College English / Literature: Lecture Seven
MOM USED TO SAY "Don't talk to me in that tone of voice!"

The word "tone" is more often associated with music, so I've placed a sound file here to illustrate.
Double click on the speaker icon
and play it. [You may have to download it and then start your system's audio player; however, this won't work if you don't have a sound card on your system.]

Now see if you can come up with some words to describe the tone; it's best to use words associated with feelings (sad, happy, etc.). Jot them down and then continue reading this lecture.

Music is used to add to the emotional value of a scene; sometimes it's used to give us a sense of what the character is like. The tune you just heard is the theme from "The X-Files." Did you recognize it? What kind of words did you come up with to describe the tone? You could have said any one of a variety of things: mysterious, eerie, scary. (Feel free to e-mail your suggestions to me.)

In literature, like the stories you're reading for this course, writers don't have the advantage of background or mood music. All they have are the words. But words have sounds; if you're a good reader, you should be able to "hear" the story as you read it. And those sounds are what create the tone of the story. And the tone is a major clue to the writer's attitude.

Listen Do you recognize this?"

Can you "hear" what's happening? Do you understand why Vincent Price was such a good interpreter of Poe? The gothic, somber tone of Poe's stories requires a somber sounding, but refined voice. Look at how Poe constructed this scene. I've broken out each of the tonal elements to make it clearer:

"I had scarcely laid the first tier of the masonry when I discovered that the intoxication of Fortunato had in a great measure worn off."
    See how smoothly the sentence flows. Today's prose tends to be quicker and more quickly to the point. In Poe's day, people were willing to spend more time reading and the writer devoted more time to telling the story.
"The earliest indication I had of this was a low moaning cry from the depth of the recess."
    He introduces the first sound; notice how the sentence is structured to draw out the sound, it's "...a low moaning cry from the depth of the recess."
"It was not the cry of a drunken man."
    Now he clarifies the sound for us even further. Just in case you thought it was a drunken moan and just to make sure you didn't miss his earlier point, that Fortunato's intoxication "had in a great measure worn off."
"There was a long and obstinate silence."
    He now punctuates the moan with silence, which not only lasts a long time, but is also "obstinate" (meaning "stubborn.") The silence won't stop. [Have you ever been in a situation like that? You're waiting for a sound and it won't the cliche about waiting for the other shoe to drop?]
"I laid the second tier and the third, and the fourth; and then I heard the furious vibrations of the chain. The noise lasted for several minutes, during which, that I might hearken to it with the more satisfaction, I ceased my labors and sat down upon the bones."
    Poe does something neat here. Notice that Montressor goes back to work, laying the bricks and then, finally, hears the sound he waited for. Why are the chains vibrating? Because Fortunato is struggling to escape. He's in a panic! And the neat thing Poe does is he has Montressor sit down (on the bones!) so he can enjoy it ("that I might hearken to it with the more satisfaction").
"When at last the clanking subsided, I resumed the trowel, and finished without interruption the fifth, the sixth, and the seventh tier."
    So...Montressor waits until the ckanking stops and then, ever so calmly, finishes up. This is one of the things that Poe was so good at. (Stephen King knows how to do it too.) The killer who is cool and calm is much more terrifying than the one who is wild and crazy.

Here's some more examples from other stories.

"Elisa stood in front of her wire fence watching the slow progress of the caravan. Her shoulders were straight, her head thrown back, her eyes half closed, so that the scene came vaguely into them. Her lips moved silently forming the words 'Good-bye--good-bye.' Then she whispered, "That's a bright direction. There's a glowing there.' The sound of her whisper startled her."
    Look closely at the structure of this. Steinbeck has a good ear for the sound of words as a way to set the mood. When he says "Her shoulders were straight, her head thrown back, her eyes half closed" there's a nice balance to the phrases (and he knows that a triplet, where all elements are equal, has a firm sound to it.) Read the statement "That's a bright direction. There's a glowing there." outloud, but in a whisper and hear how it sounds to get a feel for the effect of the tone.

"Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8,500! We're going through! The pounding of the cylinders increased; pocketa - pocketa - pocketa - pocketa - pocketa...."
    Look at all of those exclamation points. There's shouting going on inside Walter's head. And I know you realize that Thurber uses the "pocketa - pocketa - pocketa" to tie together the various daydreams Walter has. (Of course, we know it's the sound of his car.) But the short sentences punctuated with exclamation points is what gives this story the sound of a dramatic moment in a movie. It's overdone...and that's precisely how a daydream works.

"Kleenex, he thought, Squibb's, razor blades? No. Toothpaste, toothbrush, bicarbonate, carborundum, initiative and referendum? He gave it up. But she would remember it. 'Where's the what's-its-name?' she would ask. 'Don't tell me you forgot the what's-its-name."
    The sound of "Toothpaste, toothbrush, bicarbonate, carborundum, initiative and referendum" makes a sharp contrast with the melodrama of the earlier quote. Much of the humor in the Walter Mitty story comes from that contrast. The tone of Walter's everyday, humdrum life collides with the tone of high drama in his fantasy worlds.

"He could feel his service pistol, a Beretta 9, holstered to his right hip, wedged in there against the door. Handcuffs were hooked to his belt. A shotgun, an MP5 machine gun, his vest, a sledgehammer, and several more pairs of cuffs were in the trunk. He had left the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office about nine this morning. Almost five hours up to Ocala, then had to wait around an hour for the paperwork before getting his prisoner. By then it was after three. Now, more than halfway back, it was starting to get dark."
    See how much choppier this is? There are more breaking points--commas and periods. It has that "wise guy" sound to it. Television and movies have sped things up as this example from Elmore Leonard's story illustrates.

If you read a story and can "hear" the tone of it you'll do much better at refining your interpretation. A good central idea doesn't just identify the story's comment on people or life, it also identifies the writer's attitude toward it. A good interpretation of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is that it shows how some people escape from their mundane lives through their fantasies. A better interpretation is that it shows, in a humorous way, how some people escape from their mundane lives through their fantasies. Likewise, a good interpretation of The Cask of Amontillado is that it shows how some people can carry revenge to extremes. A better interpretation is that it shows the horror of some people who carry revenge to extremes.

Got it? If it's still not clear, let me know. (I'm still learning too.) Send an e-mail to Dr. Write.

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