Mood in Composition and Literature

The glossary of grammatical and rhetorical terms

Full Moon
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In essays and other literary works, the mood is the dominant impression or emotional atmosphere evoked by the text.

Distinguishing between mood and tone can be difficult. W. Harmon and H. Holman suggest that mood is "the emotional-intellectual attitude of the author toward the subject" and tone "the attitude of the author toward the audience" (A Handbook to Literature, 2006).

Examples and Observations From Other Texts

  • "Authors often use concrete details to engage the reader's imagination, establishing mood and tone; they often draw on sensory imagery. In 'Journey to Nine Miles,' when Alice Walker writes, 'By five o'clock, we were awake, listening to the soothing slapping of the surf and watching the sky redden over the ocean,' she appeals to the reader's senses of sight and sound to establish a colorful, sensual tone that pervades the essay. Similarly, Arthur C. Clarke's narrator creates tension—establishing mood and tone—in the first few sentences of 'The Star,' while providing readers with a clear sense of time and place: 'It is three thousand light-years to the Vatican. Once, I believed that space could have no power over faith, just as I believed that the heavens declared the glory of God's handiwork. Now I have seen that handiwork and my faith is sorely troubled.'"
    (J. Sterling Warner and Judith Hilliard, Visions Across the Americas: Short Essays for Composition, 7th ed. Wadsworth, 2010)
  • "[T]he reader must have a sympathetic relation with the subject matter and a sensitive ear; especially must he have a sense of 'pitch' in writing. He must recognize when the quality of feeling comes inevitably out of the theme itself; when the language, the stresses, the very structure of the sentences are imposed upon the writer by the special mood of the piece."
    (Willa Cather, "Miss Jewett." Not Under Forty, 1936)
  • "Tone in fiction is like the tone of a storyteller's voice: is it playful, serious, melancholy, frightening, or what? (It can be any of these things, and still be the same voice.)
    "Mood has to do with the emotions the author makes the reader feel in less direct ways—by the sounds of the words she uses, the length and rhythm of sentences, the choice of images and their associations.
    "Sometimes tone and mood are most effective when they are mismatched."
    (Damon Knight, Creating Short Fiction, 3rd ed. Macmillan, 1997)
  • "The mood of a poem is not quite the same thing as the tone although the two are very closely linked. When we refer to the mood of a poem we are really talking about the atmosphere that the poet creates in the poem. . . .
    "One way to try to help yourself establish the mood of a poem is to read it aloud. You can experiment with various readings, seeing which one you think best fits the particular poem. (Don't try this in an exam, of course.) The more practice you get at reading poems aloud and the more you are able to hear others read them, the better able you will be able to 'hear' poems in your mind when you read them to yourself."
    (Steven Croft, English Literature: The Ultimate Study Guide. Letts and Londale, 2004)
  • "The essay, as a literary form, resembles the lyric, in so far as it is molded by some central mood—whimsical, serious, or satirical. Give the mood, and the essay, from the first sentence to the last, grows around it as the cocoon grows around the silkworm. The essay writer is a chartered libertine and a law unto himself. A quick ear and eye, an ability to discern the infinite suggestiveness of common things, a brooding meditative spirit, are all that the essayist requires to start business with." (Alexander Smith, "On the Writing of Essays." Dreamthorp, 1863)

Mood in Walker's Jubilee (1966)

"In several instances [in Margaret Walker's novel Jubilee] mood is conveyed more by conventional notation—the number thirteen, boiling black pot, full moon, squinch owl, black crone—than any decisive nuance of thought or detail; or more precisely, fear is disembodied from internal agitations of feeling and becomes an attribute of things. 'Midnight came and thirteen people waited for death. The black pot boiled, and the full moon rode the clouds high in the heavens and straight up over their heads. . . . It was not a night for people to sleep easy. Every now and then the squinch owl hollered and the crackling fire would glare and the black pot boil. . . .'" Hortense J. Spillers, "A Hateful Passion, a Lost Love." Toni Morrison's "Sula," ed. by Harold Bloom. Chelsea House, 1999)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Mood in Composition and Literature." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Mood in Composition and Literature. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Mood in Composition and Literature." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 25, 2023).