The literary device of setting is often overlooked in its impact towards the plot and character development of a story. However, as can be extrapolated from the assigned readings thus far this semester, setting plays a vital role in determining the direction, feel and structure that a particular story invariably takes.The setting is a reflection of many significant pieces of a work: time, location, culture and tone, thereby immediately creating an ambiance and establishing connotative emotions within the reader.
Characters are a direct and ultimate byproduct of the communities and surroundings in which they live. They can be put at ease by pleasant accommodations or, as in the cases of the two works at the base of this paper, place a character in a position of trepidation. Moreover, setting generally transcends its own simplicity by affecting the structure of a piece, permeating into the plot’s innermost dealings. Throughout the semester, two short stories immerge as paragons of a setting’s importance, these being Young Goodman Brown by Nathanial Hawthorne and, more contemporarily, Girl by Jamaica Kincaid.
Both exemplify the importance of setting as it reflects and applies to the core meaning of each piece. On a very basic level, the setting of Young Goodman Brown gives historical insight into the characters and their lifestyles. From the story’s onset, it is established that Brown lives in a 17th century Puritan society, specifically Salem, Massachusetts. Therefore, one can make several inferences of Goodman Brown’s character based simply on one’s predisposition to the standard of living marking this epoch.
The piety and fervent religious devotion associated is important in understanding Hawthorne’s intentions for writing. One can presume that Brown, more than likely, is a man bound to his Christian faith, an assumption that proves most accurate. Others around Brown, his closest friends and family, also appear to be devoted to Puritan dogma. Yet, as Hawthorne makes clear, they were astonishingly hypocritical, consorting with the devil and engaging in late night satanic masses. With this in mind, it becomes more facile for the reader to understand the actions or feelings of characters within the story and gives indication of the concepts at the center of the piece. More influential in Hawthorne’s tale is the shift in proscribed setting from the town of Salem to the dark and ominous woods, completely altering the mood and tone of the piece. Hawthorne describes the woods as “a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind” (Hawthorne 634).
As previously stated, the setting is essential in establishing the mood of the work. Hawthorne, by placing Brown in a precariously spooky forest, makes his character and, in turn, the reader uneasy and uncomfortable. Moreover, these surroundings appropriately reflect the excursion on which Brown is embarking. Hawthorn admits to its evil nature. It is much more apposite for a story about wickedness and satanic religious services be set in the dead of night and in a dreary forest. The setting suitably represents the nature of the work and helps to add ambiance to a story more allegorical in plot.
In fact, the midnight trek into the woods shakes Goodman Brown’s formally stony and unflappable faith. Although he clings to his beliefs in Puritanism blindly, taking solace in the fact that they will be there when he returns, Brown is still adversely and immediately affected by the eeriness of the forest’s setting. As the protagonist travels deeper into the forest, his religious devotion diminishes accordingly. Immediately after discovering his wife darting and disappearing into the woods Brown screams, “my Faith is gone”, referring to both his loyalty to the Christian doctrine and his wife of the same name (Hawthorne 639).
He concludes “there is no good on earth; and sin is but a name” (Hawthorne 639). Goodman Brown grows increasingly tense and the woods become exponentially more portentous. Hawthorne writes, “And, maddened with despair, so that he laughed loud and long, did Goodman Brown grasp his staff and set forth again … the road grew wilder and drearier and more faintly traced … leaving him in the heart of dark wilderness” (Hawthorne 639). The setting is no longer inanimate but a functional piece of the story, perhaps even another character. It reacts to Goodman Brown and causes Goodman Brown to react.By the time the protagonist leaves the dreaded forest, his trust in religion is shattered and the world around him has been tainted. The setting plays a crucial role in this unenviable epiphany.
The forest in which the bulk of the story takes place, including Brown’s interaction with the stranger (who is the devil incarnate) and the midnight mass, has symbolic value as well. The devil takes.