Definition of Setting

The setting of a piece of literature is the time and place in which the story takes place. The definition of setting can also include social statuses, weather, historical period, and details about immediate surroundings. Settings can be real or fictional, or a combination of both real and fictional elements. Some settings are very specific (Wulfhall in Wiltshire England in 1500), while others are descriptive (a boat out on the ocean). Most pieces of literature include more—or many more—than one setting, either as the narrative progresses through time or to include points of view from more than one character.

Setting is a fundamental aspect of fiction, along with plot, character, theme, and style. The setting provides the backdrop to the story and helps create mood.

Common Examples of Setting

We use setting in just about every story, and even many jokes. For example, jokes that start with “a guy walks into a bar” includes the setting of the bar to create expectations of what may occur in that space. When we tell even inconsequential stories we include setting, such as:

  • I was sitting at my desk at work when…
  • It was sometime past midnight and…
  • The rain was howling outside…

Orators often include the setting in which they are giving their speeches in order to tie in their message with the immediate surroundings. Here are some examples of setting in famous speeches:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal….But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

—Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

We meet at a college noted for knowledge, in a city noted for progress, in a State noted for strength, and we stand in need of all three, for we meet in an hour of change and challenge, in a decade of hope and fear, in an age of both knowledge and ignorance. The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.

—John F. Kennedy, “We choose to go to the moon” speech

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation….We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now.

—Martin Luther King, Jr., “I have a dream” speech

Significance of Setting in Literature

Setting is an extremely important aspect of almost every piece of fiction and drama, and can be an important element in poetry as well. In many narrative examples the setting can act almost as a nonhuman character, affecting the characters in many different large and small ways. Indeed, most plot lines are so tied to their settings that they could not be put in other places, time periods, or socioeconomic environments.

Examples of Setting in Literature

Example #1

PROLOGUE: Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

In this short excerpt of the prologue from Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare sets up both the city in which the action takes place—Verona, Italy—as well as giving a taste of the socioeconomic statuses of the characters. Shakespeare refers to the two households as being “both alike in dignity,” which will greatly affect the way that the characters relate. Because of the high status of both the Montagues and Capulets, Romeo and Juliet are held to certain standards, especially in the era and city they lived in. A modern film version of the play chose to move the setting to Verona Beach, California, which changed the socioeconomic statuses of the characters involved.

Example #2

The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.

I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer—and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.

(East of Eden by John Steinbeck)

The Salinas Valley plays an important role in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. He starts the novel with the above paragraphs, and goes on to describe this valley in much greater length. Steinbeck based his plot on the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and thus it was important for him to choose a setting that echoed the paradisiacal nature of the Garden of Eden.

Example #3

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went to Madrid.

(“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway)

Ernest Hemingway was known for his style of succinct description and short sentences. The opening paragraph to his short story “Hills Like White Elephants” contains the majority of the descriptive details of the piece. The “American and the girl” are the two characters, and their bleak conversation is mimicked in the setting that is hot, white, and unforgiving.

Example #4

Mr. Jones, of the Manor Farm, had locked the hen-houses for the night, but was too drunk to remember to shut the pop-holes. With the ring of light from his lantern dancing from side to side, he lurched across the yard, kicked off his boots at the back door, drew himself a last glass of beer from the barrel in the scullery, and made his way up to bed, where Mrs. Jones was already snoring.

(Animal Farm by George Orwell)

Setting was a very important aspect of George Orwell’s works of literature. His novel Animal Farm is set on a farm in England called Manor Farm, but there is not much specificity about where exactly the farm is. Instead, Orwell focuses on the unique details of the farm. This is because the farm works as a metaphor to stand in for all of Russian after the Russian Revolution, and the animals on the farm stand in for the real people who were involved in Communist leadership afterward. The setting is vague enough to be symbolic of something greater than just a farm.

Example #5

Every year, the end of summer
lazy and golden, invites grief and regret:

suddenly it’s 1980, winter buffets us,
winds strike like cruelty out of Dickens. Somehow
we have seven horses for six stalls.

(“Jack” by Maxine Kumin)

Setting examples are abundant in poetry. In this contemporary poem, “Jack,” Maxine Kumin reflects back on a different time and place. She remembers the exact year and season in which a horse named Jack did not have a stall for himself. This reflection of the brutal winter sets the mood of nostalgia and regret that permeates the entirety of the short poem.

Test Your Knowledge of Setting

1. Which of the following statements is the best setting definition?
A. The environment in which a story takes place.
B. The time of day in which actions occur in a novel.
C. The weather that characters experience in a narrative.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: A is the correct answer. While B and C are examples of setting details, they are not complete definitions of setting.[/spoiler]

2. Consider the opening lines from George Orwell’s 1984:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

Which of the following does Orwell specify as the setting in this paragraph?
A. Historical period
B. Time of day
C. Country in which the story takes place
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following does an example of setting not do in a piece of literature?
A. Helps create the mood
B. Sets the backdrop of the story
C. Introduces figures of speech
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]