How does setting contribute to theme?
In John Cheever's short story "The Five-Forty-Eight," the setting mirrors the actions of the story in many ways. The setting of the city also enhances the loneliness of the woman and the cold, emotional distance of Blake.
The theme, as a literary element, is open to interpretation, but authors use tools to develop the theme or underlying message of the story. Authors develop theme through the thoughts, actions, and appearance of the characters, the setting, and the plot.
The story unfolds during Blake's normal commute from his office in New York to his home in the suburbs. This normal, everyday event adds depth to the characters, as we see through Blake's actions that he is a cold and selfish man who has little regard for others. We see Miss Dent's character as lonely and desperate. She longs only for a little love, and, denied even basic human kindness by Blake, sets her mind to make him look at her, acknowledge her, and see that she does matter.
The story takes place during a rainstorm, and this contributes to the isolation Ms. Dent feels. It also heightens the emotional coldness of Blake, as his soul is as dark and gray as the clouds surrounding him.
Miss Dent is pursuing him, and the city setting adds to the tension of what she might do and how Blake might avoid her. He goes into a bar in hopes of losing her. He thinks she isn't clever enough to find him and that she won't wait until he's done in the bar. He then takes the five-forty-eight home. She follows him and sits next to him, telling him she has a gun. She wants his attention, which she certainly has at that point, and she wants some measure of revenge for his callous treatment of her.
At one point in the story, the clouds roll back enough to expose the sun. Blake takes this as a sign.
Help would come, Blake thought. It was only a question of minutes. Someone, noticing the look on his face or her peculiar posture, would stop and interfere, and it would all be over. All he had to do was to wait until someone noticed his predicament. Out of the window he saw the river and the sky. The rain clouds were rolling down like a shutter, and while he watched, a streak of orange light on the horizon became brilliant. Its brilliance spread—he could see it move—across the waves until it raked the banks of the river with a dim firelight. Then it was put out. Help would come in a minute, he thought.
This is ironic because he expects help although he has never given anyone help himself. He used Miss Dent and then threw her away, he fights with his neighbors, and he punishes his wife with his silence and his coldness.
The story ends with Miss Dent surprised that Blake doesn't live in a nicer place. She makes him get down on his knees and put his face in the dirt, and then she walks away. Before she leaves, she tells him,
"Oh, I’m better than you, I’m better than you, and I shouldn’t waste my time or spoil my life like this. Put your face in the dirt. Put your face in the dirt! Do what I say. Put your face in the dirt.”
He fell forward in the filth. The coal skinned his face. He stretched out on the ground, weeping. “Now I feel better,” she said. “Now I can wash my hands of you, I can wash my hands of all this, because you see there is some kindness, some saneness in me that I can find again and use. I can wash my hands.”
This speech indicates that Miss Dent has found some self-respect, which is a big clue to the theme of the story.
As the title of the story suggests, the setting is mainly one of the cars on a commuter train from Manhattan to the suburbs. The very commonplace nature of the setting makes the incident more nightmarish. The viewpoint character can hardly believe what is happening to him. It seems like a bad dream. The entire story has a dreamlike quality about it.
It was time to go home, time for a drink, time for love, time for supper, and he could see the lights on the hill--lights by which children were being bathed, meat cooked, dishes washed--shining in the rain.
What brings the nightmare into this familiar suburban setting is the madness of the antagonist, Miss Dent. She doesn't belong here. She has brought her own confused world into Blake's orderly world and created chaos.
"I've never been here before," she said. "I thought it would look different."
She thinks it looks shabby. Blake is not a wealthy business tycoon, but one of the smaller cogs in the great wheels of commerce. The fact that it doesn't look as posh as she imagined it may contribute to her sparing his life. He seems less like a rich aristocrat abusing a poor working girl.
What will Blake actually do about this incident? He cannot tell his wife, and he probably cannot report Miss Dent to the police without having to explain why she did what she did. Blake is lucky that he will be able to keep this a secret in a community like Shady Hill, where everybody knows everybody else's business. Miss Dent has dissolved into the multitudes who inhabit this great megalopolis, but she could turn up again at any time from out of nowhere.
The setting of a story is the basic location of events, while the theme is the overall message of the story. If the theme deals with elements of darkness, a cheerful, sunny location isn't likely to be appropriate. For instance, Edgar Allan Poe's works usually deal with the darker side of humanity; his stories are usually set at night or in stormy weather. The same could be said for novels like Frankenstein. Stories that deal with lighter subjects tend to have brighter, happier settings. Look at most fairy tales. Of course, fairy tales are also a good example of how the change in a setting can help us see the theme. A princess locked in a dark tower rescued by a prince and taken to a bright, gleaming palace helps us see the message of the story.