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Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
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Setting in Literature

How does the setting impact a story? Is it crucial to provide readers with a specific location and time, or can authors employ something ambiguous? Learners are taught from a young age how to identify the setting of a story. However, once identified, its impact on the story is often lost as readers are given characters to study, a conflict to track, and themes to analyze. Yet, the setting can and does play a crucial part in the reader’s understanding of the meaning of a text, as it is not solely the backdrop of the story. Therefore, it is vital to identify the setting and recognize its effect on the development of a work of literature as it provides additional depth to the story as a whole.

Setting Definition in Literature

Within the literature, the recognition of the setting happens ad the time and place of a story unfold; however, in more advanced literature, it is also essential to determine the overall environment. While the introduction of the setting typically transpires within the exposition (beginning) of a story, it is important to track any changes that take place, as a shift in setting frequently plays a vital function within the text.

Why Is Setting Important?

The setting of a story can play an important role in the development of the author’s meaning. As such, it can ultimately serve the following functions:

Establish Mood

The setting of a story can immediately establish the mood of the piece. Whether it is “a dark and stormy night” or “once upon a time,” the readers will automatically start to visually imagine the story’s opening as either somber or magical. Writers can evoke a particular emotional response by setting the story on a dreary or sunny day.

Overall, authors can utilize a multitude of descriptors to set the scene and establish a tone that impacts the reader’s mood. Whether those descriptors are positive, negative, or neutral, writers provide their readers with the story’s ambiance. In doing so, they establish an initial mood, which can either stay the same throughout the text or shift somehow.

Utilizing the same setting throughout the work often suggests the importance of continuity; thus, the piece’s mood remains the same. Whereas if the mood changes due to a shifting setting, the author typically is attempting to showcase significant insight into the meaning of the text and should serve as an essential point to note.

Helps Define Characters

Through the utilization of the setting, authors can reveal various traits of the characters they create. There are two ways in which an author can highlight these traits through the setting – showing the environment they created for themselves and how they react to their surroundings.

By detailing a character’s environment, authors provide additional insight into their personality. Through descriptions of the space in which the character finds themselves, the reader uncovers information concerning their economic status, how they view the world, what they like/dislike, etc.

Where characters come from can also tell readers a great deal about how and why a character acts the way they do. There are certain characters readers would expect to exist within specific settings, while characters from unusual places set themselves apart from others or help in explaining their behavior.

Changing the setting can also explain how and why a character’s personality has shifted by determining if the environment impacts them. The change in setting, whether forced or not, can also affect behavior.

Overall, identifying and tracking the setting can provide significant insight into the traits and motivation of characters within a literary work, providing readers with information that can help them determine the author’s purpose.

Develops/Enhances Conflict

Authors are also able to impact the conflicts they create through their choice of setting. The physical location of a story can ultimately be a source of conflict. Are there any foreseeable dangers? Are the characters restricted in some way? Are there some characters who benefit from the setting more than others? Ultimately, identifying if and how the physical location impacts the characters can better facilitate understanding of the conflict.

The conflict can also be affected by the historical period in which the story takes place. How would the conflict be impacted if the story occurred during the Revolutionary War vs. the Civil War? Does having the story set in the future or the past enhance or diminish the conflict somehow? Are there cultural norms that may explain certain behaviors? Consequently, it is crucial to recognize if the era influences the conflict in any way.

Even some of the more seemingly innocuous aspects of the setting can help develop the conflict. Authors utilize characteristics such as the weather, physical geography, and the length of time to enhance the conflict by adding aspects that help build tension.

Types of Setting in Literature

When considering the setting in a work of literature, three parts aid in its development:

Place: Where does the story take place? The place can include the character’s immediate surroundings (room, house, park, etc.) that reflect reality, or the area can be solely the author’s creation.

Time: When does the story take place? The time can include a specific time of day, month, or year. Time can also represent the length of the story, whether it takes hours, days, months, or years.

Environment: Whereas the place within the setting refers to the physical location, the environment focuses more on the social, cultural, and historical aspects of the story that could impact the reader’s understanding of the characters and conflict.

Setting Examples

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

In The Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa mysteriously wakes up as a giant bug mainly isolated in his bedroom. Kafka utilizes the setting to showcase the protagonist’s literal and metaphorical loss of humanity. Initially, Gregor’s room contains furniture, such as a chest of drawers, desk, bed, and couch. Additionally, a picture of a woman in furs is hanging on the wall, and there is a window for him to view the city.

As the text progresses and Gregor begins to succumb to his animalistic nature, the room itself changes with him. Even though he continues to try and live normally, he finds comfort in lying under the couch rather than in the bed. Then as his family removes the furniture to use the room for storage, he clings to the picture of the woman in furs. In the same manner, he attempts to cling to his humanity. The woman symbolizes wealth and success, something that Gregor will no longer be able to pursue.

Gregor provides the reader with insight into the impact of isolation, especially for someone who can no longer provide for their family. Overall, Kafka utilizes the setting of Gregor’s room to create a visualization of the character’s transformation, highlighting his loss of humanity, which eventually leads to his death.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee sets the scene using the fictional town of Maycomb, AL, in the 1930s. By setting the novel in the south during the Great Depression and around the Jim Crow era, Lee incorporates the period’s struggles without needing to over-explain the racial, social, and economic disparities that exist within the town. Therefore, upon introducing the characters, the readers can have an idea of the struggles they may have faced during this era in the south.

Right at the outset, Lee provides the reader with a depth of knowledge because of the setting utilization. She provides her readers with the conflicts that defined the era. Hence, the attention and focus are more on how the characters responded to the various issues, intensifying the conflict.

Mural of Maycomb, AL

<img alt="File:Mural depicting actors in the play and book, "To Kill a Mockingbird." Located in historic downtown Monroeville, Alabama LCCN2010639910.tif"

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald incorporates two contrasting settings to highlight the disparities between different types of people. Fitzgerald sets the majority of his story in East Egg and West Egg, utilizing the two towns to help define the characters he creates and showcase their differences.

East Egg West Egg
Old money: Inherited their wealth New money: Earned their wealth
Selfish, unempathetic, and spoiled; do not appreciate what they have Respected; thought to be more compassionate and self-aware
Incapable of displaying gratitude Some earned their wealth illegally
Represents moral decay Represents hard work

Utilizing the differences between these two settings and people allows Fitzgerald to critique American values. Some families have lived for years in comfort, causing the younger generations to believe they are superior to others yet have not done anything to deserve it (East Egg). On the other hand, some have worked hard to earn their place, appreciating their earned respect due to their effort. Ultimately, Fitzgerald employs this contrast in setting to help readers better understand the conflict between East and West Egg residents.

The Lord of the Rings Series by J.R.R. Tolkien

Through the use of multiple imaginative and dangerous locations, Tolkien utilizes the setting of The Lord of the Rings as a means of developing conflict and creating challenges for this protagonist. Tolkien initially highlights the protagonist’s (Frodo Baggins) innocence by depicting his home (the shire) as a calm and natural place. Yet as he travels to places like Moria, the underground kingdom of the dwarves, the marshes of the dead, and Mount Doom, he is plagued with conflicts with dangers continuing to escalate.

The various settings in which Tolkien places Frodo cause the protagonist to face a variety of barriers that require him to grow as a character before continuing. Overall, Tolkien uses the settings to provide Frodo with ways to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed.

J.R.R. Tolkien

<img alt="File:J. R. R. Tolkien, 1940s.jpg"

Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

Throughout the Harry Potter Series, Rowling provides various unique settings that open a new world for her readers. Generally, the two worlds that exist are the human (muggle) world and the wizarding world. The dichotomy she creates between these two worlds helps readers develop a better understanding of the titular character.

Harry was orphaned in the human world at the outset of the series, forced to live with extended family members who saw him as a nuisance. Yet when he discovers magic and goes to the wizarding world, how he is treated drastically changes. Instead of being seen as annoying, he is regarded as heroic due to his defeating Voldemort years prior.

In utilizing the two settings, Rowling provides the reader with a better understanding of Harry and his demeanor. Providing this contrast allows the author to create a multifaceted comprehension of Harry, making him more realistic despite the fantastical existence of magic.

Lesson Summary

In the construction of a story’s setting, authors consider the impact the location can have on the understanding of their work. When deciding upon the place, time, and environment that their story should take place, authors consider how the setting can help establish the mood, define their characters, and enhance their conflict. Overall, the setting of a work of literature serves as a crucial component in developing the author’s purpose and the readers’ understanding of the text.

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