"What is a Setting?": A Literary Guide for English Students and Teachers

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What is a Setting? Transcript (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in Video. Click HERE for Spanish transcript)

By Raymond Malewitz, Oregon State University Associate Professor of American Literature

8 February 2021

When we read a story or watch a movie, we usually focus our attention on the characters and the plot.  But we should also pay attention to a third important element of storytelling: the setting.  A setting is the time and place in which a story is told.

All stories have settings—even this one.  The setting of this video is a weird blank void, and you may not think that it influences the way that you understand this video’s content. But you can probably agree that you’d interpret the lesson differently if the setting were, say, this:

As this difference suggests, setting is much more than a mere backdrop for human action.  Just as we are shaped by the city, region, and country that surrounds us, characters in fiction are shaped by their own geographical circumstances.   And just as we are molded by the strange 21st century time in which we live, characters in fiction are molded by their own strange historical moments, which influence what they think, how they speak, and how they act. Paying attention to setting—what it is and how it is described--can therefore bring us closer to the central themes, ideas, and conflicts of the stories we love.

Let me give you one example.  Sarah Orne Jewett’s 1886 story “The White Heron” is set in rural Maine, and Jewett’s description of the setting helps us to clarify the its central conflict.  About halfway through the story, the protagonist, Sylvia, climbs a tall tree to look for a heron’s nest.  Here’s how Jewett describes that moment:

     “Half a mile from home, at the farther edge of the woods, where the land was highest, a great pine-tree stood, the last of its generation. Whether it was left for a boundary mark, or for what reason, no one could say; the woodchoppers who had felled its mates were dead and gone long ago, and a whole forest of sturdy trees, pines and oaks and maples, had grown again. But the stately head of this old pine towered above them all and made a landmark for sea and shore miles and miles away. Sylvia knew it well.”

Now, this conveniently placed tree obviously serves to advance the story’s plot.  Earlier in the story, Sylvia met a hunter from a big city who has traveled to this region to shoot a heron for his taxidermy collection, and he’s offered the girl a large sum of money to help him to find one. After she climbs the tree, Sylvia spots the heron’s hidden nest, which propels the plot forward to its climactic question: will she reveal the bird’s location to the hunter or not?

But the description of the tree also EXPANDS this individual story of a young girl and a hunter into the story of a more general theme of a tension between rural and urban areas in the United States.  By calling the old-growth pine-tree “the last of its generation,” Jewett depicts rural Maine as a site of resource extraction—in this case, timber extraction. The other old-growth trees in the area had been removed long ago—presumably to support of the development of eastern cities like the one the hunter calls his home. And this scarcity extends to the dwindling white heron populations in the area. The heron’s feathers had, in the late nineteenth century, been used in hats for fashionable big-city ladies, and the bird had been hunted to near extinction as a result.

Thus what seems like a simple throwaway description of an old-growth tree in fact plays a central role in the understanding the significance of the decision that Sylvia must make later in the story, linking the individual story of a girl and a hunter with the larger history of that region of the United States.

Settings not only help to clarify a given story’s themes.  They can also help us to understand a character’s worldview through how they think about their surroundings.  As Sylvia’s thoughts on the tree suggest, she views her rural setting as a place of wondrous secrets, grandeur, and dignity.  This perspective stands in stark contrast to the hunter’s thoughts on the same setting, which Jewett reveals through a technique called “free indirect discourse” in an earlier passage. When the hunter sits down to dinner at Sylvia’s grandmother’s house, he thinks:

“It was a surprise to find so clean and comfortable a little dwelling in this New England wilderness. The young man had known the horrors of its most primitive housekeeping, and the dreary squalor of that level of society which does not rebel at the companionship of hens. This was the best thrift of an old-fashioned farmstead, though on such a small scale that it seemed like a hermitage. He listened eagerly to the old woman's quaint talk, he watched Sylvia's pale face and shining gray eyes with ever growing enthusiasm, and insisted that this was the best supper he had eaten for a month...”

While the hunter seems polite, his thoughts reveal a fairly condescending attitude towards what he calls the “primitive” and “dreary squalor” of the New England setting.  Because we associate this region with our protagonist, Sylvia, when the hunter disparages the region, we are encouraged to view his quest for the bird in a more negative light, aligning the bird’s life with Sylvia’s life in her setting.

As “The White Heron” suggests, students should do more than simply note place and time when they use the term “setting” in their essays.  Instead, they should consider the many ways in which place and time shape our understanding of the story’s characters, plot, and themes.

Want to cite this?

MLA Citation: Malewitz, Raymond. "What is a Setting?" Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms, 8 Feb. 2021, Oregon State University, https://liberalarts.oregonstate.edu/wlf/what-setting. Accessed [insert date].

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The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms