It’s 103 degrees here today in Connecticut during one of the numerous heat waves we have had so far this season. Tomorrow’s forecast bodes no better news. The garden has been drying up; even the most stalwart perennials are buckling under the sun’s intensity. Leaving an air-conditioned home or car means hitting a wall of humidity; my glasses fog over and I am temporarily blinded. A headline on the Reuters website reads, “Heat Wave and Drought Besiege Already Deteriorated US Crops” (July 18, 2012). Suddenly, I have a new appreciation for the heat of Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl in The Grapes of Wrath:
- People in flight along 66. And the concrete road shone like a mirror under the sun, and in the distance the heat made it seem that there were pools of water in the road. (Ch 12)
- They were tired and dusty and hot. Granma had convulsions from the heat, and she was weak when they stopped. (Ch 16)
- The sun sank low in the afternoon, but the heat did not seem to decrease. Tom awakened under his willow, and his mouth was parched and his body was wet with sweat, and his head was dissatisfied with his rest. (Ch 18)
- While the sun was up, it was a beating, flailing heat, but now the heat came from below, from the earth itself, and the heat was thick and muffling. (Ch 18)
I believe that where a reader has lived or visited contributes to an understanding of a novel’s setting. This does not mean that a reader cannot appreciate the descriptions of Mars in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles or Panem’s District 12 in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins or on the battlefields on the plains of Troy in Homer’s Iliad or the Congo River in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Indeed, the only way for the reader to “visit” and remember these locations is through the vivid descriptions the author writes. However, there is an advantage for a reader in being familiar with the setting of a particular story, especially where setting is a dominant character. Say, for example, the town of Starkfield in Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome.
In the introduction, the narrator of the story explains how his employment has brought him to the aptly named Starkfield-“the least habitable spot”, where he “chafed at first, and then, under the hypnotising effect of routine, gradually began to find a grim satisfaction in the life”. Grim satisfaction indeed, as the winter weather in Western Massachusetts, where Wharton sets her ficticious Starkfield, can be mind-numbingly bleak.
“When I had been there a little longer, and had seen this phase of [December] crystal clearness followed by long stretches of sunless cold; when the storms of February had pitched their white tents about the. devoted village and the wild cavalry of March winds had charged down to their support; I began to understand why Starkfield emerged from its six months’ siege like a starved garrison capitulating without quarter.”
My most memorable image of the town was Wharton’s description of the graveyard that Ethan and Mattie pass on the night of the dance:
“They turned in at the gate and passed under the shaded knoll where, enclosed in a low fence, the Frome grave-stones slanted at crazy angles through the snow. Ethan looked at them curiously. For years that quiet company had mocked his restlessness, his desire for change and freedom. ‘We never got away- how should you?’ seemed to be written on every headstone…”(Ch 2)
This closing sentiment to this passage addresses the way I feel every winter when the dismal drizzle of freezing rain turns every trip in the car into heart-pounding sliding near-misses or when crusted mounds of filthy snow makes walking outdoors a life-threatening experience. My mantra becomes, “I’ve got to get out of this place.”
So how does a reader from Southern California really understand Starkfield? Yes, Wharton is genius at explanation, but that visceral understanding of January in New England is limited if the reader is reading her novel poolside on a sunny day, 78 degrees with a light wind blowing. Wharton can only stimulate the reader’s imagination to understand the kind of wet grey cold that chills to the bone until June. The memory of physically freezing in Western Massachusetts is an entirely different experience.
Conversely, a case can be made for other authors. How can the Wharton’s New England reader really understand the physical and cultural landscape for the characters of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County ? How does a student from the plains and mesas of Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop comprehend the mansions on Fitzgerald’s East Egg Long Island? There are so many elements in creating the setting: the temperature and the angle of sunlight during the day, the architecture of the houses or buildings, the landscape and the vegetation, the dialect of the locals, the smell of the foods, and the sounds of the evenings. Each locale has identifying qualities that a great author captures in order to make a setting understandable to a reader. The author’s descriptions will resonate even more with a reader who has a first-hand experience in that setting.
Of course, reading Wharton’s novel in the in the middle of summer anywhere in the United States might be a form of mental air-conditioning. The mind can be a powerful tool into tricking the readers to feel cooler. Imagine the book display: “Feeling hot? Read Ethan Frome!”