The undertone is the tone under the surface—that which is not clearly visible with a surface-level reading. Sometimes, the undertone is also used to refer to more complicated tones than those readers might normally be familiar with. These feel more like themes than simple emotions—for example, the fear of losing a loved one or uncertainty about religion.
Definition of Undertone
Undertones are the tones that are beneath the clearer attitudes and tones the writer presents. These tones are important and, when uncovered and analyzed, can add a great deal to the reader’s experience. For instance, imagine a story about a husband and wife who seem happy if the reader only takes what the writer says literally. But, when reading into images and symbols, such as the wife spending too much time asleep and staring out the window, and the husband coming home late or talking over his wife, readers can discover an undertone of unhappiness and even a feeling of entrapment or oppression. Without these undertones, readers won’t accurately understand what’s going on in the story.
Examples of Undertones in Literature
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
In The Great Gatsby, there is a lot that readers can interpret through the undertones. One of the best-known examples comes in a few brief lines about the narrator, Nick Caraway. This is an example of an undertone that does not change the entire narrative but may shift how the reader sees and interprets Nick’s actions. Some have read specific passages in the novel as evidence that Nick is gay. For example, after he leaves a party, he meets a man name Mackee and then follows him home. These lines appear in this section:
I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.
This brings in other undertones and themes of belonging and alienation that create a more fulsome picture of who Nick is and how he understands his world.
In ‘The Tyger,’ William Blake depicts how powerful, deadly, and strong the tiger is. God created this creature in the same way he created the lamb. The question that the undertone presents to the reader is, why? Why did God create this creature? This brings up the even more complicated question of if God created this creature, what kind of being is God? Here are a few lines from the poem:
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
As one digs deeper into this poem, they discover that Blake has a more complex reason for writing. He’s not only interested in using poetic language to describe a beautiful and terrifying animal.
Discover more William Blake poems.
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis’ well-loved children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia, is a famous example of a series of novels with an important undertone. The books take readers into a fantasy world that’s only accessible for children through a closet. They were published in the 1950s and feature mythical creatures, magic, and important themes related to childhood and growing up. But, the novels also deal with religion in a way that may not be obvious to every reader.
Christianity was important to C.S. Lewis as an adult convert to the religion. He imbued his novels with numerous themes related to Christianity and even parallels to biblical stories. When speaking about this feature of his writing, he said that he didn’t set out to include Christian elements. Instead, “that element pushed itself in of its own accord.”
The most famous example is a parallel between Aslan, a lion who’s the king of Narnia, and sacrifices himself on a stone table to save Edmund’s life. Lewis wrote:
“I have come,” said a deep voice behind them. They turned and saw the Lion himself, so bright and real and strong that everything else began at once to look pale and shadowy compared with him.
He’s resurrected in what many readers see as an allegorical retelling of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
Explore C.S. Lewis’ poetry.
Why Do Writers Use Undertones?
Writers use undertones when they want to add depth to their writing. They complicate the story in the same way that subplots do. They help readers figure out more about what exactly the author is interested in. Are they really writing about what it seems like they’re writing about, or is there more going on? Undertones also help readers understand the characters better. For example, creating a fearful undertone or one that suggests a religious uncertainty and changes a reader’s experience with a book, poem, play, or short story.
An undertone is a secondary tone in a literary work. Discovering it helps readers better understand the writer’s intentions.
Some related words include connotation, suggestion, hint, and undercurrent.
Overtones are the prevalent and obvious tones in a literary work. They are accessible after a surface-level reading. Undertones are harder to uncover and require a deeper reading.
Some possible tones in literature are disgust, optimism, fear, admiration, and formal/informal.
They are important because they allow the writer to add depth to their work. Readers can learn more about their intentions and the character’s feelings.
Related Literary Terms
- Atmosphere: a literary technique that is concerned with the feeling readers get from the elements of a narrative.
- Attitude: refers to the tone a writer takes on whatever they are writing. It can come through in a character’s intentions, histories, emotions, and actions.
- Mood: the feeling created by the writer for the reader. It is what happens within a reader because of the tone the writer used in the poem.
- Audience: the group for which an artist or writer makes a piece of art or writes.
- Context: the setting in which a story, poem, novel, play, or other literary work is situated.
- Figurative Language: refers to figures of speech that are used in order to improve a piece of writing.