Style, Tone and Language

The "tone" of a story or novel is the author's attitude toward a character. The tone can most often be determined at the beginning of a story, although clues will be sprinkled throughout. Knowing the author's attitude toward a character is important to a reader, because it helps us understand which characters we should trust and identify with and which attitudes, therefore, we can take as the author's. This helps determine theme. Note: the author's attitude may or may not be the same as the narrator's.

To determine the tone, pay attention to the author's choice of words and details. For example, at the beginning of Sherman Alexie's novel, Reservation Blues, we are introduced to Thomas, as he encounters a stranger on the reservation (yes, this is the same Thomas you met in "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona"):

Thomas wanted to know more about the Gentleman, but he was too polite and traditional to ask and refused to offend the black man with personal questions that early in the relationship. Traditional Spokanes believe in rules of conduct that aren't collected into any book and have been forgotten by most of the tribe. For thousands of years, the Spokanes feasted, danced, conducted conversations, and courted each other in certain ways. Most Indians don't follow those rules anymore, but Thomas made the attempt.

This passage tells you a great deal about Thomas, and the author's choice of words reveals his attitude toward Thomas. For example, Alexie doesn't say Thomas was "afraid" to ask the man questions, he says Thomas "refused to offend him..." This implies a deliberate choice, based on a set of principles. This decision by Thomas also lets you know that there is a conflict among the people on Thomas's reservation, and it tells you which side Thomas is on.

In an earlier paragraph, Thomas is described this way:

Although the Spokanes were mostly a light-skinned tribe, Thomas tanned to a deep brown, nearly dark as the black man. With his long, black hair pulled into braids, he looked like an old-time salmon fisherman: short muscular legs for the low center of gravity, long torso and arms for the leverage to throw the spear. Just a few days past thirty-two, he carried a slightly protruding belly that he'd had when he was eight years old and would still have when he was eighty. He wasn't ugly, though, just marked by loneliness, like some red L was tattooed on his forehead.

This description tells you Thomas is going to identify with the black man, who we will discover represents a set of traditions and difficult choices; and the phrase "he looked like an old-time salmon fisherman" tells you Thomas is connected to traditions of the past. The description of his body lets you see that his strength is both physical and rooted in tradition, and that this strength has set him apart from other people. The phrase "He wasn't ugly, though..." tells us the author has compassion for him, and is a signal to us that we should, too--and that, therefore, we should take his beliefs seriously, as well.


Each author has his or her own style, his or her own way of using language and details to express ideas. Style, too, can reflect theme.

Ernest Hemingway, for example, in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," uses many short, sharp sentences and gives few descriptive details. Paragraphs consist of just a few sentences. Even the lines of dialogue are short and clipped:

"Last week he tried to commit suicide," one waiter said.
"He was in despair."
"What about?"
"How do you know it was nothing?"
"He has plenty of money."

Even in the longer sentences, the words are short and hard-sounding: "The waiter poured on into the glass so that the brandy slopped over and ran down the stem into the top saucer of the pile."

This style helps express the themes of the story, one of which is the isolation of individual people from each other, and their loneliness. These people live in a hard world which provides little comfort, even in language.

In "A Rose for Emily," William Faulkner also explores the theme of isolation, but he emphasizes Emily's alienation by using style to provide a sense of abundance from which Emily is excluded. Many of Faulkner's sentences are long and include several ideas; the words flow smoothly and lazily, matching the pace of life in the town; and the narrator is "We," the people of the town:

When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old manservant--a combined gardener and cook--had seen in at least ten years.

As you can see, style and tone are closely connected.


Another tool writers use to help establish a thesis is symbolism. A "symbol" is a thing which suggests more than its literal meaning. For example, a rose usually stands for love; a sign of the skull and crossbones stands for poison.

In literature, most symbols aren't so simple; they usually don't "stand for" any one idea. Instead, they suggest or hint, or draw attention to an idea. They can mean more than one thing, and they can be interpreted in different ways by different readers.

In John Nichols' novel, The Milagro Beanfield War, one of the characters, an old man, sees an angel. But it is not your conventional angel. This is an old, battered, mangy, cranky coyote with one broken wing and a crooked halo. And he makes it plain that he's angry about being assigned to protect these people in this tiny town.

Now, John Nichols could have created a beautiful, white-robed angel with a shining halo, but he chose not to. What does Nichols want to imply about the people of the town? What qualities and attributes do coyotes have that the people of the town might also have? Coyotes are scavengers; they can survive anywhere; they may not be pretty, but they are very smart; and they are tough, sneaky, and creative. You can see what Nicjols is implying about the townspeople.

In the stories that you've read, there are lots of symbols: the light and the shadows in "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place," the house in "How to Talk to Girls at Parties," the eye in "The Tell-Tale Heart," and many more.

Characters can be symbolic, too: Miss Emily, in "A Rose For Emily," represents a rapidly fading way of life; Homer Barron represents the new century and its new ways.

An action can be symbolic: when Lt. Cross destroy's Martha's letters in "The Things They Carried," he is symbolically letting go of his dreams of love and a normal life; he is acknowledging that that isn't possible any longer.

To find symbols, look for references to objects that are repeated; look closely at references to objects that aren't necessary to the story (Miss Emily's invisible, ticking watch is mentioned twice, for example, when it is completely unimportant to the plot). Symbols are often found at the beginning or end of a story, or make up part of the title. And don't skip the descriptions: often, symbols are found there.


An allegory is a story which has two levels of meaning, one literal and one symbolic. Each event, character or object symbolizes one single idea. The medieval play Everyman is an allegory: its characters are named such things as Kindred and Good Deeds, and stand for virtues and vices. The play is not at all ambiguous; it is meant to teach a clear lesson to its audience.

A "fable" is a type of allegory, except that the characters are animals with human traits. As in an allegory, there is a clear moral. The most famous fables are by Aesop, and each has a moral stated explicitly at the end.

The following fable by James Thurber is humorous, but is still intended to make a strong point. It was published just after World War II.

The Rabbits Who Caused All the Trouble

Within the memory of the youngest child there was a family of rabbits who lived near a pack of wolves. The wolves announced that they did not like the way the rabbits were living. (The wolves were crazy about the way they themselves were living, because it was the only way to live.) One night several wolves were killed in an earthquake and this was blamed on the rabbits, for it is well known that rabbits pound on the ground with their hind legs and cause earthquakes. On another night one of the wolves was killed by a bolt of lightning and this was also blamed on the rabbits, for it is well known that lettuce-eaters cause lightning. The wolves threatned to civilize the rabbits if they didn't behave, and the rabbits decided to run away to a desert island. But the other animals, who lived at a great distance, shamed them, saying, "You must stay where you are and be brave. This is no world for escapists. If the wolves attack you, we will come to your aid, in all probability." So the rabbits continued to live near the wolves and one day there was a terrible flood which drowned a great many wolves. This was blamed on the rabbits, for it is well known that carrot-nibblers with long ears cause floods. The wolves descended on the rabbits, for their own good, and imprisoned them in a dark cave, for their own protection.
When nothing was heard about the rabbits for some weeks, the other animals demanded to know what had happened to them. The wolves replied that the rabbits had been eaten and since they had been eaten the affair was a purely internal matter. But the other animals warned that they might possibly unite against the wolves unless some reason was given for the destruction of the rabbits. So the wolves gave them one. "They were trying to escape," said the wolves, " and, as you know, this is no world for escapists."
Moral: Run, don't walk, to the nearest desert island.

Thurber is obviously criticizing the United States and other European countries who failed to help the Jews when Hitler began persecuting them. The wolves are the Nazis, the rabbits are the Jews, and the other animals are the other countries.