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When Characters Relocate in Literature

02/07/2014 12:30 pm ET | Updated Apr 09, 2014
  • Dave Astor Author, 'Comic (and Column) Confessional'

As I prepare to move from a house to an apartment this year (what -- freelance writers don't make hedge-fund salaries?), I've become particularly aware of relocation scenarios in literature.

Yes, a major plot device in fiction involves characters going to a new place. There's plenty of inherent drama (including angst, adjustment and potential happiness) when protagonists relocate, so lots of authors find that situation appealing to write about. Readers are drawn to that situation, too, and in many cases are reminded of their own real-life moves.

Immigration is one obvious example of literature's geographic switches -- as protagonists pick up stakes to flee oppression, raise their standard of living or for other reasons. Think Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, Jhumpa Lahiri's The Namesake and even Paul Theroux's The Mosquito Coast, to name a few.

And a book I recently read -- Harriet Doerr's Stones for Ibarra -- focuses on an American couple who move from California to rural Mexico. An absorbing debut novel from an author who was 74 at the time!

Same-country relocation can be interesting, too. In Jorge Luis Borges' short story "The Aleph," for instance, a character is forced to move within Argentina because his building is to be razed, which sets in motion the amazing scene in which the title of the tale appears.

Speaking of South America, the hostage drama on that continent in Ann Patchett's Bel Canto leads to the unexpected pairing of two characters who decide to live in Italy. A lyrical, humane novel -- albeit with an epilogue not as strong as the rest of the book.

In 19th-century English literature, among the more interesting relocation scenarios are those in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Thomas Hardy's The Hand of Ethelberta and George Eliot's Silas Marner and Adam Bede.

Jane is sent to live at the brutal Lowood school/institution, and later moves to Thornfield Hall to become a governess in Bronte's page-turning classic.

In Hardy's partly satiric novel, Ethelberta goes from a rural area of England to London as she tries to improve the lot of herself, her parents and her many siblings. Some of those siblings even pose as servants in Ethelberta's big-city house!

Silas Marner moves to an isolated village in England after being falsely accused of theft, and years of hermit-like misery follow before the weaver's life takes a dramatic turn. An extraordinarily moving book, to excuse the wordplay.

In Eliot's also-superb Adam Bede, squire's grandson Arthur remorsefully leaves the village of Hayslope to join the army after an ill-fated liaison with the not-rich Hetty -- a liaison that also has a huge impact on Adam's life. Later, Dinah moves from Stonyfield to Hayslope when she marries. Certainly, marriage leads to many a relocation in literature.

Bad or so-so marriages also lead to moves, as when Delia in Anne Tyler's Ladder of Years leaves a home where her husband and children take her for granted.

Canadian literature? L.M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle tells the gripping and at-times-funny story of a young woman who, after being told she is terminally ill, moves out of her oppressive home to live a liberated life.

Japan? I'll go way back to The Tale of Genji, a novel written 1,000 years ago by Murasaki Shikibu. Her title character is a handsome, philandering nobleman whose actions include relocating a young girl with the queasy intent of making her a possible future lover or wife. Later, Genji is temporarily exiled to an out-of-the-way seaside area as punishment for some of his transgressions.

Returning to American literature, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath chronicles the impoverished Joads as they head to California seeking a better life, and Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle has Molly Bolt fleeing from Florida to New York City to escape blatant homophobia.

And many novels, such as Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, show African-Americans escaping the South for a chance to live in the (supposedly) less racist North.

What are your favorite literary works with relocation scenarios?

(Thanks to Maggie Van Ostrand and "Olderandwiser55" for recommending Stones for Ibarra, "Dave B. (ultrabop)" for suggesting the stories of Jorge Luis Borges, Cathy Turney for mentioning Bel Canto, "lily" for recommending The Hand of Ethelberta and "hopper250" and "jhNY" for suggesting The Tale of Genji.)

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In his often-humorous Comic (and Column) Confessional memoir, Dave Astor recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz ("Peanuts") and Bill Watterson ("Calvin and Hobbes"), columnists such as Ann Landers and "Dear Abby" and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King and various authors. On the personal front, Dave chronicles the malpractice death of his first daughter and his divorce and remarriage. Contact him at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book -- which includes a preface by Heloise and back-cover blurbs by "The Far Side" creator Gary Larson, among others.

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