Identifying the tone, setting, and mood in a short story can help you analyze that story.
In this lesson, we’ll think about those literary features in the context of a few well-known American short stories.
Analyzing the American Short Story
Short stories can be fun because they provide us with a little world we can get a glimpse of and think about on a scale that’s much smaller than that of a novel. In this lesson, we’ll think a bit about some of the techniques that short story writers use to create those worlds, as well as the impacts that those techniques can have on the reader.
What Is Tone?
One aspect of a short story that you’ll want to be aware of as you begin your literary analysis is tone, which is the attitude of a writer toward what he or she is writing about. Has the author adopted a stern or serious tone toward his or her characters and their actions? Or perhaps a humorous or even sarcastic tone? And how do we even figure out what the tone of a story is?To figure out the author’s tone in a story, pay close attention to his or her diction, or word choice. As a reader, you may be able to track an abundance of negative terms or perhaps words that evoke a certain type of imagery.
Here’s an example, from the opening lines of the 1894 short story ‘The Story of an Hour,’ by Kate Chopin:Knowing that Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble, great care was taken to break to her as gently as possible the news of her husband’s death. It was her sister Josephine who told her, in broken sentences; veiled hints that revealed in half concealing.Notice the trend here in the words that Chopin uses, all stemming from the idea that ‘great care’ must be taken with our delicate protagonist. Take note of the adjectives Chopin employs when describing that great care: ‘veiled’ and ‘half concealing,’ in particular, as Mrs. Mallard is spoken to in ‘broken sentences.
‘ The first few lines are dominated with words denoting illness and fragility; everyone regards the main character gently and tentatively. There’s a bit of a condescending tone, as Mrs. Mallard is described as a lady who, others feel, must be treated with kid gloves.As the story progresses, though, we can see the tone shift.
Alone, Mrs. Mallard weeps with ‘wild abandonment,’ in a ‘storm of grief,’ and she soon realizes the possibilities that lie ahead of her as a single woman outside of the confines of marriage. We no longer see words that denote weakness and fragility but rather rebirth and freedom. She sees trees ‘aquiver with the new spring life,’ with ‘countless sparrows .
. . twittering in the eaves.’ Soon, she sees ‘patches of blue sky showing here and there through the clouds.’ This part of the story is written in an empowered tone, culminating in Mrs. Mallard’s repeated whispers of, ‘Free! Body and soul free!’Chopin soon introduces a twist to this very short story when it’s revealed that our main character’s husband in fact hasn’t been killed.
The shock of seeing her husband alive causes Mrs. Mallard’s death at the very end of the story, and everyone assumes that she dies ‘of heart disease – of joy that kills.’ Chopin’s tone at the very end of the story is an ironic one.
‘The Story of An Hour’ is a good example of dramatic irony, which arises when the reader knows something that the characters don’t know. Here, the reader in fact knows that Mrs. Mallard was not the mere weakling that everyone took her to be, and that she most certainly did not die of joy. In the hour before her death, she had been reborn and looked forward to ‘Spring days, and summer days, and all sorts of days that would be her own’. The reader knows, from Chopin’s diction and tone, that it wasn’t the shock of joy that killed a weak woman in this story, but rather the sudden grief brought about by having her newfound freedom and identity snatched away.
In this story, then, the shifting tone toward our main character makes an important point about how other characters view and treat her is at odds with who she truly is as an individual.
What Is Setting?
When analyzing literature, it’s also helpful to identify a story’s setting, which is when and where the story takes place. The ‘when’ part of a setting can refer to more than just the time of day or the season. It can also refer to the time in history when the events of the story occur.
One American short story in which setting plays a key role is ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ published in 1892 by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It tells the tale of a new mother whose nervous condition leads her to spend her days alone in a bedroom in a rented house. Her husband, a physician who diagnosed her condition and who dismisses her concerns and her clearly deteriorating mental state, insists that she stay and rest in the room, where she becomes increasingly obsessed with what she describes as the ‘repellent,’ ‘revolting,’ ‘horrid’ wallpaper.Although our nameless first person narrator mentions brief excursions from the bedroom, the entirety of her narration takes place in the ‘atrocious’ room with barred windows. Gradually losing her sanity, our narrator begs her husband to leave but is forced to stay; she eventually succumbs to a madness that has her gnawing the bedposts, clawing at and ripping the wallpaper, and crawling around the room in circles. Perkins Gilman makes the setting – the room defined by its hideous yellow wallpaper – practically another character with a life of its own. The narrator complains that the paper from the room has developed a smell that ‘creeps all over the house,’ ‘skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs.
‘As our narrator devolves into madness, she no longer wants to leave, noting that she will ‘have to get back behind the pattern’ of the wallpaper, and finding it ‘pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please!’ The setting of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ – a barred room in which a young mother feels trapped, where her condescending husband dismissively leaves her – serves as a symbolic statement about women’s repression and their roles at the time.
What Is Mood?
You’re no doubt already familiar with the term ‘mood,’ given that you may go through a number of emotional states in a day, from sullen to apprehensive to exuberant. In literature, mood refers to essentially the same thing: the feeling that is brought about within a reader by a literary work.In the classic tale ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ by Edgar Allan Poe, the mood builds from suspense to horror. In the story, Montresor, a character who is gradually revealed to be murderously demented, leads his associate, Fortunato, into a catacomb, or underground cemetery, under false pretenses, only to wall him up, leaving him to die.Poe sets the mood of the story in a few ways, primarily through theme and setting. The theme of a work of literature is essentially its main idea or subject matter.
The main theme of ‘The Cask of Amontillado’ is revenge. The story opens with Montresor, who serves as first-person narrator for the story, telling us, ‘The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.’ The reader begins to sense that Montresor, who wishes to punish his associate, perhaps for mere slights, is unhinged when he reveals, ‘It must be understood that neither by word nor deed had I given Fortunato cause to doubt my good will. I continued, as was my want, to smile in his face, and he did not perceive that my smile now was at the thought of his immolation.’By introducing the audience, right in the first few lines of the story, to a character who is obsessively fixated on revenge, Poe creates a mood of suspense within his readers.
This mood gradually evolves into dread and finally horror as Montresor carries out his terrible plan. As Montresor lures Fortunato into the catacombs by telling him that he has wine (Amontillado, specifically) that he’d like him to try, Poe employs the chilling setting of the story to further heighten the unsettling mood of the story. Our story starts out at dusk during carnival season, and our unsuspecting victim is decked out in carnival regalia; as Montresor lures him down into the damp confines of the catacombs, the story’s descent into horror becomes palpable.Poe creates the mood and the building sense of dread through the setting and the two characters’ descent ‘down a long and winding staircase’ to the ‘damp ground of the catacombs.’ Poe describes the pair as they ‘descended, passed on, and descending again, arrived at a deep crypt, in which the foulness of the air caused our flambeaux rather to glow than flame.’ The fact that Poe has not revealed to the reader precisely what Montresor has planned only builds the suspenseful mood, up until the moment when he shackles his unsuspecting companion to the wall and begins to brick him in.
The mood of the story then becomes that of abject horror, as Poe writes, ‘A succession of loud and shrill screams, bursting suddenly from the throat of the chained form, seemed to thrust me violently back. … I replied to the yells of him who clamored.
I reechoed, I aided, I surpassed them in volume and in strength. I did this, and the clamorer grew still.’ As the story comes to a close, all of the elements of the story converge to produce quite a chilling effect.
There are a few basic aspects of literature that are useful to identify at the start of one’s analysis of a short story. Tone is the writer’s attitude toward his or her subject matter. Tone can be established largely through the author’s diction, or word choice. Tone is a bit different from mood, which is the feeling that is brought about within a reader by a literary work. The mood of a story, in particular, can be generated by the story’s setting, which is when and where the story takes place.
The mood can also be set in part by the story’s theme, or main subject matter.
When you’ve finished watching the video, your goal should be to:
- Define tone and explain how it can help you analyze a short story
- Identify a short story’s setting
- Describe how identifying the mood can help in an analysis
- Explain what a literary work’s theme is