Tone, atmosphere and mood
Why is tone so important?
So tone means attitude. Great. But why are we even talking about tone in the first place? How is tone even relevant to analysis?
Tone is important for two reasons.
1. Tone is a technique
The tone of a text is never accidental. The writer consciously chooses how the text should sound, and because it’s a choice, tone is therefore a technique summoned by the writer at will to achieve a specific purpose. And because tone is a technique, it therefore must to be analysed in all commentaries and at least once in every point.
But wait, there’s a catch: Tone isn’t like your average technique (e.g. metaphor and simile). Tone is what I call a “meta-technique”: Tone is actually created from one or more 'normal' techniques. If normal techniques like metaphor and simile are the ingredients in a soup, then the tone is the taste of that soup, the overall flavour of the mixture; tone is the overall result of mixing together normal techniques like diction, imagery, irony, etc.
In our first Kanye example, the hopeless tone didn’t pop out of nowhere; it was born from Kanye West’s sophisticated use of ellipses—a grammatical construct that is indeed a literary technique that we’ll encounter very soon.
2. Tone is the most useful interpretive tool
Here’s a text.
It has lots of words—in fact, too many words. (Don't actually read the words. It's a random extract for this conceptual demonstration.) There are so many words that our puny brains can’t possibly digest it all at once. But wait! What if we figured out the tone for each section (these are hypothetical tones, by the way)?
Voila. Immediately, we can get to the core, the heart of what the writer is trying to tell us. We can grasp the main idea much more easily by figuring out the tone, or multiple tones, in a passage. We will cover this in more depth when we learn about deconstruction.
How is tone related to atmosphere and mood?
- Tone directly creates mood. Whenever we analyse tone, the end goal is always, always, always to explain how the tone creates a certain emotion in the reader. Of course, you have to talk about the meaning and purpose of tone since it is a technique, but the most direct relationship that I can think of in analysis is this inseparability between tone and mood.
- Tone can contribute to the atmosphere. This happens when another character's tone in the scene imposes a feeling on us. For example, the stern tone of a principal reprimanding a student in his school office can create a suffocating atmosphere for the reader. Mood and atmosphere sometimes the same thing and sometimes not. Here, we are lucky to see an example of a very, very distinct difference between mood and atmosphere: You can't describe the mood / emotion of the reader as "suffocating". A "suffocating mood" doesn't make sense because "suffocating" is not an emotion. However, "suffocating" is indeed a more general feeling, which is why the response here is atmospheric; it's not an emotion, but instead a psychological 'sensation' of being restricted. I'm getting ahead of myself here, but it's a good discussion that we will continue in the next section on atmosphere.
Here's a diagram connecting tone, mood and atmosphere together. We will refer back to this diagram.
- Notice how the techniques are at the start of the analysis 'pipeline' or process; the tone and atmosphere are the intermediate 'feelings' and 'sounds' that we get from these techniques; and then the ultimate end goal is the mood of the reader--how they feel as a result of the techniques, as explained via the intermediaries of tone and atmosphere.
Terrific words to describe 'tone'
How to use: Just add one of these words before "tone" and voila, you will sound really smart.
- When you're really 'into' someone: Admiring, affectionate, loving
- Being nice: Gentle, kind, amiable, friendly, enthusiastic
- The class clown: Humorous, ironic, sarcastic
- "I'm so much better than you": Disdainful, contemptuous, condescending
- brb crying: Melancholy, despondent, distressed, brooding
- Chef Gordon Ramsay in Hell's Kitchen: Accusatory, bitter, cynical, hostile, resentful, critical, harsh
- Gordon Ramsay version 2.0?: Arrogant, commanding, aggressive, abusive
- Nelson from The Simpsons: Mocking, ridiculing
- Jumping off a cliff: fearful, nervous
- "Ugh...umm": awkward, stilted, stiff
Neutral or 'in the middle'
- Chill and honest, like Ryan Gosling: Conversational, candid, casual, sincere
- I'm always correct: Factual, matter-of-fact, certain
- Bro, who cares?: Apathetic, nonchalant
Now, let’s talk about “atmosphere”, but before I do that, I want to show you a list of the top unanswered questions to ever exist.
- What is the meaning of life? Yep, that’s a big one.
- How did the universe begin? That’s another big one.
- Do aliens exist? This is a particularly puzzling one, because there are so many planets in the universe that it’s almost certain, statistically, that intelligent life exists elsewhere—but the conundrum is: We’ve never met an alien before. At least, everyone outside of Area 51.
All of these are big, mysterious, unanswered questions have plagued the human mind for a long time. 'Imma let you finish', but these questions are nothing, zero, zilch, compared to the most puzzling, unanswered question of all-time:
What does the “atmosphere” of a text mean?
No one actually knows the answer to this question, at least according to Google. If you search “atmosphere in literature”, you’ll find lots of different definitions. Some say atmosphere is tone, some say atmosphere is mood, and so on.
But the thing is: I never found it difficult at all. It's actually straightforward and I'll explain why.
Inspiration from real life
First, how do we normally use the word “atmosphere” in everyday life? Well, we usually say something like:
- “There was an awkward atmosphere in the room”, or
- “Times Square has a bustling atmosphere”, or
- “The haunted house has an eerie atmosphere.”
And so atmosphere is almost always used to describe the feeling or vibe—the awkwardness, the creepiness, the bursting energy—that is imposed upon us in a physical environment, situation or space ("room", "Times Square", "haunted house"). So clearly, the setting (environment) of a text is what establishes the atmosphere. Settings are usually constructed via the description of objects in the setting (e.g. a creaking floorboard in the haunted house), and so we can define atmosphere simply as this:
Atmosphere is the (not necessarily emotional) feeling of an environment, as constructed by a writer's description of the environment and objects within that setting.
Time for an example. See what I did there? Time... Times Square...
(Note my apologetic tone here. It is clearly dramatic and creates a humorous atmosphere. Describing the humour as an atmosphere makes sense here because the humour is external, shared between you and me, and not just experienced internally in either one of us. This brings up an important point about the distinction between mood and atmosphere that we'll see at the end of the lesson.)
Example 1: NYC
- Techniques: Honking cars in New York City, the bright bill boards, and the sea of people (these aren’t actually techniques; they’re examples of imagery, and we’ll talk about that very soon in the course)
- Atmosphere: bustling, dynamic, energetic
- Mood: awe, excitement
Both atmosphere and mood refer to feelings, but there’s a small difference. The atmosphere is an external feeling coming from the physical environment. The mood is the internal feeling of the reader. The external feeling induces the excitement in the reader. In other words, the atmosphere in a text influences the mood.
Example 2: Haunted house
- Techniques: Creaking floor boards, flapping curtains, cold winds (again, not really techniques. We'll introduce formal names for them very soon.)
- Atmosphere: eerie
- Mood: fear
The external feeling is again the atmosphere: the creepy, uncomfortable sounds and the cold wind. This is an eerie atmosphere. The mood, aka emotion, that the external atmosphere creates inside the reader is fear.
Pit stop--Grab some atmosphere vocabulary
- eerie, suspenseful, mysterious
- bustling, energetic, dynamic
- awkward, stilted, uncomfortable
- warm, welcoming, inviting
Relax on the definitions--it ain't science
Often it’s hard to decide whether something is best described as tone or atmosphere, and as atmosphere or mood.
In these cases, any choice will work because they are so similar that you can’t go drastically wrong even if you tried to sabotage yourself. Tone, mood and atmosphere is that type of alleyway in literary analysis that is sometimes well-lit and clear and clean to walk through, but on occasion the streetlights are off and when you try to walk through the darkness, you stumble over garbage bags and you get hurt and really confused. So while these concise definitions I've given you are great for 80% of the time, they don't help you in the other 20% of the time because the tone, mood and atmosphere just overflow their definitional boundaries and overlap and mix. Such is the nature of English literature--a fundamentally subjective subject. In such cases, it's safe to bask in the confusion and use it to your advantage: Just pull out any one of those 3 things and link it however you like--reasonably, of course! The point is: Tone, mood and atmosphere is the singular area of literary analysis that requires a flexible, open mind and a blurry interpretation of the definitions, because the concepts themselves are highly ambiguous.
Relationship between mood and atmosphere
Example from the Principal's office. I rudely interrupted our deep discussion about the boy and the principal in the tone section of this lesson. Let's resume the discourse.
The restricting atmosphere that we experience vicariously (meaning "through another person", in this case, the boy) can create different moods depending on the context.
- One possible mood is pity: The oppressive atmosphere makes us, perhaps, feel sorry for the little dude because he was simply speaking up for himself in response to a rude teacher, and he got in trouble for no reason. Here the oppressive atmosphere is viewed negatively by the reader as a result of the surrounding context.
- On the other hand, if the kid is a little mischievous brat and he clogged up all the toilet pipes with toilet rolls for no reason, then the oppressive atmosphere doesn't make us feel sorry for him (i.e. it's not a sympathetic mood); instead, the reader's mood would be happy or relieved or satisfied because the trouble maker has been caught. In this latter case, the oppressive atmosphere and its associated strictness are viewed positively.
Examples: How to distinguish atmosphere and tone
There is almost always a mood created by a piece of writing, unless you’re analysing a boring textbook. The question is: How is the mood created? Is it created by the tone or the atmosphere? (Recall the diagram from the end of the Tone section of this lesson.)
The mood can be created:
- entirely from the tone
- entirely from the atmosphere
- from a mixture of tone and atmosphere
“This city is so disgusting and infested. Ugh! I would never go there!”
“The silent air of the city had a dusty, stagnant feel to it, as if the pulsing river of life that had once coursed through its archways and corridors were now impeded, blocked, by the mounds of dusty rubble.”
- Lifeless atmosphere—focus is on the physical setting
Combination of both tone and atmosphere
“The silent city was a dilapidated, defiled mess, a collection of infested rubble that seemed to be screaming helplessly into the heavy, dusty air for the return of human life.”
- Disgusted tone and lifeless atmosphere
This set of 3 examples hopefully makes it the distinction between tone and atmosphere clearer in your mind.
Choice: When to analyse tone or atmosphere?
- Tone: Analyse tone when the voice shows a subjective attitude towards something—a character, a theme or an object. In such cases, the voice isn’t neutral and is instead filled with emotion. One exception is a factual tone, but a factual tone still indicates the narrator’s serious attitude towards that something.
- Atmosphere: Atmosphere is appropriate when the voice has a neutral attitude and yet we feel an emotion as the reader. For example, when we have a third person omniscient narrator or speaker whose voice simply describes the events.
Here’s another example emphasising the difference between a tonal and an atmospheric passage.
“It was the most frightening hour of my life! I crept slowly along the wall, making sure he—or whoever or whatever he or it was—couldn’t hear me. I was so certain he, or it, was right there that my heart beat like a thumping elephant…half-expecting something to jump out at me from the bushes.”
- You can hear the fear in the voice of the narrator.
- The voice clearly has a biased, emotional attitude towards something—in this case a mysterious thing in the garden. Thus tone is the appropriate meta-technique to analyse for this extract.
- What makes this extract more tonal than atmospheric is that it’s written in first person voice. The voice is personal and so the narrator’s attitude is evident.
- Specifically, the fearful tone is constructed from: the high modality language in “most frightening” and “so certain”; the confusion evident in “or whoever, or whatever”; and the hyperbolic simile in “like a thumping elephant.” All of these techniques build the frightened tone of the narrator.
“The night was cold. A silver sliver of moonlight pierced the clouds here and there so that the garden was completely shrouded in darkness in some places and yet naked and exposed in others. Luke kept close to the wall as he crept slowly, slowly, towards what he thought was the thing. Suddenly, he stopped. He stared intently at the bushes and braced himself for the worst, as if expecting some unworldly monster to run out from under those dense leaves and bite him.”
- This extract describes the same scenario as before, but it’s more atmospheric and less tonal.
- First, the voice is a third-person narrator. The language used by the writer is more neutral compared to the first-person perspective. Third person narration also creates more distance with the protagonist.
- However, as the readers, we still feel a suspenseful mood despite the lack in tonality. Instead, the suspense is created by an eerie atmosphere.
- This tense atmosphere is created by a focus on the external surroundings: the coldness, the darkness, the thin rays of moonlight, the description of Luke being afraid, and his paranoia at the end of the extract. So instead of delving into Luke’s internal emotions and attitude to create tone, the writer focusses on the external scene in a spooky way to create an eerie atmosphere.
Internal vs external
In simple terms, atmosphere is what’s happening on the outside in the external environment or scene. Tone is what’s happening in the mind--the internal attitude.
Internal versus external is the easiest way to decide when it is appropriate to analyse the tone or the atmosphere. With that said, in many texts, both tone and atmosphere are used together to create mood.
The goal of this lesson was to give you an intuitive understanding of tone and atmosphere, and their direct relationships with mood.
Tone is how the voice of a character or narrator sounds, which impacts the reader. On the other hand, atmosphere is how the external situation or environment feels. Both tone and atmosphere influence mood, but in slightly different ways.
Tone and atmosphere are important techniques as well as tools for deconstructing a text.
Tone and/or atmosphere should be analysed to some extent in all texts, whether it’s a Paper 1, a Paper 2, assignments, or anything else in English analysis. In the Advanced Analysis section of the course as well as in the Full Analysis videos, I will teach you the details for how to properly analyse tone, atmosphere and mood.
Magnificent words for 'mood'
- Sadness, disappointment
- Empathy (knowing what someone else is feeling, can be positive or negative emotion)
- Sympathy (feeling sorry for someone, always a negative emotion)
- Happiness, joy
Easy sentence builders
"The reader experiences a sense of _______"
"The reader feels _______"
"The language evokes / elicits / creates in the reader an emotion of _______"