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From Page to Place: Literary Landscapes in English Literature




In literature, the use of setting is one of the most effective methods to convey recurring symbols and themes in the narrative. Two prominent examples of how these motifs are highlighted in novels using setting and landscapes are Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian science fiction novel, Never Let Me Go, and Tara Westover’s coming-of-age memoir, Educated. 


Never Let Me Go takes place in various locations of the English countryside, where the story follows the journey of Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy, who are connected through their shared experiences. Throughout the novel, Ishiguro focuses on three main locations—Hailsham, the Cottages, and the recovery centers.




He uses the setting of each to reveal a different part of the narrative, which he ultimately combines to portray the bleakness of life and critique the flaws of society’s morals. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy all start at Hailsham, a fictional boarding school where students are raised for a purpose unbeknownst to them and where creativity is prized above all. One of the most significant micro-settings of Hailsham was the woods, which were located at the top of the hill and appeared as a dark fringe of trees to the students casting a shadow over the school. There were all sorts of stories about the woods, most of which terrorized the students and carried dark ideas such as never being allowed back into Hailsham after leaving. The inclusion of the woods shows the usage of fear and is a literal representation of how students were kept in the dark, their true fates intentionally hidden from them to ensure they were as controlled as possible—their youth and innocence only made this process easier. 


Meanwhile, the Cottages allow for a transition between the childhood of Hailsham to the real world, and it is also a stage where all three of the characters obtain some semblance of freedom not found in Hailsham. It is noteworthy to realize that Ishiguro chooses to describe the Cottages as remains of old farmhouses. Farms have long been criticized for their exploitation of animals for profit and personal gain, and this setting especially alludes to the students’ similarities to animals being raised for slaughter. The Cottages is also when Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy along with other students formally begin exploring sex, in a “grown-up” manner. The environment where Kathy remembers having sex is one in freezing rooms, pitch dark, and often under a pile of an assortment of old curtains, carpets, and blankets. These conditions relate to the Cottages being placed in old farmhouses, proof that these students have taken to using desperate measures to experience pleasure, essentially becoming products of an inhumane society.


When describing the recovery centers, Ishiguro specifically notes that everything about the comfortable recovery rooms were done in gleaming white tiles, kept so clean that it almost felt like mirrors that reflected shadowy movement all around. Immediately, this evokes a cold, austere, and sterile feeling that serves to further underscore the restriction of individuality in their world. There is also irony in this description because white rooms are commonly associated with psychiatric wards and seclusion rooms. “White torture” is also a form of psychological torture involving extreme sensory deprivation resulting in loss of identity; it can be inferred that the same concept is being used in these recovery centers to maintain conformity. Even though those in power claim that these centers are designed to be comfortable and promote efficient recovery, the “care” is an illusion, a mere facade for the restrictions that are imposed.


Set in the isolated mountains of Idaho, Educated is a poignant story recounting Westover’s thirst for knowledge and freedom amidst being raised in a survivalist Mormon family.





From the beginning of the book, Westover establishes the secluded nature of her home along with their devout religious practices. She noted that she had been educated in the “rhythms of the mountains,” where her and her family’s lives revolved around the cyclical nature of sunrise, sunsets, and the four seasons.

A large part of the novel is set in Buck’s Peak, where the base would swell up into a commanding spire that Westover’s father called the Indian Princess. The image of the Indian Princess is a literal representation of Westover’s ties to her family because while it is a constant shadow that was her ally when she lived in Buck’s Peak, it became a haunting presence when she eventually ventured to explore more of the world. Additionally, Westover highlights that the Indian Princess was always brightest during the spring when the snow began to thaw, a symbol that marked the inevitable passing of time which is also a theme explored in her memoir. Vivid descriptions of the soaring wind and strong gales alongside the quivering sagebrush and thistles evoke a strong sense of nature, grounding us in Westover’s childhood scenes for a glimpse into her background. 


Furthermore, the hickory-colored chapel with a small steeple often found in Mormon churches showcases the environment of religious devotion that Westover had been raised in, where—as she grew older—religion became constricting, a point of division between her and her father especially. Toward the end of the book, Westover recounts her six-hour journey to Sacred Grove in Palmyra, New York, where she and her parents entered the forest to find a shining temple topped by a statue of the angel Moroni. She writes of her father’s desperate, earnest expression as he asked her to touch it, believing that the temple grounds had the power to cleanse her. In that moment, Westover has a moment of painful clarity, which she conveys by saying where her father saw God, she saw granite. Her use of these depictions of religion’s impact on her through various places of worship reflects her internal struggle between her family and her freedom, where the imagery of these religious places grows to express her evolving maturity and independence.  Even though a part of her desires to earn the love of her parents by “reconverting,” she has come to understand that by leaving Buck’s Peak to gain a formal education, she has come to know that her perception of the world has broadened and has changed. 


After reading about the realizations that Westover makes throughout her journey, reading back on her description of the Indian Princess feels bittersweet. Although her father told her countless stories about their little patch of Idaho, after exploring the world beyond her home in the isolated mountains, we gradually realize with Westover that she was never taught what to do when she “could no longer search the horizon for the Princess” — her story thus comes a full circle, where all the little fragmented bits of setting and imagery are tied back together to weave a narrative of her conflict between her taught identity and her created identity.


As seen in these two examples, an author’s usage of setting and landscape in their writing is critical to moving their narrative forward. Whether it be fiction, like Never Let Me Go, or a nonfiction memoir, like Educated, literary landscaping serves to ground the reader in the work and create a sense of place from which symbols and themes are developed. Thus, even though the setting may be often overlooked, the details are intentional choices made by the author, and ought to be carefully evaluated to better appreciate the beauty that is English literature. 


ABOUT THE BLOGGER


ISABEL GAN



Isabel Gan is a high school student from Southern California. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of Paper Cranes Literary along with editing for a number of other literary magazines, and her work appears in The Greyhound Journal and Fleeting Daze Magazine. When not writing, she loves playing the piano, reading up on composers' biographies, and hot soup on rainy days. 

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