The Function of Setting in Literature

Instructor: Becky Villarreal

Setting is the time and place in which the events of the story occur. In identifying the setting, one may start by naming the town and year in which the story takes place (if these are identified by the author), and then by identifying the more specific locations of the story where the action takes place, such as specific rooms in a central character's home, a school classroom, a local store, a barn, a woods, a city street, an imaginary planet, etc. Other questions to consider when discussing setting are as follows:

Time is probably the most important element of setting. For example, Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" takes place at the turn of the century, during a time when women had few rights and were expected to submit to the significant men in their lives. And of course, place is important as well considering that Emily lived in the deep south where traditional values of the Old South are kept alive. Most stories have multiple settings such as Willa Cather's "Paul's Case" and Amy Tan's "A Pair of Two Tickets." The contrast between the two main settings in these stories is significant. Culture is another important element in setting. In Helena Maria Viramontes' "The Moths," the author inundates the senses of the readers in this passage:

[P]rickly chayotes that produced vines that twisted and wound all over her porch pillars, crawling to the roof, up and over the roof, and down the other side, pear-shaped squashes ready for the pick, ready to be steamed with onions and cheese and butter.

In some stories like Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," the setting is very general so that the central idea can be generalized. Authors like Jackson sometimes create a general, universal, or magical setting to make readers imagine that this kind of thing could happen "anywhere."

It is significant that many characters seem trapped in their settings. And in some cases, (specifically, "Paul's Case"), a character leaves the setting only to become disillusioned or disappointed. For example, when I left San Angelo to come to Austin, I was anxious to leave the "oppression" I had endured in West Texas. I had all these visions of a more carefree life as an Austinite in which I would be able to express myself freely, go to the theater on a whim, join writing circles and book clubs, hang out on Sixth Street, and so on. However, once I moved here, I was faced with the reality of TRAFFIC, the high cost of living, the fact that I am no longer a twenty-year-old, and that people are basically the same wherever you go, etc. Ironically, I often find myself yearning for the carefree life I lived in San Angelo! Nonetheless, I am happy to be here and I am thrilled to have this opportunity to teach composition and literature online (something I was not given a chance to do in my former residence)!


Created by Becky Villarreal Austin Community College 2000