Tone gives shape and life to literature, because it is through tone that the attitude and mood of a work are created and presented. Tone gives voice to the characters, both literally and figuratively. Through tone, the reader is able to learn about a character's personality and disposition. However, the tone also shapes the work as a whole, and whether the piece should be read as a serious, funny, dramatic or upsetting.
Tone examples are present everywhere in media and in real life. However, the term "tone" is most frequently associated with literature.
Tone in Catcher in the Rye
One of the most well known characters in all of literature, Holden Caulfield, has an undeniable tone in Catcher in the Rye. He is sarcastic, tough, and inquisitive. He also makes poignant observations through his rather biting tone. Some quotations from Holden are as follows:
- "Goddamn money. It always ends up making you blue as hell."
- "Catholics are always trying to find out if you're Catholic."
- "If a girl looks swell when she meets you, who gives a damn if she's late? Nobody."
- "People never believe you."
- "All morons hate it when you call them a moron."
Studying Holden certainly gives a large amount of insight into tone. Holden tends to speak sarcastically; however, he is making satirical statements about the nature of life. That is exactly what J.D. Salinger's purpose was. He wanted to write a coming of age narrative about a boy navigating through life alone and observing and criticizing the world around him. Through the establishment of Holden's tone, Salinger does just that.
Other Examples of Tone in Literature
Every single piece of literature ever written has a tone, and it would be impossible for anything to claim to be literature if it did not have a tone. The following are only a smattering of examples of the wide uses of tone in literature.
- "Atticus was feeble: he was nearly fifty." -To Kill a Mockingbird: This example shows the naivete of the young narrator, Scout, because she thinks that 50 is extremely old. Again, a coming of age narrative is established.
- "Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world." -Frankenstein: Victor speaks these words at the very beginning of the novel, setting an ominous mood for the rest of the tale.
- "The course of true love never did run smooth." - A Midsummer Night's Dream: In a different context, this quotation could be full of woe and misery. However, although Lysander is making comments about troubles with love, ultimately the reality is that the words are spoken by a comic character highlighting that the play is sure to be full of perplexing yet light trials of love
- "Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then; but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived." - Frankenstein by Mary Shelly- The words hideous, wretch, and ugly all set a frightening tone that suggests possible horror or fear.
- "There was a steaming mist in all the hollows, and it had roamed in its forlornness up the hill, like an evil spirit, seeking rest and finding none. A clammy and intensely cold mist, it made its slow way through the air in ripples that visibly followed and overspread one another, as the waves of an unwholesome sea might do. It was dense enough to shut out everything from the light of the coach-lamps but these its own workings, and a few yards of road; and the reek of the labouring horses steamed into it, as if they had made it all. - A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Words like steaming mist, and forlornness indicate a sense of mystery and foreboding.
- Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world - The Second Coming by Yeats. Even in this one line, the words anarchy loosed upon the world create a sense of fear and foreboding.
- "Here's much to do with hate, but more with love," - Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. Set at the beginning of the play, this sentence indicates that the story will be a love story but it will be one with a somber or sad note, rather than a happy ending.
Tone in Poetry
Citing one brief example from Robert Frost's famous "The Road Not Taken" sums up a great deal of information not only about the poem, but also about the effect of tone in general. Let's look at the last stanza:
"I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence:/Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,/I took the one less traveled by,/And that has made all the difference."
To an extent, reading literature is a subjective process because different pieces of writing can be interpreted in different ways by the reader. In this example, Frost is commonly interpreted as looking back on his experience with joy. That is true, if he were to speak those lines cheerfully. However, imagine that he actually sighs when he says "sigh" and he appears sullen when he says "And that has made all the difference." The entire meaning of the poem is changed, and Frost is, indeed, not thrilled with the coice he made in the past.
What Is Tone
Perhaps the best way to begin to describe tone is through every day examples that everyone is comfortable with. Everyone is familiar with the stressed out mother yelling "Don't you use that tone of voice with me!" to her disobedient, sarcastic, or fresh son or daughter.
The way in which someone voices a statement is exactly the definition of tone.
- If the mother asked "What are your plans for today?" the child could have responded "I'm going to the store."
- If the child said "I'm going to the store" in a simple, matter of fact way, he or she would not have elicited a scolding response from the mother.
- However, if the child responded with a whiney "I'm going to the store!" because he or she could simply not be bothered with answering the mother's question, then the entire meaning of the situation changes.
See how tone is a major manipulator of meaning? How someone says something entirely changes the situation. Therefore, authors use tone to create the type of mood that they want for their piece of literature.
Effect of Tone
The aforementioned tone examples are in no way comprehensive, because everything always has a tone. Furthermore, as can be seen, particularly by the Frost example, tone is not always easy to decipher. Sometimes different individuals will have varying opinions about what exactly the tone is supposed to be.
Important to remember though, is that in any case, tone absolutely affects the mood of the piece. Mood and tone are two separate qualities and their differences must be known by anyone studying literature; however, they are intrinisically linked because of the effects that they have on one another.
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