What is the difference between mood and tone?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the study of literature, some readers may be puzzled over the difference between mood and tone.

The mood of a literary piece is how the author makes the reader feel.

In a literary work, the feeling or atmosphere that the writer creates for the reader is called the mood.

Establishing the mood from the start of a story is important to plot development. It can be disastrous to convey a comic mood only to later introduce the reader to elements of the plot that are tragic.

Edgar Allan Poe masterfully creates his mood in "The Cask of Amontillado." It begins:

The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.

In one sentence, Poe lets the reader know not only that the narrator has (in his mind) experienced repeated injury over an unknown span of time, but also that in the face of insult, he can stand it no longer and has vowed to wreak revenge upon the man. Anyone familiar with the story understands that the speaker sets about doing just that: orchestrating a horrific death for the unsuspecting victim. The mood is clear— creating not only questions, but also a mystery about what Fortunato has done and what the narrator plans to do. A mood of suspense and dread is established from the start.

The tone can be more difficult to identify because it is not about how the reader is made to feel, but how the author feels about what he is writing. 

Tone is the attitude a writer takes toward a subject. Unlike the mood, which is intended to shape the reader's emotional response, tone reflects the feelings of the writer.

For example, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has a dominant tone of nostalgia. Through the character of Scout, we see life in the sleepy town of Maycomb as a time of learning. Through young Scout's eyes, Lee artfully allows us to experience her naiveté. Just as skillfully, it is through these same eyes that we gain some of our deepest insights into Lee's feelings about the past and about the coming of age experiences of Scout and her brother, Jem. The tone reminds us of prevalent themes: to a child, fair play and justice are black and white, never shades of grey. In the face of a dangerous situation, a young girl's innocent concern can remind an adult of his humanity. When confronted by rumors, a youngster can find a misunderstood person's worth by remaining open-hearted. It is clear by Lee's tone that she is nostalgic for the days when life was much less complicated, as seen through the eyes of a child.

It is important to note that sometimes the mood and the tone are the same. This is not, however, always the case. In Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, the story may appear to be a simple tale of adventure. In truth, the book is a political satire:

Gulliver’s third voyage…is largely political and for this reason is usually not as well received by critics.

As Gulliver finds fault with the strange people and creatures he meets, he is actually making political statements that are far removed from the story the reader initially perceives on the surface.

Mood and tone are essential elements in a finely crafted piece of literature. Each serves to develop the plot—and engage the reader—as the story line moves toward its conclusion.

Additional Source:

The Language of Literature. McDougal, Littel and Company: Illinois, 2006.