12/31/2012 12:53 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2013

Have Fictional Characters, Will Travel

Even if you couldn't afford to visit another country this holiday season, characters in literature have been crossing national borders for centuries.

It's certainly one of the more interesting things protagonists can do. By journeying to another nation, characters might find love, escape a romantic entanglement, satisfy wanderlust, reveal how they react to relaxation or stress, display open-mindedness or narrow-mindedness toward a different culture or even lose their life. They may travel for vacation, for business, to see family, to flee oppression, to fight in a war or for other reasons. Anything can happen, and often does.

Worldwide traveler Mark Twain not only wrote two nonfiction books with the word "abroad" in their titles (Innocents Abroad and A Tramp Abroad) but also the fictional Tom Sawyer Abroad -- one of Twain's top 20 novels; he wrote about a dozen. :-) But there's also international (time) travel in one of Twain's best novels, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, in which Hank Morgan goes from the U.S. to Camelot-era England.

Other authors not only travel widely, but spend many years living abroad -- as was the case with Henry James and Edith Wharton. Not surprisingly, many of their characters also crossed borders. James had Americans go overseas or non-Americans visit the U.S. in novels such as Daisy Miller and The Europeans. Wharton placed selfish American-born Undine Spragg in Europe for part of The Custom of the Country, and put free-spirited Ellen Olenska of The Age of Innocence in the U.S. (after her European marriage went south) and then back across the ocean. Near the end of the book, Newland Archer travels from the U.S. to France, where his once-almost-love Ellen is living, and...

Among the many other wealthy American characters who find themselves in Europe are Dick and Nicole Diver in F. Scott's Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night. In France, that couple meet young actress Rosemary Hoyt, who ends up having a rather complex relationship with Mr. Diver.

In more recent literature, an example of international romance involves Stella Payne, an American who meets a much younger guy during a Jamaican vacation in Terry McMillan's How Stella Got Her Groove Back.

Also ending up in the Caribbean is the title character of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The Dominican-American Oscar is a New Jersey resident who, near the end of Junot Diaz's book, takes a fateful trip to his ancestral country.

There are life-changing experiences as well for the young American men who travel to Mexico in Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, which consists of All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing and Cities of the Plain.

The characters of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster also appear in two countries (England and the U.S.) in P.G. Wodehouse's stories and novels.

Wodehouse's long life (1881-1975) spanned two world wars and various other conflicts in which many authors have set their characters. These protagonists, of course, often end up fighting in another country after enlisting or being drafted. And, as is the case with Korean War veteran Binx Bolling and his quest for more meaning in life, the trauma of battle can help shape an ex-soldier's personality when back in civilian life. Bolling is the star of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer; thanks to commenter Brian Bess for recently recommending that absorbing novel!

Also during wartime, many civilians obviously flee to other countries to escape, say, the Nazis. That's the scenario in Erich Maria Remarque's Arch of Triumph (Germany to France) and The Night in Lisbon (Germany to Portugal, with the hope of getting to America).

Many decades earlier, Sir Walter Scott used his Quentin Durward novel to tell the story of a Scottish military cadet who makes his way to 15th-century France to serve under King Louis XI.

The young Lalla travels from Morocco to France (where she finds professional success but not happiness) in J.M.G. Le Clezio's Desert. Several British characters have an involuntary but amazing Tibetan sojourn in James Hilton's Lost Horizon. Nasty American missionary Nathan Price drags his family to Africa in Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. Two American professors travel to England for research, and more, in Alison Lurie's Foreign Affairs. The title character in Martin Chuzzlewit sails from England to America -- partly because Charles Dickens wanted to jump-start lagging sales of that serialized novel. Another title character sails from America to England in Herman Melville's Redburn. Melville's friend Nathaniel Hawthorne placed Americans in Italy in The Marble Faun.

One can also settle permanently in a different nation, but I didn't address that in this post because I wrote a 2011 piece about immigration in literature.

What are some of your favorite fictional works featuring characters who travel to another country?


Dave Astor's 2012 memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional includes a preface by Heloise and back-cover endorsements by Arianna Huffington, "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson and others. Those three also appear in the partly humorous book, along with other famous columnists and cartoonists and people such as Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King and Martha Stewart. If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at