Tone in Literary Fiction


Commentary by Karen Bernardo


Tone is a difficult literary concept to describe, but not at all difficult to recognize. It refers to the attitude with which the writer approaches his work. Some works, such as the stories of James Thurber, are fundamentally comic in tone; others, such as those of D.H. Lawrence, are serious. Stories can be dark or light, gritty or romantic, or any of a thousand other attributes.


In many ancient works, it seems that the writer was fundamentally unaware of tone; tone seems to have been dictated by the writer’s cultural background, the historical period, and the intent of the work, rather than any conscious intent on the writer’s part. However, we soon find writers gaining an increasing awareness over all these things. Aristophanes is as deliberately comic as Sophocles is tragic; Shakespeare’s comedies are vastly different in tone from his tragedies or histories; the scathing satire of Jonathan Swift cannot have been anything but deliberate.


What techniques can be used to produce tone? Comedy often employs the juxtaposition of the sober with the ludicrous; tragedy, the juxtaposition of innocence or righteousness and certain doom. Writers attempting to convince their readers of a deeply-held moral or religious belief frequently adopt an overly-earnest tone in the mistaken belief that this is the only way to impart their message. For example, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles is told in a tremendously melodramatic tone because the writer is struggling valiantly to convince his readers of a truth not commonly held in his day: that it was possible to be a “fallen woman” and still a worthwhile person.


In Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain fought a similar battle in his struggle to get his white readership to accept the humanity of the slave Jim, yet Twain avoids Hardy’s deadly earnestness by putting his tale in the mouth of a boy whose own moral perceptions are just developing. He thus allows Jim to appear ludicrous at times, but he also allows us to see through Huck’s imperfect view of him to the noble man beneath. Both Hardy and Twain exhibited a good control of tone, and both achieved the effect they sought; but Twain clearly used tone more creatively in the development of his theme.


Although tone, like symbolism, works below the surface, it contributes greatly to a reader’s appreciation of the work.




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