Tone & Mood in The Scarlet Letter

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  • 0:00 Recognizing Tone and Mood
  • 1:14 How the Author Creates Tone
  • 2:02 Hester's Torment
  • 3:03 Puritan Life
  • 3:56 What About Mood?
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

'The Scarlet Letter' by Nathaniel Hawthorne is a classic of early American Literature, telling the tragic tale of Hester Prynne's sin and punishment in the harsh world of Puritan New England. This lesson will use the novel to explain mood and tone in literature.

Recognizing Tone and Mood

When looking at a literary work, the terms tone and mood are quite similar, which can add to the confusion for young readers. However, there is a way to separate the two words, which have a slight difference in focus. Tone is the way in which the author uses language, description, and dialogue to express his or her feeling about the subject and the audience. Hawthorne did not approve of the harsh view of human behavior taken by the Puritans and used his tale of emotionally painful (and permanent) punishment to express this tone in The Scarlet Letter.

Mood focuses more on the reader; how do you actually feel when you read this story? You may feel sad, joyful, or perhaps angry and frustrated. More than one mood may be felt in a single story, particularly a long novel like The Scarlet Letter. You are probably sad when you realize that Hester is to be punished - then perhaps angry at the officials and the townspeople who publicly shame her. Then you might be happy or relieved when Dimmesdale finally claims his lover and child, but immediately shocked when he dies right after that confession.

How the Author Creates Tone

If you think about tone in the sense of tone of voice, you will recognize that tone arises from how the author tells the story. You know that a simple statement like 'Well, thanks a lot' could sound truly appreciative or sarcastic and scornful - depending on the tone in which the statement is said. Tone in fiction works in a similar way. When the village people publicly shame Hester on the scaffold, Hawthorne chooses language that makes the reader feel the shame and sorrow Hester felt: '...under the leaden infliction which it was her doom to endure, she felt, at moments, as if she must needs shriek out with the full power of her lungs, and cast herself from the scaffold down upon the ground, or else go mad at once.'

Hester's Torment

The setting itself contributes to tone as well. You may think of Boston today as a lively, modern city full of color and excitement. But the Boston of the 17th century Hawthorne is describing was nothing like that. Puritan life was harsh and unforgiving. Winters were brutal, work was constant, and entertainment was religious in nature. In fact, there is an adjective that is based on the word Puritan: puritanical. This adjective is used to mean strict in religious beliefs to the point of punishing and/or shunning those who fall short of the rules. You can imagine that a puritanical life can be a bit gloomy, even melancholy, and these are indeed good words to describe the tone of Hawthorne's novel. Hester's life as a fallen woman is lonely and monotonous; 'even the silence of those with whom she came in contact, implied, and often expressed, that she was banished, and as much alone as if she inhabited another sphere.'

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