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Vivid settings in classic literature

Real or imagined, urban or pastoral, gothic or idyllic, literary settings have the power to transport, captivate and inspire. This blog explores six classic works of literature and the vivid settings imagined by their authors.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Set on the wild Yorkshire moors, Wuthering Heights is a dark tale of passion and obsession, jealousy and revenge. Bronte took inspiration from the moors around her own home, Haworth and her writing captures their dark and brooding presence.  

Extract: …the whole hill-back was one billowy, white ocean; the swells and falls not indicating corresponding rises and depressions in the ground: many pits, at least, were filled to a level; and entire ranges of mounds, the refuse of the quarries, blotted from the chart which my yesterday's walk left pictured in my mind. 

'The whole hill-back was one billowy, white ocean'

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald’s timeless masterpiece is both a love story and an exploration of the American Dream. Narrator Nick Carraway tells the story of his millionaire neighbour, Jay Gatsby, and the extravagant parties he throws at his Long Island mansion during the summer of 1922.

Extract: There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motor-boats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. 

'In his blue gardens men and girls came and went'

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway is famous for his use of pared down language, favouring simplicity above adjective-filled sentences. His ability to create images and impressions by forcing the reader to look between the times is astonishing. The lines below are a slight exception but they sum up the beauty of the ocean setting in this novel.

Extract: The sea was very dark and the light made prisms in the water. The myriad flecks of the plankton were annulled now by the high sun and it was only the great deep prisms in the blue water that the old man saw now with his lines going straight down into the water that was a mile deep.

'The sea was very dark'

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

The haunting opening line, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again,’ immediately introduces readers to the mysterious setting at the heart of her tale. Manderley, the grand and gothic coastal estate inspired by du Maurier’s own Cornish home, Menabilly. Filled with vivid descriptions, darkness, intrigue, Manderley swiftly entraps readers within its walls.


Extract: Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me that I was passing through the iron gates that led to the driveway. The drive was just a narrow track now, its stony surface covered with grass and weeds. ... The woods, always a menace even in the past, had triumphed in the end. They crowded, dark and uncontrolled, to the borders of the drive. The beeches with white, naked limbs leant close to one another, their branches intermingled in a strange embrace, making a vault above my head like the archway of a church. 

'The woods ... had triumphed in the end.'

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck’s famous novel tells the story of two migrant workers, George Milton and Lennie Small. Set during the Great Depression, it explores the themes of friendship, loneliness and dreams crushed by the forces that work against them. Steinbeck’s storytelling is captivating and his descriptions of Soledad, California, are utterly mesmerising.

Extract: The deep green pool of the Salinas River was still in the late afternoon. Already the sun had left the valley to go climbing up the slopes of the Gabilan mountains, and the hilltops were rosy in the sun. But by the pool among the mottled sycamores, a pleasant shade had fallen.

'Already the sun had left the valley...'

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Set in Barcelona, The Shadow of the Wind blends together the real and the imagined. Some places are entirely invented by Zafon, others really exist and can be visited. Like Rebecca, the novel falls into the gothic genre because of its shadowy alleyways and winding passages.

Extract: Night watchmen still lingered in the misty streets when we stepped out of the front door. The lamps along the Ramblas marked out an avenue in the early morning haze as the city awoke, like a watercolour slowly coming to life. When we reached Calle Arco del Teatro, we continued through its arch toward the Ravel quarter, entering a vault of blue haze. I followed my father through that narrow lane, more of a scar than a street, until the glimmer of the Ramblas faded behind us.

 '...more of a scar than a street'

Which classic book settings are your favourites? Leave a comment below!



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