Setting in Literature: Definition and Examples

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      The most obvious function of environment and setting is to give the story a place to happen. Environment is of overriding importance in novel, since it determined character. The makeup and behavior of fictional characters depend on their environment quite as much as on the personal dynamic with which their author endows them. The entire action of a novel is frequently determined by the locale in which it is set.

      Setting grounds writing in the reality of place and depicts the theme of story through powerful metaphor. Without setting, characters are simply there, in a vacuum, with no reason to act and most importantly, no reason to care. Without a place there is no story. Setting helps with plot, determines and describes character and gives metaphoric links to theme. Like the force in Star Wars, setting provides a landscape that binds everything into context and meaning. Thus, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) could hardly have been placed in Paris, because the tragic life and death of the heroine have a great deal to do with the circumscriptions of her provincial milieu. Wessex is a giant brooding presence in Thomas Hardy’s novels, whose human characters would probably not behave much differently if they were set in some other rural locality of England. The popularity of Sir Walter Scott’s ‘Waverley’ novels is due in part to their evocation of a romantic Scotland.

      Setting may be the prime consideration of some readers, who can be drawn to Conrad because he depicts life at sea or in the East Indies; they may be less interested in the complexity of human relationships that he presents. The English novelist Graham Greene’s ability to encapsulate the essence of an exotic setting in a single book is exemplified in The Heart of the Matter (1948). His contemporary Evelyn Waugh stated that the West Africa of that book replaced the truly remembered West Africa of his own experience. Such power is not uncommon: the Yorkshire moors have been romanticized because Emily Bronte wrote of them in Wuthering Heights (1847), and literary tourists have visited Stoke-on-Trent in northern England, because it comprises the Five Towns of Arnold Bennett’s novels of the early 20th century. Others go to the Monterey, California, of John Steinbeck’s novels in the expectation of experiencing a frisson added to the locality by an act of creative imagination. James Joyce remained inexhaustibly stimulated by Dublin. He has exalted that city in a manner that his novels may be treated as guidebooks of landscape.

      The setting of a novel is not always drawn from a real-life locale. Readers may or may not visit the locale in reality, or prove mere existence of the locale, but such settings must not be neglected as untrue or useless. The literary artists sometimes create some imaginary lands as their locus of narration, which can fascinate the entire plot, theme and characterization so that good readers’ response can be achieved. Such is the case in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travel - A Voyage to Lilliput, A Voyage to Brobdingnag, A Voyage to Laputa, A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms. When such happens, this may be because the author intends to bring forward some social or otherwise incidences in a particular literary point of view. In the Russian expatriate Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada (1969) there is an entirely new space-time continuum. J.R.R. Tolkien in his Lord of the Flies (1954-55) created 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 envisaged by H.G. Wells’ novels or by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932) are still recognized in an age that those authors did not live to see. The composition of place can be a magical fictional gift.

      The locale of the novel not only place and set the theme and characters of the story, rather it also speaks about the socio-cultural, economical, political, and historical background of both the novels and the novelists. For example, Malgudi is a fictional town in India created by R.K. Narayan in his novels and short stories. It forms the setting for most of Narayan’s works. Starting with his first novel, Swami and Friends (1935), all but one of his fifteen novels and most of his short stories take place here. Narayan has successfully portrayed Malgudi as a microcosm of India. Malgudi was created, as mentioned in Malgudi Days, by Sir Fredrick Lawley, a fictional British officer in the 19th century by combining and developing a few villages. The character of Sir Fredrick Lawley may have been based on Arthur Lawley, the Governor of Madras in 1905. Whatever the locale of his work, every true novelist is concerned with making a credible environment for his characters, and this really means a close attention to sense data — the immediacies of food and drink and color — far more than abstractions like ‘nature’ and ‘city’. The London of Charles Dickens is as much incarnated in the smell of wood in lawyers’ chambers as in the skyline and vistas of streets.

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