Definition of Setting
Setting is a literary device that allows the writer of a narrative to establish the time, location, and environment in which it takes place. This is an important element in a story, as the setting indicates to the reader when and where the action takes place. As a result, the setting of a narrative or story helps the reader picture clear and relevant details. In addition, setting enhances the development of a story’s plot and characters by providing a distinct background.
In literature, setting can be specific or general in terms of geographical location and historical time period. A specific, or integral, setting refers to an exact location and time period established by the writer. This information can be directly imparted to the reader or implied in the narrative. A backdrop setting is more general, vague, or nondescript, which makes the story more universal for readers. The setting of a literary work may also be a fictional location or world, a future time and place, or it may be unknown.
For example, the fairy tale “Cinderella” traditionally features a backdrop setting, such as long ago in a faraway kingdom. However, a modern interpretation of “Cinderella” might feature an integral setting such as New York City to enhance aspects of the story’s plot, characters, and theme.
Examples of the Importance of Setting as a Literary Device
Setting is an important literary device, as its purpose is to create a “world” in which a story takes place. Setting can also influence the plot of a story and the actions of characters. Here are some examples of the importance of setting as a literary device:
- helps establish mood and/or tone of a story
- provides context for other story elements such as plot, characters, and theme
- reinforces the narrative by providing structure and function in the story
- enhances individual scenes within a story’s plot
Occasionally, the “presence” of a story’s setting, in terms of time period, geographic location, or environment, can feel to the reader like an additional character. This can make for clever use of this literary device in portraying a particular time and/or place with a personality all on its own in a story.
Common Examples of Cities Frequently Used as Setting
Certain cities are frequently used as settings in literary works. By setting a narrative or story in a well-known city, the writer can be relatively certain that the reader will have a general sense and understanding of the locale, including geographical characteristics, landmarks, culture, etc. This can alleviate some burdens for the writer in terms of description and allow for the focus to remain on the story’s plot and characters.
Here are some common examples of cities that are frequently used as settings in literature:
- New York City
- Los Angeles
- New Orleans
- Las Vegas
- Hong Kong
Common Examples of Historical Time Periods Frequently Used as Setting
Certain historical time periods are frequently used as settings in literary works as well. By setting a narrative or story in a well-known era, the writer can also be relatively certain that the reader will have a general sense and understanding of the history, events, historical figures, etc. This can additionally alleviate some burdens for the writer in terms of description and allow for the focus to remain on the story’s plot and characters.
Here are some common examples of historical time periods (not in chronological order) that are frequently used as settings in literature:
- Ancient Greece
- Dark Ages
- Industrial Revolution
- Middle Ages
- Age of Exploration
- Classical Era
- Turn of the century
- Roaring ’20s
- World War I
- Westward Expansion
- World War II
- Cold War
- Victorian Age
Common Examples of Environments Frequently Used as Setting
Certain types of environment are frequently used as settings in literary works in addition to specific geographical locations. By setting a narrative or story in a well-known environment, the writer can be relatively certain that the reader will have a general sense and understanding of that environments characteristics, such as terrain, climate, culture, etc. This can alleviate some burdens for the writer as well in terms of description and allow for the focus to remain on the story’s plot and characters.
Here are some common examples of environments that are frequently used as settings in literature:
- outer space
- war zone
- Southern plantation
- ship at sea
Examples of Setting in Literature
In literature, setting provides the reader an image and idea of time and place that frames the action of a story and can reveal aspects of its characters. By using setting as a literary device, the writer can help the reader visualize the action of the work, which adds credibility and authenticity to the story. In addition, setting can create and sustain the illusion of imaginary places and worlds in fiction as well as time periods in the future or prehistoric past. Without an indication of setting, a story would lack significant context for the reader, potentially reducing their enjoyment and/or understanding of the work.
Here are some examples of setting in well-known works of literature:
Example 1: Harrison Bergeron (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.)
THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.
In Vonnegut’s short story, the narrator reveals the setting at the outset. This establishes a significant amount of information for the reader before the action of the story even begins. The narrator stipulates the year, which indicates to the reader that the time period of the story is in the future but not terribly distant. In addition, the story is clearly set in the United States as indicated by the mention of the constitutional amendments.
As well as directly establishing the time and location of the story, Vonnegut also utilizes setting as a literary device to impart to the reader a sense of the story’s environment. In this case, there is a strong refrain of mandated equality in terms of the physical and intellectual characteristics of this future population that is further enforced by a national agency. As a result, the reader is able to instantly picture the background in which the events of the story and movement of the characters will take place.
Example 2: As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner)
That’s the one trouble with this country: everything, weather, all, hangs on too long. Like our rivers, our land: opaque, slow, violent; shaping and creating the life of man in its implacable and brooding image.
Faulkner created his own fictional county in Mississippi, Yoknapatawpha County, in which to set nearly all of his novels and numerous short stories. Yoknapatawpha was inspired by and based on Lafayette County in Oxford, Mississippi, with which Faulkner was familiar. Faulkner himself considered Yoknapatawpha County as apocryphal in the sense that many of his readers believe it to be a real place. In fact, his novel Absalom, Absalom! includes a map of the fictional country that was drawn by Faulkner.
By creating this realistic yet fictional Mississippi county, Faulkner was able to incorporate several aspects of this setting across many of his works. In this passage from his novel As I Lay Dying, for example, the atmosphere of Yoknapatawpha is as much a presence as the characters, and Faulkner underscores the reciprocal influence and shaping of the novel’s setting and characters. In addition, by using Yoknapatawpha to set so many of his literary works, Faulkner readers find a familiarity with and understanding of the physical location and environment in which the narrative takes place. This allows readers to focus on the action and characters of the story.
Example 3: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.
And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.
The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around:
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!
In Coleridge’s poem, he juxtaposes two very different and distinct settings. At the outset of the poem, the setting is a wedding in which the guests are joyful, merrily dancing, eating, and drinking. This celebratory environment is in stark contrast to the setting of the mariner’s story within the poem, which he relays to a wedding guest outside the venue.
This passage of the poem indicates the setting of the Mariner’s tale, as the boat travels to the icy Antarctic. The oppressive presence and noise of the ice creates a barren environment that is cold to the existence of living things. This emphasis on the environmental setting in Coleridge’s poem not only draws the reader away from the warmth and life-affirming nature of the wedding, but it also reflects for the reader the danger and isolation faced by sailors at sea. In fact, the reader becomes part of the setting described by the mariner just as the wedding guest becomes part of the mariner’s story through the poet’s description of the setting and events. This allows for a stronger connection between the poem and reader.