The Functions of Setting

In Heart of Darkness  ~~ And Beyond!


1.                  As background for action…

Can be complex, in order to give a sense of life as it was in a particular historical past.  Can be minimal or inferred, indicating the absurdity of setting.  For example, the journey down the coast of Africa gives the sense of conflict that surrounds the colonial period.

2.                 As antagonist…

Helps to establish conflict.  Can be an almost human, sinister force intimately connected with the characters.  For example, the shallow, uncharted Congo gives Marlowe plenty of conflict as he plies his way upstream.

3.                 As a means of creating appropriate atmosphere…

This arouses the reader’s expectations and establishes an appropriate state of mind for events to follow.  For example: the mystical setting on the Nellie prepares us for the strange, psychological tale that Marlowe is about to tell.

4.                 As a means of revealing character…

Setting can be a metaphor for the character.  A cluttered room can be a metaphor for a confused character, as in Seize the Day.

A character’s reaction to or perception of setting also reveals character.  For example, Marlowe’s reaction to the Congo reveals much about his restraint and integrity.

5.                 As a means of reinforcing Theme.

Setting can illustrate and clarify the central idea of a work.  For example, the theme of alienation in Heart of Darkness is continually reinforced through the continually deeping darkness in the journey up the Congo River.



Setting as Literary Device


Setting is comprised of the physical characteristics of a room or a landscape, the time of day, time of year, and/or period of history.

It is deliberately created by an author through careful choice of words (diction) to vividly describe the view (imagery), using allusions (Biblical/classical/cultural), similes, and metaphors. 


Authors use the traditional associations connected with the cycles of days and years:


spring ~ morning ~ youth

summer ~ noon ~ maturity

fall ~ evening ~ old age

winter ~ night ~ death


Authors may even manipulate the traditional meanings for a deliberately incongruous effect.  For example, to stage a murder in the middle of the bright noon sun is to suggest we have become shockingly and indifferently violent.  You will soon read a novel in which just such an event happens.


Cities are usually settings of confusion and isolation