Understanding setting

The setting of a text is the place and time used within the text. This may be:

  • in the past, present day or the future
  • a time of day
  • a particular time of year
  • a specific geographical location - such as a named city or country
  • a type of place or event - like a school or a wedding

Setting is an important part of a how a text achieves its effect. It can echo the themes of the narrative. For example, the dark streets of Victorian London echo the theme of immorality in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The time of day or year when a text is set also adds to its effect. For example, a school at night is a very different place to a school during the day. A ghost story would probably work better at night as it would add a sense of uncertainty and fear and create more tension for the reader.

The writer may use specific techniques to create a particular effect. For example, the writer could use pathetic fallacy to give emphasis to a character’s emotions: “The memory of that afternoon lay heavy upon her. All around the snow smothered the landscape.” In this description, the character’s negative emotional state is reflected by the weather.

Snow covers the landscape

Historical context is important when understanding the setting of a piece of fiction.

A writer has chosen to use a particular point in history for a reason. A reader may make certain judgements and assumptions about this historical setting. For example, a reader might assume that a piece of fiction set during World War Two will be serious and moving. The writer could meet these expectations or surprise the reader in some way.

Questions to focus on setting:

  • What does the reader learn about this place and time?
  • How is this place and time important to theme and character?
  • What techniques does the writer use to create atmosphere?
  • How does the language influence the reader’s response to this setting?