The Setting And Its Characters

Leland Ryken’s book Words of Delight: A Literary Introduction to the Bible is a gem. I’m only just beginning it (or, more accurately, I began it a while ago and am slowly chipping away at it when I feel like it), and there’s lots of helpful pointers about how to sensitively interpret the narratives that make up much of scripture. For example:

I begin with the forgotten element in many people’s analysis of stories. The setting of a story is much more complex, more interesting, and more important to the meaning of a story than is often realized. Settings serve a range of functions and fall into three types—physical, temporal, and cultural. Physical setting is the environemtn in which the characters move and the action occurs. Temporal setting is the time in which action takes place, either the time of day or year or the historical era. Cultural setting refers to the beliefs, attitudes, and customs that prevailed in the world of the story.

The most customary function of a setting is to serve as an appropriate container for the action and characters that are placed into it. A literary critic, Kenneth Burke, speaks of the scene-agent ratio and the scene-act ratio, meaning that there is ordinarily a consistency or correspondence between the scene and the other two elements. He writes,

It is a principle of drama that the nature of acts and agents should be consistent with the nature of the scene… . The scene is a fit “container” for the act, expressing in fixed properties the same quality that the action expresses in terms of development… . There is implicit in the quality of a scene the quality of the action that is to take place within it. This would be another way of saying that the act will be consistent with the scene… . The scene-act ratio either calls for acts in keeping with scenes or scenes in keeping with acts—and similarly with the scene-agent ratio… . Both act and agent require scenes that contain them.

The rule of interpretation that follows from this is that we should look for a correspondence between the setting and the characters and actions that operate within it, realizing that there are occasional exceptions to the rule in which it is the clash between scene and agent or action that is important. We should ask simply, What is the relationship between this setting and the characters and events of the story? [54-55]