AP Lit and More - Function of Setting

AP Lit Skill Spotlight: Function of Setting

AP® Lit Skill SET 2.B piggy-backs off of 2.A in terms of identifying and analyzing setting. While most students can identify a story’s setting (the only task in 2.A), many struggle with analyzing the function of the setting (2.B). The AP® Lit CED asks students to connect the text’s setting with other literary elements, with the reader’s reaction, and to its overall significance.

Note: SET 2.C analyzes the relationship between a character and a text’s setting. 2.B can analyze this as well, but as a bridge to get to 2.C, work on connecting it to literary elements such as theme, conflict, tone, or contrasts.

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Examining Significance of Setting with Wall-E

Wall-E begins with a view at a barren, trash-ridden Earth. What is the significance of this?

One great movie for studying the function of setting is Pixar’s Wall-E. I suggest watching the first 5 minutes of the movie if you have access to it. If not, this short clip will get the job done.

After showing the clip, ask students what connections they can make between the film’s setting in this scene (a ruined Earth) and other elements. Consider:

  • Conflict
  • Theme
  • Mood
  • Contrasts
  • Characterization

Some students might notice the contrast between the barren landscape and the upbeat music in this scene, establishing the film’s optimistic tone. This also presents the film’s central conflict and Wall-E’s characterization. The world is in peril, but Wall-E just continues on in his happy way. This activity, using setting details to connect with other literary elements, is exactly what students need to replicate when reading a text.

Focus Text: “Cora Unashamed” by Langston Hughes

This summer I’ve been reading more short stories in my spare time and this one by Langston Hughes was a first-time read. I’m familiar with Hughes’ poetry of course, but the only other short story that I’ve read from him is “Thank You Ma’am.” For someone with a very short attention span when it comes to short stories, this one really grabbed me. There are many applications for it but I thought it could be a good introductory text for helping students move from identifying setting to analyzing function of setting.

Have your students read “Cora Unashamed” in class or for homework. I found the text online here. Then, ask your students to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the setting of “Cora Unashamed?” List any setting details that you notice.
  2. Re-read the first paragraph. What significance do these setting details have on the story?
  3. How does the setting affect you as the reader?
  4. What ties can you make between the setting and any other literary element, such as theme, conflict, contrast, or mood?

Teacher’s Guide

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  1. This story is set in Melton, a “miserable” midwestern town. Hughes describes it as “not large enough to be a town, nor small enough to be a village” and definitely lacking in charm. Melton is “one of those sad American places” far away from any city.
  2. The full details of the first paragraph emphasize the nondescript and pathetic nature of Melton. Hughes wants you to see that this town is behind the times and unpleasant. Once we’ve read the story, we can see that the Studevants belong in this town. They’ve built up a sense of superiority and high-class prominence, but in the perspective of the setting they are really nothing more than small town bullies. Students may also note that it contributes to a sense of loneliness or despair, matching with Cora’s life.
  3. The town of Melton is not one most would like to visit, which may put some readers off from reading this story. Overall, the setting sets us up for the kind of story we’re going to get. This is not a happy story, nor a happy town. Others may remark that the story’s setting helps in making thematic connections or analyzing the central contrasts or conflicts.
  4. The setting of this text connects with many literary devices. For example, it establishes a major conflict, that Cora cannot escape her circumstances. Hughes writes, Cora “had to stand it; or work for poorer white folks who would treat her worse; or go jobless. Cora was like a tree–once rooted, she stood”. Her permanence is not out of love or devotion, but rather the lack of options presented in this small town. It also establishes the hopeless and tragic tone of the story. Even when sparks of happiness arise, such as the birth of Josephine or Cora’s love for Jessie, Melton’s inhabitants seem to snatch it away. Cora is left in her bitterness, cursing God and the Studevants in the end. There is even some irony in the end, that Cora leaves the Studevants and makes money by gardening. This means she uses Melton’s soil to earn her wages, something unexpected from a person who has lost her happiness because of that town’s inhabitants. There will likely by other observations or tie-ins. See if students can begin venturing into SET 2.C, which connects setting with character, if you like.

Suggested Texts for Studying Function of Setting

Here is a list of suggested short stories for studying the function of a text’s setting.

For more practice with the skills associated with setting, try these graphic organizers that can be used with any text!
  • “Land Enough For a Man” by Leo Tolstoy
  • “And of Clay We Are Created” by Isabel Allende
  • “The Fall of the House of Usher” by Edgar Allan Poe
  • “Everyday Use” or “The Flowers” by Alice Walker
  • “There Will Come Soft Rains” or “The Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury
  • “A Rose For Emily” by William Faulkner
  • “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
  • “The Storm” by Kate Chopin
  • “Dead Men’s Path” by Chinua Achebe
  • “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét
  • “Strawberry Spring” by Stephen King
  • “Interlopers” by Saki
  • “A Wagner Matinee” by Willa Cather
  • “The Most Dangerous Game” by Richard Connell
  • “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor
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