difference between tone mood atmosphere

What’s the difference between tone, mood & atmosphere?

Many readers think that tone, mood and atmosphere are one and the same.

That would make things a lot easier, but unfortunately, they’re not.

And unlike ‘personification, anthropomorphism and pathetic fallacy’, or ‘paradox, oxymoron and antithesis’, ‘tone, mood and atmosphere’ aren’t as easily avoidable if you’re a lit student, because these three terms tend to show up as the exam question itself (i.e. ‘Describe the tone/mood/atmosphere of this passage’).

On the contrary, one can usually choose not to analyse the use of anthropomorphism or paradox in a text. 

In this post, then, let’s untangle this brambly triptych.

episode 2 mountain GIF

Previously, I wrote a short post on how to describe tone as it applies to literature. My conclusion there is quite simple –

figure out the speaker’s attitude towards the subject, and the word for said attitude is most likely also the tone.

This may be easy enough to understand, but if we examine ‘tone’ alongside ‘mood’ and ‘atmosphere’, things get a bit muddier, since they all relate to emotions, and so the distinction between them can be quite subtle. 

What are ‘tone’, ‘mood’ and ‘atmosphere’?

According to le dictionnaire – 

Tone: the tone of a piece of writing expresses the writer’s attitude towards the subject or the reader 

Mood: the mood of a work of art/literature is the emotional features of it, or the way it makes you feel 

Atmosphere: the mood or feeling produced by a work or art/literature

On my scale of usefulness, this is a 5/10. At most.

For starters, the definition of ‘mood’ (“the way it makes you feel”) and that of ‘atmosphere’ (“the mood or feeling produced by a work of literature”) sound virtually the same.

What

Ashley Olsen Reaction GIF by Filmeditor

Instead, let’s try this: 

Tone: the way a writer / character speaks 

Mood: the way a literary text makes you (the reader) feel 

Atmosphere: the way a place or setting makes you (the reader) feel 

Notice, then, that while ‘tone’ is more concerned with the production of a text (i.e. the writer and characters), ‘mood’ and ‘atmosphere’ depend largely on the reception of a text (i.e. the reader).

So if your task is to analyse the ‘mood and atmosphere’ of a text, the first thing you should do is to ask yourself how you feel after reading a passage (just don’t write ‘bored’). 

tone vs mood vs atmosphere

You’ll also notice that the difference between ‘mood’ and ‘atmosphere’ hinges on ‘a literary text’ and ‘a place or setting’, but both are about how they make you – the reader – feel.

‘Atmosphere’ comes under ‘mood’, because it concerns how places and settings make us feel, while ‘mood’ is about how the passage or text as a whole creates a certain feeling, and a passage in its entirety often includes more than just places and settings, but also characters and themes.

So perhaps it’s more helpful to think of these terms as ‘atmosphere and mood’, instead of ‘mood and atmosphere’ (despite the order in which these terms usually appear), as we often need to ascertain the atmosphere of a specific scene/setting before we can determine the mood of the whole passage.

This is also why ‘atmosphere’ tends to be more relevant in descriptive passages (rather than dialogue-based ones); there must be a larger environment for the writing to breed any sort of atmosphere. 

Here’s a quick example to illustrate: 

The moment I stepped foot into the cavernous hall, I felt the onslaught of innumerable eyeballs, as droplets of sweat travelled down the bridge of my nose, cushioning themselves in my quivering philtrum while my stomach tied up in knots. All at once, the walls seemed to close in on me; the glaring light of the projector in the distance made a menacing search of my face. I felt the stage slipping away in that instant, my feet levitating and my head woozy as I sauntered over to the podium. Why did I decide to do this in the first place? 

In this short passage, the tone is markedly different from the mood and atmosphere, despite them all being related.

‘I’ am paralysed by stage-fright, and my tone is clearly nervous, intimidated, and incredulous about having agreed to deliver a speech in front of a crowd.

But to the reader, the mood conveyed is suspenseful and anxiety-inducing, as we want to find out if the character manages to overcome her fear, or if she passes out before she even makes it to the podium.

From the descriptions of the wider scene about the hall, we see that the atmosphere is oppressive, overwhelming, and to an extent, suffocating (from all the lights and stares). 

You will notice, then, that the words for the ‘tone’, ‘mood’ and ‘atmosphere’ of this moment are all slightly different, but meaningfully so.

And this nuance, while sometimes challenging to spot, is nonetheless important if you wish to write sophisticated analysis. 

Check out this short video in which I summarise the difference between tone, mood and atmosphere:

Introducing Frankenstein, the Gothic and why it’s such a mood-y genre

frankenstein mary Shelley summary analysis quotes

Among the many genres in art and literature, the Gothic lends itself particularly well to discussions of mood and atmosphere.

Unlike, say, modernist or feminist literature, the essence of gothic literature is rooted in its setting and environment.

Without strange places, ghostly mansions, or stormy weather, a work can’t really lay claim to being ‘gothic’, whereas a novel may fit in the ‘modernist’ camp if it features ‘stream of consciousness’, or on the ‘feminist’ shelves if it thematises women’s rights (caveat: this is speaking in broad brushstrokes; generic boundaries are usually more porous than this).

My point though, is that the atmosphere doesn’t have to matter as much for these genres.

One of the most iconic works of Gothic writing is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which contains many ‘atmospheric’ passages, and provides us with a great specimen for looking at the intersections between tone, atmosphere and mood.  

In fact, Frankenstein itself was written under highly atmospheric circumstances.

In the summer of 1816, Mary Shelley and her lover (soon-to-be husband) Percy Bysshe Shelley stayed near Lake Geneva, where they became friends with Lord Byron, who lodged at a nearby house called the Villa Diodati.

There, the three and others would discuss literature, philosophy, chemistry, galvanism and notions of the supernatural, all while storms, rains and floods whirled about them in violent force.

Mary Shelley villa diodati autobiography Frankenstein context

It was a particularly bad year in terms of climate (apparently because of a volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1815), which happened to give Mary Shelley the perfect backdrop for a story like Frankenstein.

The novel was borne out of a nightmare Shelley had about a “hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion”, which, for a dream, is suitably dramatic to serve as creative inspiration. 

Let’s now close read one of the key moments in the novel, with a specific eye to the way Shelley fashions the character’s tone, and the passage’s mood and atmosphere. 

Reading Frankenstein for tone: “Dear Mountains!”, “Alas!” and all that histrionic jazz

In Chapter 7, Victor Frankenstein receives devastating news from home – his younger brother, William, has been murdered, and he must rush back to Geneva to be with his family in mourning.

Frankenstein is pained, but also alarmed, as he knows that it was his monster creation who had committed this brutal act. On his journey home, the scientist is wracked with guilt and grief, which are intensified by the sublimity of his surroundings – 

The road ran by the side of the lake, which became narrower as I approached my native town. I discovered more distinctly the black sides of Jura, and the bright summit of Mont Blanc. I wept like a child. “Dear mountains! my own beautiful lake! how do you welcome your wanderer? Your summits are clear; the sky and lake are blue and placid. Is this to prognosticate peace, or to mock at my unhappiness?”

What can we say about Frankenstein’s tone here?

First, it changes. As he approaches the Jura Mountains and Mont Blanc, the grandeur of the Alps overwhelms him, and he weeps.

Partly, this is because he’s so moved by the arresting visuals, but equally, he doesn’t think he deserves to witness such beauty while being responsible for his brother’s death (especially when he’s created something so ghastly).

His apostrophe to “Dear Mountains! My own beautiful lake!” starts on a melodramatic register, only to become increasingly lamentful and agonised when he questions if the good weather – the “clear… summits”, the “blue and placid… sky and lake”, are all “to prognosticate peace” – be a sign of positive developments, “or to mock at my unhappiness?” (As a side note, this is also an example of pathetic fallacy, more of which you can read about here.) 

At this point in his narrative, Frankenstein pauses to address his listener, the polar explorer Robert Walton, and says – 

I fear, my friend, that I shall render myself tedious by dwelling on these preliminary circumstances; but they were days of comparative happiness, and I think of them with pleasure. My country, my beloved country! who but a native can tell the delight I took in again beholding thy streams, thy mountains, and, more than all, thy lovely lake!

Frankenstein’s earlier, anguished tone now shifts, and becomes apologetic, nostalgic and even patriotic.

He’s apologetic because he realises that by lyricising about nature, he goes off on a tangent in his main narrative and as such, distracts Walton from what’s most important (the origins of and his occurrences with the monster).

But he can’t help gushing over the natural beauty of his homeland, and now that he’s stranded at sea and far away from home (at the point of him telling Walton this story, they are travelling in the Arctic Ocean), the memory of it all overtakes him with nostalgic sorrow. 

Freezing Sesame Street GIF by Willem Dafriend

Once he returns to his account, the gloom and doom from before his aside sinks back in, and escalates to a sort of self-flagellating remorse – 

Yet, as I drew nearer home, grief and fear again overcame me. Night also closed around; and when I could hardly see the dark mountains, I felt still more gloomily. The picture appeared a vast and dim scene of evil, and I foresaw obscurely that I was destined to become the most wretched of human beings. Alas! I prophesied truly, and failed only in one single circumstance, that in all the misery I imagined and dreaded, I did not conceive the hundredth part of the anguish I was destined to endure.

Note that there’s quite a lot of hyperbole going on here, as seen in the superlatives and intensifiers of phrases such as “the most wretched of human beings”, “in all the misery I imagined and dreaded”, and “the hundredth part of the anguish I was destined to endure”.

This exaggerating tone, of course, highlights the extent of Frankenstein’s pain and regret over having created such a destructive force – and his frustration over not being able to retract what he’s done, now that the monster is on the loose.

The exclamatory “Alas!” encapsulates the motley of feelings which beleaguer Frankenstein’s mind at this point, and suggests to the reader that the rest of this tale is unlikely to bode well

homer simpson lol GIF

Reading Frankenstein for atmosphere and mood: Darkness, lightning and stormy skies – oh my! 

As Frankenstein continues to relate his travels back to Geneva, he describes in detail the dark, stormy landscape that surrounded him on the night of his return – 

It was completely dark when I arrived in the environs of Geneva; the gates of the town were already shut; and I was obliged to pass the night at Secheron, a village at the distance of half a league from the city. The sky was serene; and, as I was unable to rest, I resolved to visit the spot where my poor William had been murdered. As I could not pass through the town, I was obliged to cross the lake in a boat to arrive at Plainpalais. During this short voyage I saw the lightning playing on the summit of Mont Blanc in the most beautiful figures. The storm appeared to approach rapidly, and, on landing, I ascended a low hill, that I might observe its progress. It advanced; the heavens were clouded, and I soon felt the rain coming slowly in large drops, but its violence quickly increased.

I quitted my seat, and walked on, although the darkness and storm increased every minute, and the thunder burst with a terrific crash over my head. It was echoed from Salêve, the Juras, and the Alps of Savoy; vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire; then for an instant every thing seemed of a pitchy darkness, until the eye recovered itself from the preceding flash. The storm, as is often the case in Switzerland, appeared at once in various parts of the heavens. The most violent storm hung exactly north of the town, over the part of the lake which lies between the promontory of Belrive and the village of Copêt. Another storm enlightened Jura with faint flashes; and another darkened and sometimes disclosed the Môle, a peaked mountain to the east of the lake.

Like the tone shifts we’ve seen in the previous section, the atmosphere also changes as Frankenstein moves from arriving in Geneva, to crossing the lake on a boat.

By telling us that “it was completely dark”, and “the gates of the town were already shut”, Shelley establishes a sense of mystique and insularity, as if Geneva has become a cold stranger to the man for whom this place is supposedly home. 

As Frankenstein walks on, he’s engulfed in a symphony of lightning, rain and storm, and perhaps the best word to describe the atmosphere here is ‘sublime’.

This term, as defined by the philosopher Edmund Burke, refers to a dimension of experience that is beyond the everyday, and is capable of exciting our passions in a way that terrorises but also leaves us in awe – 

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. […] The passion caused by the great and the sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.

While overpowering, thunderous, stormy, dark, mysterious, threatening, violent, dramatic etc. are all adjectives that apply to this moment, these qualities are rendered sublime for the dangerous, but awe-inspiring, nature that Shelley attributes to the “darkness and storm [which] increased every minute”, “the thunder [which] burst with a terrific crash over my head”, and the “vivid flashes of lightning [which] dazzled my eyes”.

To juxtapose Frankenstein against a violent storm is a great example of irony, too, because it suggests that notwithstanding the scientist’s incredible, almost godlike, ‘achievement’ of creating a sapient being, he remains at the mercy of Nature, which is a force infinitely greater than his.

There’s a sense that the violence of the lightning is punitive, as if it’s an angry message from the heavens, striking down on Frankenstein for pushing the limits of human knowledge and aping God by creating a half-Adam, half-Prometheus. 

boris karloff frankenstein GIF

So, if the atmosphere is dark, threatening and sublime, then what is the mood?

How does reading this passage make you, the reader, feel?

It’s probably fair to say that the mood is both terrifying and terrific, with the storm’s violence clearly being a force of danger against Frankenstein, but equally a cause for wonder and a source of humility for both character and reader, as we marvel at the personified majesty of the lightning bolts and stormy skies.

We could also say that this moment conveys a foreboding mood, as we know that whenever authors feature stormy weather, it’s usually a sign that something unpleasant will follow.

Another possible mood descriptor here would be chaotic, which is implied by the dizzying and cacophonous extremes between light and dark, silence and noise. 

Of course, the distinction between atmosphere and mood isn’t an exact science, and there’s definitely room for the two to overlap.

Ultimately, though, it’s important to remember that the site of focus is different: with atmosphere, we’re looking at how a place, setting or environment is portrayed; with mood, we’re considering how we as readers feel about how the writer has portrayed a specific moment. 

Confused about other literary terms? Check out my other posts below: 

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