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Setting

Setting is an essential tool in literature. You can use setting to show a mood, give some context about an era or give readers information about the characters. 

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Setting is an essential tool in literature. You can use setting to show a mood, give some context about an era or give readers information about the characters.

Setting in literature definition

Let's take a look at the definition of setting:

Setting is defined as a time frame or location in which a narrative takes place in literature.

Whether a novel takes place in Victorian England or in space, the setting plays an important role in the development of the plot and the characters. We will explore this in detail in the article!

Setting, Globe in a magnifying glass with a location icon, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Location is crucial to consider in any narrative.

Types of setting in literature

The 3 main types of setting are time, place and environment.

A setting can show the time period in which a story takes place. This gives context to the social climate of a story and a background about the social cues and expectations that characters should adhere to.

A good example of this is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813) which is set in the late 1700s and early 1800s. This time period was known as the Regency era. During the Regency era, George IV was King of the United Kingdom. Manners and the emergence of modern social thought amongst the upper class in England were highlighted in this era. Important social customs during the Regency era were having good manners, being able to marry well to gain social status, and being able to maintain one’s wealth.

Protagonist Elizabeth Bennet and her love interest, Mr. Darcy, must overcome the prejudices of the middle class (Elizabeth’s family) being seen as social inferiors to the upper class (Darcy’s family).

This refers to a specific place in a novel.

Using the same example of Pride and Prejudice, to show how place is used to enhance a story, we will look at Mr Darcy’s Pemberley residence. When she goes to visit Pemberley after she initially rejects Darcy’s first proposal, Elizabeth sees the surrounding countryside of Pemberley as charming and beautiful. It is her visit to Pemberley which makes her change her opinion about Darcy. This is because he is more courteous at his Pemberley estate, where he is away from the social expectations of a man of his social status. In Darcy’s countryside estate, away from the all-seeing eye of society, both Darcy and Elizabeth aren't obliged to keep acting in the way that is considered proper for their social statuses.

Setting, a countryside home with a large garden, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Countryside home is an idyllic setting for many of Austen's novels.

This refers to a broader geographical area or a social environment.

The social environment is the surrounding environment that social events occur in. This also shows the culture that characters are educated in and the institutions and people they are involved with.

The ball where Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy first meet in Pride and Prejudice is an example of a social setting. In this social environment, Mr. Darcy in particular upholds the feelings of superiority that he was taught he should have as he is a part of the upper classes of society.

In Pride and Prejudice, an example of the physical environment is the outdoor settings that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy find themselves in. In outdoor settings, the couple are more relaxed and don’t exhibit the same rigidity that they do in indoor, social settings. The freedom and privacy of the outdoors gives Elizabeth and Darcy the opportunity to be open with their words and feelings. Elizabeth appreciates the beautiful, harmonic nature of Pemberley estate. Pemberley and the nature surrounding it become a symbol for Mr. Darcy’s true character away from society. They are both naturally beautiful and harmonious. The design of the outdoor space is not awkward in taste and does not have an artificial appearance. This sets the tone that their time at Pemberley estate and in the outdoors will not be tainted by the pretences they usually keep up.

Sound as setting in literature

Does sound count as setting in literature? The short answer is, yes! Anything that helps you build the background of a scene can be seen as setting. Sound can be used to describe what is going on in the background of a scene - so this counts as part of setting.

An example of sound being used to describe a setting is:

‘The wind whistled through the trees and turned the leaves on the ground over one another. And those leaves rustled as they seemed to run away from the wind itself.’

The use of onomatopoeias can also help build a setting in literature.

Onomatopoeia is a type of sound symbolism. The meaning of an onomatopoeic word corresponds to the sound it makes.

‘BOOM! CRASH! CLANG! The pots fell to the floor, scattered all over, as she had had the greatest fright of her life.’

Examples of setting in literature

Now we will discuss two other famous examples of setting in literature.

Macbeth (1623) by William Shakespeare

Set in 11th Century Scotland, Macbeth (1623) takes place during a time when Scotland was not yet part of the United Kingdom, but was an independent country of its own. Being so close to England, disagreements about its sovereignty and who should rule it were rife. This setting of time gives the audience a necessary historical backdrop as to the tensions at the time and the main reason behind Macbeth’s actions.

The drama is set in the darkness of castles Forres, Inverness and Fife. This darkness is telling of the mood of the drama, and the potential for dangerous, frightening things to happen that one would not want to come to light.

You could use this theme of darkness in setting within the context of the play to build an interesting analysis! Think about how the darkness foreshadows events to come.

Purple Hibiscus (2003) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This novel is set in Nigeria in the 1980s. This time period is known as postcolonial Nigeria and is often attributed with the political and economic instability for the country. This setting gives readers a backdrop of an overall unstable Nigeria with an uncertain future. At the same time, the protagonist, Kambili Achike, comes from a wealthy family in Enugu state. This contrast to the lives of the general population already makes readers assume that her life will be more privileged in every way in comparison to average citizens. It sets up an interesting dichotomy when someone so outwardly privileged is living under their own type of tyranny and oppression.

Quotes about setting in literature

Let's take a look at some quotes about setting in well-known works of literature.

It was pleasant to wake up in Florence, to open the eyes upon a bright bare room, with a floor of red tiles which look clean though they are not; with a painted ceiling whereon pink griffins and blue amorini sport in a forest of yellow violins and bassoons. It was pleasant, too, to fling wide the windows, pinching the fingers in unfamiliar fastenings, to lean out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and, close below, Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road.

- A Room With a View (1908) by E. M. Forster, Chapter 2

This quote from the novel A Room With a View describes a place. The main character, Lucy, wakes up in Florence and takes in her surroundings. Note how the setting influences her mood, it makes her feel happy.

Finally, in October 1945, a man with swampy eyes, feathers of hair, and a clean-shaven face walked into the shop.

- The Book Thief (2005) by Marcus Zusak, Epilogue

The Book Thief is a novel set during the Second World War. This quote is in the epilogue and it shows us the time - 1945 - when the war has ended.

They made their appearance in the Lower Rooms; and here fortune was more favourable to our heroine. The master of the ceremonies introduced to her a very gentlemanlike young man as a partner; his name was Tilney.

- Northanger Abbey (1817) by Jane Austen, Chapter 3

This description of the social environment in Chapter 3 of the novel shows us that the protagonist, Catherine, is at a ball in Bath. It is in this setting that she meets her romantic interest, Henry Tilney. He is first introduced as her dance partner at the ball.

How to analyse setting in literature

To analyse setting in a work of literature, you first need to identify the types of settings featured (time, place and environment). When you have successfully identified those types, you must consider the context around them. Consider how the setting reflects the behaviour of the characters. Think about what happens if the setting changes - do the characters alter with it? Characters are not only influenced by the setting but they also influence the setting.

Let's take Charles DickensGreat Expectations (1861) as an example. The novel is set in 19th Century England. This was the time of the Industrial Revolution in the Victorian Era, so it lent itself to economic development.

The Industrial Revolution was a time between 1760 and 1840 when large-scale industry and manufacturing took over the economies in Europe and the United States.

When you dig deeper into the setting, Miss Havisham’s home tells us a lot about what’s going on in the novel. Miss Havisham is a bitter woman who was left at the altar and tricked out of her assets by her half-brother and the man she was supposed to marry. Estella, protagonist Pip’s love interest, grows up under the care of Miss Havisham, so she learns her mean ways. Miss Havisham’s home is shrouded in darkness, and Estella carries a candle, which is the only source of light in the dark home.

This setting of place not only reflects the dark, hopeless mood in Miss Havisham’s home due to her experiences. This setting also shows how Estella’s goodness is stifled by Miss Havisham’s teachings of meanness and evil. Once she finds out that Pip likes her, Estella remains mean for a time and is told by Miss Havisham to break Pip’s heart. You can conclude that Miss Havisham’s home reflects her spirit.

Importance of setting in literature

In literature, you can use a setting to help you in creating your story. Authors use setting to reveal different aspects of the story, from character development to mood. Setting provides further background and context that shows where, when and why a certain event in the plot occurs.

Setting - Key takeaways

  • Setting is defined as a time frame or location in which a narrative takes place in literature.
  • The 3 main types of setting are time, place and environment.
  • A setting can show the time period in which a story takes place. Setting can refer to the description of specific places that are significant to the plot. Setting can also reveal the broader physical and social environment in which a story takes place.
  • To analyse setting in a work of literature, you should identify the types of setting that are used and consider how the context around the setting affects the plot and the characters.
  • Setting in literature is important because it provides further background and context that shows where, when and why a certain event in the plot occurs.

Frequently Asked Questions about Setting

To analyse setting in a work of literature, you should identify the types of setting that are used and consider how the context around the setting affects the plot and the characters.

Setting is a time frame or location in which a narrative takes place in literature. 

The 3 main types of setting are time, place and environment (physical and social).

Social setting is the surrounding environment that social events occur in. This also shows the culture that characters are educated in and the institutions and people they are involved with.

Yes. Noise or sound can be used to describe what is going on in the background of a scene - so this counts as part of setting.

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