"What is Tone in Literature?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

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What is Tone in Literature? Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in Video, Click HERE for Spanish Transcript)

By Raymond Malewitz, Oregon State University Associate Professor of American Literatures

26 September 2022

Imagine you’re trying to make plans with a friend.  You send them a text asking them if they want to go see the new Marvel movie that’s playing at the local theater.  Now imagine you receive the following text message back.  “What a great idea!” No trouble interpreting that response, right? Your friend is interested! Time to kick back with some popcorn and some good old fashioned cartoon violence.

But what if there were an emoji attached to the text message?  Like this one   ?  Suddenly your plan doesn’t sound so great. Maybe opt for an indie movie…

Or what about this one?    It….could be great?  Or what about this one   ?  Oooookay, your friend is clearly not a Marvel fan.

What these emojis are doing is changing the tone of the text message. The tone is the attitude that your friend is taking towards the proposal, and that attitude is signaled by BOTH the words themselves and by the emoji.  Indeed, one of the reasons emojis are so popular is because they help to clarify the tone of a message.

In face-to-face encounters, we don’t need emojis, because these same attitudes are often signaled by the way the message is conveyed through body language and tone of voice.  What a great idea! [happy] What a great idea! [rolls eyes]

What all of these examples suggest is that messages are always shaped by the contexts that surround them.  And this is what makes tone such a wonderful and, at times, maddening subject for you to consider in your literature classes.

In literature, tone is, simply put, the attitude that a character or narrator or author takes towards a given subject. But there are a couple reasons why spotting tone in literature is a little tougher than in these real-world scenarios.  In this brief lesson, I want to sketch out two reasons why spotting tone can be tricky in reading literature and then offer some suggestions for how to overcome these challenges.

First to the obvious reason: most literature does not include emojis and when we read, we can’t see the body language of a novel’s characters or hear the intonations of a poem’s speaker. In other words, we can’t use sight or sound cues to determine tone in the way we normally do in face-to-face encounters. 

So how do we compensate for these absences? There are a variety of ways to do so, but the first thing that good readers often consider is diction or word choice.  Let me give you an example, taken from Claude McKay’s sonnet “The Harlem Dancer.” The poem’s subject is the jazz singer referenced in the title.  As I read it, see if you can spot the tone that the speaker takes towards the singer based upon the figurative language that he employs.  Here’s how it goes:

Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day.
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck black shiny curls
Luxuriant fell; and tossing coins in praise,
The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,
Devoured her shape with eager, passionate gaze;
But looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.

There is, obviously, a lot going on here, but let’s focus just on how the speaker sees her.  He imagines her voice as sounding like “blended flutes”—a beautiful simile that ennobles the singer.  This reverential tone is reinforced by the extended metaphor of the singer seeming to be a “proudly-swaying palm / Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.”  In both instances, the speaker is calling attention to the form of her art—her beautiful dancing and singing in the midst of a metaphorical storm. 

This tone stands in stark contrast with how the other members of the audience see this singer, and this attitude might be thought of as the storm that she faces. As the speaker suggests, these young men and women are interested less in her art than in the shape of her body, which they watch and “devour” and “laugh” at. They are, in a sense, admiring her, but for very different and far less noble reasons. When he recognizes this tonal difference, the speaker’s attitude towards the singer changes from admiration to sympathy in the final two lines of the poem.

This change illustrates the other reason why spotting tone can be difficult when reading literature. People’s attitudes towards a subject are rarely simple things—in literature or in life. 

The best works of literature—and in particular a TON of lyric poetry—can often be understood as attempts to represent in textual form these complicated attitudes that we all feel but rarely express or dwell upon. 

Let me give you one final example. Another one of my favorite poets is Elizabeth Bishop, and she wrote a poem called “Questions of Travel,” which was inspired by her relocation from the United States to Brazil in the mid-1950s. The poem begins with her speaker looking out over the new Brazilian landscape.  Here’s how she puts it:

There are too many waterfalls here; the crowded streams
hurry too rapidly down to the sea,
and the pressure of so many clouds on the mountaintops
makes them spill over the sides in soft slow-motion,
turning to waterfalls under our very eyes.

What is the tone here?  Well, because she says there are “too many waterfalls” here, we can infer that this speaker is uncomfortable with the natural landscapes of Brazil and feels overwhelmed by the experience.  We might also infer that this tone is governed by her experiences back in the United States and her need to have the world beyond her familiar setting resemble her comfortable world back home. 

OK, finally a simple tone! But wait. Later in the poem, the same speaker has a change of heart:

But surely it would have been a pity
not to have seen the trees along this road,
really exaggerated in their beauty,
not to have seen them gesturing
like noble pantomimists, robed in pink.

What the speaker seems to be grappling with in these strange descriptions is the question of exactly what tone she should take towards traveling.  But like McKay’s poem, Bishop’s isn’t calling for us to settle upon one stable, clear, simple attitude. Instead, it is asking us to dwell upon the complexity of tone without giving us any easy answers.

So what does this mean for your own essays and in-class discussions? Well, while you read a poem or a short story, I encourage you to look not only for a singular tone—the attitude that a character or narrator takes towards a given subject—but also to ask if that tone really is as simple as it seems or whether the tone changes or is modified as we get more context, as we think about it further, and as the story or poem continues. 

Paying attention to the complexity of tone will not only help us to write strong essays.  It can also bring us closer to the complicated ways that we think and speak about the world and people around us. If you have any other examples of these kinds of complicated tones, I hope you’ll share them with me in the comments section in the video.  Happy reading everybody!

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Malewitz, Raymond. "What is Tone in Literature?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 26 Sept. 2022, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-tone-literature-definition-and-examples. Accessed [insert date].

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The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms