What is Place? Why it matters.


Setting, and more specifically, place, is the canvas upon which writers paint their stories. Setting can take many shapes ranging from a blank, empty void to a lush, vibrant garden in the peak of its season in the English seaside town of Dorchester. Setting puts the reader in the world in which the characters live and die. However, setting is more, according to Dorothy Allison in her essay “Place” than just landscape.[1] And it is within her framework that I detail how setting works in Christine Schutt’s short story “Daywork” from her collection entitled Nightwork.[2]

Schutt’s story “Daywork” is told in first person, present tense by one of two sisters. The present narrative time takes place entirely in the attic of their mother’s home—the mother who is now confined to a hospital to live, likely, until her death. It is through the eyes of the unnamed daughter that the reader learns about, experiences, and comes to know the mother. And it is in the narrator’s interactions and dialogue with the other sister and with the objects within the attic that we come to know her feelings about her mother, herself, her sister and the present conflict. Here, Dorothy Allison articulates what I see as a framing device employed by Schutt in “Daywork”:

Who is that person in this place? I need to know the person walking the landscape, seeing the landscape, putting that landscape on top of this landscape. Then suddenly I’m not in one place, I’m in two places. (13)

Schutt places the reader in the setting at the same time she introduces the characters and the conflict. And this occurs all within the first sentence of her short story.

We enter the attic at the same time, which makes it all the more some awful heaven here, cottony hot and burnished and oddly bare except for her appliances, the parts our mother used to raise herself from bed. (57)

Allison challenges the writer to think of place (setting) as more than the buildings, shrubbery and what color the carpet is. “Place is the desire for a door. Place is the desire to get out of where you are. Place is experiencing where you are as a trap” (13). The two sisters in “Daywork” spend the day trapped in the attic of their mother’s house, sorting her things, deciding what to keep and what to throw away at the same time the narrator reflects on her treatment of their mother versus how her sister cares for Mother. The narrator also battles an inner conflict over the finite task of dismantling their mother’s home, as it is symbolic of dismantling their mother. During this experience, the reader comes to know the mother’s life outside of this house, how she spent time with each of the daughters, how she lives now in a hospital surrounded by donated flowers, nurses, and hoisted upon desserts. We know, in contrast, that the mother’s house in a desert, full of predators and scrub and dust. And in this way, setting mirrors the mother and her fate. Death is a present threat, she is drying up, turning to dust. And inside the house, the daughter notes the mother’s items, “But we look and look at how the blistered skins of covered bins and clothes bags have gone yellow” (Schutt 57). This serves to reinforce what the reader imagines the mother’s body is becoming—yellowed, blistered, something to be discarded.

Place is people.
Place is people with self-consciousness.
Place is people with desire.
(Allison 12)

The technique of allowing the setting to inform a character strengthens the reader’s understanding and view of the character and sets the tone for the story. This technique is especially effective in “Daywork” in which Mother, the subject, is physically absent and in which she is a composite of her daughters’ recollections and their reactions to her belongings. The setting and character become spiraled together, winding into each other until the reader reads them together. The enclosed attic with discarded implements that belong to the mother, parts of the mother, and the arid desert outside which contains this attic, which presents the themes of dust and death—these parts equal the setting and also the mother. Schutt also creates a contradicting image of mold/decay and dust/desert: “We find books somehow gone moldy, with only scrub outside: buckskin landscape, thin clouds” (60) and earlier, the other sister finds tiny worms in a bunch of gauzy, rusty fabric (58). This contradiction still encompasses what we know to be symbolic of death: we decay; we turn to dust.

In writing, we learn that each part down to a single sentence should operate on more than just one level, and setting is no exception. The setting should inform not just a sense of place, but the people of that place, the inner and outer conflicts, and tell us more than what is given in narration or dialogue. Schutt’s story is a lesson in how to manipulate setting in order to strengthen character and conflict.

[1]      Allison, Dorothy. “Place.” The Writer’s Notebook. Tin House, 2009.

[2]      Schutt, Christine. “Daywork.” Nightwork. Dalkey Archive Press, 2000.