“Tone” in fiction guides our emotional responses. Is the story funny, sad, tragic, or ironic, or all these? Let’s take a look at the gamut of Tone in Fiction, with examples and clues to distinguishing tone and irony.
How to Read Fiction Step 6: Distinguishing Tone
When teaching Tone and Irony in fiction, I often began by asking the class to imagine a scenario:
Suppose that I, the instructor, walk into the classroom where all the students are assembled. I stride purposefully toward my desk, but before I can get there, I hit a wet spot on the floor. I slide, falter, and fall– boom!– right onto my derriere. Papers go flying, my handbag spills, books scatter. A classroom tragedy!
Or is it? Maybe it’s not tragic at all, but actually kind of funny? Or even truly slapstick, knee-slapping funny? Or perhaps it’s a great example of irony, since only yesterday I had told students to watch out for wet floors. Or perhaps it’s a satisfying end to some long drama, a karmic come-down for a supercilious professor who enjoys berating her students day after day. (Note: that situation would be a total fiction, of course!)
If someone were telling this story aloud, it would be fairly easy to interpret which of these reactions the teller expects us to have. We could discern it from the speaker’s tone of voice, gestures, and body language. But If this story were being related within a fiction, how can we decipher how the author means readers to experience or interpret this event?
The bare sequence of the events as described doesn’t tell us how to react. What does? For one thing, the kind of language used to describe this event would help shape tone for readers. Is my pain and indignity being described, or is the description comically exaggerated?
In addition, readers also might need to consider more context while interpreting tone. For instance, if I hit my head going down, become comatose, and miss my daughter’s wedding, it might be tragic. If the student I most dislike comes to my aid, and I learn to regard him fondly, readers might experience pathos. If I slip and slide all over the room, waving wild arms before crashing, then get up and just start the class as if nothing happened, just rolling my eyes a little, it might be comic.
When reading any good fiction, readers must interpret verbal and contextual cues to figure out just what kind of a story this really is. Those qualities of fiction that evoke particular attitudes and emotional responses in readers work together to produce Tone in fiction. If readers can’t interpret the tone of a scene, or worse, the overall tone of an actual work, they will misunderstand the story that the author is telling.
Keep reading to learn more about how readers can recognize the cues given by an author to establish the Tone of the fiction for readers. I especially want to talk about recognizing comedy and irony, since many students find those especially difficult to recognize in older works where verbal conventions were different.
How to Read Fiction Series
Drama v. Comedy: Two Stories, Two Tones
Let’s begin by examining two stories that exemplify the greatest basic contrast in fictional tone. One short story, D. H. Lawrence’s “The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter,” is straight-up serious drama. The other, Alan Gurganus’s “Nativity Caucasian,” is total comedy. And yet, in spite of contrasts in tone, both stories make serious points about the human condition.
Read these stories here:
“The Horse-Dealer’s Daughter” opens with a family sitting at their last breakfast in their home. Their family horse-dealing business has failed, and the last of their horses have been sold to pay debts and are being led from the yard.
Here are the second two paragraphs of the story’s opening:
The three brothers and the sister sat round the desolate breakfast-table, attempting some sort of desultory consultation. The morning’s post had given the final tap to the family fortunes, and all was over. The dreary dining-room itself, with its heavy mahogany furniture, looked as if it were waiting to be done away with.
But the consultation amounted to nothing. There was a strange air of ineffectuality about the three men, as they sprawled at table, smoking and reflecting vaguely on their own condition. The girl was alone, a rather short, sullen-looking young woman of twenty-seven. She did not share the same life as her brothers. She would have been good-looking, save for the impressive fixity of her face, “bull-dog,” as her brothers called it.
–“The Horse Dealer’s Daughter”
D. H. Lawrence’s work usually features “controlling” narrators, leaving readers with little to guess about how they are intended to interpret each aspect of the story. In this opening passage, both the situation and the heavily descriptive language creates a sad, gloomy tone that couldn’t be farther from comedy. The phrases “all was over,” “the dreary dining-room itself, with its heavy mahogany furniture,” “consultation amounted to nothing,” and “short, sullen-looking young woman” work relentlessly to paint a seriously melancholy picture.
The effect of reading Lawrence is almost like enchantment, as he uses language like a sad drumbeat to weave a dark, romantic, dreamlike spell. In this story, that spell carries readers through the whole dramatic tale of how Mabel, the sullen young woman, falls in love with the young over-worked doctor who saves her from committing suicide in a dank pond.
Contrast Lawrence’s heavy dream-like melancholy language with the sparkling clipped phrasing that opens Alan Gurganis’s comic “Nativity: Caucasian”:
What`s wrong with you?” my wife sometimes asks. She already knows. (I tell her anyway.)
I was born at a bridge party. This explains certain frills and soft spots in my character. I sometimes picture my own genes as crustless multicolored canapes spread upon a silver oval tray.
Mother`d just turned 26 and was eight and one half months gone. A colonel`s daughter, she could boast a laudable IQ plus a smallish independent income. She loved gardening but, pregnant, couldn`t stoop or weed. She loved swimming but felt too modest to go out in a suit. ”I walk like a duck,” she told her husband, laughing. ”Like six ducks trying to keep in line. I hate ducks.”
Her best friend, Cloe, local Grand Master, tournament organizer, a perfect whiz at stuffing compatible women into borrowed seaside cottages for marathon contact bridge, phoned:
”Bianca? I know you`re incommoded but listen, dear. We`re short a person over at my house. Saundra Harper Briggs finally checked into Duke for that radical diet? and not one minute too soon. They say her husband had to drive the poor thing up there in the station wagon, in the back of the station wagon. . . .
I can never read the first paragraphs of this story without smiling. As soon as the narrator answers “I was born at a bridge party” to his wife’s irritated query, “What’s wrong with you?” readers know this will not be a sad story about a marriage on the rocks or any such thing, but a warm and comic look at the culture into which the narrator was born.
Both the language and the situation send out unmistakably comic cues: “frills and soft spots in my character,” “I walk like a duck,” “had to drive the poor thing up there. . . in the back of the station wagon,” and more. Then the incongruous announcement that “I was born at a bridge party” leads readers to expect comic mayhem from the first, giving them the pleasure of anticipating it. No tragic narrator pictures “my own genes as crustless multicolored canapes spread upon a silver oval tray.” It’s just funny!
And yet, different as both of these stories are in Tone, each succeeds in making serious points about human character. Lawrence’s story analyzes the unconscious and powerful forces that cause people to fall in love. Gurganus shows that the culture into which he was born may seem frivolous on the surface, but when the basics of human life protrude, people still rise to the occasion with strength and grace.
If you haven’t read these stories, go back to find out how the authors bring readers to these interesting and thoughtful conclusions while writing in completely different tones.
Sad Fiction: Pathos or Tragedy?
Can fiction rise to tragedy? Sometimes, I think it can. But the great accomplishment of the novel, especially Victorian novels, is pathos.
Pathos occurs when literature arouses sadness, tenderness, and sympathy. If it makes you weepy, the work you are reading no doubt is creating a tone of pathos. Dickens was a master of pathos, at least according to the readers of his day; he could make readers weep aloud over the death of little Nell, or over little David Copperfield’s suffering at the hands of his abusive stepfather Murdstone.
Did Dickens rise to tragedy? According to Aristotle, tragedy must arouse pity and terror at the hero’s fate, and should feature a hero of above common abilities but suffering from some outsize tragic flaw in character. Thus, some of Dickens may come close to tragedy, such as the death of Steerforth in the storm, or Lady Dedlock’s flight and death upon her world’s discovery she had had an illegitimate child. But his work generally lacks the hard bite and strange wonder at the ways of fate that readers experience from tragedy.
Novelists can indeed reach tragedy, as another Victorian novelist, Thomas Hardy, did in some of his novels, such as The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure. The central characters in both, Michael Henchard and Jude Fawley, have greater souls and larger vitality than their fellows, along with tragic flaws that bring about their outsize fates. And yet their punishment seems almost too large, driven equally by forces outside themselves, making readers gasp, wonder, and ponder.
When fiction makes you want to weep, it’s tone is pathetic; if it makes you not just pity, but fear, wonder, and ponder the strangeness of the human condition, the tone is tragic.
Great Classic Fiction: Complex Tonal Mixtures
Even sad and serious novels can be tonal mixtures, and yet readers often miss the comic moments than can pop up in the midst of a serious drama. What are the cues?
Comedy can be obvious
Of course, much of the time, comic moments are hard to miss. They rely on both language choice, both vocabulary and rhythm, as well as situational context to make the tone comic.
Take for instance the passage from the beginning of David Copperfield describing the day of his birth. His mother, quite close to her time of giving birth, gets an unexpected visit from her deceased husband’s estranged (and rather scary) aunt, Miss Betsey. Clara, David’s mother-to-be, feels faint and frightened by this volatile woman, so Miss Betsy asks the name of her servant so she can call her for help. She tells Miss Betsey the servant’s name is Peggotty:
‘”Peggotty!” repeated Miss Betsey, with some indignation. “Do you mean to say, child, that any human being has gone into a Christian church, and got herself named Peggotty?”’
The incongruity of Betsey’s reaction to something entirely irrelevant to the urgent situation is just funny.
Another author serving readers hard-to-miss comedy is Mark Twain, especially in his shorter works. I dare you to read “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” or “The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper” without at least smiling. Take this sentence from “Literary Offenses,” a purported review of famous author Cooper’s fiction:
Cooper’s art has some defects. In one place in “Deerslayer,” and in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offenses against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.
I, for one, find this statement hilarious. The idea that there can even be 115 offenses against literary art is funny; that someone could break almost all of them in 2/3 of a page funnier still. The capper is when Twain goes on to actually list most of the offenses, with examples! As many times as I have read this, I still laugh aloud when I read it again.
We have been discussing how both language choice and situational contexts create tone in fiction. This “Literary Offenses” example points up another element in creating tone: reference to natural and cultural expectations.
Here, Twain relies on readers knowing something about the conventions of critiquing literary work, as well as readers’ familiarity with the nature of fiction. Reviewers don’t usually begin with counting the offenses against the “literary law,” as if the writer is being arraigned in court. The discrepancy between normal practices and what Twain is doing makes us laugh. If we knew nothing at all about how people write about literature, we wouldn’t be in on the whole joke.
Comedy Can Be Subtle: Don’t Miss It
We have seen so far that creating tone, even in obviously comic writing, relies on language choices, situational context, and natural and cultural expectations. Even so, in some great works, readers can be deaf to the greatest comic scenes.
One of the funniest novels people don’t laugh at is Moby Dick. And indeed, much of Moby Dick is not at all laughable. Tones shift from comic to dramatic to philosophical to dreamy to pathetic to tragic from one chapter to the next. It is huge and complex work, a long meditation on the ambiguous nature of reality, unplumbable differences between humans and the natural world, and the different ways that people of varying character react to the human situation.
And yet, with all those heavy themes, Melville can make us laugh, if only we catch the frequent passages where he speaks with tongue in cheek.
The opening action of the book, in which Ishmael meets his soon-to-be friend and shipmate Queequeg, is as funny as a modern situation comedy. The insular Ishmael, on his way to sign up as a sailor on a whaling ship, is told that the only nearby inn is full, and he must share a bed with a harpooneer who has not returned to the inn from an errand.
When Ishmael asks what the errand is, the innkeeper says he is trying to sell “his head.” Finally Ishmael untangles that the harpooneer has a shrunken head from New Zealand that he is trying to sell. This fact does not reassure Ishmael.
He tells the innkeeper:
“Depend upon it, landlord, that harpooneer is a dangerous man.”
“He pays reg’lar,” was the rejoinder.
Ishmael gives in and goes to sleep, but when awakened by his roommate’s return, he beholds a strange-looking man tattooed from head to foot, holding a tomahawk and a big harpoon! He calls the innkeeper, who helps make plain that the man is peaceable, so Ishmael decides to risk it.
The next morning, after awakening to find himself in Queequeg’s friendly embrace, he watches him shave with the head of his harpoon. This humble domestic use for the sharp weapon shows Queequeg in a more reassuring light, and the two become fast friends.
This episode is not only comic, it is sentimental, as Melville explores the way we try to make sense of strangers, people whose ways are so different from our own. The Ishmael-Queequeg relationship shows how humans can overcome these surface obstacles to see the person beneath.
Intellectual Comedy in Moby Dick
The prologue of Moby Dick, even before the tale begins, offers another kind of comedy, a more intellectual kind of joke. The narrator presents a long line of miscellaneous quotations about whales, which boils down to one long joke about scholarship. These quotations are said to be supplied by a grubbing “Sub Sub” librarian, described thus:
It will be seen that this mere painstaking burrower and grubworm of a poor devil of a Sub Sub appears to have gone through the long Vaticans and streetstalls of the earth, picking up whatever random allusions to whales he could anyways find in any book whatsoever, sacred or profane.
The narrator declares this poor pale librarian/scholar accomplishes little by his delving into all these old books, yet the quotations that follow carefully make the rounds of every source and literary figure a 19th century scholar might respect: the Bible, Shakespeare, dictionaries, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dryden, tales of adventure and captain’s voyage logs, Blackstone’s common law, biological/scientific descriptions, poetry, and more. The list gets funnier as the sources get more and more slight and obviously useless in explaining whales. One of the last quotations in the line is attributed to “Something” unpublished, and the very last is merely a “Whale Song.”
Like much of Moby Dick, this passage floats several serious points. It asks us to meditate on the myriad ways people have tried to encapsulate something that remains essentially mysterious to us: The Whale, and how these efforts ultimately fall short. And yet, in spite of the largeness of idea, the whole picture of some poor fellow grubbing around in a dusty library to find the meaning of the universe, only to find these miscellaneous bits and pieces, is just funny.
Here also, could Melville may be making a wry joke about himself, since it was he himself, not a fictional librarian, who unearthed all those quotations, and then wrote this big novel, and yet to what avail? So maybe all this reads a bit pathetic, too; it certainly makes us question the reliance on human scholarship to provide any big answers about life.
But an idea can be large, and funny too. Don’t overlook Melville’s big jokes, or those of other authors who want to make us laugh as well as move us or make us think. Consider the language choices, situational context, and natural and cultural expectations to uncover the tone of each passage as you read.
Irony: the hardest tone to spot
When narrators speak ironically, they say the opposite of what they mean. When they present an ironic situation, they depict an event that is the opposite of what we would usually expect. Irony can be embedded in any fiction, anywhere. For some reason, irony is one of the easiest things for readers to misread in fiction. Let’s talk a bit about what irony is, and strategies for being alert to it.
First, what is irony? There are three general kinds of irony: verbal, dramatic, and situational.
Verbal irony occurs when the narrator says the opposite of what is true, perhaps to be funny or to underline a point.
A famous example occurs in Mark Antony’s speech in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. Delmar College writing center explains:
Mark Antony repeats the words “and Brutus is an honorable man” in the famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. Mark Antony’s meaning, however, is that Brutus is completely dishonorable because Brutus, Caesar’s best friend, joined the other conspirators and plunged a knife into Caesar’s chest.
Verbal irony doesn’t have to be so pointed. In Jane Austen’s famous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, she engages in some gentle irony:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Of course perspicacious readers catch that this assertion is not at all a “truth universally acknowledged,” especially not by those single men in possession of good fortune, who may not be thinking along matrimonial lines at all. Rather, it is a wish universally held by young women and their mothers, who want to snag one of these rich single men for a husband.
How do readers catch that these two examples are ironic?
In the Mark Antony example, readers must draw on the situational context—events unfolding in the play—and on their knowledge of the character Mark Antony. Readers, or viewers, of the play are fully aware that Brutus has chosen to commit an act that Mark Antony regards as treasonous. Therefore they are aware he is using irony, saying the exact opposite of what he believes for rhetorical effect.
In the case of the Austen quotation, cultural expectations and natural knowledge of human character come into play, since people by no means agree that rich men always want wives; instead, in Austen’s day, women of middle and upper classes depended on marriage for their welfare. However, if readers don’t catch the irony and take that sentence straight, they will catch on soon enough after watching mother and daughters Bennett obsess about who might marry whom. Then they can look back at the opening irony with a smile.
Sarcasm is a type of irony meant to make fun of or insult the subject of it, or maybe just to be funny. Often a sarcastic remark uses positive language to express a negative opinion, such as saying “Nice going!” to someone who has just broken a glass.
A few more examples:
“He was happily married, but his wife wasn’t.” Victor Borge
“Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go.” – Oscar Wilde
“Light travels faster than sound. This is why some people appear bright until they speak.” – Steven Wright
Side note: Comedian Steven Wright is a master at this kind irony and other kinds of verbal wit. Take a look at his profile on IMDb for a list of funny or sarcastic one-liners.
The tools readers need to catch sarcasm are the same they need to catch other verbal ironies: attention to word choices, awareness of situational context, and especially knowledge of normal cultural and natural expectations which the sarcastic remark will subvert or turn upside down.
Dramatic Irony is not created through Tone, but is based completely on situation and narrator’s point of view, so I won’t discuss it at length, but include it to complete the explanation of types of irony.
Dramatic irony occurs when readers, and perhaps some of the characters, know something a particular central character doesn’t know. Dramatic irony can be used to create tension or suspense; readers hold their breaths awaiting an outcome the character can’t anticipate because the character lacks their inside knowledge. Every reader easily recognizes and usually enjoys this type of irony.
A famous example of dramatic irony occurs in Shakespeare’s Othello. Iago leads Othello to believe his wife Desdemona has cheated on him, but the audience knows she has not. The powerful effect of the play comes partly out of the audience’s knowledge that Othello had tragically misjudged her when he kills her.
Like Dramatic Irony, Situational Irony in itself is not exactly a product of tone, but when readers miss this type of irony, they can also fail to interpret tone correctly.
Situational irony occurs when something happens that is the opposite of what we expect to happen naturally or logically. If the firehouse burns down, that’s situational irony, since we expect firefighters to be able to stop a fire in their own headquarters.
Readers easily recognize straightforward examples of situational irony such as the firehouse burning. But in teaching classic fiction to students, I have learned that when ironic situations are complex, involving events and ideas that are very unusual or far from normal cultural expectations, readers tend to miss it.
I saw this phenomenon over and over again when teaching a famous short-short story by Kate Chopin called “The Story of an Hour.” Written in 1894, the story focuses on a young wife, Louise Mallard, known to have heart trouble.
The story opens when Louise’s sister and husband’s best friend inform her that her husband Brently has been killed in a railway accident. Louise goes alone to her room, weeps for a minute, then slowly begins to realize that she is not experiencing grief, but strangely, a powerful sense of joy and freedom.
There would be no one to live for her during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow- creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime as she looked upon it in that brief moment of illumination.
And yet she had loved him—sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter! What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in face of this possession of self-assertion which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!
–“The Story of an Hour”
After awhile, her sister Josephine comes to bring her downstairs, thinking she should not be alone. As the two women descend the stairs, Louise’s husband Brently opens the door. He is alive after all, not having been on the train that crashed.
When Louise sees him, she has such a shock, her weak heart fails and she collapses dead on the stairs. This is the last line of the story:
When the doctors came they said she had died of heart disease–of the joy that kills.
This little story is full of situational ironies. For one, only when she thinks her husband has died does Louise realize the full extent to which her marriage has oppressed her. Therefore, instead of grief at the loss, she feels joy. The next irony is that she isn’t killed by learning he was dead, but by finding out he is still alive, which is the opposite most people would expect a wife would feel. The final irony is that the people around her, even the doctors, were completely wrong about what she was feeling, so that her true story would remain unknown.
What, then, is the tone of the final line of the story? Is it straight pathos–just so sad!—or, rather, bitter irony? To readers who have followed the situational ironies, the final line bursts upon them as a sardonic statement about the nature of marriage and its harmfulness to women in 1894.
To my surprise, however, I found that many first-time readers do not interpret that last line as ironic in tone. When I ask students why Louise Mallard died, maybe about a third of them will write that she died because she was overcome by the shock of joy in finding her husband was alive. What? In spite of reading about the “monstrous joy” that gripped her when she thought he was dead, they insist on reading the last line as a touch of pathos. Why?
Mainly, I think, some readers are unprepared to think of marriage as something oppressive to women, at least when it appears in a pretty story, and therefore have trouble imagining that Louise is truly happy that her husband is dead. Lack of historical or cultural knowledge, or lack of imagination, or an unwillingness to entertain ideas outside of previous assumptions trip them up. Therefore, they misunderstand both the literal meaning and tone of all the material that explains Louise’s unexpected epiphany. Or, if they do understand some of it, they fail to keep in mind the whole situational context when they interpret the doctors’ response to Louise’s fatal moment on the stairs.
Sometimes tone guides our interpretation of a fictional situation; sometimes the situation must inform our interpretation of tone.
Tone: Some Conclusions
As we have seen, Tone in fiction is created through choice of language, situational context of a particular passage, and natural and cultural expectations regarding the situation being depicted.
Tone is one of the primary elements that gives warmth and personality to a piece of fiction, or indeed, to any piece of literature. When we catch the tone, we experience the full emotional impact of a piece of fiction. Expert handling of tone is one of the great accomplishments of writers recognized as classic. Recognizing, and indeed, even bathing in, the Tone of a great work of fiction is one of the great pleasures of reading great literature.
How to Read Fiction Series
Tragedy/Comedy Masks: Tim Green from Bradford, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Canapes: Khaled, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Melpomene statue: Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Queequeg illustration: W. Taber, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Oscar Wilde: Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Story of an Hour: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.