shadowy vapors.

Tone and Subject Matter

The way an author reveals tone is also seen in his choice of topic. Some topics seem to adapt more naturally into certain tones than others do. For example, the subject of man and his many weaknesses can be treated with humor or with sarcasm. The problems which mankind must solve can be treated seriously, humorously, or critically. Topics involving politics, religion, and education may be handled any number of ways.

Tone and Purpose

The author's purpose for writing influences tone. If the author's purpose is to amuse the reader, he writes with a humorous tone. If he wants to inform the reader, he presents his ideas seriously and factually. If he wants the reader to be sympathetic, he may develop an emotional or sentimental tone.

Preview Quiz 5

As a preview to what will be discussed next, try to answer this question:

The tone of a passage can also be revealed through the author's

  1. attitude toward his subject
  2. past literary experience
  3. impersonal and objective style of writing

Continue reading to discover the correct answer.

Tone and Attitude

In Part One we talked about the author's attitude as part of the definition of tone. At this point we need to explore this idea further.

Much of what every writer tries to communicate in his writings is his attitude toward his subject and his attitude toward his audience. These attitudes are most obvious in poetry, but they are also apparent in short stories, novels, plays, and articles. Attitudes are important because they add meaning to the author's ideas. Most writers express personal attitudes to arouse and maintain reader interest and to inject a personal touch.

A subject which is serious, like tragedy or death, is normally written in a serious tone. Ordinarily, death is too painful and grave a topic to be treated lightly. Joking is usually out of place. This is not to say, however, that humor is not possible with serious topics. In fact, there are many examples in literature of injury and death being treated humorously. One of Shakespeare's characters in Romeo and Juliet makes a joke about his death-wound. He says that it is not as deep as a well nor as wide as a church door, but it is enough to serve its purpose. Shakespeare felt that a person may joke about his own misfortune but not about another man's misery. In literature as in real life, humor acts as an escape from tense situations.

The writer's attitude toward his audience helps to establish tone because the writer understands his reading public. For example, if a writer were discussing the relations between China and America, the tone of his writing would have to appeal to his readers. Their age, interests, intelligence, education, habits, and prejudices would have to be considered.

A writer must also try to predict his reader's reaction to his views. If he expects that his reader will disagree with him, he must create a tone which will work against opposition. If he expects his reader to agree with him. he might write with less persuasion. He might use any number of approaches, and each approach would require a different tone. An article on American-Chinese relations appearing in a highly technical magazine would sound very different from the same article rewritten for Reader's Digest. The tone of articles in widely read magazines like Reader's Digest is less formal than it is in magazines which are written for a smaller audience.

Advertisements present an example of the way in which a writer's attitude toward his audience helps to establish tone. The advertiser has one thing in mind: selling his product. To do this, he must catch and hold his reader's interest. Here tone is very important. Ads may be written in a friendly tone, a persuasive tone, an intimate tone, or in a flattering tone.

Preview Quiz 6

As a preview to what will be discussed next, try to answer this question:

Which one of these books might be written expressively, with many tonal passages?

  1. The Scientific Quarterly
  2. Tales of Mystery and Imagination
  3. Good Housekeeping Guide to Antique Furniture

Continue reading to conclude this lesson on tone.

The advertisement may even be a combination of tones. For example, by flattering the reader on his good judgment, good taste, and intelligence, the advertiser forms a friendly bond between himself and the reader. In the end, he persuades the reader to buy his product.

Tone is an important guide to meaning. Tone helps ideas come to life. Tone allows the writer's personality to emerge. Writing that is without tone is often poor writing. And the reader who fails to understand tone misses a large part of the message.

In summary, the reader should

1. Study descriptive passages and lines spoken by characters which describe a situation.

2. Notice words which refer to feelings, attitudes, and points of view.

3. Study the opening sentence of each paragraph.

4. Notice the length of sentences.

5. Notice how the author treats his topic.

6. Decide on the author's purpose for writing.

7. Discover the author's attitude toward his topic.

8. Understand the author's attitude toward his readers.

Good writing, like good music, is carefully composed with each word, like each musical note, contributing to the sound of the whole composition. A skillful reader is alert for the many clues which signal a particular tone.

These explanations and examples were designed to lead you through the steps involved in understanding tone and atmosphere in reading. Having read and thought about this information, you should now have a clearer understanding of the subject. Try to apply this knowledge to the sample exercise in Part Three. Put your new understanding of tone and atmosphere to work in everything you read.