Unlike the more familiar term, backgrounding, foregrounding, a pre-New Critical part of text analysis, in fictional works refers to the mise-en-scene that causes or affects the main plot action. For example, in Herman Melville's Moby Dick or Billy Budd the life of a sailor is the background of the action, but in Joseph Conrad’s works (Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, etc.), the ship’s life serves as a foreground or precipitating condition for the real dramatic unfoldment. While Conrad gives the reader enough details of sea life to set the scene, the sea life is not what the novels are about. Another example might be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, where the background is the world of the privileged in New England, but in Willa Cather’s My Antonia, the Midwest life is the foreground for the dramatic plot. The sometimes subtle difference is: a background provides a world in which the plot can realistically take place, but a foreground is a world that causes, or precipitates, or takes part in the plot.
A second, more recent use of the term is found in Formalist criticism, where it refers to linguistic devices such as repetition, sound clusters, etc. to draw attention away from content and toward stylistic constructions. Stylistic criticism has fallen into disrepute.