Like the destination of a vacation, the destination or setting of a work of literature is hugely significant. Some writers, such as William Faulkner and Thomas Hardy, are tied to a very particular location—in both these cases, a fictional version of the area in which the authors themselves lived. However, most authors include a variety of settings even within a single work, and thus readers should pay attention not only to where the story overall takes place, but also the symbolic significance of the location of particular moments. In other words, they should be aware of “literary geography,” which Foster defines as “humans inhabiting spaces, and at the same time spaces inhabiting humans.”
Analyzing the geographic location of a work of literature requires many of the same skills as analyzing weather and the seasons. In both cases, there is a reciprocal relationship between the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters and the landscape they inhabit—although of course this relationship may be subverted, complicated, or rendered in an ironic way.
Geography has the power to create particular atmospheres and to shape characters. The idea of “home” can be magnetic, elusive, or suffocating, and many characters travel to either find it or escape it. Geography can even be a character, such as the Vietnamese village in Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, which becomes a kind of enemy figure to the American soldiers. Geography also instigates plot momentum; in E.M. Forster’s A Room With a View (1908) and A Passage to India (1924), the disconnect between the characters and the setting they are in creates action that propels the story forward.
Note the way that Foster routinely blurs the distinctions between different literary devices; action can be a symbol, characters can be plot, and geography can be a character. This a typically analytical way of viewing literature. It allows the critic to view a work of literature almost like a machine, with different components functioning together in order to create a single (albeit highly complex) effect.
Often, geography is “a metaphor for psyche,” meaning the external landscape of a literary work reflects the internal mind of one or more characters. Frequently, characters travel to a particular location in order to find that their impression of that location was in fact an image of their own hearts or minds. There are also particular tropes of destinations in which certain things can be expected to happen; for example, Foster points out the tradition of sending characters south (to Italy, Greece, Congo, Vietnam, etc.) “so they can run amok.”
Some of the examples Foster gives in this passage have occurred so frequently in literature that they are now considered clichés. The journey to an exotic destination that becomes a journey of self-discovery, for example, is so well-known that nowadays many authors would only present this narrative in an ironic way.
Other landscapes have other specific associations within different literary traditions; examples include the prairie within American (and particularly Midwestern) literature, or the bog in Irish literature. During the Romantic era, natural landscapes were celebrated as “sublime,” an idea that became clichéd and provoked backlash within later literary movements.
Discovering the symbolic meaning of certain natural landscapes sometimes requires knowledge of the cultural and historical context in which a book was written. Furthermore, landscapes have different meanings to different people—including authors, characters, and readers.
Meanwhile, hills and valleys are also significant, with their own set of symbolic implications. High places can represent purity, isolation, life or death, while low places are often associated with people, crowds, dirtiness, and also life or death. Note that neither place has any fixed meaning, but rather a possible set of meanings that can shift depending on what the location is contrasted against.
Compared to the weather, the symbolic meaning of geographical locations tends to be more ambiguous. Because landscapes are expansive, complex environments within which we live our whole lives, they are often associated with a huge variety of different meanings.