A believable setting is crucial to any short story. Broadly, an intimate, authentic sense of time and place is necessary to fully develop the overall narrative arc and solidify the greater significance of the story. The stories of Aimee Bender, Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, and James Joyce illuminate the range of clever ways in which setting can function as a critical element. Most importantly, a strong setting enables readers to connect with characters, and that connection acts as the living, beating heart of the successful short story. To begin, let’s take a step back and look at the craft of setting from an objective view. Our goal here will be to study how the writer’s specific choices eventually coalesce into art.
In her surreal story “Tiger Mending,” Bender uses interesting juxtapositions of place to create a sense of otherworldliness. For example, the narrator’s smart sister first attends med school, then withdraws and later enrolls in sewing school. The parallel between sewing skin and sewing clothes is apparent, but it’s the opposing settings—the two very different schools—that generate the most interest and tension for the reader at the beginning of the story. Also, in terms of narrative flow, the sewing class allows the narrator’s sister to be observed and then recruited by her future employers (another set of sisters), an event that sets the plot in motion, quite literally, as the seemingly inseparable sisters then travel by airplane to the new job site.
Likewise, the narrator’s dead-end job at Burger King only seems drearier when juxtaposed with an exciting trip to Malaysia. The narrator says, “That night, she called me up and told me to quit my job, which was what I’d been praying for for months—that somehow I’d get a magical phone call telling me to quit my job because I was going on an exciting vacation” (28). In the previous passage, the key word is “magical,” which helps set the tone for the rest of the story. Readers are then introduced to the bewildering images of “tiger mending” inspired by Amy Cutler’s painting, but we are also permitted to witness the relationship arc of the sisters—its initial cohesiveness and eventual disintegration. The place where the tigers are mended becomes an actual, physical turning point in their lives through Bender’s magical realism.
The place of Barthelme’s story, “The School,” is also central to his story, because all of the plot points are anchored at “the school.” In this shorter story, Barthelme depicts a series of deaths, either inside the school itself, in its near vicinity, or, at the very least, of someone closely affiliated with the school. In this way, Barthelme keeps the action of the story tight and tense, despite the narrator’s conversational way of presenting these tragedies. In his essay, “Rise, Baby, Rise,” George Saunders calls Barthelme’s plot points “little gas stations,” where the reader refuels as she inevitably progresses toward the end of the story (135). In this particular instance, the “gas stations” are the amounting deaths, which are all linked to the one unlucky location.
Barthelme’s approach to time is equally important to study in this context. The exact chronology of events is unclear because some descriptions seem retrospective, but the way in which Barthelme lists the deaths in the chronology of the telling shows a natural, believable progression. First it’s trees, then gerbils, then a dog named after the narrator, then two students, then a student’s father. By the time we reach the end of the story, wherein the narrator’s students beg him to “make love now with Helen (our teaching assistant)” (Barthelme 307), we are willing to accept the absurdity of the situation because we know that everyone in “The School” must have reached a breaking point over this passage of time. Indeed, the timing/pacing of the climax/resolution reveals the significance of the story itself: Through death, we find “an assertion of value” in life (Barthelme 307). Afterward, the falling action sequence continues to propel the plot through its unexpected dialogue and quick paragraph breaks. Accordingly, as Saunders contends, Barthelme masterfully ends the story “without sucking” (137), and, as we all know, truly effective endings often can be elusive, even for the best of writers.
To launch the discussion of Munro’s work, let me again refer to Saunders’ essay, “Rise, Baby, Rise.” Saunders calls “The School” a pattern story, wherein an author “sets up a pattern…then escalates it” (134). We see the pattern of escalating deaths in Barthelme’s story, and something similar is also happening in Munro’s longer short story, “Axis.” The story opens as the reader finds Grace and Avie about to board a bus together (141). Later the next summer, Grace’s boyfriend Royce boards a bus to visit Grace’s farm, but he sees and longs for Avie through the bus window (143). Later, after a disastrous sexual encounter, Royce flees the farm by hitchhiking and discovers the wondrous Niagara Escarpment (150). Finally, decades later, Royce, now a comfortably retired geologist, explains his fascination with the Frontenac Axis to none other than Avie herself on a train from Toronto to Montreal (154). Thus, the various modes of transportation form a pattern in Munro’s story, but each instance of travel, i.e. each repeated form of “place,” raises the stakes of the story just a bit higher. Much like in “The School,” the action in “Axis” spirals into a satisfactory closing comment. In Munro’s case, the last two words, “A woman,” clearly ask the reader to rethink all of the relationships presented in the story (156). Though open-ended, the final words still satisfy (and don’t “suck”) because the reader is left with a complex idea to ponder.
In contrast, Munro’s story is much longer than Barthelme’s by design. Munro uses the modes of transportation as likely settings for dialogue, exposition, and introspection. In their ironically static movement, trapped for a certain time in a moving vehicle, Munro’s characters discuss their loves, share their fearful dreams, and reveal their life’s passions. Munro’s deft touch allows for genuine character development in what might otherwise be considered a stock setting.
In Lydia Davis’s “St. Martin,” the narrator and her partner are “caretakers for most of that year, from early fall until summer” (170). Immediately, Davis offers two possible interpretations of place—both the borrowed abode and its natural surroundings have the potential to become characters themselves. In truth, the isolated house becomes both a bonus and a bane, akin to an initially welcome, then unwanted, houseguest. The narrator and her partner are happy to have space to work on tedious intellectual projects, but they are at a loss for how to actually care for the house with which they are entrusted: “We hardly knew what a clean house should look like” (170). Eventually, their lackadaisical take on the upkeep of the house and its environs leads to the loss of a dog, a cherished pet: “We should not have let the dogs out loose, but we did not know that” (180). Davis’s in-depth descriptions of both the house and dog allow the reader to equate the two through empathy for their mutual neglect.
Davis also vividly describes the flora and fauna of the fertile French farmland; even the farmer himself becomes a sort of enthralling secondary character, yet remains firmly rooted to the land and its ways: “He dried lettuce leaves by shaking them in a dishtowel and gave us a salad full of garlic…” (179). In the end, while we may have also learned a great deal about the absent-minded “caretakers,” Davis leaves us with nature ringing in our ears: “In May, we heard the first nightingale. Just as the night fully darkened, it began to sing” (181), and its song is a lament for the poor lost dog. Both the songbird and dog are “mysteriously hidden” from the eyes of the readers (181). The layers of setting in such a case serve to both enrapture and perplex the writer’s fans.
Speaking of fandom, “The Dead” by James Joyce is one of my favorite stories of all time. Even after several readings, I still find this story inscrutable and open to myriad interpretations. Indeed, we could examine “The Dead” from several angles, even just within the context of place and time. For instance, upon hearing the name Joyce, we think Dublin, then Ireland, then maybe the term “post-colonial.” Truly, the city of Dublin itself as a setting is compelling fiction fodder, but the bulk of Joyce’s story takes place inside a single established home, one with a long history of its own. “The Misses Morkan’s annual dance” has been “a great affair” for many a year (155), and their nephew, Gabriel, this year’s guest speaker of honor, feels the weight of this tradition. Joyce’s deliberate depiction of time—past, present, and future—adds significance to what otherwise could be dismissed as another safe, upper-society story.
For example, upon entering the party, already well after 10 p.m., clever Gabriel quips “but [my aunts] forget that my wife here takes three mortal hours to dress herself” (156). The word “mortal” is an expression of time lost, but also a dark foreshadowing. Though Gabriel’s generosity overflows at “Christmas-time!” (157), he is very soon lost in a maze of remembrance and regret. Through Gabriel’s conversations, musings, and speechifying, Joyce makes the party seem longer than humanly possible, a nod to the craft element of time and its unforgiving nature, as all mortal endeavors lead to death. Gabriel refers to the past as a “spacious age,” and exhorts his fellows to “cherish in our hearts the memory of those dead and gone” (178). Ultimately, however, Gabriel fails to honor his wife’s vaulted memory of an old beau at the end of the story, a failure that only furthers Joyce’s analysis of the cruelty of time and the humans who endure it.
Thus the settings of Aimee Bender, Donald Barthelme, Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, and James Joyce not only bring authenticity to their stories, but also provide the necessary closure. With careful crafting, an enlivened, viable sense of time and place evokes empathy in the reader, which is absolutely integral to the short story. For if we do not care for the writer’s characters, wherever or whenever they may be, why bother?
Barthelme, Donald. “The School.” Sixty Stories. 1982. New York: Penguin, 2003. 304-8. Print.
Bender, Aimee. “Tiger Mending.” The Color Master. New York: Doubleday, 2013. 26-33. Nook Book.
Cutler, Amy. Tiger Mending. 2003. Private Collection. Leslie Tonkonow Artworks and Projects, New York. The Wall Street Journal. Web. 1 Dec. 2015.
Davis, Lydia. “St. Martin.” The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. New York: Farrar, 2010. 170-81. Nook Book.
Joyce, James. “The Dead.” Dubliners. 1914. Dublin: Lilliput P, 2008. 155-93. Nook Book.
Munro, Alice. “Axis.” The Best American Short Stories 2012. Boston: Mariner, 2012. 141-55. Nook Book.
Saunders, George. “Rise, Baby, Rise.” The Braindead Megaphone. New York: Riverhead, 2007. 134-41. Nook Book.