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.

Develop This!

Running dry on ideas? Only see “repetition” and the tone in one character’s lines? Really can’t find anything to say?

To develop your analysis of one point, you can think about the progression of a character / persona’s tone or effects — how the tone intensifies or shifts — while close-analysing the “key points” or “turning points” in the progression.

This close analysis means you have to: (i) explore the quotations in finer detail, looking out for nuances / minute differences (e.g. the reference to “Dad”); and (ii) explore the effects in finer detail, looking at how “desperation” is “not-so-desperate” early on, or how a patient appeal can escalate towards a firm demand.

Here are a couple of figures that might help, especially if you’re in the graph-plotting crowd. Evidently, I am too. 😉 Examples below are taken from the Proof (2000) extract in Paper 3 CA4.

Developing Your Analysis


In our second Lit Cut after the first one on metaphors, we will be studying the art of narration and the many different ways we can analyse the narrator. In the first half, we’re split hairs on what or who an omniscient narrator, limited narrator, first-person narrator, unreliable narrator all mean. Once our voices are hoarse with these literary terms, we’ll progress to analysing examples of Austen’s narrator from Pride and Prejudice.

Continue reading “Narration”

I Really Really Really Like Repetition

All, all, all you Lit students, all you Lit students should really really really watch this. If there’s anything you should realise in our study of the three literary genres, it’s that repetition has a place in the writer’s craft. Repetition creates rhythm, pumping emphasis, injecting urgency and deepening despair in different contexts. Far from “uncreative”, repetition and cumulation – the use of words with similar meaning – make explicit to the reader / audience the importance of those very words (both denotative and connotative meanings), reinforce impressions of characters and ingrain an understanding of the writer’s concerns. So, yeah, repetition slays.



In this first of hopefully many Lit Cuts, we explore various literary methods – poetic, dramatic, prosaic – across texts outside our narrow syllabus. Just as hopefully, these posts will clarify your understanding and expand our imagination of what literature can be, and how writers carve out new meaning for themselves.

In this post, we dive into the use of figurative language in one enthralling chapter from Altered Straits. Half of the novel is based on the boy-soldier Naufal Jazair’s fight against “an aggressive neighbour” in a reimagined Singapore in 1947.

Continue reading “Metaphors”

Unpinning the Dress


In this extension tutorial, 17-E1 examines the use of voice and rhythm to Christine Chia‘s pithy and potent ‘New Year Dress’.  Remember to apply the skills of picking out (for voice) perspective, tone, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, (for rhythm) pauses, end-stopped lines and enjambment from our retread of Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney’. 🙂

New Year Dress

A dress is not just a dress
when your mother gives it to you
with the instruction that you
must wear it on the first day
of Chinese New Year.                                      5
You’ll never buy anything like that
but you put it on,
so that she’ll be happy,
radiant in front of the relatives
because she birthed you,                                10
clothed you, owned you,
like the dress she gave you.

> ‘.’ <

Write a critical paragraph on the above poem, relating it to the portrayal of the relationship between parent and child. You may respond to the guiding questions below, or roam free. Upon completion, let Mr. Lim know and await a few less-than-motherly words of affection. If given the green light, your newly clothed paragraph can see the light of day – post it as a comment here. Remember to leave your name somewhere!

> ‘.’ <


  • Who is the persona, and what are her feelings about the ‘New Year Dress’?


  • Why does the poem employ the second-person point of view (‘you’)? What is the tone, or attitude towards the dress?
  • Which words in lines 1-9 express the persona’s tone? Identify patterns of words (e.g. conjunctions, modal verbs, adjectives) and closely analyse how they evoke the tone.
  • Comment on the progression (change in effects) in lines 10-12, considering 1-2 features listed below:
    – Enumeration, or the listing of verbs (birthed, clothed, owned)
    – The repetition of ‘you’ at the end (i.e. epistrophe) and the pauses after ‘you’
    – The shift from enjambment (lines 1-5) to end-stopped lines (lines 10-12)


  • What does the persona’s attitude towards the dress suggest about her relationship with her mother?
  • What can we say about the relationship between a parent and a child in general?

An Introduction to Drama

Rip You to Pieces

Hello students! We’ll be studying a grand total of THREE plays this year, so you should expect to be swimming in a lot of character dialogue, stage directions and ‘visualisation’ of stage action, stage movement and characters’ expression.

We will be using much of our tutorial time in the first few weeks of Term 2 to expose you to these aspects and how to read / analyse a dramatic text of course.

I thought you might find the following lecture I did in 2015 useful and maybe enjoyable (I know I did, but that’s me). You will also see for the umpteenth time my obsession with the Hamlet reference on the SCGS banner within the notes, so I apologise in advance. It did have a role in me teaching you, so maybe it’s not all that bad? Maybe? (P.S. I just used a mix of rhetorical questions).

That’s So Drama (Notes)

That’s So Drama (Slides)

Tasting the Whole ‘Jar of Honey’


At our second lecture, the cohort was called to respond to Jacob Polley’s ‘A Jar of Honey’ and did what I thought to be a very promising effort on the whole. We heard everyone’s thoughtful elaboration – and personal voice – when it came to life’s struggles and difficulties, and the need to overcome these minor obstacles, all from (as it would seem) the poem’s closing line, ‘attesting to the nature of the struggle’. With this level of spirited interpretation, I’ll be inferring all future silences as evidence of humility, or perhaps call upon your thumbs to unleash your ‘voice’ upon your mobile device. With  the overtone of defeatism in your technology-equipped responses, we will consciously avoid bringing sharp objects into future lessons.

Ms Yeo also made the observation (rightfully so) that we were not seeing the ‘whole’ poem in our response to the poem’s purpose. In other words, the cohort was responding to the second stanza and not including the first as the basis of the interpretation. This post is really intended to clarify misconceptions that many of my previous students had in the early stages of their A-level Lit journey, which I hope you would find of use here.

You hold it like a lit bulb,
a pound of light,
and swivel the stunned glow
around the fat glass sides:

it’s the sun, all flesh and no bones
but for the floating knuckle
of honeycomb
attesting to the nature of the struggle.

In reading and analysing a poem, we have to consider it in PARTS and as a WHOLE. We can divvy a poem, play or novel in one of many ways: we can funnel each text into the broad methods of language, style and form; or we can simply understand the text by its structural parts of stanzas, paragraphs, chapters, acts and so on. This act helps us organise our own essay, with one body paragraph dedicated to language (point of view, tone, diction) and another to style (the use of light and sun images) for instance. That is to say, your response to the ‘nature of the struggle’ in stanza 2 is important and has its place in the “WHY” framework for a body paragraph.

In hindsight, Ms Yeo’s call was for us to interpret the purpose of the whole poem. This means that you would not restrict yourself to Stanza 2, and perhaps show (i) how the two stanzas are related to each other; (ii) the purpose of the whole poem. To demonstrate how these are different, I have written two sample paragraphs on Stanza 1, and the whole poem. While reading the latter paragraph, pay attention to the purposes of both parts (stanzas 1 and 2) are represented, the links between the two purposes, and the purpose of the whole; also note how this paragraph borrows from the earlier paragraph, and then extends its analysis and response to reflect on the whole poem.

> ‘.’ <

Sample paragraph on the first stanza

(What) The first stanza of ‘A Jar of Honey’, which one might extend to include line 5 (‘it’s the sun, all flesh and no bones’), evidently aggrandises and exalts the jar of honey in the persona’s hand. (How) Polley uses a range of light images to present the honey, first comparing it to a ‘light bulb’, then expressing awe towards ‘a pound of light’ and ‘the stunned glow’ contained within the jar. The connotations of ‘light’ place the honey as a source of knowledge and wonder, giving colour to the world around it as a ‘bulb’ and ‘glow’ would. These effects are more stark in the metaphor of ‘the sun’, which brings with it life-giving qualities. (Why) Thus, the first stanza marvels at the jar of honey, beyond something to consume and enjoy, as a celebration of nature, of its creations and of the shining, life-giving magic behind every ‘pound’ of it.


Sample paragraph on style in the whole poem

(What) The imagery in the poem’s two stanzas elevates the value and wonder of ‘A Jar of Honey’, within which we also sense the persona’s deep respect for the effort behind. (How) Images of light take their place throughout stanza 1, and reach towards stanza 2 in line 5. The jar of honey with its ‘fat glass sides’ is unable to contain the sheer brightness of a ‘light bulb’. It is a ‘pound of light’ with a ‘stunned glow’ that, inspiring the persona’s adoration and fascination, expands into even grander images of ‘the sun’ – a metaphor for nature and creation – and a vital body of ‘all flesh’. (How) It is on line 6 that the persona realises something different in ‘the floating knuckle / of honeycomb’ that comes closest to the ‘bones’ of the honey and represents the process of creation behind this ‘pound of light’. In the persona’s words, it is testament to the ‘nature of the struggle’, the toil and effort of bees at work. (Why) The second stanza does not overturn the magic of the first, instead acting as a call to appreciate both the product for its sweetness and light and the process for the unsung ‘struggle’. (Why) Read in its entirety, the poem is a tribute to nature’s wonders — not just in its state of beauty, but also the beauty of creating, supplementing and supporting life itself; there is perhaps a glint of a reflection on Man’s own role in the magic of everyday life as well.

Thoughts on ‘Buzzcut Season’


On song choice

In crafting today’s lecture, I went searching for something more contemporary like Anohni, Solange, maybe even Sia for us to pick apart but I returned to Lorde, whose lyrics  were no less accessible than the three listed artistes, no less socially conscious than the first, and no less evocative or scream-worthy than the latter two. The more prominent single ‘Royals’ was the basis of an introduction lecture a few years back (Memory! All alone in the moonlight!) and would recount a similar adolescent struggle with socio-economic class, media-inspired fantasy (here about celebrity and luxury) and an attempt, futile as it may be, at self-consolation – of being your own ‘ruler’ in your imaginary world.

The parallels between ‘Royals’ and ‘Buzzcut Season’ are drawn easily, even as the latter edges toward the more complex lines drawn between reality and simulation, the world as it is and the bubble that we sometimes isolate ourselves in. These lines, as noted in today’s reference to good boy Spicy, are harder to see. We could argue that fact and fiction are not just indistinguishable, but that fiction has come to subvert fact and fact is in permanent retreat.

On universality and ambiguity

‘Buzzcut Season’ makes no explicit reference to our context, because by the laws of time and space, it cannot. Its allusions to ‘men on the news’ and ‘explosions on TV’ are vague enough to refer to any context – the war on Iraq, the annexing of Crimea, or the lone-wolf terrorist attacks that turn up on our front pages. By that vagueness they acquire universality – it is the reader who puts together his or her knowledge of the world (see examples above), recovers his or her reaction to those events (e.g. despair, dejection) and finally connects to the persona’s abandonment, rejection or desire to escape from grim reality. This grimness stretches into the persona’s personal reality, starting from the image of constricted spaces (‘we ride the bus with the knees pulled in’) and ending on the revulsion towards expired ‘cola with the burnt-out taste’.

I think it is fair to say that the song, as one student aptly put it, leaves you with more questions than answers. What’s wrong with this ‘home’ the persona does not want to go back to? What really is this ‘hologram’ she is talking about? Place what call? And what’s so laughable about losing your hair or choosing to lose your hair in any case? The title of the song, ‘Buzzcut Season’ itself challenges our familiar conception of pop – sure, it could literally mean that many people are getting their heads shaved, probably in summer when it’s hot, but does it really make obvious its meaning in the same way, say, ‘I Don’t Wanna Live Forever’ does?

[Complete digression: the aforementioned song actually answers its own question. What is happening to you? Uh, you’re feeling crazy, you just told me this three lines earlier and a few more lines down!]

Like most of the poetry that we will encounter, ‘Buzzcut Season’ avoids the straightforward declarations of emotion and demands that you read and hear the teenage angst that pours out from its exclusion of ‘People‘ and ‘They‘, the wilfulness of ‘I’ll never go’ and ‘Shut my eyes…., and the self-justification of ‘But it’s so easy’ and ‘So now we live…’ None of the underlined words scream out their respective effects; it is the reader who analyses and interprets them.


On becoming a seasoned reader
What I am really trying to say is that it is OKAY to struggle in your first, second or even third reading of ‘Buzzcut Season’. The ambiguity, and universality, of the lyrics may be challenging at first, but these same qualities make it a rich text for you to make your own meaning of it… with reasoned analysis, lest we forget.

Despite the initial apprehension and lack of confidence, we were better placed in the second half of the lecture to claw at the song’s many possible ideas. Moving around, I saw that many of you had a clear sense of what you wanted to discuss, armed with a smattering of words drawn from the song itself. Just so you don’t feel alone, here are some struggles (again, perfectly normal!) that you faced:

  • Feeling stuck at lines / stanzas you did not understand… or immediately understand
  • Not knowing what to do after selecting one line, or one word of evidence
  • Being lost when it came to ‘effects’, especially abstract qualities (e.g. surreal) and feelings (e.g. disillusionment)

These ‘issues’ are common and I dare say central to facing the Unseen poetry, prose and drama components across the two papers. In the next few weeks, you will learn to overcome these struggles by:

  • Leaving aside certain lines and coming back to them later
    – There will always be parts of the text that are obscure to you. Keep reading, form a ‘big picture’ (i.e. how does the persona feel in general about reality?), and then go back to the part you were stuck at. Does it cohere? Is its effect or meaning the same?
  • Identifying patterns
    – You will be able to locate lines, words and images that are similar to the point you are already making (e.g. ‘explosions on TV’ and ‘men on the news’ go together)
    – Looking back, I wish I had emphasised that structures recur whether you are studying a geometric series in Math or a poem made out of words and lines. Some of you may have spotted the contrast in the slides themselves: each stanza would appear to be divided into a portrayal of depressing reality and a retreat into fantasy, with the third line always starting on a point of rejection (‘shut’, ‘but’, ‘so’). Spot one thing? Go spot some more.
  • Evaluating effects by questioning
    – We naturally approach foreign ideas by connecting them to familiar ones. The ‘bus’ might remind you of a ‘refugee bus’ or a ‘concentration camp’. The questions to ask yourself then could include, ‘how would refugees in this bus feel?’ (e.g. Deprived? Dehumanised? Despairing?) or ‘how would I describe a concentration camp’? (e.g. Cruel? Inhumane? Pathetic?).
    – When lines seem neutral and unremarkable, we could try reading them aloud, or in our heads, a few times. A line such as ‘People should see how we’re living’ can slowly reveal itself to be indignant, disgruntled and maybe self-pitying especially if we play up the distance between ‘People’ and ‘we’re’, or if we read ‘should’ with mighty gusto (umm, you SHOULD!)
  • If it’s repeated, it’s important. If it’s at the start, it’s important. If it’s at the end, it’s important.
    – I did hear groans (which speak positively of a desire to know) during the few minutes I gave you to discuss what the song was about. The first stanza is set up to bewilder, and the concept of a ‘buzzcut season’ is hardly familiar. Reading further down, the images of reality do lay down a few ideas. It is not until the chorus – meant to be repeated, meant to be read as the closing lines – that the song lets us in on the separation from home, and the movement towards a ‘hologram’, ‘hyper-real’ world full of ‘make-believe’. These three quotations are repeated, and they effectively repeat each other in meaning and content. Would it be fair to surmise that the song is about this hyper-reality, this make-believe world of ‘play(ing) along’? Of course. You need to run along and keep running until you find… a quotation, a ‘favourite friend’ of that quotation, and more company.

Too long; didn’t read
We read, and we learn. Some of the above points might come naturally to some of us, we might have been explicitly taught some of them, but whatever the case, know that we are all learning. What is valuable to us is to admit to what we are not sure about because we can’t know everything. We can choose to confront the ‘explosions’, the loss, the ugly reality of our lives, or we can – it’s easier than it seems – swim in false notions of comfort that ‘goes’ as easily as it comes.