Asking Questions About Setting: Literature Studies for TeensBetsy Strauss
Reading is an art form. We spend hours training our youngest students phonograms and sight words to develop budding readers. However, training one to read can take a lifetime. Mortimer Adler even wrote a book outlining the process titled: How to Read a Book. If we stop with simply teaching them to decode words, Adler believes that we are merely training “functional literates” and fall short of becoming truly “competent readers.”
So how do you train your teen to read when you don’t have an English degree? A great place to start is to focus on the setting in literature. If you teach them to observe when and where the author chose to set their story, they can dig deeply into the meaning of the book.
Setting: Where the Story Takes Place
While it seems simple to identify where the story takes place, a story can come alive by noting that one element.
Location, Location, Location
- Is the story set in a bustling city, or the quiet country?
Jane Eyre’s Thornfield Hall, the residence where Jane is a governess and meets the charming Mr. Rochester, is set in the country. The location is significant because it’s isolated which makes it a perfect place for hiding secrets. However, Jane finds it confining as she had hoped to see the world. She’s also drawn to Mr. Rochester in a unique way because she doesn’t have other men to compare him to.
- Is it a real place or an imaginary setting?
Alice in Wonderland would read much differently if all of her encounters were in the real world. Since it’s a dream-like setting, Lewis Carroll can bend and twist reality to exaggerate his satirical purpose.
- Do you want to go there?
A setting can draw you in, such as Anne of Green Gables in her idyllic representation of life on Prince Edward Island. It can also repel you like the gruesome days during the French Revolution described in A Tale of Two Cities. The author purposefully places their tale in these unique locations to enhance the message they are trying to convey.
By focusing on where the story is set, readers can begin a conversation with the author that leads to understanding a story better.
Setting: When the Story Takes Place
Equally important to the setting in literature is when the story takes place.
- What is the time period of the story?
C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe is set during the second world war. This is significant because during WWII, children were sent out to the country for safety. Edmund was without his father, and therefore when he met the White Witch, he was more vulnerable. You could keep going deeper in this story as you note when the Pevensie children arrived in Narnia, and the significance of Aslan being “on the move.”
In the same way A Passage to India comes alive as you look at the impact of the British occupation of India. When Miss Quested arrives in India, she has high hopes for befriending the Indian people. However, cultures clash and Miss Quested struggles to regain a grip on reality because she’s so far removed from her homeland.
- What is the weather like during the story?
Again in Jane Eyre, weather plays a major role in foreshadowing what is to come. Each time she arrives at an undesirable place, the weather is horrible. It’s either pouring down rain, or life threatening snow. Yet, when she finally makes it to Thornfield Hall, everything is bright and hopeful.
Similarly, weather makes a statement in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. When Lucy first arrives in Narnia, it’s always winter and never Christmas. She goes to Tumnus’s house to warm up with a cup of tea. When Aslan arrives, the winter begins to thaw. There are beautiful truths that can be discovered with questions about the weather.
The next time you’re reading a book, take some time to ask a couple of questions about the setting in literature. You’ll be surprised at the riches you uncover!