What is setting?
In fiction, the setting is the total environment where the actions or events take place. It is always called "the where and when of the story" and covers the place (physical, sensuous world) where the events occur, the time or age of the action, the social and cultural environment (moral values that govern the characters’ society, manners, customs, etc.) and atmosphere.
The place setting can be fixed such as in Hemingway’s Old Man at the Bridge. The story is set mainly at the bridge or varied like in Hemingway’s Cat in the Rain. The place settings of this story shift from the couple’s room, the front office, and the terrace of the hotel. In relation to this, we can say that the short story is set in some places where the events in the story occur. Bocarro’s A Long Walk Home also uses varied place settings. The author shifts the place setting from the road to a garage then to a bioscope. The place setting can also be foreign, in the sense that the story is set outside of the target reader’s country, such as Murong Xuecun’s The Accident. Additionally, the place setting can be native or tied to a region, like in Zona Gale’s Bill. Since the place is usually related to a wider historical context the reader needs to focus on the social settings as well. Thus to grasp the fuller idea presented in Matsuo Basho’s The Aged Mother, the reader should see the leader’s strict order to immediately put all aged people to death in the social context of the feudal system where the story is set.
The time setting can be contemporary (Bocarro’s A Long Walk Home) or historical (Hemingway’s Old Man at the Bridge). It can elapse briefly in some minutes (Chopin’s The Story of an Hour), some days (Gale’s Bill), or some years.
The settings of fiction could be classified into two major types: natural settings and artificial (manufactured) settings. The natural setting refers to realistic—even factual location and time. The uses of such natural elements as settings in literary works are due to two main reasons. First, the fact that the progress of civilization—as the subject of literary works—has been largely a process of overcoming and taming natural forces. Second, nature has not been, and is not now, completely understood so that writers have often seen the land, the stars, the wind, the sea, and the forest as forces that are wild, indifferent, unpredictable, and mysterious. The use of natural settings, i.e. geographical location and historical time (past, present, or future) will make a story realistic.
The setting of fiction is not always drawn from a real-life locale. Many literary figures think that the ability to create the totality of his fiction—the setting as well as the characters and their actions is a special achievement. In Ada (1969), Vladimir Nabokov creates an entirely new space-time continuum, and J.R.R. Tolkien in his Lord of the Rings (1954–55) creates an “alternative world” that appeals greatly to many who are dissatisfied with the existing one. The world of interplanetary travel was imaginatively created long before the first moon landing. The properties of the future pictured by H.G. Wells's novels and by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932) are still recognized in an age that those authors did not live to see. The settings used in these works are artificial. Such a setting is very effective to achieve a sense of timelessness and universality.
Along with the character, the setting is usually introduced at the exposition (introduction) of stories. As the plot develops into rising action and climax, more details of the same setting or new settings are provided. In A Long Walk Home, the place and time settings are established in the first paragraph. The exposition tells the reader that the story is set in Estepona, Spain in modern times (there is a car and movie).
Uses of Setting
Besides providing context to the characters’ actions in a storyline, fiction writers may also use setting to achieve one or more of the following. First, the setting can be used to make the story realistic. In realistic fiction, where the environment is presented as a strong determining force in the characters’ lives, the setting description may be very detailed to give a sense of verisimilitude or to characterize a location that is, in effect, a participant in the action. This makes the story seems realistic (a story has to take place somewhere and at some time). Second, the setting may also be used to advance the themes of the story. It may advance themes either by providing an appropriate atmosphere or by symbolically reflecting relationships in the action or plot. Third, the setting is also usually used to reveal the characters. The details of the setting can reveal their personality traits, personal habits, social status, and interests. The use of setting to show the characters’ development is often very effective because these traits and interests are implied rather than implicit. This makes the characters seem all the more real since in life we gain opinions about people and their habits through impressions. Forth, the setting is often used to establish the atmosphere, which helps create the tone and mood. For certain types of stories, setting plays a very important role. Gothic fiction (a genre of literature that covers horror, death, and at times, romance), for instance, is often set in old castles or ancient houses, isolated from suburban, preferably located on cliffs overlooking barrens and rocky shorelines.
How to analyze setting in fiction.
Tucker, K. (2021) proposes four steps to analyze a setting: locating the main setting, evaluating the mood, assessing the atmosphere, and examining the details. Locating the main setting is carried out by identifying the primary place and time period where most of the action occurs. Many stories take place in various places and span different time periods, but there's usually one location and time period where the most important scenes and the majority of the actions occur. In Zona Gale’s Bill, for example, the primary setting is at Bill’s house located in a present-day town in America. Though the story includes scenes at the church and Sunday school classroom, the main setting is Bill’s workshop located in front of his house.
The second step, evaluating the mood, or what the reader feels after reading the story, is conducted by examining whether the story makes you, as the reader, feel safe, optimistic, peaceful, happy, restless, nervous, uncomfortable, foreboding, etc. The mood created in a story can obviously change through the course of the story, but there is always one or more final moods at the end. For example, Zona Gale’s Bill may make the reader restless and worried. But in the end, after realizing that Minna finally has loving parents, the reader will feel contented.
Assessing the atmosphere (i.e. the emotions or feelings the author conveys to the reader, such as cheerful, romantic, reflective, gloomy, dangerous, humorous, melancholy, idyllic, whimsical, etc.) is conducted by considering the immediate surroundings, including the geographical location and the date, and how they affect the overall emotion conveyed. For example, Chekov’s Misery is set in a snowy region, and this effectively supports the impression of ‘cool’ or indifferent attitude of most people met by Iona, the major character.
The last step, examining the details, is carried out by paying close attention to detailed descriptions of the setting, such as the inside of a house or a room, the weather, or the natural surroundings. For example, in A Long walk Home Bocaro writes “Dad began walking along the dusty roads”, Such description of the road helps readers understand how distressful Jackson is to see his father’s disappointment because of his lie.
Tucker, K. (2021). How to Analyze Setting in Literature. penandthepad.com. Retrieved from https://penandthepad.com/analyze-setting-literature-5932257.html
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