On Setting: A Releasing the Imagination Reflection
“The house smelled musty and damp, and a little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.”
― Neil Gaiman, American Gods
In reflecting on how I teach English literature, I’ve come to realize that I really like lesson plans that get my students thinking about the role of setting in narratives. If a story’s setting can be understood, in its simplest sense, as the place where the action takes place, what happens when we expand our idea of place? Place is not only spatial, it is also temporal; place is not only bodily, it is also mental; place is not only contextual, it can also exist in the conceptual. Setting can be a castle in 17th century Scotland or one person’s sleeping dream in 2016 Toronto; setting might be a foreign country or an imaginary planet. Setting can be rendered meaningless in the words “once upon a time” or can signify a host of possibilities that a reader may or may not be privy to in the words “and they lived happily ever after.” Setting in narrative can signify allegory - maybe there’s something about life in the story that says something about life outside of the story. Setting in narrative can be hard to separate from previous ways of knowing place - a garden symbolizes Eden, a hell-hole symbolizes . . . well, Hell. Setting is memory and nostalgia for a place lost - a past; setting is hope and aspiration for a new world - a future. Environments mold characters; characters alter their environments.
Why, I muse with my students, are dystopian novels really popular? Why, our class wonders, do people gravitate towards wizarding worlds or shires or enchanted forests? How is it that the voice of Jane Austen’s narrators sounds like our sassy aunts sitting around the dining room tables we only settle in when we have large family gatherings? Or how is that first person narrations may be unreliable because of the fact that they cannot possibly capture the complexity of their settings because the perspective must be skewed? Why do we consistently refer back to the maps on a book’s inner covers as we plot and follow the action on its pages? I do not purport to have the answers for these questions but think that there must be probably a million and one ways to answer them, almost as many possible settings exist for use in story.
I thought about how much I like to discuss setting when I was reading Maxine Greene’s Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change (1995). Greene, of course, is the philosopher/educator whose work has inspired so many - especially those who teach in the Humanities or the Arts - to believe that what they share with their students might open their hearts and minds in ways that “banking modes” of knowledge could not. Green inspired us to believe that an appreciation for artistic expression would allow our students knowledge of how to formulate tenets of the good life in their own worlds - in their own settings. Releasing the Imagination is a rich work, Greene moves between literary texts with the deftness of someone who’s read lots and read well. I appreciate the way in which she juxtaposes well known literary characters with the way in which they can stand for transformative philosophical concepts. So, for example, she talks about how an inviting democratic community is characterized by interconnectedness and communion - much like Tom Joad’s (Grapes of Wrath) immersion in the masses and unlike Jay Gatsby’s (The Great Gatsby) self-sufficient image of himself (p.33-34). Greene takes up a number of issues and makes a case for how the Arts might work to help teachers and their students imagine how things might be better - how societies might become better and how all people might realize equality. And she models what she is calling for so much so that I wanted to, in my class discussions on setting, explore how the locales of the texts we were reading might be aligned with happenings we might read about in our local newspapers.
However, not all my students wanted to discuss how fictional settings might speak to the everyday time and place of their realities. Some talked about how it was delusional to think that literature had a place in making change in the real world. “Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’” commented one student, “might be considered historically by us today as indicative of a soldier’s mood on a World War I battlefield but did it do anything to actually stop the war then? And if it did, whose agenda was it serving to make it ‘go viral’ so that when the population heard it they pressured their governments to end their war?” Another student pointed out that feeling bad about injustice in Panem’s District 12 shouldn’t be comparable to how we feel about the unjust deaths of unarmed people in Baltimore or Chicago. She’s right, of course. And she certainly touches on a fear that those teaching in the Arts in the mode that Greene envisions have: namely, that the work we do or the discussions about literary setting that we have in our classrooms, won’t translate into something meaningful outside of them. Greene encourages us to find ways to safeguard our lessons in the arts so that that won’t be our realities. She encourages us to constantly work on imagining a world where settings are shaped by actions that lead to making our realities more utopian for all - and to realize that it must be an ongoing creative project.
Greene, M. (1995). Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.