Exercises: Looking into space

Just as it is vital we always bear it in mind that characters in literature are not real people and should not be treated as such (for more on which, see here), it is vital, too, that we remember the same is true of the physical environment in works of literature as well. Even if a location in a narrative has the same name and surface characteristics as a location in the real world (New York, London, Stonehenge, the Golden Gate, and so on), it is nonetheless not exactly the same in either function or nature as its real-life counterpart. This is because it consists only of words and because it features as a part – and only as a part – of a narrative. The physical environments within which a narrative takes place (be they a planet, a city, a room or a cardboard box) are thus a constituent element of its storytelling technique. It is our job as critics to illuminate and interrogate the story (or stories) these spaces tell.

To help you do this, we have identified four key questions you might usefully ask of the physical environments and locations of the narrative you are studying.

  1. How many different locations can you identify in the story and what kinds of locations are they?

The range and diversity of locations in any given narrative will immediately tell you something about the worldview of that narrative – whether it is narrowly focused, for instance, or wide-ranging (either geographically or socially); familiar or exotic; and so on. It may also tell you something about the genre(s) the narrative engages.

2. Which qualities, associations and/or characteristics are associated with each of these locations?

A kitchen, for instance, is often associated with domesticity and the family – as a result, it is also frequently treated as a feminine space. A garage or tool shed, on the other hand, is often associated with practical manual work and knowledge of machinery; as a result it is also frequently treated as a masculine (and additionally sometimes a working class) space.

It can be a useful exercise to consider if any of the locations of the narrative are paired with one another in some way: either as mirrors of one another or as negative images of one another. It is not uncommon for narratives to categorise several of the locations they represent in sets of contrasting pairs: open and closed, spacious and constrained, inside and outside, fluid and static, masculine and feminine, upper class and lower class, and so on.

It has been suggested that most locations in literature can be characterised in one of two ways: as paths or as containersPaths are those spaces through which characters travel; as such they emphasise connectionContainers, by contrast, are those spaces which have a border around them, they are spaces within which characters act; as such they tend to emphasise distinctions – between ‘outside’ and ‘inside,’ for instance. It is worth pointing out that spaces which act as paths for some characters can be containers for others. A boat, for instance, can give its owner or captain access to the whole globe; it is little more than a prison, on the other hand, to an enchained slave forced to stay and work within it. You might in any case find it helpful to consider if any of the spaces represented in the narrative you are studying fulfil one or other – or both – of these functions.

3. Are any of the characters associated with particular locations? If so, what does this tell us about those characters?

We can learn a lot about individual characters (as well as groups of characters) from the environments in which we find them. It is commonly remarked, for instance, that in many of the great adventure narratives of the western tradition, it is the men who venture out over the whole globe, while the women stay at home.

4. Is the location in which the story is being told the same as the location in which the events it narrates take place?

This relates to the distinction between homodiegeticheterodiegetic and extradiegetic narrators (for more on which, see here). The location in which the narrator tells her or his story, however, is one of the clues that can tell us more about that narrator – and even perhaps enable us to acquire a different view of that narrator and the story s/he tells than the one s/he might want us to hear or adopt.

Be that as it may, if the location in which the story is being told is not the same as the location in which the events it narrates take place, we should consider what, if any, relationship there might be between them. This, ultimately, is a question of the relevance of the story to the place of its telling. When, for instance, the character Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness tells a story about the horrors of a journey he once made up the river Congo whilst sitting on a boat on the river Thames, we cannot help but wonder what, if anything, this story of savagery might have to say about contemporary and supposedly civilised Britain and its then still enormous empire.

Return to Storyworlds