Teaching and World-Making – Or, the Importance of Setting

So I’m finishing up my unit on short stories with my sophomores. Our last lesson has a relatively simple goal, but it gave me a lot to think about: SWBAT analyze the effects of setting on plot in short stories.

We define our terms first:

Plot = what happens (in a story, movie, play, novel…)

Setting = when and where the plot happens (in a story, movie, play, novel…)

This is what Eudora Welty has to say:

Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else… Fiction depends for its life on place. Place is the crossroads of circumstance, the proving ground of, What happened? Who’s here? Who’s coming?…

Eudora Welty was a photographer as well as a writer. This is “Home by Dark.”

I don’t think we often think about this potential power of place over character and action. Setting is one of the things all teachers talk about in English class, along with plot, characterization, exposition, climax, resolution, etc. But I think it is sometimes left in the background.

(Pun intended. Go back if you didn’t notice it… )

Yet Welty insists upon the importance of setting, and even that events and characters somehow depend upon it. Or, as my students had to write down in their notes: setting defines the logical possibilities and limitations of plot.

It defines what can or cannot happen in a story.

I think Southern writers have a particular sensitivity to the importance of place or setting. The setting IS the story. Think of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or The Sound and the Fury. Or Katharine Anne Porter’s “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” (the setting is both exterior, the rural South, and interior, the wandering mind of Granny). Or Flannery O’Connor in “Revelation” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” O’Connor, largely due to her sacramental view of reality, expands the traditional notion of setting so that it transcends the physical:

The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location. (O’Connor, Mystery and Manners)

hogwartsI gave my kids a different example that I thought might work better for them. The reason why the Harry Potter series works so well, I believe, isn’t so much because of the plot and the characters (although of course these are important). The plot and the characters work because Rowling spends so much time in the first book carefully developing her setting, creating her place, defining the possibilities and limitations of the Muggle world and the Wizarding world.

Think about the detail given to describing Privet Drive, and Diagon Alley, and of course Hogwarts itself. Her world is magical but consistent – it has it’s own logic and it’s own rules. Indeed, really what made me read book two, and three, and all the others was this sense of wanting to return to that place. Yes, I cared about Harry – but I cared about returning to Hogwarts even more.

middle earthI think one of the very best examples – that really sets itself apart from any type of comparison to other stories –  is Tolkien’s Middle Earth. What is so good about The Lord of the Rings isn’t just the wonderful characters, the stirring struggle between good and evil, the languages, the recalling of myth. Rather, it’s the fact that all of these things are at home in Middle Earth itself,  – a world we believe in, and want to return to, or learn about, because it feels like our own history.  I don’t know about you, but I spent a lot of time when I was little just looking at the maps in the opening pages of the book.

There is Narnia, too. What we really desire, why we keep reading, is because we want to go back to that place created by Lewis.  I checked every closet in my house, several times, just to be sure. “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen.”


I was thinking about all of this as I sat in my empty classroom during 5th hour, normally the seniors’ class. I was sitting in one of the student desks in the middle of the room. I like to sit in the student desks sometimes so I don’t get completely locked into my teacher-desk perspective. The room looks pretty different out there.

And I realized that teachers are engaged in world-making, too. We create a setting – our classrooms. And, in a way, we help define what is possible in our classrooms by creating a particular environment, unique to our personalities and our teaching style, but also hopefully open to our students’ personalities and their learning styles.

This year I have worked hard to make my classroom more accessible. Places for papers, folders, essays, are all labeled. I try to keep the space as clean and organized. This is a setting for listening and discussing and writing and reading and writing and revising and writing and writing and writing… and the classroom has to reflect that just as much as my words and actions do. My kids need to know that as soon as they walk through my door they have entered a place for learning.

I have substituted this year in many rooms where there a papers on the floor, dirty desks, and bare walls. I remember my own classroom last year – “disorganized” is a gentle way to describe it. And I think such classrooms limit the possibilities for students. Carelessness, even in the details, suggests a lack of thoughtfulness and purpose. A question I found myself unable to answer a lot last year was, “Ms. Shea, where do I put this?” “Um… I’ll just take it for now…” This year, I love when the kids don’t  have to ask me that any more. They know where to go, where to put things, when to do it… setting setting setting.

Anyway –

To what extent does the setting affect the plot in your favorite stories… in your classroom… in your home?

If you really want some tough but tasty food for thought on setting, you should go read O’Connor’s story “The Displaced Person.”

6 thoughts on “Teaching and World-Making – Or, the Importance of Setting

  1. I’d go even further than saying that Middle Earth history “feels like our own history.” I’ve always found fascinating how Tolkien insisted, repeatedly, that Middle Earth history IS Earth history; he estimated that the Third Age events of LotR “take place” around 4000 BC, and that we’re now around the end of the Sixth Age (began about 2000 years ago…).

    This is in a sense an absurd claim, but even the most fantastical fiction tends to make it. Yoknapatawpha County doesn’t exist in the real world, but within the world of The Sound and the Fury, it’s right there in the middle of Mississippi. Star Wars takes place “a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” The Divine Comedy presents itself as a true vision. Even Narnia is connected to Earth somehow, though it’s also a separate universe with its own Genesis and Apocalypse (Magician’s Nephew and Last Battle).

    Anyway, I guess I find this fact worth mentioning because it’s a good antidote to the temptation to think of world-making as a kind of escapism–retreating into books because the real world is disappointing. Or maybe I’m just trying to say what Auden says better: http://ayjay.tumblr.com/post/50294390412/every-poet-consciously-or-unconsciously-holds

  2. Thanks for your comment Joseph. I agree with you – Tolkien et. al. do claim that the history they give us IS our history.

    I suppose I would say that perhaps most authors / directors try make this claim, but not all of them actually succeed in convincing us that it is true. Tolkien does, better than most, I think.

    Your point about “escapism” is also important – especially because students often make that claim against reading – “Why do we have to do this? When am I ever going to use this? This doesn’t matter in my ‘real’ life!” In terms of teaching, the classroom nevertheless can be a sort of legitimate “escape” for some students – an escape from a chaotic home life into a place of structure, challenge, and respect where they can develop skills that will help them tackle “real world” problems later on.

  3. Excellent post, Maura. My fondness for Southern writers, O’Connor especially, definitely comes from the compelling vividness of setting. (My senior thesis was on O’Connor and I find that I go back and re-read her work often.) I find that the writers from my native Maine share some of that as well. Reading Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge” was like taking a trip home. Details about the road down to the harbor and the stones of the wharves drew me further in to the story. The section where an elderly Olive visits her son in New York and experiences a terrifying sense of displacement struck me as very similar to the awakening of some O’Connor characters as she is both physically and emotionally out of her element.

    In terms of classroom as setting, I can still see, hear, and smell the classrooms of Bates and William and Mary, and those sensations are now welded to the works we studied there. When I hear lines from Edmund Spenser, I’m immediately back in Williamsburg in Lodge #4 (four offices in the back, and a large screened-in porch with a long table in the front). I can smell the pines and hear the squirrels. I can also hear Dr. Evans’ rich baritone and the clink of crystal sherry glasses that appeared for our final class.

    1. Hi Ron,

      Thanks for your lovely response. I actually am not familiar with Elizabeth Strout but I will be adding her to my summer reading list at your recommendation. Have you read anything by Alice McDermott? For some reason you description of Strout reminded me of her.

      It wasn’t until I began this unit with my students on short stories that I became fully cognizant of the power of setting – and realized that O’Connor, Tolkien, et. al. are offering us something that is actually a reflection of human life itself. It’s a simple concept on the one hand, but on the other it suggests deeper questions, as Joseph mentioned:

      “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.” (Tolkien)

      And Welty says, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.” I think she would include places in fiction as well.

  4. There’s definitely a real difference between “good” and “bad” escapism, for want of a better way of distinguishing between them. Tolkien actually had some things to say in praise of escapism; I’ll just quote him and be done so I don’t waste too much of everyone’s time:

    “I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it.”

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