My textbook defines "tone" as follows:

The voice or level of feeling, closely linked to the mood created

I find the phrase "level of feeling" ambiguous in this context and I wasn't able to find any relevant definitions on Google either.

1 Answer 1


The entry for "tone" in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms by Chris Baldick provides the following definition:

a very vague critical terms usually designating the mood or atmosphere of a work, although in some more restricted uses it refers to the author's attitude to the reader (e.g. formal, intimate, pompous) or to the subject-matter (e.g. ironic, light, solemn, satiric, sentimental).

The phrase "level of feeling" in the textbook may refer to what Baldick describes as "more restricted uses". The noun "level" is potentially misleading since it might be mistaken for strength of feeling. While the strength of the author's feeling in a literary work may be relevant, "feeling" itself is the more misleading term: a formal attitude, an ironic attitude or a sarcastic attitude are not in themselves feelings, even though they may be prompted by certain specific emotions. To illustrate this, I will quote an example from L. Kip Wheeler's glossary of literary terms:

two different novelists might write stories about capitalism. Author #1 creates a tale in which an impoverished but hard-working young lad pulls himself out of the slums when he applies himself to his education, and he becomes a wealthy, contented middle-class citizen who leaves his past behind him, never looking back at that awful human cesspool from which he rose. Author #2 creates a tale in which a dirty street-rat skulks his way out of the slums by abandoning his family and going off to college, and he greedily hoards his money in a gated community and ignores the suffering of his former "equals," whom he leaves behind in his selfish desire to get ahead. Note that both author #1 and author #2 basically present the same plotline. While the first author's writing creates a tale of optimism and hope, the second author shapes the same tale into a story of bitterness and cynicism. The difference is in their respective tones--the way they convey their attitudes about particular characters and subject-matter.

Note that both Baldick and Wheeler use the term attitude rather than feeling to explain what "tone" means. For comparison, see also Poetry Foundation's definition of tone:

The poet’s attitude toward the poem’s speaker, reader, and subject matter, as interpreted by the reader. Often described as a “mood” that pervades the experience of reading the poem, it is created by the poem’s vocabulary, metrical regularity or irregularity, syntax, use of figurative language, and rhyme.

This definition also relies on the term "attitude". For the emotional state in a literary work, L. Kip Wheeler uses the term mood.

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