College English / Literature: Lecture Five

This guy walks into a bar...[ever notice how many jokes start that way; it's probably the adult version of "Once upon a time..."]

Anyway, this guy walks into a bar and says to the bartender "How about giving me a free beer if I can prove I'm not here."

The bartender regards him skeptically. "Domestic or import?"

"Your call," says the guy.

"OK," says the bartender. "It's just a beer. Prove you're not here."

The guy sits down and leans over the bar. "Am I in Detroit?" he asks

The bartender snickers. "Definitely not."

"Am I in Albuquerque?"

The bartender shakes his head. "Even if you wuz," he says, "I wouldn't know how to spell it.

The guy smiles. "And what about Pittsburgh. Am I in Pittsburg?"

"Of course not," says the bartender. "Who'd wanna be in Pittsburg?"

"Right," the guy says. "So if I'm not in Detroit, and I'm not in Albuquerque, and I'm not in Pittsburg, I must be somplace else. Right?"

"Right," says the bartender

"Well then," says the guy, "if I'm somplace else, I'm not here."

[Rim shot please.]

So maybe it wasn't funny. But it's clean. And it does have SOMETHING to do with the theme of this lecture, which is [all together now]: Everything Happens Somewhere. And remember this as well: even NOWHERE is SOMEWHERE.

In other words, if the writer doesn't say where the story happens (or when) that's just as significant as when the setting IS identified.

The Setting as a Clue
Let's talk about this as another piece in the Central Idea puzzle. What kind of clues can the setting give us about the Central idea? Let's look at the various parts of the setting, starting with the transparent, or absent setting.

The Transparent Setting
The reason I call this setting transparent is because you can see right through it, as if it isn;t there. It's invisible. It never draws attention to itself. It's not important. You can be pretty sure that when a writer makes no mention of the time or place for a story he or she means for the reader to assume that it could happen ANYTIME and ANYWHERE. [Can you hear Rod Serling saying something like "A lonely man in a small town...anytime...anywhere...just inside...the Twilight Zone?"]

So what this means is that the central idea is universal; it applies to people all over the world regardless of the century in which they live. Of course, there may be a few clues to the setting, like the absence of motor vehicles, which lets you know it happened before they were invented, or some kind of statement which tells you the era. But what you have to ask youself when you read such things is "Were they mentioned simply as a part of the story, or is the author intentionally mentioning it to make sure we know the time and/or place.?"

The Mood Setting
The setting can be a way for the writer to set the mood for the story. Day, night, sunshine, rain, and other weather elements are common ways of doing this. Perhaps you've see the classic setting which Snoopy sometimes types: "It was a dark and stormy night..." We usually know with a setting like this that this won't be a funny story...unless, the writer is setting us up. The fact that the story opens on a "dark and stormy night" may be a way to surprise us.

The Symbolic Setting
Another use of the setting is as a symbol. Steinbeck does this in "The Chrysanthemums." The story opens with "The high grey....blah" The valley, surrounded by the mountains, resembles a pot. The story takes place in a location that resembles a pot. It's no accident. Steinbeck described it that way on purpose, letting us know early on that the residents were inside that pot. The setting is symbolic of the main character's existence.

The Opposite Setting
A story called "The Lottery" opens with children playing and the sun shining on a beautiful day. But we discover later on that everyone is getting ready to stone one of the villagers to death. The author purposefully contrasts the setting with the event in order to make the shock of the event even greater. A contemporary film, "Poltergeist" does the same thing, by beginning with the scene of a happy, suburban middle-class family.

These days, you may not know what to expect when a story opens, although there's still a lot of reliance on the traditional use of a setting to complement the tone. Every so often, though, the writer surprises us by contrasting the setting with the other elements of the story. But never with out a reason. And the reason guessed it: the Central Idea!

The Contrary Setting
Sometimes the setting plays off of other elements in the story. This too is done for effect. A common trick in comedy is to place characters normally found in one setting into a radically different one. Gilligan's Island is one example; The Beverly Hillbillies is an even better one. Much of the humor in those kinds of stories is derived from the fact that the characters are out of place. M.A.S.H. is another, since the characters are where they're supposed to be, but we don't expect to find comedy in an operating room in a war zone.

Like Dr. John said when HE was talking about setting "It musta been the right time; musta been the wrong place."

Questions? For answers, send an e-mail to Dr. Write.

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