Tap to Read ➤

What Does Tone Mean in Literary Terms?

Renuka Savant May 4, 2019
Book reviews always have a word to say about the 'tone' of the prose. What does 'tone' mean in literature? Here is the answer, along with some examples.

Sense the tone!

A novel's tone is often mistaken for its mood. When in fact, it is the tone of the novel―funny, serious, sarcastic, rebellious, etc.―which influences the 'mood' the reader experiences after reading the work―happy, thoughtful, mirthful, lively, etc.
Every piece of written work, be it a novel, a nursery rhyme, an ode, an autobiography, or even a letter written to one's grandmother, has a specific tone.
The tone of a literary work is the attitude that the author harbors towards it. It is the tone of the work―be it grave, light-hearted, critical, or witty―which reveals the author's intent and emotions to the reader. It goes a long way in helping the reader understand the context.
The tone may vary from sentence to sentence, just like in the case of a regular conversation. It also differs over the course of chapters, when a story begins on a light note, but gets darker in progression; a notable pattern in suspense novels.
We can also observe the change in tone within a book series like Harry Potter, where each part went on to be more serious than the previous one, as the characters aged. Here are some examples to help you understand the concept better.

Finding the tone in non-literary instances

How every written work, from a 'somber' newspaper report to a 'peppy' Instagram caption has a tone. We make use of words to display our emotions, and therefore, whatever we express through words invariably and inadvertently manages to capture our mood.

Read these SMS messages

❝Where are you? Call me ASAP.❞

In this instance, one can actually sense the desperation of the sender. This is also accompanied by a bit of irritation, or perhaps even anger for not knowing the whereabouts of the person it's sent to.
❝Thanks for the lovely evening. Call me when you get home.❞

In this case, it is very easy to feel the genuine warmth from the sender, along with a sense of gratitude, of course. The politeness in the tone also makes it rather charming.

Notice the tone of regret and despair in this official notice:

❝It is with great regret that we have to inform you about the cancellation of the annual cattle fair. The difficult decision was taken following the sudden outbreak of the mad cow disease.❞

Or the crisp tone of this announcement:

Mr. B.T. Cumberbatch and Miss S.I. Hunter:
❝The engagement is announced between Benedict, son of Wanda and Timothy Cumberbatch of London, and Sophie, daughter of Katharine Hunter of Edinburgh and Charles Hunter of London.❞
British heartthrob Benedict Cumberbatch took the slightly unconventional route by announcing his engagement through a classified advert in The Times. Its tone remains noticeably British―rather curt, and completely devoid of Hollywood-esque shenanigans.

Examples from Literature

On account of their volume, a work of literature has varied tones―one may experience different tones in each chapter or verse, or consider the overall tone of the entire novel, play, or poem. Here are a few examples.

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird

Seen through the eyes of six-year-old Scout Finch, the story has an undeniable tone of childlike innocence despite the grim theme dealing with racial injustice and rape. Scout's father, Atticus Finch, is the righteous protagonist in the novel, who sets an example for his children by retaining his morals and integrity as a lawyer.

Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451

Ray Bradbury addresses the heinous act of book burning, and thereby, the restriction of free speech and education, in this novel. While reading it, one can feel a sense of shock and outrage at the prophetic views presented in the book. Now, it's been over 60 years since the novel's publication, and its eerily-true predictions never fail to give the chills.

William Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Macbeth

The dark and devious tone of this riveting tragedy never escapes the readers. The play is centered on the lofty ambitions of Macbeth, the King of Scotland, and that of his wife, Lady Macbeth. This tragedy revolves around the disturbing consequences of choosing evil ways to fulfill one's desires.

Arthur Miller's The Crucible

Partly inspired from the Salem witch trials of 1692-93, noted playwright Arthur Miller based this play on events of the McCarthy era, when thousands of Americans were accused of being communist sympathizers, and were subject to relentless and intrusive investigations by government agencies.
Keeping with the serious theme of the drama, the tone remains paced and outrageous, aimed specifically to incite the audience into thinking about the rampant injustice in a supposedly-free nation.

Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter

This tragic romance deals with adultery, focusing on the extreme legalism of the Puritans. The tone of the novel is somber throughout, making the reader sympathize with the extreme plight of its protagonist, Hester Prynne.

William Golding's Lord of the Flies

Another dystopian novel, its plot is centered on a group of youngsters marooned on a remote island, trying to establish order among themselves. The consequences are disastrous, since they all resort to underhand techniques in a bid to outdo each other. The tone of the novel, expectedly, is rather grim and foreboding.
It is easy to note how the writer makes excellent use of the tone in order to place the reader in the right frame of mind, and thereby become more involved in the story. It also helps the reader in getting better insights into the more subtle nuances of the characters and the plot.