Setting in Fiction: A Lecture

The set text is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, to which I will occasionally refer in this lecture. The setting of a story is concerned with more than the time and place, the description and intimation of surroundings and their context; it is a question of how characters interact, and the human traits they embody or work against, (the characters, after all, might be rocks or trees), or in the absence of character the narrative voice or voices, or even in an anti-narrative, the hostile witness stance of the authorial presence. In Shirley Jackson’s story, the very gradual and even surprising unfolding of the nature of the lottery, seems to go against the home-town portrait that is painted, the literal “setting” of this horror story in small-town America. The town next door, the town that could be of us or our neighbours is the implication the author desires. It could happen to you, and you are very likely part of a system that in some way is analogous to this.

The same “rules” might apply to a poem. (Setting is not unique to fiction, but important in other genres too.)

I set the poem “The Silo” (title poem of my 1995 collection) in rural Western Australia – a couple incarcerate their child in an old silo until it “reverts” or regresses to being like an animal – but it is analogous to any closed communities where people have a vested interest in keeping their business shut off from the outside world. The point of “The Silo” is that people are aware that the child is incarcerated, there’s more than that implication, but they say nothing. Why? It’s a metaphor for a warped kind of independence, control over one’s own rituals and rules. “The Lottery” could just as easily be set in rural western Australia and have the same effect. Does this mean setting is irrelevant to the message, that being analogous makes setting a fluid thing?

Beyond the obvious, the answer is no. Setting is not just location, coordinates on the map in time and space. The time might be 1940s, which crosses the geographical or planar coordinates of America, rural America, and that will carry a set of social, class, cultural, economic and other implications, but stories can be transposed across times and have similar if not the same implications. But there’s a difference there, a difference of implication. It is to do with audience, and the set of cultural and other readings a particular group of people are likely to take to a reading. “The Lottery” was published in 1948 in America. We might assume that as she submitted the story to an American journal (The New Yorker), Jackson had in mind an American, and probably a middle-class white American audience, when she composed the story. That’s who she’s speaking to, and that’s part of setting. It’s one of the coordinates. Of course, it can be lifted from this context and reinterpreted elsewhere, but that will have an effect on the way the nature of setting is interpreted. It becomes as much a case of how the reader is likely to interpret setting, as it is of how and where the writer has set it.

Setting is not simply empirical data. It is not as definite as people might like to think. When we come to setting a story, we should be aware of how something as straightforward as place and time might be seen very differently by people in different places and different times. When we write, we need to be conscious of implication. The greatest fiction lends itself to this potential repositioning.

However, there is another issue in terms of character and place that is not as flexible, though always open to the context of reading. This has to do with the connection between character and/or voice, and setting. The association of a particular character with a particular place will drive the narrative. In poetry, pathetic fallacy – giving human emotions to the non-human – has been an eternal device, as problematic as we might see this now, and the same applies to fiction. (Repeat: Pathetic fallacy means attributing human feelings to the non-human, as when a thunderclap strikes at a moment of great emotion.) It has been used in poetry and in fiction, and can be a problem. Yet place might be seen to form character, and in some cases characters moving into a place affect it. The effect can work both ways.

Most often, however, we are faced with the irrevocable and all-powerful forces of nature, with a capital N, shaping character. This often leads to the debasement of the human, and a removal of authority, a disempowering. for example, in the constant association of Nature and the indigenous person: it is the tool of noble savagery, and often creates or comes out of a racist discourse. On the other hand (or in the other hand), it might be out of a “respect” for the powers of nature, the frailty of the human in the face of fate and even God, as in the case of many Thomas Hardy stories.

In her volume, Narrative Fiction: contemporary poetics, Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan mentions these issues in the context of what she distinguishes as “analogous landscape”, saying:


The analogy established by the text between a certain landscape and a character-trait may be either ‘straight’ (based on similarity) or ‘inverse’ (emphasizing contrast). Catherine and Heathcliff in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) are similar to the wilderness in which they live, just as the nature of the Linton family parallels the peacefulness of their dwelling place. On the other hand, in Bialik’s narrative poem, ‘in the City of Slaughter’ (1904), the cruelty of the killers (as well as the indifference of God) is emphasized by the sharp contrast between the pogrom and the idyllic landscape in which it takes place: ‘The sun shone, the acacia bloomed, and the slaughterer hacked’ (my own literal translation). Landscape can be analogous not only to a character-trait but also to a passing mood; however in this capacity it is not strictly character-indicator.

The point Rimmon-Kenan makes here is a clear and obvious one, but is flawed in its understanding of landscape. Earlier she writes:

Landscape, on the other hand, is independent of man (sic), and hence does not entertain a relation of story-causality with the characters (although a character’s choice to live or pass his time in a certain location may suggest a cause-and-effect relation).

The problem with this statement is one we must confront: landscape is a human construct. Landscape is a human construct!


Landscape is the imposition of human concepts of spatiality, and, indeed, temporality (space and time). It doesn’t exist separate from human perception, as it is unrealisable as such. That is to say, landscape is already pre-written as human before character is placed in it, or indeed, character is created by it, as in the case of the spontaneous generation of Heathcliff and Cathy out of the wild dark moorland of Yorkshire. The understanding of setting we arrive at through such a reading, is one in which a dichotomy, a binary, or a confluence of identities and situations is established – a model of place.

However, there is always subtext implicit in the meaning of place: certain subtexts go with certain places. (‘Paris’ = romance?) Place is constructed before the story begins. Place is available to us through experience and observation, through reading and hearing, through expectation. The constructing of non-experiential place, such as the setting of a sci-fi novel in an extra dimension where there is no matter and no thought, still relies on language to convey this newness, this total unfamiliarity that apparently has no analogies to our own condition in a physical or empirical sense. But of course it does, even in sci-fi, because it’s grounded in words, signs that we can read or interpret. Sub-textually there is always going to be some link to a human experience, which might be translated into a broader human experience, and so on. Nothingness? A flotation tank? Being on the verge of sleep? A failed relationship? Being stranded on an empty ocean? Lost in space? Whatever: we make the comparisons, create our own comparative models.

Whenever I create setting, I am conscious of these kinds of issues. I wrote a novel called Genre (published 1996) in which the co-ordinating or organising narrative voice – it’s a book with many voices, and voices within voices, as there are stories within stories – placed himself in a block of flats. Each flat was physically the same, though the class, social, and cultural implications for each flat were different, not only depending on who occupied them, but where they were positioned in the block of eight flats. For example, the Renaissance Man lived below a psychopath nicknamed Bam Bam who would drop barbells and phonebooks on his floor at all hours to upset the equilibrium of those below. Bam Bam’s relationship with those in flats away from his auditory assaults were different from those with the people below. The setting carried spatial differences, obviously, but more interestingly, I hope, temporal differences. The guy in the far end flat, the junkie, was living in the world of the hippy backpacking “Asia trail”, constantly elsewhere, operating at a different time from that of the others. The voyeur at the other end, a retired surveillance man, was busy making pornographic videos, and his time was totally unrelated to the reality of going to work, or doing the shopping. He was caught in decay, in entropy. The student above him was writing an essay on Descartes, where “I think therefore I am” became the ontological crisis of his life, his research started to dictate the nature of his external existence.

Setting has an effect, then, on each of these characters, because their physical relationship to their neighbours, their social positions in a middle class neighbourhood that might or might not accept them, deeply influences their take on life. In this extract from Genre the block of flats is described as a Venn diagram:

EXTRACT – see Genre

For the last six years I have been working on a long narrative work set across almost two centuries. The book is ironically entitled Post-Colonial, and is set in the Cocos-Keeling islands. I have been amused to see the Cocos featuring in a local television program over the last few weeks, as it bears no resemblance to the place I lived in and on, and have written more than 700 pages on. The setting remains the same, but the way of constructing that setting has changed. Or is that what setting means in the first place? A specific way of constructing place to convey a set of messages? (As in “The Lottery” mentioned earlier.) We could all set stories in this room, and though there would be a common denominator the setting of those stories, though geographically the same, might be entirely different.

For example, one of us might set it in the future, the walls and roof having decayed, one might set the location in the context of the fact it’s built on stolen indigenous lands, one might look to a gender construct of “the room”, of the authorities and patriarchies of the “lecture”, of the implications of “theatre”. Such alternative views will paint very different pictures of the same space.

We see and hear and translate different elements of the same data, in a Platonic sense, in terms of forms, we rebuild different rooms from the same materials. We might even change the nature of the materials themselves. The destruction of a forest to get unseen roof beams might be the stimulus to locate a story about this lecture theatre in the rainforest. Setting splits and hybridises, it morphs into something else – spatially and temporally. It is not necessarily a static and fixed thing!

Those television programs about the Cocos Islands created their own setting, a setting aimed at enticing tourists. We might ask, but place is place, how can they change it? For starters, the camera is selective, and the editing room reorders and selects from what the camera has taken. The setting will include the “best” bits, the most uplifting. We get the beautiful coral atoll, not the islands after they’ve been hit by a cyclone, we see the Home Islanders – the Cocos-Malays who’ve had an attachment to the place for almost one hundred and eighty years, entertaining visitors. We don’t see the anti-tourist attitudes, not only in what’s said, but in the setting of the program. It’s a construct.

By contrast, in my novel, I have set it almost entirely on the atoll (with some time on the mainland and in other countries), on all islands of the chain, and across two centuries. So there are many sub-settings within the overall work. And within each time and location, there will be a variety of other settings – the room of a hut, inside the ruling family’s mansion, on a boat during a storm. So: settings within settings within settings. The Venn diagram again. You can map the interconnections between these settings, which apart from informing and being informed by characters, almost become characters themselves. Especially when you’re writing a narrative history of place, of human interaction with that place.

Let’s consider some of the factors that inform a specific setting. Time, geographical location, nature of its materiality, that is, concrete detail (e.g. red curtains made from cotton, roof beams from the rain forests of Sumatra, a candelabra imported from France, circa 1830s), the way the scene is “arranged” (the trees were all at forty degrees having been swept by the southerly winds for an eternity…; broken glass over the floor from a recent bar fight; the land rights flag draped across the Landrover’s bonnet glowed with the setting sun), the hints it might contain to drive the story on, or for the reader to reflect upon possible confrontation or resolution at some future point in the narrative (the loaded gun propped against the wall ached to be lifted..; a hundred dollar note sat in full sight of the visitors, crisp and inviting…), and the implications for character or characters in that environment (she felt out of place in the wealthy surroundings, her French barely passable…). Setting is not a static moment, it’s full of possibilities and implications. The clich? “sets the scene for future action” is correct but limiting.

For setting is as much about what’s come before as what’s to come later. It’s about how it came to be like that, as much as what’s going to happen. A story set in a virgin rain forest with the sounds of chainsaws in the distance seems to be all about future, or its lack of future!, but it’s also about how the narrator or narrative voice of the story arrived there in the first place. Setting is about cause and effect, about why we as readers, and why we as writers, would want to be there in the first place.

I would like to finish with an extract from the Cocos novel, which I’ll briefly discuss, and what I feel is one of the finest expositions and evocations of place, of setting, in English, from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847):


1801.-I have just returned from a visit to my landlord–the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. This is certainly a beautiful country! In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society. A perfect misanthropist’s heaven: and Mr Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us. A capital fellow! He little imagined how my heart warmed towards him when I beheld his black eyes withdraw so suspiciously under their brows, as I rode up, and when his fingers sheltered themselves, with a jealous resolution, still farther in his waistcoat, as I announced my name.

`Mr Heathcliff!’ I said.

A nod was the answer.

`Mr Lockwood, your new tenant, sir. I do myself the honour of calling as soon as possible after my arrival, to express the hope that I have not inconvenienced you by my perseverance in soliciting the occupation of Thrushcross Grange: I heard yesterday you had had some thoughts–‘

`Thrushcross Grange is my own, sir,’ he interrupted, wincing. `I should not allow anyone to inconvenience me, if I could hinder it–walk in!’

The `walk in’ was uttered with closed teeth, and expressed the sentiment, `Go to the deuce’: even the gate over which he leant manifested no sympathizing movement to the words; and I think that circumstance determined me to accept the invitation: I felt interested in a man who seemed more exaggeratedly reserved than myself.

When he saw my horse’s breast fairly pushing the barrier, he did put out his hand to unchain it, and then sullenly preceded me up the causeway, calling, as we entered the court: `Joseph, take Mr Lockwood’s horse; and bring up some wine.’

`Here we have the whole establishment of domestics, I suppose,’ was the reflection suggested by this compound order.

`No wonder the grass grows up between the flags, and cattle are the only hedge-cutters.

Joseph was an elderly, nay, an old man: very old, perhaps, though hale and sinewy. `The Lord help us!’ he soliloquized in an undertone of peevish displeasure, while relieving me of my horse: looking, meantime, in my face so sourly that I charitably conjectured he must have need of divine aid to digest his dinner, and his pious ejaculation had no reference to my unexpected advent.

Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr Heathcliff’s dwelling. `Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed; one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.

Before passing the threshold, I paused to admire a quantity of grotesque carving lavished over the front, and especially about the principal door; above which, among a wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys, I detected the date `1500′, and the name `Hareton Earnshaw’. I would have made a few comments, and requested a short history of the place from the surly owner; but his attitude at the door appeared to demand my speedy entrance, or complete departure, and I had no desire to aggravate his impatience previous to inspecting the penetralium.

One step brought us into the family sitting-room, without any introductory lobby or passage: they call it here `the house’ preeminently. It includes kitchen and parlour, generally; but I believe at Wuthering Heights the kitchen is forced to retreat altogether into another quarter: at least I distinguished a chatter of tongues, and a clatter of culinary utensils, deep within; and I observed no signs of roasting, boiling, or baking, about the huge fireplace; nor any glitter of copper saucepans and tin cullenders on the walls. One end, indeed, reflected splendidly both light and heat from ranks of immense pewter dishes, interspersed with silver jugs and tankards, towering row after row, on a vast oak dresser, to the very roof. The latter had never been underdrawn: its entire anatomy lay bare to an inquiring eye, except where a frame of wood laden with oatcakes and clusters of legs of beef, mutton, and ham, concealed it. Above the chimney were sundry villainous ; old guns, and a couple of horse-pistols: and, by way of ornament, three gaudily painted canisters disposed along its ledge. The floor was of smooth, white stone; the chairs, high-backed, primitive structures, painted green: one or two heavy black ones lurking in the shade. In an arch under the dresser, reposed a huge, liver-coloured bitch pointer, surrounded by a swarm of squealing puppies; and other dogs haunted other recesses.

The apartment and furniture would have been nothing extraordinary as belonging to a homely, northern farmer, with a stubborn countenance, and stalwart limbs set out to advantage in knee breeches and gaiters. Such an individual seated in his armchair, his mug of ale frothing on the round table before him, is to be seen in any circuit of five or six miles among these hills, if you go at the right time after dinner. But Mr Heathcliff forms a singular contrast to his abode and style of living. He is a dark-skinned gipsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman: that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire: rather slovenly, perhaps, yet not looking amiss with his negligence, because he has an erect and handsome figure; and rather morose. Possibly, some people might suspect him of a degree of under-bred pride; I have a sympathetic chord within that tells me it is nothing of the sort: I know, by instinct, his reserve springs from an aversion to showy displays of feeling–to manifestations of mutual kindliness. He’ll love and hate equally under cover, and esteem it a species of impertinence to be loved or hated again. No, I’m running on too fast: I bestow my own attributes over liberally on him. Mr Heathcliff may have entirely dissimilar reasons for keeping his hand out of the way when he meets a would-be acquaintance, to those which actuate me. Let me hope my constitution is almost peculiar: my dear mother used to say I should never have a comfortable home; and only last summer I proved myself perfectly unworthy of one.