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How to Analyze Setting in Literature


Setting is an important part of any story or poem because it explains where and when the events take place. The setting helps create the mood and set the tone for the literary piece. You can analyze the setting by examining the surrounding environment, background, historical place in time and geographic location. Use specific examples from the story or poem to support your analysis.

Locate the Main Setting

Locate the primary place and time period where the majority of the action occurs. Some stories take place in a variety of settings and span different time periods, but there's usually one location and time period where the most significant scenes and the bulk of the action occurs. For example, in "Holes" by Louis Sachar, the primary setting is the present-day Texas desert at a juvenile detention center for boys. Though the story includes scenes from the late 19th and 20th centuries, the primary setting is the fictional boys' camp in Green Lake, Texas. Similarly, even though its characters visit other locations and reference other time periods, the primary setting in "Twilight" by Stephenie Meyer is the present-day small, rainy town of Forks, Washington.

Evaluate the Mood

Examine the importance of the setting. The setting provides a backdrop for the characters' involvement in the world around them and creates the mood for the story or poem. It's an essential part of understanding and interpreting the meaning or message of the story. In "Holes," the desert setting creates a dry and isolated backdrop that supports the story's mood; the teenagers at the camp often feel lonely, hopeless and abandoned. In "Twilight," the cold, damp, Washington forest establishes the mood for the conflict between cold-blooded vampires and their adversaries.

Assess the Atmosphere

Consider the immediate surroundings, including the geographical location and the date, and how they affect the overall atmosphere of the story or poem. For example, "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne takes place in the 1630s in Boston when the Puritans looked harshly upon any form of sin -- especially adultery. The strictly religious town setting establishes a sense of law and order, creating a stuffy atmosphere with little room for flaws in human nature. The setting sets the stage for the conflicts and resolutions in the story.

Examine the Details

Pay close attention to detailed descriptions of the setting, such as weather, the natural surroundings or the inside of a house or a room. These details provide clues as to the emotional condition of the characters. For example, in "The Old Man and the Sea," Ernest Hemingway describes the sea by saying, "She is kind and very beautiful. But she can be so cruel." This description helps readers understand the protagonist's love-hate relationship with the sea and with his favorite pastime -- fishing. It also reveals the protagonist's state of mind; he's conflicted and troubled by uncontrollable circumstances in his life.

About the Author

As curriculum developer and educator, Kristine Tucker has enjoyed the plethora of English assignments she's read (and graded!) over the years. Her experiences as vice-president of an energy consulting firm have given her the opportunity to explore business writing and HR. Tucker has a BA and holds Ohio teaching credentials.

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