Literature 101

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.

Categories: Features, Literature 101


  • Robbie

    I’m reading Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner right now. I have only just started, but it appears to be three separate stories that are going to merge at some point. In each instance the year is 1989, but the rest of the setting for each is quite different.

    Storyline # 1 – Set mostly in the car and trailer as it rambles continually back and forth over the Canadian Prairies. Social setting – a native boy who is trapped in a seemingly endless nomadic lifestyle like some kind of Canadian Roma. Fear of sedentary life – Wonderment at what is beyond the lands already traveled.

    Storyline #2 – Montreal, Quebec. Social Setting: This is tougher to anticipate for this story line, I have not gotten quite far enough with it yet. But the character declares that he is “in virgin territory, without signposts” Clearly he is isolated, even in the big city.

    Storyline #3 – A very, very small village on the east coast of Northern Quebec. Social Setting: Small town society – Ostracizing of anything different – Lack of interest in personal and local history

    As a result of each of the settings, all of these characters are in situations that make it difficult to make friends. They all want an escape from their soul limiting setting. Aside from the settings discussed, there are also flash backs in some cases to other settings that offer that similar feeling of isolation. I am only 70 or so pages into the book. I don’t think I can safely elaborate any more than that until I know more.

  • Bluestocking

    The book I just read was Mockingjay which takes place sometime in the future, where our democratic government has been replaced with a totalitarian regime. This is the typical rebel theme. The post in Comment Luv is an essay I wrote on one aspect of Mockingjay.

    I’m currently in the middle of The Eternal Ones. The time period is current. The first part of the book takes place in Tennessee; then it moves to New York City. The setting in Tennessee is integral because that area is part of the Bible belt, and the towns people view the female character as demon possessed because she sees visions of past life. This environment provides her the catalyst she needs to move on.

  • Jessica

    Robbie – Wow. That books seems pretty complex. The settings seem interesting though. It’ll be interesting to see how they converge, if at all.

    Bluestocking – Mockingjay doesn’t provide much setting fodder, but I enjoyed it! The Eternal Ones sounds interesting. The setting seems to play a more substantial role.

  • Shadab Zaveri

    Hey this was really helpful for my literature class Thank you and also a very interesting and common example would be Hogwarts, you cannot have Harry Potter without Hogwarts, it is what has defined the magical element and also adds mystery and is the perfect setting for the Harry Potter series.

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