Location, Location, Location: The Importance of Setting

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An 1867 Map of the United States

One central idea to the real estate business is that location is everything. “Location, location, location,” they say. The location of a property sometimes can make or break a deal, so it clearly plays a significant role in determining its value. The same holds true for literature. In many examples that we have examined this year, the setting of the story plays a major role and can often times reveal an even deeper meaning to the work as a whole. As a geographically diverse nation, many kinds of settings are examined throughout American literature, and the use of specific locations can frequently reveal a larger meaning to a work.

Although it is a work of Romanticism, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter takes place in a time period long before the time in which he had written it. Hawthorne deliberately chose to have his story take place in Colonial Era to highlight the rigid Puritan society. Because of her crimes, Hester was severely ostracized from the rest of her community by having to wear the Scarlet Letter on display. The Puritan Society is also shown is this work by having her affair, Arthur Dimmesdale, be a clergyman. The fact that Arthur is part of religious life further shows how scandalous society would have thought their relationship was.

Similar to The Scarlet Letter, Mark Twain’s iconic work of Realism The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn takes place in a different time period than it was written. This time gap, however, is significantly smaller than Hawthorne’s. Despite being written after the Civil War, Twain places the characters in the antebellum South to dramatically illustrate the heightened racial tensions of the time period. Jim and Huck’s budding friendship certainly would have been condemned by society, so instead they choose to run away and go on a journey down the river. The Mississippi River itself is a quintessential element of American culture, so Twain also utilizes this distinctly American aspect to make his work even more culturally relevant.

In many works that we’ve examined over the course of the year, the rigid rules of New York society are examined, but it is only in The Great Gatsby that we see a significant geographic juxtaposition. Although the story takes place in New York, many of the characters are not from New York and trace their roots back to other parts of the country, particularly the West. Many of them are simply trying to fit in with the New York culture and forget their Western roots. This east/west motif is further enhanced by the fact that they live in East and West Egg. All the Western characters in the story flock east in search of the glimmering possibilities that appeared as the sun rises in the east, but at the end of the day, the sun sets in the west. They are Westerners at heart, and are trying to fit in a society they don’t belong to. This fact contributes in some ways to Gatsby’s ultimate demise.

Settings for a story are generally chosen with a specific idea in mind. Foster recognizes this, and this aforementioned concept is present in many areas of American literature. In these examples, the geography and setting of the story enhance other motifs examined in their respective plots in profound ways, offering readers a deeper insight into the culture and social norms of the time, and therefore paving the way towards a deeper understanding of the novels.

Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cartography_of_the_United_States

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