Understanding the importance of setting for a story is easy.  If you were to plan what might be the most romantic moment of your life–say, the moment you ask the person you love to marry you–where would you plan to be?  Taking an evening stroll on a Caribbean beach?  Seated at a candlelit table in a quiet, beautiful restaurant?  Sweating in the front seat of a Chevy Nova in five o;clock traffic, the Beastie Boys in the table deck?  Holding a super sized Hefty bag full of empty beer cans the morning after the Super Bowl party?  Most of us know which of these places we would choose because we know, even without considering how, that thee is a link between the meaning of events and where and when those events occur.

Therefore, if characters in a story  encounter each other, we know they must do so  in some place and at some time. The place and time of the story is its setting. Writers are able to decide how important the setting is to their story and then in what manner they will treat that setting.   Some stories have very specific settings. For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Babylon, Revisited” takes place in Paris, France, in the early 1930s. This specific setting is very important because Fitzgerald assumes we know about the life style of the wealthy in Paris of the 1920s and that we know the devastation brought by the stock market crash of 1929 and the early years of The Great Depression.

The setting also indicates certain facts about socio-economic status of the characters. In “Barbie-Q” by Sandra Cisneros, we are aware that these young girls are not wealthy because of the way Cisneros describes the warehouse.   The setting of Margaret Atwood’s “Rape Fantasies” is unclear at the beginning of the story, but by the end of the story, it becomes clear to where Estelle is sitting as she tells her stories. Suddenly, the story takes on an entirely new meaning, telling much about Estelle and her lifestyle.

In addition, the setting creates an emotional response. In the Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and in Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark,” we are taken into places that scare most of us. However, the rooms and lawns of the Colonial leaders described in W. Sumerset Maugham’s “The Outstation” can make us feel very comfortable and pampered, or depending of our politics, angry or jealous.

But sometimes a writer decides to place the sooty in an unspecified setting.  We cannot tell when the story takes places , and we cannot tell where, other than perhaps in a city or in a house.    But an unspecified setting might tell us several things. First, it might say that the story and characters could be occur anywhere and at anytime. The author may want us to think of the story as a universal experience.   A story that illustrates this effect is Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Yellow Woman,.” which obviously takes place beside a stream and in the mountains, but we don’t know much more than that.  It i is also a story unbound by time, and this unboundedness is part of the theme, the inexplicable but totally normal “disappearance” of a woman from her family.  Second, the writer may be telling us that the story’s characters are just like us, that we, too, could be unbound by time and place, just like them.  Susan Sontag’s story “The Dummy,” a story about an average person struggling with an average life takes place in an unspecified city at an unspecified time.  Sontag is telling us that our lives are just as meaningless as her character’s.

An idea related to setting is that of atmosphere. While setting can be considered the specific or general time and place of a story, along with any associated historical and sociological meaning, atmosphere might be considered the psychological impact of the setting. In the story “The Cask of Amontillado,” for instance, the setting is a carnival and subterranean catacombs.  These details are factual and relevant.  But the atmosphere of the story is a slightly different thing; it is our emotional response to the setting, or the emotional aspect of the setting.   The atmosphere of the “The Cask of Amontillado” is spooky and scary, dark.

It is important to note here atmosphere is a slightly different idea from tone, which will be discussed in a separate entry. Tone is the attitude of the narrator toward the story, characters, and perhaps the reader. The atmosphere, rather than growing from the voice of the author, grows more from the situations in the story.   Think of John Updike’s “A&P,” which takes place in a grocery store in the late 1950s.  The story’s humorous tone is created by joks that Sammy tells, the images he uses to describe the customers and the store.  But the atmosphere of the place is bright and cheerful, with certain qualities of rigidity and forced orderliness. In thinking about atmosphere, we can ask ourselves how our bodies might react in the place as described. We can notice how we feel–scared, happy and playful, constricted, confused. These emotional reactions to setting hint at the atmosphere the setting possesses–frightening, calm and safe, restricting, chaotic.

In attempting to understand the theme of a short story, we look for changes in the setting. In “A&P,” all of the story but the last paragraph takes place in the A&P; then Sammy is free of it. James Joyce’s “Araby” begins in and near a house on a cul de sac, but it ends at the Araby, far from home. Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Yellow Woman” begins on a riverbank, then moves to the mountains, then returns. In Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” Mrs. Mallard is downstairs when she learns of her husband’s death; then she goes upstairs and feels new emotions; then she returns downstairs. To understand a story’s theme, we analyze these changes or the lack of changes.  For instance, in “A Story of an Hour,”  as Mrs. Mallard she returns, we ask if her old feelings come back to her or if her new feelings stay with her? How settings shift, or remain static, tells us symbolically how the characters have reacted to the events they have just experienced.

The deserved popularity of Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery” is due in large part because the expectations she creates in her description of the setting. The story begins describing a beautiful, peaceful, and, one would think, typical, early summer’s day.

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day (1); the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green (2). The people of the village began to gather in the square, between the post office and the bank, around ten o’clock (3); in some towns there were so many people that the lottery took two days and had to be started on June 26th (4), but in this village where there were only about three hundred people, the whole lottery took less than two hours, so it could begin at ten o’clock in the morning and still be through in time to allow the villagers to get home for noon dinner (5).

(1)  Jackson describes a specific day, but notice the year is not specified.

(2)  The day is beautiful; the world is bountiful.

(3)  A typical small town: post office, bank, square,

(4)  The first mention of the lottery as if a normal part of a normal town.

(5)  The lottery seems to be an unemotional affair as people eat dinner right after it is completed.




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About lymangrant

Lyman Grant is a professor of creative writing and humanities at Austin Community College. He has work at ACC since 1978. He is the author or editor of two textbooks, two books relating to Texas literature, three volumes and a chapbook of poetry. Recently he traveled the United States for a year in a 34-foot RV 5th wheel trailer with his wife and two younger sons.