What Is Tone?

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Tone is the attitude an author has toward his or her narrative, its characters, and the situation. It plays an important role in helping the reader understand how to feel about a work of literature. The way tone works in literature, in fact, is akin to the way a musical score works in a film. Music helps you to decide whether a scene is frightening, humorous, or somber. That is exactly what tone does for a literary work.

Moreover, tone fulfills an essential interpretative function. If a first person narrator remains lighthearted even after the death of a loved one, that gives the reader important information about the character. Tone can also help reveal narrative themes or suggest the approach of a climactic scene. A shifting tone may reflect an underlying realization on the part of the main character as well.

How Do You Identify Tone in Writing?

When someone speaks to you, it’s pretty easy to understand their tone. Sarcasm, anger, joy, confusion, and irritation are all distinct. While it’s harder to discern written tone (which is why many people don’t like to have serious conversions via email), it can definitely be done. Diction, imagery, and narrative point of view all help to reveal the tone of a work.

One of the main ways an author conveys tone is through setting. In “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Poe creates an oppressive, claustrophobic tone by having his narrator glance down into a tarn and see the gothic mansion reflects in its depth. Before the narrator even steps inside, the reader already feels stifled and trapped.

Examples of Tone

Tone Example 1. “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun.”

Ernest Hemingway’s neutral tone is the perfect accompaniment to his reportorial style.

Tone Example 2. The tone in The Diary of Anne Frank is cheerful and optimistic, a chilling contrast to the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany.

Tone Example 3. In Ray Carver’s story “Cathedral,” the unnamed narrator has a bitter, grudging tone that mocks his wife and her friend, a blind man. The narrator’s tone softens as the story progresses, however, and he becomes aware of his emotional limitations.

Tone Example 4. The tone in Katherine Mansfield’s “The Garden-Party” is self-satisfied and light but deepens as the main character, Laura, realizes that the world outside her privileged social class is full of hardship.

Tone Example 5. “When Gregor Samsa awoke in his bed one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into an enormous insect.”

The dry, bureaucratic tone that resonates throughout “The Metamorphosis” is set in this first, famous line and helps to capture the absurdity of Gregor’s situation in a way that more emotional language would not.