AP Lit Skill Spotlight: Identifying Setting

AP* Lit Skill 2.A is a simple one, asking students to identify and describe the story’s setting using details from the text. While it can be simple to identify the setting, it’s a good opportunity to push students into identifying different aspects of the setting. The CED lists elements such as location, time of day, year, season, geography, and culture as facets of a setting, which enrich a text and add depth to its meaning and significance.*

*AP® is a trademark registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this website.

Identifying Setting with Iconic Scenes

To practice identifying setting details, here are some classic movies and television clips with unique settings. As you show the clips, ask your students to identify and describe the setting. Move beyond time and place, and consider season, geography, and culture in your analysis as well.

Example 1 – Fargo (Brainerd, Minnesota)

Fargo - AP Lit & More Skill Spotlight - Discussing Setting

You might be surprised to hear that this film is not actually set in Fargo, but as a native Minnesotan I would like to take the opportunity to set the record straight. Fargo is in North Dakota. My husband went to college there and I had to spend several sad spring breaks in its flat, dreary landscape (sorry, Fargo, you’re not my favorite). The majority of this film’s action, and the location of the central crime from the film, takes place in Brainerd, a small cabin-culture town in central Minnesota. Watch this scene, aptly titled “Chit chat” and ask students to identify elements of setting afterwards.

Example 2 – Breaking Bad (the deserts of New Mexico)

Breaking Bad - AP Lit & More Skill Spotlight - Discussing Setting

It’s no secret that I adore Breaking Bad; I think it’s one of the best-written shows in television history. One of the best things about it is the vast and dusty setting of New Mexico. When things get really sketchy, Walter White and his partner Jesse Pinkman often find themselves in the desert, conducting shady deals, hiding evidence, or running from authorities. Ask your students what they notice about all aspects of the setting in this crazy scene (which, by the way, contains gun violence but no gore).

Example 3 – Gravity (outer space)

Gravity - AP Lit & More Skill Spotlight - Discussing Setting

While Gravity is a bit far-fetched in terms of plot, its visuals and experience are unmatched. In this opening scene, astronauts find themselves facing a field of debris barreling towards them as they float untethered in space. Once you get your bearings again, consider how what details emerge about the setting. (Trigger warning: This scene may be too intense for those with motion sickness or nervous disorders)

Example 4 – Wonder Woman (“No Man’s Land”)

Wonder Woman's 'No Man's Land' - - AP Lit & More Skill Spotlight - Discussing Setting

This scene from Wonder Woman is easily the most memorable from the film. The events from this movie move from her paradise island of Themyscira to war-torn Europe. Ask students to analyze the details of the setting in this pivotal scene.

Focus Text: “Hills Like White Elephants”

I chose this text because it’s accessible but also complex. Hemingway’s texts use simple structure and language, making students think they are easy. However, his syntax is often a guise for a lot of subtext and implied meaning, so they usually have to work harder than they expect.

Questions for Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”

For a ready-made lesson on setting check out this lesson from my Short Story Boot Camp, designed for advanced and AP® Lit learners.
  1. What is the location of this setting? What details can you use to support your answer?
  2. What is the time period of the setting? What details can you use to support your answer?
  3. Setting can include more than the time and place of a text, but the social, cultural, or historical situation in which the events occur. What can you infer about the social, cultural, or historical setting of this text?
  4. What is the function or significance of the setting of this text?*

*This question aligns more with SET 2.B, which analyzes the function of the setting. Although this lesson is specific to 2.A, it is meant to naturally lead in to 2.B. Therefore, it may be worth asking this question to see if your students are able to go beyond identification and analyze the function of the setting.

Teacher’s Guide for “Hills Like White Elephants”

"Hills Like White Elephants" - AP Lit & More Skill Spotlight - Discussing Setting
  1. The author tells us that the couple are in the valley of Ebro, a river running through the hills of Spain (see the picture on the right). The first paragraph also tells us the two are dining in a restaurant with no shade next to a train station. The two sit uncomfortably in the heat, waiting for their train to arrive.
  2. The time period is not directly stated, so subtext must be studied. The story is modern enough that train travel is popular, but probably not so modern that they have the option for air travel. The two discuss an operation, so medicine is modern enough that surgery is readily available. Most would place this setting in the 1920s or 30s, like most of Hemingway stories.
  3. The way the man and woman discuss but avoid discussing the surgery can also tell us about the backdrop of the story. In reality, the couple are discussing getting an abortion, something the man seems more intent on than the girl. The man describes it as “an awfully simple operation,” something done “to let the air in.” Clearly, the act is something not to be discussed freely and it makes both feel awkward, telling us that abortion is not widely discussed or may even be illegal (which it was). The man claims he wants it because, “I don’t want anybody but you. I don’t want any one else.” Jig speaks vaguely and in a detached tone. Her lines imply she doesn’t believe him, like, “No we can’t. It isn’t ours anymore.” Later, she simply wants to stop talking about it, even threatening to scream. While the decision is ultimately up to Jig, the man seems to imply that their relationship won’t be as strong as it was before if a baby arrives. Ultimately, the cultural, social, and historical background of this text contribute the most to its characterization and conflict. If abortion were accepted, rather than illegal and considered the acts of “dirty” women, the two would speak their minds more freely. Furthermore, we’d be able to hear the real conflict, that the man is not ready to get serious, but the girl may be. To learn more about the changing views and laws of abortion in America and Europe over time, check out this interesting website.
  4. As the girl struggles with her feelings, she continually looks out over the rolling hills. She compares them to white elephants numerous times, saying “the coloring of their skin through the trees” reminds her of them. Some have connected this to the saying, “the elephant in the room,” as the couple avoid openly discussing the pregnancy or possibility of abortion. Others link the smooth, rolling hills to the girl’s growing tummy, assuming she’s several months pregnant. If neither of these things, the setting helps give us an atmosphere of feeling uncomfortable, stranded, and alone. The hot, barren hills stare blankly back at the girl, offering no hope or advice for her difficult situation.

Suggested Texts for Studying Identification of Setting

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Thanks to the educators on the AP® Lit Facebook group for all of the great suggestions for texts to study setting.

  • “A Pair of Tickets” or The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan
  • “Miss Brill” by Katherine Mansfield
  • Sula by Toni Morrison
  • “The Destructors” by Graham Greene
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • “The Fall of the House of Usher” or “The Cask of Amontillado”
  • We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates – excerpt from 2003 Form B prose prompt
  • “The Chrysanthemums” by John Steinbeck
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
  • The Street by Ann Petry – excerpt from 2009 prose prompt
  • “Old Woman Magoun” by Mary E. Wilkins
  • “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker
  • Anthem by Ayn Rand
  • The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather
  • “Once Upon a Time” by Nadine Gordimer
  • “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Mambara
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • “There Will Come Soft Rains” by Ray Bradbury
  • “A Rose For Emily” by William Faulkner
  • Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
  • “A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty
  • “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” by Ernest Hemingway
  • “Hunters in the Snow” by Tobias Wolff
  • “The Storm” by Kate Chopin
  • “The Ledge” by Stephen King
  • Silas Marner by George Eliot
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