Questions for Literary Analysis: Setting

by Dr Davis on June 11, 2009

When students are trying to understand how to write a literary analysis, giving them questions to ask about the type of literary analysis you want is important.

Analysis of Setting explores how and why a work’s time and place affects the events and/or the characters of the work. Often the reader-writer will want to consider setting as part of another form of literary analysis (extending the analysis of a character, for example). Ask yourself:

• Why is the work set during a certain era, season or time of day?
If the time is Victorian England, why does it need to be set then?
If the story is about a farm, how does the season impact the story?
Time of day matters. Is it night, when things are often hidden? Is it day, when things may be more clear?

• Is any part of the setting symbolic?
If it is a castle, does it stand for formidable defenses? If it is a creepy old house, is it all things scary? If it is a suburban home, does it mean safety? If it’s the zoo, what might it mean?

• How well does a character “fit in” with the setting?
If the story is about a castle and the main character is a modern woman, she will change the tenor of the story.
If the story is about children and the character is the smarmy mailman, does he fit with the story? Why or why not?

• Does the setting influence the plot or characters?
If the characters are supposed to be strong characters who triumph over evil, are they in places where evil is clear?
If they are soldiers, are they in a war in a particular place, such as in Hemingway’s stories?
Gulliver travels in imaginary places that strongly influence both the plot and characters.
See how much the setting impacts the story. It will be more than you first suspect, most likely.

• Does the setting establish atmosphere or mood?
Is it a dark and stormy night? A bright, sunshiny day?
Is it a creepy old house that creaks?
Is it a big open barn that smells of fresh hay? Or is it a big dark barn that smells of slaughtered pigs?

• How is the setting presented ? With photographic detail? Through a few suggestive details? Indirectly through thoughts and actions?
Are there a lot of colors and details in the work? Why? So you can almost see the place?
If there are only a few suggestive details, what do they suggest? Why would the author leave it to the reader to decide what it looks like? Perhaps so you can make it fit somewhere you know?

• How much time does the action cover? How does the author treat gaps in time?
Is it minute by minute? Are there jumps in hours, days, weeks, months, years?
Does the author make the time explicit? “After several months of working in the store, Bojo…” or “After some time, Bojo got bored with working in the store.”
When the author does make the time explicit, how much detail is there? “After five weeks and two days, Sarah gave up waiting.”

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