Setting is a vital part of any story; it helps establish context for the character’s actions, showcases the period in which the story is set, and allows a mood to be set. What’s more, a setting can reveal the passions or the conflicts the characters possess, becoming symbols themselves for the characters. The protagonists of many important literary works are inexorably tied to their surroundings, and the following three works are no exception. In this paper, the settings of Shakespeare’s Othello¸ Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby will all be examined in terms of their relationships to the main characters and what it reveals about them.
Each of these three texts carries two primary settings – Gatsby has West Egg and East Egg, two different neighbourhoods of 1920’s New York, Wuthering Heights has both the neighbourhood of Thrushcross Grange and the titular estate of Wuthering Heights, and Othello’s primary settings are the city of Venice and the country of Cyprus. The fact that each of these stories has two primary settings is important; it helps to reveal the duality inherent in the main characters, or alternatively helps to symbolize or illustrate the underlying conflicts that the main characters have against each other.
CONTEXTS OF PUBLICATION
Othello was written during Shakespeare’s tragic period, and is based on an old story written by an Italian named Cinthio, which tells of a Moor who is tricked into thinking his wife is committing adultery. The addition of both Venice and Cyprus in that story creates a sense of military conflict and contrasting moods that helps to provide necessary background to the character of Othello, and put the audience in the atmosphere that is necessary to understand such a complex and nuanced character. The Great Gatsby takes place in the early 20th century in America; the American Dream is in full swing, and the United States is thought of as a place where anything can happen. Those in the Midwest, however, held a much more traditional view of things, seeing the death of the blue-collar worker in automated machines that did the work of men. This interchange of ideas and difference in ideologies between the Midwest and the opulent East Coast helps to frame the conflict between West Egg and East Egg, who both battle for how the American Dream should be categorized. Wuthering Heights was the only novel that Emily Bronte ever wrote. Bronte herself lived in a place not unlike Wuthering Heights, a wild and untamed village named Haworth which provided a great amount of inspiration for the creation of this story.
CRITICISM OF OTHELLO
Despite it being a work by one of the most popular and well-regarded playwrights of all time, Othello is not without its share of detractors. Robert Briggs, a religion-based literary critic, views the play with a critical eye, denouncing Othello as a villain due to his shortsightedness. “While lacking in malice of forethought, he nonetheless allows himself to attain the status of murdered because he is conceited, jealous and emotionally dishonest.” He also criticizes the racism inherent in the play, as Othello’s inherent villainy is thought to be unbecoming for someone representing a minority race, especially as turns out to fulfill Iago’s prophecies and justify his racist remarks.
DESCRIPTION OF PLACES
Wuthering Heights is set between two different houses, Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights. Thrushcross Grange is a large, opulent manor in the middle of a park; Wuthering Heights is merely a farmhouse with barns, sheds, gardens and the like. The word ‘wuthering’ is a colloquialism which means ‘wilting, withering;’ this could be used to describe Heathcliff, a man slowly being driven mad by rage and jealousy. Thrushcross has studies and parlours, on the other hand, but Wuthering is much more modest. This helps to illustrate the differences in mood between the two, and the conflict that arises between the Earnshaws and the Lintons.
Othello takes place in Venice, home of the Venetian Empire, to begin with. There he gets to dine with dukes and play strategy with the big names in the Venetian military. The setting is elaborate, aristocratic and sophisticated, something that Othello begrudgingly accepts and falls into, but does not feel completely at home with. Some time into the play, however, Othello takes an assignment and goes to Cyprus, an isolated little island that he is supposed to administrate and rule over. This place is much further removed from the opulence and celebrity that is afforded him in Venice, and this changes him in a dramatic way.
The Great Gatsby takes place in two neighbourhoods in New York that are separated by a small body of water, but which have great differences. East Egg is the more sophisticated and moneyed of the two neighbourhoods, home to many people of high repute and aristocratic class. They respect traditional values and are always prim and proper; this is a dramatic contrast to the wild and spontaneous West Egg. There are plenty of wealthy people there (such as Gatsby), but they came to that wealth through their own means and enterprising instead of being born into it. They party long into the night and make sure to throw caution to the wind, creating a great contrast between their behaviour at that of the East Eggers.
PASSION THROUGH SETTING
These settings represent the passions of its characters quite well. There are interesting dichotomies between the two places that help to symbolize the main character’s conflicts. In both Gatsby and Wuthering Heights, West Egg and Wuthering Heights are wild, crazy places – locations where nearly anything could happen. They are much less uptight than their peers, and always manage to be at odds with the opposing side. East Egg and Thrushcross Grange, on the other hand, are always home to the aristocracy – stuffy, boring antagonists whose sole goals seem to be acting as obstacles for the main character’s desires. The West Egg is Gatsby, and East Egg is his failure to get Daisy. Wuthering Heights is Heathcliff, and Thrushcross Grange is his love for Catherine. Both of the protagonists want someone they cannot have; their passions are indicated through the settings they come from.
In addition to their relationship to the main characters, the settings represent ideas as well. The East Egg represents the aristocracy that has been established in the United States, as well as traditionalist ideals that tremor in the face of change, represented by the carefree West Egg. The metropolis of Venice is another ivory tower that Othello wishes to escape and combat; he does not realize it, however, until he is given a taste of freedom from aristocracy and greater control with his command of the isolated Cyprus.
Cyprus symbolizes Othello’s own desire to be isolated, to address and come to terms with his own “otherness” which sets him apart from the other Venetian generals. Wuthering Heights and its relationship with Thrushcross Grange help to showcase the dichotomy between nature and culture – the people of Thrushcross are conventional, refined, traditional, whereas the chaotic, spontaneous, wild nature of Wuthering Heights showcases a more pastoral, natural outlook.
One running thread throughout all three of these works is the concept of outsiders – all three main protagonists (Heathcliff, Othello and Gatsby) are segregated from the rest of society by some sort of boundary. For Othello, it is race: he is a Moor in the Venetian army, which leads to no end of chiding from Iago, Roderigo and other characters, calling him “the thick-lips” (1.1.66) and “ a Barbary horse”. (1.1.113) The culture and ideals of Rome are not as familiar to him as the native Venetians, his status coming almost exclusively as a result of his excellent fighting prowess. Likewise, Heathcliff is ostracized from his family due to his adopted status, never really feeling like one of them. In addition to that, Gatsby is constrained by the fact that he is not preternaturally wealthy and part of the elite, and as such is forever torn from the woman he loves.
In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff is very much an outsider – however, unlike when we are gradually given Gatsby’s past as we watch him operate in the present, we get to see how Heathcliff becomes the vengeful person he is. He is an outsider from the start of the novel, being drug in from the cold as an orphan to be taken care of by Mr. Earnshaw. He is viewed as an interloper by his brother Hindley, who feels as though he does not belong there. The situation is made even more difficult when he falls in love with Catherine, his adopted sister. He wants to be able to make a move, but Catherine ends up becoming infatuated with Edgar, who is one of the children of the Lintons, who live in Thrushcross Grange.
Othello in Venice helps to showcase just how much of an outsider he is; walking and talking among the peoples of Rome, he feels and looks out of sorts, and only the good graces of Desdemona, Brabanzio and others allow him to participate in the finer points of society. After all, he at one point says “Rude and I in my speech / and little blessed with the soft phrase of peace” (1.2. 81-82), admitting the inconsistencies in his behaviour with that of Venetian culture. Since he does not know much about Venetian culture, that allows Iago to successfully trick him as he does, making him believe that Cassio is having an affair with his wife, Desdemona. This same ignorance to their surroundings is what makes Gatsby such an intriguing figure in West Egg, as he acts in a manner that confuses and perplexes many who are unused to the enigmatic face he puts on.
When Othello comes to Cyprus, however, he is much more at home. Cyprus is an island fortified with incredible military installations, creating a haven from the outside world; this is something that Othello craves, as he is allowed a measure of peace there and a greater sense of control. He is even allowed to do things he would not get by with in Venice; when Othello kits Desdemona, Lodivico says that “this would not be believed in Venice / Though I should swear I saw’t.” (4.1 243-244) Othello is not only protected from the rest of the world there, he is afforded greater control over his surroundings, being made civil administrator in addition to military leader. In the time Othello spends in Cyprus, he changes dramatically, turning into even more of an outsider, and being presented as a danger to the future of Venice. Cyprus changes him by bringing out his inner animal.
The titular Great Gatsby, on the other hand, is affected by the persistent existence of both of his worlds and settings. This is contrasted with Othello, who travels from one world to another when he move to Cyprus, not having to look back. Unlike the people of East Egg, who were born into money, Gatsby had to make his own fortune, residing with the other self-made rich in West Egg, throwing lavish parties and displaying his immense wealth. He presents himself as a showman, something the title implies – ‘The Great Gatsby’ is indicative of big magician shows of the era, where flashy personalities were the norm.
However, we do not know much about Gatsby at the start of the novel – he spends most of his time as an enigma, purposefully setting himself apart from the rest of the partygoers and society in general. Most of his actions come about from a desire to hide his impoverished childhood, which he was always ashamed of. Gatsby’s story is described as “a story of the West,” which indicates that it helps to outline the American Dream – the idea that all people can get rich if they work hard enough. Conversely, all of the protagonists of these works are hiding from their pasts – Heathcliff is hiding from his tormented youth, and Othello attempts to fit in amongst people who are not of his ancestry.
Gatsby’s nature as an outsider is also evident in his relationship with Daisy, the woman he loves. Everything he has done has been to become someone that Daisy would want to love – rich, powerful, charismatic. In a nutshell, he wants to be someone from East Egg. However, since he did not come from money, the best he can manage is West Egg wealth, which is a different animal altogether. It is more reminiscent of the West and Midwest, which the narrator Nick describes as possessing “street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark.” This is similar in many respects to Heathcliff, who wishes to have Catherine by being something he is not – a rich and powerful man.
Both Gatsby and Heathcliff have the impression that if they possess certain places (the West Egg mansion and Wuthering Heights, respectively), the true objects of their desire will come back to them. Despite the fact that he is opulently rich, Gatsby can never join the elite, who have secluded themselves in their ivory tower over in East Egg. He begins the novel as a flashy showman, an arrogant and charismatic performer, and emerges as a troubled young man with a hidden past and an unrequited love that fuels everything he did. Heathcliff, on the other hand, starts the novel as an idealistic young boy with love in his heart, and the novel’s events turn him into a bitter, vengeful man.
Heathcliff’s unrequited love for Catherine pervades every inch of Wuthering Heights and torments him. He says to Nelly that “I cannot look down to this floor, but her features are shaped on the flags! In every cloud, in every tree – filling the air at night…I am surrounded with her image!” He connects thoughts of her with aspects of the house and the countryside. He knows in his heart that Catherine is the person that he most associates with the place, which is why he needed to possess it so badly – if he had Wuthering Heights, he could have her in some respect. This mirrors Gatsby’s desire to have something (status as part of the elite) in order to win Catherine’s love.
The countryside becomes a battleground of grudges and past wrongdoings, Wuthering Heights representing his bitterness towards his troubled childhood, and Thrushcross Grange representing the bitterness towards his adult life and the fact that he lost Catherine. Heathcliff cannot let go of what has happened to him in the past, and as such needs to possess both houses as part of his revenge. Once he has them, he is now fully committed to his passions, and cannot turn back from the hollow, empty road that lays before him.
In summary, setting is often used to connect characters to themes or to symbolize the history, conflicts and passions of the characters of a work. Often, there are two opposing places that are pitted against each other, thus creating a backdrop for the characters to form conflicts and resolve them (or simply fall victim to them, as with Heathcliff and Othello). Sometimes, like in Othello, the two places are simply so different in temperament that it changes the main character inexorably. The isolation of Cyprus helped turn Othello into the animal he felt he was not allowed to be in Venice. Gatsby’s residence in West Egg expressed a desire to be like the aristocracy and successfully woo the girl he loved, but circumstances prevented him from doing so. Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange offer two distinct regrets and bones of contention in the life of Heathcliff, as they symbolize the failures and trials he had both as a young child and an adult. At the same time, they also offer a chance for redemption.
The constant push and pull between settings in a work can very much dictate the mood that is established, and what is assumed about the characters. Characters cannot exist in a vacuum; they need something to react to in order to provide context and have something to do. Setting is one of the most important aspects of literature and fiction, as without it, the characters would have no history, no motivation, no sense of place and time. In addition to that, they would have nothing to represent them.
Briggs, Robert. "Othello - Victim Or Villain?." EzineArticles Submission - Submit Your Best Quality Original Articles For Massive Exposure, Ezine Publishers Get 25 Free Article Reprints. N.p., 31 Jan. 2010. Web. 31 Mar. 2011. <http://ezinearticles.com/?Othello---Victim-Or-Villain?&id=3671776>.
BronteÌˆ, Emily, Fritz Eichenberg, and Bruce Rogers. Wuthering Heights . New York: Random House, 1943. Print.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The great Gatsby . New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995. Print.
Shakespeare, William, Stephen Greenblatt, Walter Cohen, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Andrew Gurr. "Othello." The Norton Shakespeare . New York: W.W. Norton, 1997. n.a.. Print.