Setting and Atmosphere
Quick revise

After studying this section you should be able to:

  • understand the importance of setting in a novel
  • recognise some of the ways that writers can create settings and a sense of place
  • see how the setting of a novel can be an important influence on other aspects of the narrative

The setting of a novel can be an important element and can be closely related to the development of the plot. Setting can be much more than a simple ‘backdrop’ against which the action takes place and often can be closely bound up with the characters themselves. For example, in Jane Austen’s novel, Emma, the action is set in Highbury which is described as ‘a large and populous village almost amounting to a town’. The main storyline of the novel concerns the social status of the various families in Highbury. Although Austen gives little description of the setting, because her main focus is on the social interaction between the various characters, she does occasionally give a glimpse of the surroundings. In this short extract, for example, she gives us the description of the grounds of Donwell Abbey, the home of Mr Knightley.

It was hot; and after walking some time over the gardens in a scattered, dispersed way, scarcely any three together, they insensibly followed one another to the delicious shade of a broad short avenue of limes, which stretching beyond the garden at an equal distance from the river, seemed the finish of the pleasure grounds. – It led to not nothing but a view at the end over a low stone wall with high pillars, which seemed intended, in their erection, to give the appearance of an approach to the house, which never had been there. Disputable, however, as might be the taste of such a termination, it was in itself a charming walk, and the view which closed it extremely pretty. – The considerable slope, at nearly the foot of which the Abbey stood gradually acquired a steeper form beyond its grounds; and at half a mile distant was a bank of considerable abruptness and grandeur, well clothed with wood; – and at the bottom of this bank, favourably placed and sheltered, rose the Abbey-Mill Farm, with meadows in front, and the river making a close and handsome curve around it. It was a sweet view – sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright without being oppressive.

from Emma by Jane Austen

Progress check

Look carefully at this description.

  • What does the physical situation of the Abbey compared with Abbey-Mill Farm tell you?
  • What is your overall impression of the description?
  • What sort of man do you think would would own the Abbey?

In other novels the setting can play a much more significant role. In Hardy’s The Return of the Native, for example, the story is set against the imposing background of Egdon Heath. The presence of this wild and untamed heath exerts such an influence on the action in terms of mood and atmosphere that some critics have described it as almost becoming a character in itself. Hardy gives a good deal of attention to creating a sense of the heath’s wildness, as in this description with which the novel opens:

A SATURDAY afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.

The heaven being spread with this pallid screen and the earth with the darkest vegetation, their meeting-line at the horizon was clearly marked. In such contrast the heath wore the appearance of an instalment of night which had taken up its place before its astronomical hour was come: darkness had to a great extent arrived hereon, while day stood distinct in the sky. Looking upwards, a furze-cutter would have been inclined to continue work; looking down, he would have decided to finish his faggot and go home. The distant rims of the world and of the firmament seemed to be a division in time no less than a division in matter. The face of the heath by its mere complexion added half an hour to evening; it could in like manner retard the dawn, sadden noon, anticipate the frowning of storms scarcely generated, and intensify the opacity of a moonless midnight to a cause of shaking and dread.

In fact, precisely at this transitional point of its nightly roll into darkness the great and particular glory of the Egdon waste began, and nobody could be said to understand the heath who had not been there at such a time. It could best be felt when it could not clearly be seen, its complete effect and explanation lying in this and the succeeding hours before the next dawn: then, and only then, did it tell its true tale. The spot was, indeed, a near relation of night, and when night showed itself an apparent tendency to gravitate together could be perceived in its shades and the scene. The sombre stretch of rounds and hollows seemed to rise and meet the evening gloom in pure sympathy, the heath exhaling darkness as rapidly as the heavens precipitated it. And so the obscurity in the air and the obscurity in the land closed together in a black fraternization towards which each advance half-way.

From The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

Progress check

Look at the passage carefully.

  • What kind of language does Hardy use to describe the heath?
  • What imagery does he use and what effects does it create?
  • What kind of mood and atmosphere are associated with the heath?
  • What is your overall impression of the heath?

KEY POINT - The setting and atmosphere that the writer creates can be important elements in the novel. Be aware of the kind of settings used, the differing moods and atmospheres created and how the writer creates them.

Progress check

Now look at the novel you are studying. Make notes on the setting or settings that the writer creates. What kind of atmosphere is created in the novel?


No votes yet