Space in Discourse and Story

On the level of discourse the category of space comprises the spatial dimensions of the medium: the length of the book, the size of the pages, amount of empty space on a page and so on. These aspects are very rarely considered in traditional literary analysis though recent criticism has argued that the spatial and material conditions of a text influences the way this text is read (see for example McGann 1991).

On the level of story the category of space or setting forms an important component in the creation and communication of meaning.

Fictional Space and Real Space

In narrative, unlike in drama, film or picture stories, space has to be presented verbally. It thus exists, ultimately, only in the reader’s imagination. On the other hand, the description of space in narrative tends to be more detailed than it is possible in a drama’s primary text. Readers create their notions of fictional space from their own experience in the real world (see Fielitz 2001: 115). That is to say, a person’s ideas of how houses, gardens, parks, streets, etc. look, is dependent on that person’s actual experience of houses, gardens, parks and streets. In turn, accurate and convincing descriptions of spatial dimensions in a narrative serve to increase the narrative’s authenticity, it provides a link to the reader’s reality. Readers tend to imagine the characters moving through ‘real’ space, as they do themselves.

Space and Meaning

Space and setting in narrative is not merely a space for characters to move in – since they have to somewhere –, it usually contributes additional meaning to a narrative by providing either correspondences or contrasts to the plot or the characters. Three aspects in particular should be noted:

• atmosphere
• space and character
• space and plot
• symbolic space

Setting can provide a certain atmosphere. Darkness and narrow spaces, for instance, are commonly associated with threatening or restrictive atmospheres. Wide open or sunlit spaces create an atmosphere of freedom. Such atmospheres can then be used to provide a characteristic background for a character.

The environment in which a character moves can function as a means of characterisation as it does in the following example:

Like as he is to look at, so is his apartment in the dusk of the present afternoon. Rusty, out of date, withdrawing from attention, able to afford it. Heavy broad-backed old-fashioned mahogany and horsehair chairs, not easily lifted, obsolete tables with spindle-legs and dusty baize covers, presentation prints of the holders of great titles in the last generation, or the last but one, environ him. A thick and dingy Turkey-carpet muffles the floor where he sits, attended by two candles in old-fashioned silver candlesticks, that give a very insufficient light to his large room. The titles on the backs of his books have retired into the binding; everything that can have a lock has got one; no key is visible. (Dickens, Bleak House, ch. 10).

This excerpt describes Mr Tulkinghorn’s room. Like his room (the narrator points this out), Mr Tulkinghorn is extremely secretive (dark, muffled, retired, locked), nobody knows how much he knows, he is closely associated with members of the nobility (“holders of great titles”) and he knows their secrets past and present. Tulkinghorn does not arouse much sympathy in the reader mainly because he is not accessible to any emotional appeal. His room also expresses this immovability: It is out-of date, "rusty" and "dusty", "not easily lifted", all epithets which suggest that there has not been any movement for some time.

Theories of sociology in the last 150 or so years have suggested that character is determined by social background, by milieu. Novel writers since the later nineteenth century have taken up this concept and have presented characters whose personality is completely formed by their milieu.

Apart from character, setting can also help to define plot-lines. Especially in narratives with several subplots, a characteristic setting for each subplot can serve as a means of orientation for the reader. In Bleak House, the Dedlock-plot develops at the country house Chesney Wold and in the Dedlock’s town house in London, the plot of the street-sweep Joe is set mainly in the poorer streets of London. These two plot-lines merge when Lady Dedlock asks Joe to show her the grave of her former lover. It is the first indication the reader gets that Lady Dedlock will eventually lose her status (she literally loses her ‘place’); she dies, having fled from her town house, at Joe’s crossing where her lover is buried.

In this sense space can also serve as a symbol. In our example the poor streets of London are a symbolic space indicating a lower social status. The symbolic quality of space is to a large extent culturally determined. In our culture, for instance, a stereotypical association with cities is fashion, fast and exciting life but also depravity. In contrast, we often associate country spaces with backwardness, calm life but also with innocence (for a more detailed exploration and list of symbolic spaces see Lotman 1972: 313).


symbolic space