The Importance of Tone

To appreciate the literary quality of a text, one must comprehend how a writer conveys meaning. The ‘how’ is often elusive for students new to the subject, as we usually read for what is being said rather than the methods a writer uses and the effects of the writer’s choices.

In my view, getting at the effects is the more useful ‘first step’. There is little merit in identifying methods such as rhyme scheme or structure (as students grasping for straws typically do) without an understanding of what these methods achieve in the first place.

Focusing on Tone

Newer learners then may find it easier, and more familiar, to examine tonethe way a character, narrator or persona says something, or the attitude or feelings implied by the words and sentences used.

The hell I will! You see, George didn’t have much . . . push . . . he wasn’t particularly aggressive. In fact he was sort of a …[spits the word at GEORGE’s back] …a FLOP! A great …big …fat …FLOP!

In the example from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? above, we note that the protagonist Martha perceives her husband George as a failure, or in her words, a ‘great… big… fat… FLOP!’. Reading this literally, we would take Martha’s words as the truth, and explain how George is indeed a failure.

The literary reading of this is more concerned about Martha’s hostile tone towards George. Her choice of words (i.e. diction), starting with the word ‘hell’ and ending on the repeated ‘FLOP’, conveys a viciousness that is also supported by her actions – she ‘spits the word at George’s back’. Her exclamatory sentences (i.e. syntax) also express anger.

While her words literally describe her perception of George, her tone tells us more about her as a disgruntled housewife.

Tone and Meaning

The importance of tone is obvious in how the opening line of Albert Camus’ L’Etranger (The Stranger) has been translated… or mistranslated, as Ryan Bloom writes in New Yorker. The French novel tells the story of Meursault, a French Algerian who is an ‘outsider’ to society, and is put on trial for murdering another man.

The first sentence matters, Bloom argues, because it colours the reader’s impression of Meursault. Is he guilty? Was there a cause to his actions? Was he a ‘good person’? The 1946 translation of the novel opens with:

Mother died today.

It is a simple sentence, one of ‘detached formality’. The word ‘Mother’ is functional. As said by Meursault, it contains ‘little warmth, little bond or closeness or love’. Bloom goes on to argue that the reader’s view of him is determined through his relationship with his mother. We ‘condemn or set him free based not on the crime he commits but on our assessment of him as a person’. Seeing Meursault as a distant, uncaring son, the reader is likely to judge him harshly.

This is the translation Bloom proposes should take its place:

Today, maman died.

The syntax – the order of words – here is truer to the original (‘Aujourd’hui, maman 1st more’). ‘Today’ is now placed at the start because it is ‘the single most important factor’ of Meursault’s life. It is a day of loss.

Applying our own analysis skills, the comma – part of grammatical convention – also forces us to slow down as we read the sentence. It introduces a gravity, a sense of mourning that is missing from the simple, quickly-read ‘Mother died today’.

The French word ‘maman‘, according to Bloom, is close to the word ‘mom’ in English. It lies somewhere in between the coldness of ‘mother’ and the overly childlike ‘mommy’. The word itself is rather neutral, but the pronunciation of its two syllables has ‘a touch of softness and warmth’ that is not present in ‘Mother’ or ‘mom’.

In this translation, his mother’s death hangs over Mersault, and the reader is more likely to sympathise with him.

Tone matters. How you say something, and not just what you say, matters more than you think.