Course 4—Lecture


How to Read: Title & Setting
In LitCourse 4 we take a look at titles and settings, two elements of fiction that are frequently taken for granted. Yet both can provide important clues for understanding a work's deeper meanings.

Seamus Heany—"Digging"
John Updike—"A & P"

LitCourse 4
How to Read: Title & Setting


Title and Setting

Wallflowers—alone and forgotten
Poor titles. Poor settings. They sit out the dance, they miss all the fun, they get no respect. Everyone is so busy analyzing plot, characters, symbols or irony, they overlook titles and settings.

But we ignore them at our peril
Although often taken for granted, titles and setting provide important clues to a story's central ideas.

LitCourse 4
How to Read: Title & Setting 


Titles—tell us things

Attention must be paid* to titles and how they function in a story. Titles perform any of three roles.

Titles . . .
State a story's theme
Point to a key aspect of a story
Highlight a story's irony

* Linda Loman's famous line in defense of her husband, Willy Loman—his deserving of respect—in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.

LitCourse 4
How to Read: Title & Setting


Titles—restate a theme

Titles often serve as a shorthand statement of theme, reinforcing a work's central ideas.

The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
— Despite his lower-class origins and tawdry past, Gatsby achieves a sort of greatness at the end of the novel when he takes the blame for Daisy—she who is cut from finer cloth. As the title suggests, innate decency and honor trump class, always.

LitCourse 4
How to Read: Title & Setting


Titles—point to a key concept

Titles can be used for emphasis, to draw attention to a key concept in a story.

Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
— The title draws attention to the character flaws that keep Elizabeth and Darcy apart. Both must attain self-knowledge and overcome their pride and prejudices before they can be joined together.

LitCourse 4
How to Read: Title & Setting


Titles—highlight irony

Titles can be ironic, meaning the opposite of what is stated or suggested.

"Good Country People," a famous story by Flannery O'Connor, concerns a family whose members are petty, prideful, and self-absorbed—hardly the "good people" the title refers to.

LitCourse 4
How to Read: Title & Setting


Let's talk about setting

Settings, like titles, are easy to overlook. But writers choose them for specific reasons. Settings come in 4 basic colors:

Physical surroundings

LitCourse 4
How to Read: Title & Setting


Type of setting—location

Location is where the events of a story take place. A story may have multiple locations.

Inside or out
Rural or urban areas
Geographical areas

"A & P" (John Updike), the LitCourse 4 story, is set in a grocery chain store, in a small town in Massachusetts near the coast, not far from the historical town of Salem.

LitCourse 4
How to Read: Title & Setting


Type of setting—time

Time, in terms of setting, is when the events of the story take place. A story may have multiple time frames.

Time of day
Year or historical period

"A & P" (this course's story) takes place in the 1950's, during the summer when vacationers flock to the shore.

LitCourse 4
How to Read: Title & Setting


Type of setting—culture

Cultural settings reflect the social milieu in which the characters act out the events of the story. They include:

Religious values
Social mores
Political beliefs
Philosophical outlook

"A & P" takes place during an era of conformity. The McCarthy hearings and the red scare were in full swing.

LitCourse 4
How to Read: Title & Setting


Type of setting—physical

Physical setting is the outward environment or physical landmarks surrounding the events of a story.

Topography (mountains, lakes, rivers)

"Young Goodman Brown," one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's most famous stories, takes place in a dark, thickly wooded forest, mirroring the spiritual turmoil of the protagonist.

LitCourse 4
How to Read: Title & Setting


Purpose of Setting

Authors might choose their settings in order to establish any of 3 basic elements:


LitCourse 4
How to Read: Title & Setting


Purpose of setting—mood

Mood—an atmosphere readers almost feel—can be evoked by the author's choice of setting.

A dark and stormy night—the most cliched of all literary settings—establishes an eerie mood for ghost tales set in spooky mansions. A bright, sunny afternoon could never achieve the foreboding atmosphere the author wants.

LitCourse 4
How to Read: Title & Setting


Purpose of setting—motivation

Characters and their actions can be influenced by the choice of setting.

"A & P" is set in a chain grocery story, a place of deadening conformity. Sammy chafes under the store's strict orderliness—it's like a strait-jacket for our young hero, goading him to take action at the end.

LitCourse 4
How to Read: Title & Setting


Purpose of setting—theme

Themes, or the central ideas of a story, are often reflected in a work's setting.

Moby-Dick is set on a whaling ship, a micro- cosm of society. The ship sails the oceans—a vast, mysterious, unknowable world—suggest- ing that we cannot truly know the nature of the universe, despite all our knowledge and powers of reason.

LitCourse 4
How to Read: Title & Setting



You've reached the end of the Lecture. To continue LitCourse 2, click "Reading" on the Course Tools menu to the right.

"Digging" (poem)
Seamus Heaney

"A & P" (short story)
John Updike

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2021