When we refer to setting, we mean more than just the historical time period, societal conditions, and geographic location where a story occurs. While that background information is certainly important and needs to be discussed prior to beginning a novel or play, we also want to focus on how authors use various settings within a story to create mood, establish tone, and convey theme. Oftentimes the setting for a particular scene is symbolically important, and we need to understand how a description of the setting helps reveal the author's intent and the deeper meaning of the text.
When we teach John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, we want students to consider whether our nation's belief in the promises of the American Dream are a positive or negative influence on people's lives. One could argue that George and Lennie represent the hard-working underclass in American society who maintain hope that they might someday overcome their present circumstances to create a better life for themselves in the future. Whether that faith helps or harms them is one of the Essential Questions in Steinbeck's novel. To push students to consider these questions more fully, we chose the 2019 AP Literary Argument prompt as the focus of the final essay:
In his 2004 novel Magic Seeds, V. S. Naipul writes: "It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That's where all the mischief starts. That's where everything starts unraveling." Select a novel, play, or epic poem in which a character holds an "ideal view of the world." Then write an essay in which you analyze the character's idealism and its positive or negative consequences. Explain how the author's portrayal of this idealism illuminates the meaning of the work as a whole.
With this prompt in mind, we can view the seemingly idyllic opening setting along the banks of the Salinas River in central California as a symbolic representation of what V.S. Naipul calls "an ideal view of the world." Steinbeck's description depicts the beauty of the natural surroundings, but he also undercuts that tranquil surface with ominous undercurrents that hint at the novel's larger theme. To get students thinking in terms of mood, tone, and theme, we have them work in small groups to consider Steinbeck's intent in beginning his novel with this particular setting.
After students share their findings with the rest of the class, we make sure that we have identified the significant contrasts present in Steinbeck's opening description. Even though there is natural beauty described in the "deep and green" water, the "golden foothill slopes," and the "willows fresh and green with every spring," there is also the "debris of the winter's flooding" undercutting the scene's seeming perfection. Steinbeck also notes the impact that human beings have made on this natural landscape with the path described as "beaten hard" on two separate occasions: once by local boys and another by "tramps" who come to the nearby ranch looking for work. In addition, Steinbeck includes in his description the "ash pile" left behind by previous workers and the sycamore branch that has been "worn smooth by men who have sat on it." In other words, whatever beauty we may find in this opening scene, Steinbeck makes sure that we also see the detritus left behind—by nature as well as human beings.
Steinbeck also mentions in his opening description that a variety of animals, wild and domestic, come to the pool to drink during the day and at night. When the rabbits hear human footsteps approaching, they "hurried noiselessly for cover," and the heron standing on the water's edge "labored up into the air," suggesting danger and that the peaceful tranquility of nature is threatened by human encroachment. While there is no overt allusion to the Garden of Eden, there is a sense that this pastoral scene would remain "perfect" if not disturbed by human beings. While one might support this supposition in the opening description, Steinbeck brings us back to this scene at the end of the novel to let us know that the natural world is not as "peaceful" as we might imagine:
A water snake glided smoothly up the pool, twisting its periscope head from side to side; and it swam the length of the pool and came to the legs of a motionless heron that stood in the shallows. A silent head and beak lanced down and plucked it out by the head, and the beak swallowed the little snake while its tail waved frantically. (97)
When the heron snatches the water snake out of the water, swallowing him whole, we should anticipate a similar ending for Lennie, who is described with animal imagery as he drinks from the pool waiting for George's arrival. With the killing of Curley's wife, whatever dreams that George and Lennie might have had are now over. Steinbeck suggests through the setting that perhaps those dreams were illusory all along. In the natural world, as well as in human society, Steinbeck implies that only the strongest and most fortunate survive. Believing in a world without those harsh realities may provide us with hope, but they can also lead to pain and eventual disappointment.
Another work that addresses the dangers of the American Dream is Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, which is set in New York City after World War II. In most plays we are given a limited description of the setting in the stage directions before each scene. Prior to Act I, Miller describes the layout of the stage, which also serves as a thematic preamble for the play. Rather than have students analyze the entire passage at once, we break it into three separate sections:
While Steinbeck offers a deceptively placid scene to open his novel, Miller creates an intentionally disturbing scene with little subtlety. The "towering, angular shapes" that surround the "small, fragile-seeming home" let us know that the inhabitants of the house are weak and vulnerable. The "angry glow of orange" represents hostile forces from which there is no relief or escape. Despite this ominous backdrop, Miller states that "an air of the dream clings to the place," which seems somewhat desperate and borderline delusional considering the surroundings. Inside, the simple, functional set has only one extraneous element: "a silver athletic trophy" sitting on a shelf, as though it were a reminder of a past glory now long gone. The transparency of the set allows the past to mingle with the present, suggesting that we can never escape our pasts, even when it might be beneficial to do so.
Miller creates this disorienting backdrop for the opening of his play and concludes with Willy in the backyard frantically planting seeds in a garden where nothing will grow because the surrounding apartment buildings have "boxed in the whole goddamned neighborhood!" (101). Miller suggests that Willy's desperation is the inevitable result of his belief in a false reality. At Willy's funeral, Biff says of his father, "He had the wrong dreams. All, all, wrong. . . . He never knew who he was" (111). What makes Willy's demise even more tragic than George and Lennie's is that, according to Biff, Willy could have made different decisions that would have led to a more fulfilling life. While Steinbeck suggests that George and Lennie were defeated by forces they could not control, Miller implies that Willy's failure is self-imposed.
We remind students that the setting of a novel or play is an artificial construct. As a result, students should examine how these settings provide clues to the author's intent. While the beginning and ending scenes of a novel or play are always important, there are often pivotal scenes in the middle of a work that may reveal the overall theme. For instance, in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, the day after Edna takes her baptismal swim after hearing Mademoiselle Reisz play the piano one night at Grand Isle, she decides to take a boat over to a nearby island, the Cheniere Caminada, for Sunday mass. She invites Robert, her lover-to-be, to join her, which we believe is one more act of liberation as Edna forges her new independent identity:
Sailing across the bay to the Cheniere Caminada, Edna felt as if she were being borne away from some anchorage which had held her fast, whose chains had been loosening—had snapped the night before when the mystic spirit was abroad, leaving her free to drift whithersoever she chose to set her sails. (64)
When Edna is overcome by a "feeling of oppression and drowsiness" (66) during the church service, Robert takes her to Madame Antoine's to rest. The bedroom is described as "immaculately clean, and the big, four-posted bed, snow-white, invited one to repose" (67). The allusion to "Snow White" is coupled with an allusion to "Sleeping Beauty" when Edna awakes and asks Robert how long she has slept. He replies, "You have slept precisely one hundred years. I was left here to guard your slumbers; and for one hundred years I have been out under the shed reading a book" (70). The question for students to consider is why Chopin would allude to these fairy tales and whether they are a positive or negative sign for Edna's desire for liberation and independence. Since we have already identified Chopin's novel as a feminist text, how would a feminist interpret these fairy tales? As an assignment, students work in small groups to analyze one of the fairy tales and what the allusion suggests about Edna's situation:
In a feminist reading of both fairy tales, students should recognize that Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are passive characters who need to be "rescued" by men to "live happily ever after." Even though Edna has a romantic interest in Robert, would Chopin want Edna to put her faith in Robert to "save" her? After students present their analysis to the rest of the class, it should be noted that Chopin concludes this chapter with an ominous tone. As the sun sets, Chopin writes, "The shadows lengthened and crept out like stealthy, grotesque monsters" (71). When Edna and Robert step into Tonie's boat and prepare to return to Grand Isle, Chopin writes that "misty spirit forms were prowling in the shadows and among the reeds, and upon the water were phantom ships, speeding to cover" (72), which seems to foreshadow that Edna's fairy tale might not have a happy ending after all.
In Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale are also caught in the dilemma of deciding whether to conform or rebel against their society. Near the end of the novel, they meet along a secluded forest path—far away from the eyes of the townspeople—and decide to run off to escape the suffering that each has endured for the past seven years. Readers are hopeful that their decision to reject society might be the "sweet moral blossom" that the narrator promises at the beginning of the novel, one that might ultimately "relieve the darkening close of a tale of human frailty and sorrow" (46). Based on the way Hawthorne describes the setting in the forest scene, we have students discuss in the following Philosophical Chairs activity whether we should anticipate a positive or negative outcome from this decision.
As students discuss Hawthorne's description of the different natural elements in the scene—such as the path, the trees, the sun, the shade, and the brook—we ask them to predict the end of the story and how the setting might reveal the larger themes of the work. The forest setting is filled with conflicting imagery throughout, so the discussion of Hawthorne's intent usually inspires a spirited debate. Nonetheless, whenever analyzing a particular setting, we encourage students to assume that the scene has been crafted with a specific purpose in mind. Students need to consider what the setting symbolizes and potentially foreshadows, and how the author or playwright might be using the setting to convey "the meaning of the work as a whole."
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