The US, mostly in the early 2000s
St. Paul, Minnesota: early 1980s – 2001; outside Grand Rapids, Minnesota: early 1980s – 2010; Hibbing, Minnesota: 1900 – 1980; Westchester County, New York: 1950 – 2010; University of Minnesota: late 1970s; Washington, D.C.: 2001– 2004; University of Virginia: 2001; Jersey City, New Jersey: 2004; New York, New York: 2004; Brooklyn, New York: 2004 – 2010; Argentina and Paraguay, 2004; West Virginia, 2001 – 2004
This novel is set all over the US, from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Washington, D.C., to Brooklyn, New York. The time period spans from the early 1900s to 2010. Franzen's previous books have all been expansive in scope, but with this one he really outdoes himself. It isn't so surprising, as we follow two characters for a full fifty years, and a few others for at least twenty. And these are no ordinary characters – they're kind of like Forrest Gump in the way they manage to entangle themselves in the most pivotal events of their time, while at the same time representing the way those events affected those of us outside the bubble.
Can we infer anything specific about all the geographical movements themselves? For example, does Franzen intend a subtle significance in the fact that it's only when our characters move from the Midwest (stereotyped as a region of good manners and traditional values) to the ruthless politics of D.C. that their lives finally combust? Is it only through returning to the Midwest that they can recapture their civility?
Similarly, Patty is from the fast-paced, affluent New York suburbs, while Walter comes from poverty in Iron Belt Minnesota. Does this explain her restlessness and dissatisfaction in their marriage? Does it explain his contentment and willingness to battle through adversity?
What about climate? Is there a reason Patty and Richard finally succumb to their desires way up north in Minnesota? Is it the cold? The isolation? The endless daylight of summer?
But to say something about the places themselves:
The house on Nameless Lake provides for a stirring meditation on wilderness and wildness (3.6.70-76), brutally contrasted against the "dour tapestry of grays and blacks" Walter finds driving through West Virginia, ravaged by coal mining's mountaintop removal.
Walter voices another contrast in setting, comparing New York City to Washington, D.C.:
"God, I love New York. […] There is something so profoundly wrong with Washington. [...] God, I love the New York subway! [...] This is the way human beings are supposed to live. High density! High efficiency!" (3.1.319, 3.1.325)
Surely the most important setting is Ramsey Hill, though, where the novel begins, and which Franzen uses to frame the events in the novel. But, wait – we'd argue it's even more important than that. We're going to theorize that Franzen intends his history of Ramsey Hill (comprising the novel's stirring first three paragraphs), as representative of the gentrification of a whole bunch of American cities in the 1980s. That the opening section ends in the cold months following 9/11, with a Gore/Lieberman sign still stuck in the Berglunds' yard (1.1.137), leave little doubt that Franzen intends to suggest that we are about to embark on an entirely new era.