English Literature


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The Significance of Tone in Literature

In any form of communication, the way something is said can be just as important as the message itself. This holds true in literature, where an understanding of the tone can greatly impact the interpretation of a text and its overall themes.

While we are all familiar with the various tones present in spoken language, such as serious or playful, calm or passionate, praising or scolding, the role of tone in literature may not be as clear. However, one way to approach this question is to view literature as a type of speech, where the tone used by the speaker towards their subject, characters, and readers can offer valuable insights.

Defining Tone in Literature

Tone is a fundamental element of literature that can significantly influence the understanding of a text. Every written work, regardless of complexity, has a tone that conveys the attitudes of the narrator, author, or the text itself towards the subject matter, characters, and intended audience.

There are two common definitions of tone in literature:

  • The attitude expressed by a speaker, scene, or writing towards its subject and listener.
  • The overall attitude expressed by the author of a text, or by the text itself, towards the subject matter, characters, and reader.

The first definition is broader and is typically used when analyzing the tone of a person in a conversation. However, it can also be applied to examine the tone of a first-person narrator in a literary work. The second definition specifically refers to the overall tone of a written text.

For example, in Chapter 7 of Jane Austen's novel Emma, the characters play a game where they must share three dull things about themselves. Emma insults Miss Bates by suggesting that she would struggle to come up with only three dull things due to her uninteresting nature. Using the first definition of tone, we can say that Emma's comment is critical and malicious. Additionally, the tone of this scene could be described as tense and awkward. However, looking at the second definition, we might say that the novel's overall tone is subtly mocking and critical.

In some cases, a single literary work may have multiple layers of tone. Just as the way we speak can reveal our feelings towards the subject, individuals, and people we are addressing, the tone used in writing can also convey attitudes towards the subject, characters, and readers.

Attitudes towards the Subject

The way a text treats its subject matter reflects its ethics or stance on a particular topic. How does the text approach and handle its themes, events, or issues?

For example, in Emma, how does Austen's novel discuss and depict the topics of marriage and society? Are these subjects portrayed with seriousness or a tone of playfulness and lightheartedness?

Attitudes towards Characters

An author's attitude towards their characters can greatly influence how they are portrayed in a literary work. Is a character presented sympathetically, or is there a tone of disdain and disapproval for their actions?

This question is also connected to the ethical standpoint of the text. Does the author endorse or reject their characters and their behavior? This can be particularly significant in texts that explore controversial subject matter.

For instance, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is a controversial novel that centers on a middle-aged man's romantic obsession with a 12-year-old girl. The book has sparked debate due to the lack of overt condemnation from the author towards the protagonist. Instead, Nabokov leaves the interpretation open to the reader.

Furthermore, it is essential to consider whether the author or the text distances themselves from the characters and their actions, refusing to take responsibility for the worldview they promote.

Attitudes towards Readers

Just as the way we speak can convey our attitude towards the person we are addressing, the tone of a literary work can reveal its attitude towards its readers. It can also provide insights into the type of relationship the text aims to establish between itself, its characters, and the audience.

The Significance of Tone in Literature

In literature, tone plays an essential role in providing valuable insight into how a text approaches and presents its subject matter, characters, and readers. It can enhance our understanding of a written work and allow us to appreciate the deeper layers of meaning within its narrative.

The Effect of Tone on the Reader

When reading a text in a formal style, narrated in the third-person with factual language, there is often a sense of distance and impersonal relationship between the author and the reader. This is akin to the tone used in government letters, which aims to maintain professionalism and detachment. In contrast, a text written in the first-person and reveals intimate details about the narrator establishes a sense of intimacy and seeks to create a personal connection with the reader.

However, it is crucial to question the author's intention in such cases. Do they want someone to confide in or to persuade the reader to adopt a particular viewpoint? Two classic novels, Jane Eyre and Lolita, published a century apart, showcase this distinction. Jane Eyre, published in 1847, tells the story in first-person, making the reader feel like a trusted friend of the lonely Jane. On the other hand, Lolita, published in 1955, uses an intimate and personal perspective through the narration of Humbert Humbert, forcing a close relationship with the reader that they may not desire. Humbert's writing is full of obscene details, adding to the discomfort and unease that the intimate tone creates. Furthermore, Humbert directly addresses the reader as "ladies and gentlemen of the jury", emphasizing his desire for the reader to understand his perspective.

The Distinction Between Tone and Mood

While discussing tone in literature, it is vital to understand the difference between tone and mood. Tone is the attitude expressed by the speaker or author towards the subject and the listener or reader, while mood is the emotional quality evoked by the speech or text. In simpler terms, tone is the cause and mood is the effect. Sometimes, the tone and mood of a text align, such as in the case of a light-hearted tone creating a relaxed and carefree mood. However, an overly-critical tone may not necessarily create a critical mood, but it can lead to an uncomfortable and tense mood.

Establishing Tone in Literature

Various elements of a literary text can impact the tone. From the focus of the story to the use of different literary techniques, everything works together to create a specific tone. Factors that can influence tone include style, setting, irony (both verbal and situational), word choice, figurative language, imagery, metaphor, symbolism, connotations, sentence structure and length, dialect, context, and narrative and plot structure. While a single element or technique may have the power to shift tone, it is usually the combination of various elements that creates the overall tone of a text.

In poetry, particular emphasis is placed on the sounds and musical qualities of words, making sound a crucial aspect in establishing tone. For instance, words with a lot of sibilance (such as "s" and "sh") tend to create a pleasant and approving tone. On the other hand, words with harsh-sounding consonants like "k" and "g" contribute to an unpleasant and critical tone.

In drama, scripts often come with instructions for the tone that should be used in a particular line or scene, further confirming the importance of tone in storytelling.

Types and Examples of Tone in Literature

When considering the tone of a text, one must determine whether it aligns with or contradicts the content of the writing. For instance, if lofty language is used to describe a trivial event, the tone created may clash with the content of the writing. There are several opposing types of tone, including formal vs. informal, intimate vs. impersonal, lighthearted vs. serious, and praising vs. critical. These are just a few examples, as there are countless adjectives that can be used to describe tone. Let's take a closer look at some of the different types of tone.

The Tone in Literature and Its Impact on Readers

Literature has long been a medium for writers to express their opinions, criticize societal issues, and evoke emotions in readers. One notable example is William Blake's poem "London" (1792), which portrays a serious and critical tone towards the gloomy city scenes and express a sense of hopelessness and misery towards the city.

Satire is also a popular technique used in literature to ridicule, expose, and critique flawed traits, behaviors, and actions. Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" (1729) is a well-known example, where he ironically suggests consuming babies to solve poverty, highlighting the absurdity of such beliefs.

Writers have also used tone to leave their text open to interpretation, particularly during the Modernist literary movement in the late 19th to mid 20th century. For instance, Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (1899) and Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" (1925) have been subject to various interpretations due to their ambiguous and open-ended tones towards characters and subjects.

Tone plays a crucial role in conveying a text's purpose and meaning. Authors carefully select the tone to suit their desired effect and control the reader's interpretation. However, when authors choose to conceal their attitudes and opinions, they invite readers to assess and interpret the text in their own way.

There are various types of tones that can be expressed in literature, such as serious, light-hearted, critical, praising, and satirical. However, many literary works have a complex and indeterminate tone, leaving readers to decipher it and come up with their own conclusions.

When examining tone in literature, it is essential to consider its formality or informality, as well as its seriousness or playfulness. These elements play a crucial role in shaping the overall tone of a text. However, it is important to note that tone is different from style, which refers to the overall manner in which a text is written.

A sinister tone, which hints at a threat, can add an element of unease and tension to a literary work, making it more intriguing for readers to decipher and analyze.

In conclusion, tone is a powerful tool that shapes a text's meaning, evokes emotions, and establishes the mood. It is essential for readers to understand the tone in order to fully comprehend a literary work and its message.

A sense of unease and dread lingers when a door suddenly shuts in a desolate and shadowy castle. In the same way, when a character makes a vow of retribution towards another, their tone can be perceived as malicious.

The Importance of Tone in Writing

Authors have the ability to utilize different tones in order to effectively convey their thoughts and ideas. For instance, a writer may adopt a solemn and disapproving tone when addressing a social issue. This is evident in William Blake's "London" (1792), where the city is portrayed as a place of death and decay.

On the other hand, an author may opt for an ironic and satirical tone to deliver their message. In Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" (1729), the writer humorously suggests that the impoverished should consider consuming infants during times of famine. This use of irony and satire serves to expose the absurdity of the situation and mock society's lack of compassion for the poor.

In literature, the tone plays a significant role in adding depth and meaning to a story. It allows writers to establish a connection with their readers and evoke emotions that have a lasting impact. So the next time you read a piece of literature, take note of the author's tone and its influence on your interpretation of the narrative.

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