Tone - The Soundtrack of Literature - Using the Short Stories Barn Burning and Justice of the Peace as Examples

Tone: The Soundtrack of Literature

Everyone is a film buff these days, everyone loves their favorite film or series. And its easy to see why, its such a relaxing and mind-numbing experience. To let our brains go into autopilot and just be taken away on whatever journey some director has in mind. But what do all good films have in common? Their soundtrack, of course. The magical music that tells us 'This is it! Something awesome is going to happen right now!”. It tells us when to be sad because some important character has died, or to feel a sense of justice when the bad guys are finally defeated. Likewise, literature has its own soundtrack of emotion, telling us how to feel as we progress through a story. Not with music, but with tone. Tone is the choice of words an author uses and the way the words are spoken to convey emotions to the reader.

A short story that is exemplifies tone is the short story Barn Burning by William Faulkner. The story takes place in 19th century Southern United States, where a young boy by the name of Sartoris is son to his father, Mr. Harris. The family is poor makes their living working on plantation owners farms in exchange for housing and food. Sartoris's father is upset with his lot in life, upset that he's been relegated to the same class as African American slaves. Because of this he lives in hatred of the world around him and always bites the hand that feeds him, burning down his landlords barns and then being forced to leave the area, putting him and his family on the road again.

The summary that I use to explain barn burning makes the story sound rather simple and dull, but Faulkners use of tone creates this dark imagery, even without having a faint sense of the plot you can feel as though something isn't quite right, that some evil is at work. Faulkner uses tone in two ways. The first is the grammatical organization of his sentences. Secondly is his extended metaphors.

The sentence organization in Barn Burning is sporadic, but is understandable. When there is dialogue or action, the sentences are quick and to the point, but once the dialogue is over the sentences become long and drawn out, the author becomes preoccupied with certain details that the reader might not see any importance in. A good example is after the Justice of the Peace asks if Sartoris should be questioned, “But he could hear, and during those subsequent long seconds while there was absolutely no sound in the crowded little room save that of quiet and intent breathing it was as if he had swung outward at the end of a grape vine, over a ravine, and at the top of the swing had been caught in a prolonged instant of mesmerized gravity, weightless, in time.”. This story has a creeping feel to it, where it dwells on the same subject forever, focusing it until there’s nothing left to focus and the story must be forced to continue, like a bad church service, but more sophisticated.

The second method is the use of extended metaphors, which this story has a lot of. An extended metaphor is a metaphor that keeps going, almost to the point of creating its own story, or sending the reader into a different setting than that of the intended setting, which Barn Burning does at some points. When Sartoris was in court and saw all the adults, thinking about how he would have to lie in order to not incriminate his father, “He felt no floor under his bare feet; he seemed to walk beneath the palpable weight of the grim turning faces.”, was how the boy felt in front of the adults, frightened and nervous.

Both of these uses of tone makes the readers emotions synchronize with Sartoris's emotions throughout the story, telling us when hes feeling scared, nervous, or admiring of his father. This allows the reader to see the kids childhood and how he sees the world in relation to his father. A child who wants to believe that his dad is good and that its the rest of the world out to get him, but at the same time worried about the way his dad behaves, afraid he might lash out one day. In the end, Sartoris realizes his dad is not good nor is he ever going to change. He outs his family up to their current landlord, Major de Spain, telling him of his fathers plans to burn his barn. The boy is unable to get back to his parents before hearing two loud gunshots. The reader is never given proof that his parents died, but upon hearing the shots Sartoris starts walking down the road, and the authors tone tells us that the boy has finally separated from his family in his mind. The last sentence of the story with tone gives us the reality, “He was a little stiff, but walking would cure that too as it would the cold, and soon there would be the sun. He went on down the hill, towards the dark woods within which the liquid silver voices of the birds called unceasing-- the rapid and urgent beating of the urgent and quiring heart of the late spring night. He did not look back.”
So even without music and sound, literature can still fill us with emotions. Happy, sad, fearful, or courageous.

Works Cited
Faulkner, William. "Barn Burning." Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. 2010. X.J Kennedy, Dana Gioa. New York, NY: Pearson, 2010. Print.

Kennedy, X.J, Dorothy Kennedy, Marcia Muth, and Sylvia Holladay. The Bedford Guide for College Writers. 7th. Boston, NY: Bedford/St.Martins, 2005. 202. Print.