Literature 101: Setting

Literature 101: Setting

Literature 101
Literature 101 is a ten-part course based on 10 Literary Concepts Every Reader Should Know.


Setting is, essentially, the context in which a story occurs, including the time, the place, and the social environment.


Setting, it appears, is a pretty simple concept. So why is it one of the key literary concepts that readers should know?

Setting is often vital to the existence of the story. Can you imagine The Grapes of Wrath set anywhere but in the Dust Bowl era of California? The Scarlet Letter set anywhere but Puritan New England? The Help set anywhere but the south in the 1960s? The Hunger Games set anywhere but a dystopian and oppressed society of the future? In such stories, the setting is so pivotal, it’s almost as if it’s a character.

I believe that authors take great care in setting their stories. Often, just a small change in time or place or social environment could substantially change the story. Because setting is so important, authors often use setting to set up a theme or metaphor. A greater awareness of settings and how they affect the books we read can make us better readers and certainly better reviewers.


Here are a few examples of the settings of some of the books I’ve read this year. Did I get them right?

MOCKINGJAY, by Suzanne Collins
Time – Sometime in the future (at least a hundred or so years from now)
Place – On the land that was previously the United States
Social Environment – War of rebels against a tyrannical government based on slave labor and terror

EAT, PRAY, LOVE, by Elizabeth Gilbert
Time – 2000s
Place – United States, Italy, India, Indonesia
Social Environment – Present time of relatively equal gender opportunities and religious freedom that would permit divorcée to spend a year abroad seeking self-actualization

Time – 1955
Place – Suburbs in Connecticut
Social Environment – Era of apparent perfection in home and family life, with seething discontent underneath

Time – 1960s
Place – Millrose, Mississippi
Social Environment – Discrimination (and violence) against blacks, particularly in the south, was commonplace


First, how did your homework on plot go? It’s always an interesting (and difficult) exercise for me to try identify the elements of plot in the books I’m reading. Did you find it difficult?

Here’s your assignment on setting:

1. Consider a book from your recently read pile or the book that you are currently reading.
2. Using the concepts above, try and identify the settings of the book, including the time, the place, and the social environment.
3. Identify how the settings were central to the books’ themes and characters.

Feel free to post your thoughts on the homework in the comments below. I’d be curious to hear which books or stories you used.


That concludes our study of setting. Make sure to check in next Wednesday for Weeks 4 & 5: Point of View & Narrator. But first, chime in with your thoughts on setting in the comments.