Suggestions about approaching a “setting” essay.


Many students seem to see use of setting essays as an excuse to write as much as they can about the plot of the novel, whilst opening each paragraph with a comment reflecting the location of the material which they discuss is.

The sad fact is that such “narrative driven” essays will score few marks, particularly at advanced level, and this document has been prompted by a batch of IBDP essays concerning the use of setting in The Awakening (Chopin) and Snow Falling on Cedars (Guterson).


It is important to note that setting refers to the whole “world” of the novel – location, era, culture, use of time of day (“hour”) and that any response should show an awareness of each of these ideas if possible. Ideally the response will be able to consider contrasts within the novel to build a sense of debate in the essay.
Once this is established then the writer needs to consider the link between any of these elements and the themes of the novel or the characters described.
Thus each paragraph should open with a clear statement of intent linked to the title of the essay before the discussion commences.

Using texts familiar to a range of my students, I will look briefly at each of the elements outlined above to suggest some stimuli:


This is the most obvious area of response, and I will look at The Awakening, Macbeth and Of Mice and Men.
The Awakening uses location in two ways – the general difference between the worlds of Grand Isle and New Orleans, and the specific as found within rooms used in the story. The sense of separation caused by placing any narrative on an island is straightforward to se. Grand Isle is different to some due to the regular contact with the “real” world due to the coming and going of Leonce, among others. Nevertheless, the creation of a temporary place of refuge for the women in the story helps to spark the whole story into action – women may well alter their behaviour on the island (the role of the eunuch-like Cajun male seems to suggest this), but it is never long lasting. After a time the freedom of the island, suggested by a relaxed dress code and regular forays into the sea is replaced by the stern societal norms of the city. The houses here have barred windows and columns standing phallically erect outside their doors – this is a man’s world and one in which society is to be obeyed. Given this, Edna’s response to her arrival is shocking.
Her home is carefully described, and the possessions within, including Edna herself, are carefully scrutinised by Leonce. Only after he leaves for New York can Edna begin to Awaken in a passage in which she subverts the “correct” use of the location by eating her (masculine) meal of beer and cheese in the living room. This clear statement of a wish to shatter society is backed up by a contrast of use of the garden in respect of nature. Gardens are often representative of “tamed” nature and here we see the same – although Edna begins to take an interest in her version of tamed nature, we note that it is only in the garden that any link to the sea is created in New Orleans, other than in the view through Mlle Reisz’s filthy windows!
The link to the sea is already established clearly in part one where it is the setting for the Awakening of the title as Edna is able to lose her inhibitions and surrender herself to this liquid, feminine environment.
To this end, we should notice that at the first soiree, Edna, whilst part of the party in the drawing room is seated at a window, half in and half out, listening to the voice of the sea. The personification of setting here used helps to draw attention to the role that specific setting will play in her emotional journey.

In Macbeth setting is again used to deliberate effect. Broadly the choice is between “blasted heath” and Macbeth’s castle at Dunsinane. Any student working on this area should look closely at the castle which prefigures the use of a similar location topos throughout Gothic and Victorian literature. Not only is the castle prison-like, but I want to focus on the idea of the castle representing Hell and thus adding a layer to the character of Macbeth. By the time The Porter opens the gates, Duncan lies dead and Macbeth has “murdered sleep”. From this point, following the idea that the Porter represents the porter of Hell’s Gate (See another essay on the blog); this metaphor helps to render Macbeth clearly as the Devil himself. A change in character from the vacillating warrior of Act 1.

In Of Mice and Men, location can clearly tie in with the central themes of the novel to add a layer of subconscious understanding. Simple points such as the use of Soledad as the location of the action link with descriptions which carefully point out the thought processes behind the locations. The Bunkhouse is described in a manner which contrasts sharply with the natural world in which George and Lennie are so happy. The floor is unpainted, there is a lack of privacy, the small windows let in light in a bar, helping to suggest the sense of a prison or similar building. The first contact with the bunk house focuses on the infestation of “grey-backs” in the beds and on the lack of personal possessions carried by the itinerant workers. After this, the various key events of the novel – The meeting with Curley’s wife, the shooting of the dog, the planning of the dream-farm and so on, are related to this location and the use of light, silence and the development of tensions between the characters are all coloured by the initial description. Much the same could be said of the barn – all seems rather wonderful – quiet, peaceful, rural, close to nature, yet all threatened by the hanging fork which is suspended like an instrument of ill omen or of execution above all that takes place.


Although often referencing the time of writing, the era of setting can again influence the central themes of the novels. OMAM is set in the depression and suggests a lack of hope among the men and a context of failure against which the story is played out.

For Shakespeare, the Historical setting of Macbeth, well accounted in Holinshead, provided an ideal setting for a story designed to promote the rule of King James I. The events are seen as “true”, but from a different age. Given the links between reality and the plot and the closeness of Guy Fawkes’ treachery, for example, the setting enables Shakespeare to promote the idea of a Scottish King without ever having to address recent history directly. There is no reference here in any form to Mary, Queen of Scots, and yet the establishment of a noble line of Kings north of the border is clear to all.

Guterson uses this setting to enable a narrative largely about racism and the inability of society to accept outsiders to present his tale against the backdrop of the Pacific Northwest in the period (loosely) 1930-1954. The proximity of the War and the location enables his story to be told without reference to the occasionally clichéd world of the “deep South”. The narrative gains immeasurably from this as readers are forced to think anew of a subject that many think they “know”. Likewise the choice of era targets a time when the USA was riven with McCarthyism and prone to somewhat paranoid responses to anyone not of the norm. Finally the era allows a small measure of technology to be used, but makes the total isolation caused by the snow storm to be totally convincing.
Culture is explored often by use of race and societal expectation. Again Guterson is the focus perhaps in the text we are reading for the use of the Japanese/American clash. His use of Japanese language in the text as Hatsue is taught about her heritage builds a clear barrier between her world and that of Ishmael as well as between that of the reader, when reading in a “western environment”. Such deliberate distancing helps to emphasise the notion that “oceans don’t mix”. Ishmael response that they do “underneath” may well be true, but there is no room for this optimism in a novel which sees the Americans dominate their Japanese neighbours even down to the metaphorical sacrifice of a Japanese virgin each year to assuage the needs of the local community in the Strawberry Fair.

A similar use of the clash of cultural worlds pervades Wide Sargasso Sea and therefore looks ahead to Jane Eyre, novels in which cultures are brought into stark contrast. The hostility faced by Rochester – a tool of a colonial super-power – in the days following his marriage do not find echo immediately in Eyre, but a century earlier, Bronte had focused on a more tangible culture clash as she moves Jane between Gateshead, Lowood and Thornfield. Each has its own culture and Jane has to find her path to success in each. India and the West Indies seem here to provide excitement and a sense of the unknown since in the early 19th century the political response to colonialism was not that to which Rhys responds. Students should be aware of the context of creation as well as the context of the physical setting of the novel.

Time of Day, Hour, is as important as any of the above since writers will use this device to imply subtext and to create atmosphere. Macbeth takes place almost exclusively at night or at the least in locations devoid of the sun. If night time can reflect stratagems and a potential for evil, then this is seen in most of our texts – look at the time of day in Othello, key scenes of the Awakening and most of the Gothic literature you read.
Interesting, then, is the use of “time between time” as a setting which keeps possibility alive. Reading Hardy’s poems should keep one aware of the power of dusk and dawn as magical times. As Hardy watched morning “harden” on the wall following Emma’s death, so the setting moves from dawn to the full light of day just as Emma’s life moves from a fading life to the harsh reality of death. Interestingly Hardy, writing a factual account of his response, has to use the coming of light to signify death – an unusual effect. His choice of the verb “harden” achieves this beautifully as the light seems to bring a harsh clarity to the world – a far cry from the usual welcome release from darkness.

Finally – consider here the use of hour in the play of light that follows Curley’s wife’s death. As the sun sets, Steinbeck tells us of the bars of light in the barn rising up the walls. It is almost as if the fading light, signifying approaching death, produce light which is rising to heaven as the true nature of the poor, dead girl is revealed.

I hope this will be of use to anyone approaching Setting in essay form. As usual, the ideas are my own and I make no promise of a high grade simply by reading this essay.