Atmosphere in Literature: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Atmosphere Defined
  • 1:18 Examples of Atmosphere…
  • 5:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Gentry
Writers use atmosphere in literature to create an emotional tone for the piece. Learn more through a comprehensive definition and examples, then test your new expertise with a quiz.


Some people sure know how to throw a party. This host has fully realized a concept, spared no expense, and told his or her friends to invite everyone they know.

Halloween Party!

As you can see from this image, the lighting is low; someone has carefully positioned skeletons and strung creepy cobwebs everywhere. Flaming candles, the 'set' of the skeletons dining, and so on all conjures a specific atmosphere. We're usually going for spooky around Halloween, but in literature, atmosphere refers to the feeling, emotion, or mood a writer conveys to a reader through the description of setting and objects.

In the Harry Potter tales, J.K. Rowling spins a suspenseful and whimsical atmosphere. We may think of 'bleak' for Brave New World by Aldous Huxley or A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Occasionally, a writer will create a fascinating and complex world where the atmospheres are seemingly in conflict with one another, such as in Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, which is full of both nonsense and sense. Alice is both in danger and in absolute delight; when a work contains its opposite, we are enthralled by it.


A writer can establish atmosphere, or the vehicle for mood, through several different facets of a work. One such mechanism is through the use of objects. Let's take a look at a short nonfiction piece by American author Terry Tempest Williams:

It is an unspoken hunger we deflect with knives - one avocado between us, cut neatly in half, twisted then separated from the large wooden pit. With the green fleshy boats in hand, we slice vertical strips from one end to the other. Vegetable planks. We smother the avocado with salsa, hot chiles at noon in the desert. We look at each other and smile, eating avocados with sharp silver blades, risking the blood of our tongues repeatedly.


Williams creates an atmosphere of danger here; there is an element of shared risk, mainly because of how she portrays the knives and the avocados. When a writer uses objects to establish atmosphere, it's usually because those objects are representative of an unspoken reality. Because of the presence of the avocado, the two characters, and the appearance of heat, we might infer that this is also a sexually charged moment - one where the people in the piece are on the precipice of something new, something that feels like a risk.

Another mechanism a writer can use to conjure atmosphere is setting. See how Madeleine L'Engle opens the classic children's book A Wrinkle in Time:

It was a dark and stormy night.

In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraith-like shadows that raced along the ground.

The house shook.

Wrapped in her quilt, Meg shook.

She wasn't usually afraid of weather. - It's not just the weather, she thought. - It's the weather on top of everything else. On top of me. On top of Meg doing everything wrong.

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