Gearing up to teach or analyze mood in literature? This guide covers all of the basics about mood, from understanding its definition to unpacking examples to sharing engaging teaching tips. Consider this your foundation for teaching (or learning) mood as a literary device.
In literature, mood refers to the emotional response a piece of writing evokes in the reader. It is the overall feeling created by a text through other literary elements to create a general atmosphere for the piece. All works of literature, from novels to short stories to poems, incorporate mood. However, the mood itself greatly varies from text to text.
Authors use various literary devices, such as descriptive language, word choice, setting, sentence structure, and overall writing style, to establish these emotions. Whether evoking joy, suspense, melancholy, or any other emotion, the mood lays a foundation for the reader’s experience, making it a critical aspect of storytelling.
Mood is a one-syllable word pronounced with a long “oo” sound, similar to moon, food, and pool.
Authors can choose from various moods for their writing due to the diverse nature and complexity of human emotion. While some texts, especially shorter pieces of literature, have one consistent mood throughout the narrative, others, usually longer works, can have various moods throughout. More complex narratives may have different moods layered throughout the work, creating a dynamic reading experience for the audience.
The mood of a text is often described using adjectives and can be broken down into two major categories: positive and negative. These categories typically correlate with what we consider positive and negative emotions.
Here are some common examples:
Establishing mood in literature serves several purposes, mainly:
- Establishing atmosphere
- Evoking emotions
- Enhancing theme and message
- Increasing reader engagement
With skilled writers, establishing a particular mood is never an accident. It’s a strategic tool authors intentionally use, guiding the reader on a specific emotional journey. Authors know mood plays a crucial role in shaping the reader’s experience and perception of a story, influencing their emotional response, connection, and engagement with the text. Therefore, they craft the mood to enhance the impact of the themes and messages they want to convey through their work.
Ultimately, the purpose of mood is to enrich the storytelling, allowing authors to shape the reader’s experience to foster more profound connections with the narrative, including its characters, settings, conflicts, themes, and more.
While mood and tone are interconnected elements of a story, each serves a distinct purpose. Mood refers to the emotional atmosphere of a text, influencing the reader’s emotional response. Conversely, tone refers to the author’s attitude or emotional stance toward the subject matter, characters, or events within the narrative. While we’ve already explored why authors use mood, tone provides insights into the author’s intent, guiding readers in understanding the reason behind the words. For example, an author may adopt a humorous tone to establish a fun, lighthearted narrative, a serious tone to address important issues, or a detached tone to objectively present events.
In some instances, tone and mood line up, supporting one another. In other cases, the two elements contrast, adding an intentional sense of irony, complexity, or depth to a story. Regardless, tone always reflects the author’s attitude, whereas mood always focuses on the reader’s emotions.
While both are conveyed through diction and syntax, tone is often implied through stylistic choices, whereas mood is represented through narrative elements and literary devices. Both work to underscore an overarching message, theme, or perspective an author is trying to relay.
While you can find textual evidence to support a specific emotion, moods are established throughout an entire work versus in a single sentence, paragraph, or chapter. Identifying mood in literature requires readers to recognize and pay attention to the intentional choices made by the author throughout the text. Paying attention to the following literary elements will help fully capture, understand, and unpack the mood of any particular work of literature:
A story’s setting can significantly contribute to the mood. Consider how establishing and describing where and when a story occurs, weather conditions, and the overall environment create or emphasize specific emotions.
Example: A story on a “dark and stormy night” will establish a different mood than one set in an enchanting forest or magical kingdom.
Pay attention to characters’ emotional states throughout a story as they often understone the intended mood. Pay attention to their thoughts, feelings, actions, reactions, and the overall dynamics of their relationships with other characters.
Example: A character who is happily falling in love will add a different layer to the mood than a character who is dealing with guilt, paranoia, or fear.
The choice of words, or diction, by an author greatly impacts the story’s mood. They often carefully consider the connotation of words they use, guiding a reader toward a specific emotional response. Taking it one step further, authors may employ the use of vivid and sensory details to create mental images for the reader, intensifying the emotional impact of a narrative.
Other literary devices, including symbolism, metaphors, similes, and foreshadowing, often work together with diction and imagery to establish or enhance mood.
Example: A writer may use happy, colorful, vibrant words and imagery to convey a joyful mood or opt for dark, shadowy imagery coupled with “negative” words to evoke a sense of suspense or apprehension.
Since mood is not a one-and-done thing, but is established throughout the entire work, it’s essential to consider its consistency throughout the story. Identifying recurring patterns and consistent emotional undertones throughout a narrative can help readers identify and understand the mood.
On the other hand, authors sometimes employ contrasting elements to create irony, creating a divergence between what is expected and what actually occurs. This can add depth to the mood by introducing elements of surprise or complexity. Whether you notice patterns or stark contrasts, it’s an intentional choice that ties into the piece’s mood and the message the author is trying to convey.
The genre and plot of a piece of literature are strongly tied to its mood. Different genres inherently carry specific expectations regarding the emotional atmosphere they create. The genre tends to set the initial expectations for the mood, as different genres trend toward particular moods. A classic example is thriller, horror, and mystery genres, which tend to evoke feelings of suspense, fear, anxiety, and doom. On the other hand, more traditional romance novels tend to stir up overarching feelings of hope, love, and passion.
The plot, with its conflicts, resolutions, pacing, twists, and character arcs, works with the genre to shape the story’s mood. The events and developments within the plot add to the overall emotional impact and connections a reader feels. While the plot may stir up various emotions, the story’s conflict resolution typically emphasizes the lasting emotional impact the author wishes the reader to take away from the piece.
Focusing on the author’s craft and style, including sentence structure and pacing, is another way authors build up a particular emotional response from readers. Consider the author’s deliberate choices regarding everything from choices in language and structure to perspective and tone. Does the author employ flashbacks or foreshadowing? Is there dialogue? Does the story unfold in a linear or non-linear way?
Paying attention to the overall narrative on a macro level helps readers see the inner workings of all the author’s choices, and better understand their overall impact on the mood and message of a piece.
Emotions are an abstract concept, making them a bit nuanced in nature. Therefore, some students struggle to grasp the concept at first. Here are some practical tips to effectively teach mood to students:
- Show plenty of examples: Use a variety of literary excerpts to illustrate different moods, especially if students are new to the concept. Encourage students to analyze and discuss the nuances in these examples to deepen their understanding of mood in literature.
- Start with short stories and poetry: Begin teaching mood by focusing on shorter literary works such as short stories and poetry. Allow students to grasp mood dynamics more quickly and effectively before diving into more complex and nuanced works.
- Plan interactive activities: Engage students in activities that allow them to experience and express different moods. Role-playing, creative writing exercises, and mood-themed discussions can enhance understanding.
- Conduct guided close readings: Guide students through analysis of excerpts from diverse literary works. Identify elements that contribute to the mood and discuss how authors use them to elicit specific emotions.
- Refer to visuals: Help make this abstract concept more concrete by using mood boards, images, and multimedia to help students visualize and connect with different moods. This multi-sensory approach is great for engaging different styles of learners while enhancing their understanding of the concept.
- Make real-world connections: Relate mood in literature to real-world experiences and emotions. Discussing how certain situations or environments evoke specific feelings can make the concept more relatable.
1. Suspense and Guilt in “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe
Poe is the master of Gothic horror, and all the moods that come with it, and “The Tell-Tale Heart” is no exception. The story creates a sense of suspense, fear, and guilt throughout the story, underscoring the narrator’s slip into madness. As the narrator becomes increasingly obsessed and disturbed by the old man’s eye, the mood becomes ominous and foreboding, leading to a chilling climax.
“The Landlady” is a great example of how authors manipulate mood to create a sense of irony, dramatic effect, and suspense in literature. In this short story, the reader initially feels a sense of curiosity, which swiftly turns to unease and, ultimately, horror as young Billy Weaver falls victim to the landlady’s sinister ways.
The mood in “Mother to Son” is one of resilience and determination. The speaker balances detailing her hardships and metaphor of life as a challenging staircase, conveying a mood of struggle and perseverance from the start. However, as the poem continues, the mood shifts to reflect a sense of encouragement and optimism as it becomes clear that the speaker’s goal is to share her wisdom and experiences with her son, inspiring and motivating him to keep pushing forward in the face of hardship.
For most of the novel, readers are easily caught up in the whimsical and carefree decadence of the character’s lives, feeling hopeful that Gatsby and Daisy will get their happily ever after. However, as the narrative carries on, readers begin to understand that not everything is as it seems. This shift stirs up a sense of emptiness and melancholy, helping Fitzgerald highlight the tone of disillusionment in the 1920s and his critique of the American Dream.
This mood and tone reference sheet is perfect to help guide your students through a literary exploration.
Teach the nuances and impact of mood with a short story analysis of “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe.
Learn my best tips and tricks for teaching mood and tone with short stories.
Engage your students in an exploration of mood with the following videos: