Reading for Setting

“The color of the sky was like a length of white chalk turned on its side and rubbed into asphalt. Sanded - that was how the world looked, worked slowly down to no rough edges.”

Along with character, it is very likely indeed that the unseen passage in front of you when you sit Paper 1 will in some shape or form make use of setting.  Setting is a rather loose term, of course, that can take into account many different elements within a text, although most of the time it will make its appearance known in one (or more) of the contexts detailed below:

  1. Spatial:  the physical location in which the passage is placed.  This could be anything from the interior of a room to a wide sweeping desert.
  2. Temporal:  the time in which a particular passage  is located, or its place in history
  3. Philosophical or moral:  the extent to which the passage or the characters within it reflect certain cultural values or attitudes.

We can apply a similar method to setting as we did with character.  Try thinking about it in relation to the following kinds of category:

1.   What is the setting?

  • Where is the passage set?  What kind of place? Interior/exterior?  Micro (i.e. small scale) or macro (large scale)?
  • Is there a particular kind of atmosphere generated?
  • Do characters interact with it in any way?

2.  How is it depicted?

  • Through diction, syntax, imagery, metaphor etc
  • In relation to character, action and events, or theme
  • Is it presented literally or through more figurative or symbolic means?

3.  What is its importance?

  • Does setting contribute to the presentation of character or events?
  • Is it used in support of the events or in contrast to them?
  • Do characters interact with it?
  • What contribution does it make to the mood of the extract?
  • Does setting affect or reflect the attitude of particular characters?
  • Does setting relate to narrative point of view, e.g. do we see things as a 'long shot' or 'in close up'?

In the boxes below are three descriptions of setting, each used to achieve slightly different ends.  Read through each extract and think about the uses and effects of each.  Some guiding notes can then be seen by clicking on the eye icon to the right.

Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him. With his inky fingers and his bitten nails, his manner cynical and nervous, anybody could tell he didn’t belong – belong to the early summer sun, the cool Whitsun wind off the sea, the holiday crowd. They came in by train from Victoria every five minutes, rocked down Queen’s Road standing on the tops of the little local trams, stepped off in bewildered multitudes into fresh and glittering air: the new silver paint sparkled on the piers, the cream houses ran away into the west like a pale Victorian water-colour; a race in miniature motors, a band playing, flower gardens in bloom below the front, an aeroplane advertising something for the health in pale vanishing clouds across the sky.

Note how the setting here contributes to the presentation of character. Brighton is portrayed through extensive imagery as a place of light and air -  an almost stereotypical tourist destination for 'the holiday crowd'.  Word choice such as 'glittering' and 'sparkled' combine with references to colour, sound and other kinds of visual imagery in the 'pale vanishing clouds' to evoke a sense of summer, of movement and energy, and of life.  The character of Hale, however. stands in contrast;  he is 'cynical and nervous' and with his 'inky fingers' seems to come from a very different world.  This is of course already suggested with the shocking opening line:  'they meant to murder him.'

Our way lay through some of the best streets of Villette, streets brightly lit, and far more lively now than at high noon. How brilliant seemed the shops! How glad, gay and abundant flowed the tide of life along the broad pavement! While I looked, the thought of the Rue Fossette came across me - of the walled- in garden and school-house, and of the dark, vast classes, where, as at this very hour, it was my wont to wander, all solitary, gazing at the stars, through the high, blindless windows, and listening to the distant voice of the reader in the refectory, monotonously exercised upon the lecture pieuse. Thus must I soon again listen and wander; and this shadow of the future stole with timely sobriety across the radiant present.

This extract employs a strong sense of contrast between two settings in order to express the narrator's simultaneous feelings of confinement and longing. The character's exclamatory voice finds expression in the streets of the town, with its 'brilliant' shops and 'tide of life', whilst the thought of the 'Rue Fossette' is associated with 'blindness' and captured by the sound of a 'distant voice ... monotonously exercised.'  It's interesting also how setting becomes a means for the character to reflect on the difference between the present and the future - the latter associated with 'sobriety' and the former described as 'radiant'.  Restraint seems to characterise his or her general predicament, whilst the setting in the present indicates a world 'beyond'  - a sense in which they might be 'free'.

Thus whispering, his warm, unnerved arm
Sank in her pillow. Shaded was her dream
By the dusk curtains: 'twas a midnight charm
Impossible to melt as iced stream:
The lustrous salvers in the moonlight gleam;
Broad golden fringe upon the carpet lies:
It seem'd he never, never could redeem
From such a steadfast spell his lady's eyes;
So mus'd awhile, entoil'd in woofed phantasies.

This extract from a longer poem by John Keats makes use of setting to create a vivid sense of atmosphere.  References to night time are evocative of something dream like, ethereal, which is supported with plentiful use of sense imagery.  The female character's dream is 'shaded / By the dusk curtains', salvers described as 'lustrous' and a 'broad golden fringe upon the carpet lies'.  All is, it seems bathed in 'the moomnlight gleam.'  The woman and the man in the stanza appear from much part of this dream-like atmosphere;  references to spells and 'woofed phantasies' make them seem equally intangible  - which the use of verbs such as 'whispering', 'unnerved' and 'melt' further reinforce.

Below is an extract from the story The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe.  Read it through for yourself first and try to think about it according to the different approaches outlined above.  You could then tackle the questions.

DURING the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. I know not how it was; but, with the first glimpse of the building, a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded my spirit. I say insufferable; for the feeling was unrelieved by any of that half-pleasurable, because poetic, sentiment, with which the mind usually receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible. I looked upon the scene before me—upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain—upon the bleak walls—upon the vacant eye-like windows—upon a few rank sedges—and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees—with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium—the bitter lapse into every-day life—the hideous dropping off of the veil. There was an iciness, a sinking, a sickening of the heart—an unredeemed dreariness of thought which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. What was it—I paused to think—what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher? It was a mystery all insoluble; nor could I grapple with the shadowy fancies that crowded upon me as I pondered. I was forced to fall back upon the unsatisfactory conclusion that while, beyond doubt, there are combinations of very simple natural objects which have the power of thus affecting us, still the analysis of this power lies among considerations beyond our depth. It was possible, I reflected, that a mere different arrangement of the particulars of the scene, of the details of the picture, would be sufficient to modify, or perhaps to annihilate its capacity for sorrowful impression; and, acting upon this idea, I reined my horse to the precipitous brink of a black and lurid tarn that lay in unruffled luster by the dwelling, and gazed down—but with a shudder even more thrilling than before—upon the remodeled and inverted images of the gray sedge, and the ghastly tree stems, and the vacant and eye-like windows. 

1.  What can you say about the passage's references to nature?
  • Nature is shown to be associated with decay - an absence of life:
    • 'dull, dark and soundless day'
    • 'the clouds hung oppressively low'
    • the countryside is 'dreary'
    • the trees are 'decayed'
    • words used to describe the lake include 'black', 'lurid', 'gray' and 'ghastly'
  • It is used as a way to evoke atmosphere, but also to suggest the idea of death
2.  What comment can you make about the presentation of the house?
  • It is described as a place of sadness and of 'melancholy'
  • The house is seemingly dilapidated:
    • the walls are 'bleak'
    • the windows are 'vacant'
    • there are 'rank sedges'
    • it creates a 'sorrowful impression'
  • A sense of something ethereal, mysterious:
    • 'a mystery all insoluble'
  • Interesting that there seems to exist a correspondence between the natural scenery and the man made house - it is hard to distinguish between them.  'Insufferable gloom' seems to characterise both
3.  How does the narrator relate to the setting?
  • The setting clearly has a very significant impact on the narrator:
    • 'a sense of insufferable gloom pervaded by spirit'
    • 'an utter depression of soul'
    • 'a sickening of the heart'
    • 'an unredeemed dreariness of thought'
  • His reaction to it mixes sense experience with his imagination
  • Hard to distinguish between the physcial actuality of the scene and a more dream like interpretation of it - as if his mind, the landscape and the house were part of the same 'reality'
4.  What key literary techniques are employed in the creation of setting?
  • Significant use of repetition
  • Long, complex sentences, which layer details with extensive use of hyphens Exaggeration/hyperbole e.g. 'unredeeemed dreariness', 'an utter depression of the soul'
  • Metaphor e.g. 'eye-like windows', 'shadowy fancies that crowded upon me', 'unruffled luster'
  • Diction associated with disease, decay and death Extensive use of visual imagery
5.  How does the description of setting create narrative interest?
  • The associations between elements of setting and character generate a sense of ambiguity:  is this place real or imagined?
  • There is a tension between the narrator being appalled by the setting - trying almost to escape from it, and yet being attracted to it at the same time
  • The conflict between the 'idea' of natural beauty and the 'unnatural' scene eing described
  • The development of the passage:  the sense of darkness, of gloom and of death, seems to intensify as the passage goes along

 In this downloadable resource, there are further examples of descriptions of literary setting, along with questions

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