Guide to Literary Terms

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How does tone help develop theme?

Tone helps develop theme by reinforcing the general message of the work through diction and atmosphere. If a work of literature is meant to express a happy theme, but it makes the reader feel sad, it will not be as effective as it could be. Theme and tone generally match in literature. An exception to this rule is satire. If a satirical author wants to express an angry theme, they may heighten their frustration by using a buoyant tone.

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In various types of literary works, tone is one of the key elements that an author can use to develop their theme. Tone works closely with mood or atmosphere. One example is an upbeat, light-hearted tone, which might correspond to a theme about how a positive attitude aids creativity. In contrast, a serious, somber tone might help the author develop a theme about coping with loss.

A look at two well-known 19th-century poems may be useful in understanding the relationship.

The English Romantic poet William Wordsworth frequently wrote about nature as an inspiring force in his creative process as well as his personal life. One of his poems, often referred to as "Daffodils," has an overall lively tone that is conveyed by his descriptions of the "golden daffodils" that the speaker sees. The poem begins with a wistful or solitary tone, as the author admits to being "lonely." The quick shift in tone that comes with seeing the daffodils is sustained by the descriptions of the flowers's actions: they flutter and dance, they are like "stars that twinkle," and they show great "glee."

The power of nature to uplift the spirits, which is clearly stated, matches this joyful tone.

A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company

In contrast, we can look at "The Raven," a poem by the American writer Edgar Allen Poe. The somber tone established at the outset corresponds to the theme of the crushing weight of grief. The speaker describes themself as "weak and weary," and establishes the somber tone through the words such as "dreary" and "bleak." These words are often associated with the setting at "midnight" and in "December." Poe uses words such as "dying ember" and "ghost," and repeats "sorrow" throughout the poem.

The reader soon learns that the speaker is pining for the deceased Lenore. Their deep mourning is consistent with the dark tone, furthered by the "grim" and "lonely" raven that speaks to them.

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To answer this question, we need to start with the definitions of what "tone" and themes" actually are. So:

Tone is the general feeling of the text. It has more to do with the way in which the author intends for the reader to feel while reading the work. For instance, a story about a child playing with a puppy can have a light, happy tone, whereas a poem about the death of a loved one will have a dark or sad tone.

A theme is the main idea of a work, sometimes referred to as the "big idea."  For example, a story could be about the loss of innocence through the experience of life's cruelties, or it could be that the best way to go through life is to keep a postitive outlook, even when it seems as though life is nothing but bad.

So, tone helps to develope the theme in that if you are reading a story in which the main idea centers around the concept that an individual will inevitably suffer a loss of the childish innocence that we so treasure because of the harsh cruelties of reality, the tone is going to be pretty dark and depressing to get that point across. Usually, unless you are reading a satirical work, the tone and the theme, though very separate elements, are usually a good match.

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Tone helps develop theme because it demonstrates where the author’s focus lies and the author’s attitude, which reinforces the themes the author is trying to develop.

Tone is the author’s attitude toward a subject.  The tone can be humorous, friendly, angry, or any other emotion.  Tone helps establish the mood of the story, which is the emotion the reader should be getting with the reading.

Consider this example from Ray Bradbury’s short story “There Will Come Soft Rains.”  This story depicts a lifeless automated house after its humans died in an apocalypse.  Bradbury clearly intends for this to be a cautionary tale about relying on technology.  Consider this quote:

The dog, once huge and fleshy, but now gone to bone and covered with sores, moved in and through the house, tracking mud. Behind it whirred angry mice, angry at having to pick up mud, angry at inconvenience.

We can really tell that the author is frustrated that the dog has died and the mice don’t care.  He wants us to feel it.  His tone is brusque and frustrated.  The reader understands the theme even better, that technology can sometimes get out of control and the things that are supposed to help us can destroy us.

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