Using Sublime Elements to Craft a Powerful Setting

Piano grande showing CastelluccioFrom Lord Byron to Charlotte Dacre, the Romantic authors are known for taking the use of setting to new heights Рliterally. Imagery of high mountains and deep chasms can be found throughout romantic literature, frequently in connection with a drastic change in a character. This taste for lofty settings can be traced back to an essay written by Edmund Burke which explores the concepts of the beautiful and sublime as they are used in art and literature.

Although Burke’s discussion of the beautiful is better remembered for the political outrage it incited than for its influence on writers, his discussion of the sublime is still important to students of writing and literature. Burke explains the sublime as that which astonishes the senses, inspiring awe, terror, and reverence in the viewer. Vast, tall, powerful, and unknowable, the sublime’s sheer magnitude has the power to change the viewer’s perspective. Burke’s essay implies that the viewer is bettered by the experience of the sublime. Inspired by Burke’s discussion of mountaintops and chasms as examples of the sublime, Romantic authors chose these settings as both a backdrop and an inspiration for their characters’ drastic personal changes.

Burke’s reflections on the aesthetic value of the beautiful and the sublime continue to resonate with authors today. Emphasizing a setting’s sublime elements and your characters’ reactions to them can bring power to a setting and depth to a story. A work set in the vast, windy expanses of the Great Plains, for example, can use the profound vastness of that space to make the high society heroine realize she’s not that far removed from the humble ranch hand. Or, perhaps losing their way in the impenetrable blackness of the Scottish Moors at night makes our characters realize that their arranged marriage could be so much more. Typically, a character’s experience with the sublime brings about a sense of insignificance; whether this sense of insignificance frees or destroys the character is entirely up to the writer.