I Teach AP Language, AP Literature, and Other English Courses at San Diego High School, CA. I'm completing a PH.D. with GWU in English. my research and writing is on Literary Animal Animal Studies of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century. 

Don't Take That Tone With Me!

I’ve been working like a mad man on my doctoral dissertation this summer and doing so called for a re-reading of both Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus and  John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I’m finished with the first and nearly half-way done with the second and found myself identifying quite a few links with Milton’s famous portrayal of an articulate and persuasive Satan, Shelly’s similar rendition of intellectual prowess gone astray in Dr. Victor Frankenstein, and Atwood’s genocidal genius Crake. Across all three works, there is a negative tone expressed toward intellectual, rational, and scientific skills deployed without moral or ethical guidance. Some things change, but some things always stay the same.

I hope that either by this time or over the next week you find yourself having read up through the end of chapter 9. That means you’ll have worked through the chapter wherein Snowman decides he needs to get some food and decides to head out on a scavenging mission. In the analepses, or flashbacks, Jimmy and Crake graduate from high school and head off to college. While Crake is picked up by the prestigious Watson-Crick Institute, Jimmy studies at the Martha Graham Academy. By the end of chapter 9, Jimmy and Crake are completing their final years of education, and Snowman is taking refuge in an abandoned guard tower during a storm.

What I would like you to think about for this week’s post is tone. It is one of those concepts that’s easy enough to understand, somewhat difficult to explain, and often extremely challenging for students to articulate in a way that teachers and exams expect. Tone is something that we infer from diction, syntax, imagery, and connotative meaning. On the one hand, you already know how to do this! Just think of when parent’s say, “don’t talk to me in that tone!” The truth is, we almost always know exactly what they’re talking about, even though we protest and ask, “what are you talking about, what tone?” And yet, sometimes we really don’t know what they’re talking about… therein lies the rub.

Some teachers will suggest that there are students who can determine tone instinctively, but I think that’s absurd. We all have to learn how to accurately read the subtle indicators of tone, and just as we think we understand how its done someone comes along and introduces us to sarcasm… or emoji! So, I’d like you to practice reading for tone by relying on a specific example of diction, syntax, imagery, or connotative meaning. Answering one of the questions below, quote from one of the chapters we have read up to this point and try to make sure you explain why the example results in the tone you are identifying.

  1. The tone of the novel varies quite a bit, from foreboding to cheerful, from sarcastic to sincere. Select a passage and identify the specific elements that create a specific tone, be sure to explain why these elements have the effect you claim.
  2. The novel addresses some pretty difficult topics and scenarios, from genocide to human trafficking. Atwood’s tone is frequently unexpected given the topic, creating a sense of conflict or unease in us as readers. Select an example of such a challenging topic or scenario and how the tone is not, or perhaps is, what you would expect given the matter being addressed.


Isn't it Ironic?