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Tone Definition: Tone reflects the attitude that an author or a narrator has towards a particular topic or character.


Tone is the author’s attitude towards a subject or character. Common descriptions of tone can include indifference, friendly, brusque, teasing, critical, humorous, solemn, cheerful, etc. Tone can help set a mood, highlight a character’s strengths or flaws, or clue the reader in on something important they should know. Tone can also reflect the author’s understanding of a topic, particularly in poetry, which enhances the reader’s comprehension of meanings hidden behind heavily figurative language. Tone differs from mood in that while it can help to create mood, it is not meant to stir emotions within the reader; instead, its purpose is to reveal the personality of a character or the author towards a subject. For example, while love is often an optimistic and upbeat topic, for someone who has just been heartbroken, love is a complicated and devastating emotion. Romeo reveals this tone towards love in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet after he has been turned away by Rosaline, before he meets Juliet.

“I am too sore enpiercèd with his shaft / To soar with his light feathers, and so bound, / I cannot bound a pitch above dull woe. / Under love’s heavy burden do I sink.”

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Notable Examples of Tone in Literature

  • Holden’s sarcasm in The Catcher in the Rye
  • Narrator’s attitudes towards the early Protestant settlers in The Scarlet Letter
  • Nick Carraway’s growing disillusionment in The Great Gatsby
  • The resigned tone of the life which George and Hazel Bergeron live belies the tragedy of government-imposed handicaps, even while their son Harrison dances onstage and is eventually arrested in front of their eyes in “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut

Learn more about various devices in literature in our Picture Encyclopedia of Literary Elements!
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