One sentence almost every child hears from his or her parents is “Don’t take that tone with me!”  In growing up, we almost always regret this moment.  For some reason, now beyond our memory, we spoke in such a way that showed our parents nothing of our love and respect for them.  Instead, we were surly, disrespectful, impatient, or self-righteous.  Or as some people would say, we had an attitude.

‘In a short story or even an memoir, tone can be thought of as the narrator’s attitude toward the events in the story, the characters, the setting, and sometimes even the reader.   In this way, tone is closely related to both point of view and language. Tone is related to point of view in that it is the emotional, attitudinal element of point of view. A story may be told in first person, but what is the narrator’s emotional make up as he or she tells the story? Identifying Sammy as the narrator of “A&P” is an important, yet basic step. Perhaps a more important step toward understanding the story is identifying his tone.   Most people immediately identify that Sammy is quite funny as a narrator, so certainly there is a humorous tone to the story. Some might also point out that his sense of humor has an adolescent quality to it. The image of the two scoops of vanilla comes to mind. Yet in looking more closely at what Sammy says, you may also notice that he is quite sarcastic. Sammy does not like Mr. Lengel or the patrons of the A&P. Sammy feels himself to be better, in some way, to these people.

Tone is, therefore, very closely related to language, because one of the major methods the writer has of conveying the tone of the writer is in the use of image, metaphor, sentence style. The reader then can closely examine, in “A&P,” for instance, the use of such metaphors as sheep and pigs and witches when describing the customers. These metaphors carry emotional power, in this case, sarcasm and disdain.

The American  writer James Baldwin is noted for his intelligence and for his deliberately and carefully wrought morel stances on issues of race, religion, and personal identity.  Below is the sec on to last paragraph of his story “Sonny’s Blues.”  In it an older brother, an algebra teacher, listens to his younger brother, Sonny, playing the piano in a jazz club.

They all seemed gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen (1). Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament (2). I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did (3). Yet, there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to get through until he came to rest in earth (4). He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. I saw my mother’s face again, and felt, for the first time, how the stones in the road she had walked on must have bruised her feet. I saw the moon lit road where my father’s brother died. And it brought something else back to me, and carried me past it, I saw my little girl again and felt Isabel’s tears again, and I felt my own tears begin to rise (5). And I was yet aware that this was only a moment, that the world waited outside, as hungry as a tiger, and that trouble stretched above us, longer than the sky (6).

(1)  The narrator, Sonny’s brother, seems to be looking very carefully, observing his brother closely.

(2)  The brother imagines what he brother feels. Puts himself in his brother’s place.

(3)  Notice the words used: amen, life, beautiful, lament, burning, and freedom.  These are words for large and powerful ideas. These are serious ideas.

(4)  Brother continues to sympathetically feel himself in Sonny’s feels.

(5)  Hearing and listening, brother remembers pain of his past.

(6)  Tears.  Remembers  more personal pain, but realizes  that his brother’s piano playing makes them understandable and bearable.

The tone that Baldwin establishes in his story is illustrated in this passage. The narrator has lived a painful life, has suffered. One element of his suffering has been his brother’s addictions and troubles with the law. Yet of all the emotions he might feel toward life and his brother–anger, frustration, fear, horror, self-righteousness, irony–he feels love and compassion, perhaps even respect and admiration. This tone is conveyed in the syntax of the passage–a movement from short, clear observations to longer, more complicated memories and thoughts. The language is semi-formal and religious.   In the end, the tone Baldwin creates helps us read this story of addiction and sorrow and racism as a story of hope and forgiveness.




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About lymangrant

Lyman Grant is a professor of creative writing and humanities at Austin Community College. He has work at ACC since 1978. He is the author or editor of two textbooks, two books relating to Texas literature, three volumes and a chapbook of poetry. Recently he traveled the United States for a year in a 34-foot RV 5th wheel trailer with his wife and two younger sons.