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How to Identify the Mood of a Paragraph

By Peter Boysen

What is the mood of a poem or short story? If you have a hard time figuring out what exactly your teacher means by this you need this guide.

What is Mood?

Mood isn't the way that you feel when you start reading ANOTHER practice passage for a standardized test. It is the emotion or feeling that the author is trying to convey.

Read these paragraphs from Chapter 1 of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." This is a dinner scene where Tom has to go into the house to take a telephone call, while his wife, Daisy, and their guests, Nick and Jordan, stay at the table. Read through it and make note of any words you see that affect the mood, in your opinion.

The butler came back and murmured something close to Tom’s ear, whereupon Tom frowned, pushed back his chair, and without a word went inside. As if his absence quickened something within her, Daisy leaned forward again, her voice glowing and singing.

“I love to see you at my table, Nick. You remind me of a — of a rose, an absolute rose. Doesn’t he?” She turned to Miss Baker for confirmation: “An absolute rose?”

Vivid words are especially effective ways to express mood. Note the word "murmured" in the first sentence. This is considered a vivid verb because it adds a sense of intent to the word. If the word "said" had been used instead, the reader wouldn't immediately know that something secret is going on. Tom "frown[s]," and Daisy immediately speeds up her conversation, grasping at straws to compare Nick (her cousin) to a rose. Her voice is "glowing and singing," but any attempt at warmth is abruptly ended when she throws down her napkin and goes inside after Tom.

Adjectives can be vivid, as well. The adjectives "breathless" and "thrilling" describe Daisy in this passage, but Tom's "absence [has] quickened something within her." Clearly, she is trying to cover over different feelings inside.

Try this Question

Let's say you ran across a section like this in a passage on a reading comprehension test, dealing with mood.

1. The mood of this passage is best described as:

A) cheerful

B) tense

C) brilliant

D) warm

E) frightened

Go through the answer choices and mark positive feelings with a plus sign, and negative feelings with a minus sign. A, C, and D are all words that we associate with positive feelings, so each of those would need a plus sign. B and E aren't positive, so each of those would get a minus sign.

Now, reread the passage. If you've read the passage carefully, you should get a negative vibe out of it, and so now you've narrowed your odds of getting this question right from 1 in 5 to 1 in 2. Even if you have to guess here, you've increased your chances of being successful.

Do any words here support fear? Tom doesn't blanch or cringe at the butler's words; he frowns. Daisy doesn't shrink back; her body fills with energy, as she starts to praise Nick. While Tom's inside, she doesn't tremble or cry, or show any other signs of fear. Eventually, she just throws her napkin down and goes inside.

What about tension? Tom frowns at the call. Daisy is clearly nervous once he goes inside and exudes a false "warmth" until she can't stand it any longer. "B" is definitely the right choice.

Use these tips the next time you're asked to identify mood, and remember it next time you are writing to make your story come alive!