Setting as Metaphor (Chapter 6 Extra)

by Matthew Cheney

Objects within a setting can function as metaphors, but the same is true of settings themselves. This is one way to add depth to your fiction. Much of what makes places like Mordor in The Lord of the Rings or the Valley of Ashes in The Great Gatsby or the planet Winter in The Left Hand of Darkness such powerful locations is the way the settings resonate with the themes, ideas, and emotions of the stories themselves.

Let’s look at an example of this from H.G. Wells’s novel The Time Machine , which is a bit obvious in its use of metaphor, but that makes it a good model for our purposes.

Setting: The Year 802,701 and Beyond

The Time Traveller hurtles through time, and when he finally stops, this is what he sees:

I was on what seemed to be a little lawn in a garden, surrounded by rhododendron bushes, and I noticed that their mauve and purple blossoms were dropping in a shower under the beating of the hail-stones. The rebounding, dancing hail hung in a cloud over the machine, and drove along the ground like smoke.

A garden is place of domesticated nature, but also, by name at least, related to the first location of humans in the Bible, the Garden of Eden. The beautiful, fragile blossoms are beaten from the bushes by hail: hard, cold nature.

Then the Time Traveller sees a statue, which itself has plenty of meaning and resonance as an object in the setting (it seems to the Time Traveller “sightless”, with “the faint shadow of a smile on the lips”, and it’s so weather-worn that it “imparted an unpleasant suggestion of disease”). The setting becomes more fully visible when the Time Traveller looks away from the statue:

Already I saw other vast shapes—huge buildings with intricate parapets and tall columns, with a wooded hillside dimly creeping in upon me through the lessening storm.

The Time Traveller will meet the inhabitants of this world, and his descriptions will refer again and again to how large the buildings are, how small the people, how fragile and childlike. They seem to live in a sort of communal utopia. The landscape’s beauty also seems to reflect a kind of perfection:

From every hill I climbed I saw the same abundance of splendid buildings, endlessly varied in material and style, the same clustering thickets of evergreens, the same blossom-laden trees and tree-ferns. Here and there water shone like silver, and beyond, the land rose into blue undulating hills, and so faded into the serenity of the sky.

This is a diverse, fertile world in which human-created elements mix comfortably with an unthreatening nature. The world itself seems to be the ideal of an English garden!

Of course, as the Time Traveller discovers, this is not the reality. The people of this apparently-perfect world, the Eloi, are terrified of the other species of people, the Morlocks, who inhabit the world below them. The Time Traveller descends into the dark underworld of the Morlocks:

Great shapes like big machines rose out of the dimness, and cast grotesque black shadows, in which dim spectral Morlocks sheltered from the glare. The place, by the by, was very stuffy and oppressive, and the faint halitus of freshly shed blood was in the air. Some way down the central vista was a little table of white metal, laid with what seemed a meal. The Morlocks at any rate were carnivorous! Even at the time, I remember wondering what large animal could have survived to furnish the red joint I saw. It was all very indistinct: the heavy smell, the big unmeaning shapes, the obscene figures lurking in the shadows, and only waiting for the darkness to come at me again! Then the match burned down, and stung my fingers, and fell, a wriggling red spot in the blackness.

The metaphors here are not complex — indeed, they’re so obvious they verge on allegory (heaven above, hell below!). We have the bright, fertile, utopian garden of the Eloi and the dark, stuffy, oppressive, indistinct, obscene underground world of the Morlocks. These settings fit the Time Traveller’s emotions and perceptions, as well as some of Wells’s general ideas about society and evolution.

This is the central future setting for the novel, but it is not the only one, for the Time Traveller ventures on.

As I drove on, a peculiar change crept over the appearance of things. The palpitating greyness grew darker; then—though I was still travelling with prodigious velocity—the blinking succession of day and night, which was usually indicative of a slower pace, returned, and grew more and more marked. This puzzled me very much at first. The alternations of night and day grew slower and slower, and so did the passage of the sun across the sky, until they seemed to stretch through centuries. At last a steady twilight brooded over the earth, a twilight only broken now and then when a comet glared across the darkling sky. The band of light that had indicated the sun had long since disappeared; for the sun had ceased to set—it simply rose and fell in the west, and grew ever broader and more red. All trace of the moon had vanished. The circling of the stars, growing slower and slower, had given place to creeping points of light. At last, some time before I stopped, the sun, red and very large, halted motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome glowing with a dull heat, and now and then suffering a momentary extinction. At one time it had for a little while glowed more brilliantly again, but it speedily reverted to its sullen red heat. I perceived by this slowing down of its rising and setting that the work of the tidal drag was done. The earth had come to rest with one face to the sun, even as in our own time the moon faces the earth. Very cautiously, for I remembered my former headlong fall, I began to reverse my motion. Slower and slower went the circling hands until the thousands one seemed motionless and the daily one was no longer a mere mist upon its scale. Still slower, until the dim outlines of a desolate beach grew visible.

This paragraph gives us a panoply of settings flying by, but there’s a pattern to those settings, and that pattern is not only literal: a pattern of slowing down, darkening, dying. Then he’s on that “desolate beach”, which leads to more descriptions of how empty of life the world has become.

The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives—all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.

The end of life is here cold, silent, dark. On a literal level, this was a scientifically reasonable vision of entropy. But Wells did not have his Time Traveller share his vision of this place for purely literal purposes.

We can see the effect of the metaphorical setting in the narrator’s final interpretation of the Time Traveller’s tale:

He, I know—for the question had been discussed among us long before the Time Machine was made—thought but cheerlessly of the Advancement of Mankind, and saw in the growing pile of civilization only a foolish heaping that must inevitably fall back upon and destroy its makers in the end. If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so. But to me the future is still black and blank—is a vast ignorance, lit at a few casual places by the memory of his story.

What Can We Learn?

The Time Machine works as a model of setting as metaphor because it’s particularly clear and Wells has the narrator do the basic work of interpretation for us. (Readerly tastes these days tend to prefer less obvious symbolism and less didactic narrators.)

What can writers learn from this? First: as all of Chapter 6 reiterates, pay attention to your setting. Your setting will, no matter what, imply meanings. The more attention you pay to the details, the more you’ll be able to control what some of those meanings are. Language is too inherently ambiguous, and readers’ minds too inherently diverse, for a writer to be able to control all meanings, but you might as well try to control at least a few.

If your story is a meal, then deliberately paying attention to the metaphorical possibilities of a setting means there is another flavor you can add to that meal. Choosing a setting with some metaphorical possibilities, and then strengthening those possibilities through the choice of details, will make your fiction into a richer experience for readers.

If you are aware of the metaphorical possibilities of your setting, you can also use those metaphorical possibilities to set up other effects. Wells does this when he emphasizes the pastoral, utopian landscape that the Elois inhabit. As readers, we assume their world is a kind of return to Eden. This heightens the shock of the truth when the Time Traveller discovers what the Morlocks are eating and how this society is structured.

Such contrasting or ironic uses of metaphor can help us move our writing toward one of the most important insights from Chapter 6: all settings can be complex. Metaphor is simply one tool to help your setting move toward that complexity.

A Few More Potentially-Metaphorical Settings Worth Exploring On Your Own

Here’s a little selection of short stories (all available online) that seem to me to use setting in interesting, complex, and at least vaguely metaphorical ways: