Exile in Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Exile in Literature


Exile in Literature

The theme of exile has engaged the imagination of many writers in the course of literary history, either because they experienced having to leave their native country for political reasons, or because they felt a disaffection with their society and consciously chose to live elsewhere. In fiction, as in life, there are many kinds of exile, as individual as the people experiencing and writing about it.

Martin Tucker, Celeste M. Schrenck, and Edward W. Said, among many other scholars, have written about the general characteristics and implications of exile. Schenck focuses on the special displacement experienced by women writers in exile, while Said emphasizes the personal and literary repercussions of exile—in his own case, as a writer from Palestine. Discussing the generation of American expatriate writers who lived in Paris in the 1920s, J. Gerald Kennedy comments on some of the reasons why, for them, Paris “inescapably reflects the creation of an exilic self.” Many scholars have also dealt with the theme of exile in fictional works, linking a writer's treatment of that theme with the writer's own situation. For example, Samuel Lyndon Gladden has discussed Oscar Wilde's writings following the completion of his prison sentence and move to France; Leo Gurko has written about Joseph Conrad's experience as a Pole living in England and writing in English; and Kennedy has focused on F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night (1934) as it reflects Fitzgerald's temporary self-exile in France.

Sometimes historical circumstances dictate that a number of a nation's leading intellectuals and writers leave in order to seek personal as well as artistic freedom. Such was the case in Germany just before and during World War II, for example, when many liberals and anti-Nazi writers left the country in protest, creating a parallel body of German literature written outside of Germany during that period. Wm. K. Pfeiler, Thomas A. Kamla, and Egbert Krispyn have analyzed the general historical climate that led to the German writers' exodus and have highlighted some specific cases, like those of Konrad Merz, Thomas Mann, and Arthur Koestler. Günter Berghaus has written about the community of German writers and artists living in Great Britain during the war years and beyond, noting their contribution to intellectual life in their new environment.

Representative Works

Djuna Barnes
Nightwood (novel) 1936

Samuel Beckett
Molloy (novel) 1951
En Attendant Godot [Waiting for Godot] (drama) 1953

Béla Belász
The Theory of the Drama (criticism) 1922

Joseph Conrad
Lord Jim (novel) 1900

e. e. cummings
The Enormous Room (prose narrative) 1922

F. Scott Fitzgerald
Tender Is the Night (novel) 1934

Joris-Karl Huysmans
Á rebours [Against the Grain] (novel) 1884

James Joyce
Dubliners (short stories) 1914
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (novel) 1914-15
Exiles (drama) 1919
Ulysses (novel) 1922
Finnegans Wake (novel) 1939

Arthur Koestler
Spanish Testament (autobiography) 1937
Scum of the Earth (autobiography) 1941

Thomas Mann
Die Geschichten Jaakobs [Joseph and His Brothers] (novel) 1934
Lotte in Weimar [The Beloved Returns] (novel) 1939

Konrad Merz
Ein mensch fällt aus Deutschland (novel) 1936

Czeslaw Milosz
Ziemia Ulro [Land of Ulro] (poetry) 1977

Vladimir Nabokov
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (novel) 1939

Anäis Nin
The Diaries of Anäis Nin (diary) 1966-80

Saint-John Perse
Eloges [Eloges and Other Poems] (poetry) 1911
Anabase [Anabasis] (poetry) 1924

Isaac Bashevis Singer
Shosha (novel) 1978

Oscar Wilde
Sebastian Melmoth (prose) 1904

Stefan Zweig
The World of Yesterday (autobiography) 1943

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Celeste M. Schenck (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Schenck, Celeste M. “Exiled by Genre: Modernism, Canonicity, and the Politics of Exclusion.” In Women's Writing in Exile, edited by Mary Lynn Broe and Angela Ingram, pp. 225-50. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Schenck discusses the poetry of female modernists in terms of their state of being exiled from the political, cultural, and social mainstream.]

When I first mapped out an essay on what I'd like to call modernist women's exiles, I envisioned an article on the exchanges between gender and genre, raised exponentially to include geography in the case of those triply exiled expatriate women poets. The task...

(The entire section is 9329 words.)

Martin Tucker (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Tucker, Martin. An introduction to Literary Exile in the Twentieth Century: An Analysis and Biographical Dictionary, edited by Martin Tucker, pp. xiii-xxiv. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Tucker attempts to define the concept of exile in historical, cultural, and literary terms, comparing various exiles' notions about the theme.]

Because the awareness of exile has recently grown to such an extent—witnessed by the many studies of it published in the past fifty years and by university courses specifically centered on the definition and experience of exile—the term has become a generalized one. Exile as a concept and as an...

(The entire section is 6607 words.)

J. Gerald Kennedy (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Kennedy, J. Gerald. “Place, Self, and Writing: Toward a Poetics of Exile.” In Imagining Paris: Exile, Writing, and American Identity, pp. 1-37. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Kennedy analyzes how Paris became for such writers as e.e. cummings, Ernest Hemingway, and Anaïs Nin a place that “inescapably reflects the creation of an exilic self.”]

Shortly after returning from a prison camp in France, E. E. Cummings composed The Enormous Room (1922), an experimental novel recounting his ordeal as a Norton Harjes ambulance driver arrested (with his friend Slater Brown) on suspicion of German sympathy and incarcerated...

(The entire section is 14004 words.)

Criticism: Exile In Fiction

Leo Gurko (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: Gurko, Leo. “The Reluctant Underground.” In Joseph Conrad: Giant in Exile, pp. 7-20. New York: Macmillan 1962.

[In the following excerpt, Gurko explores some of Joseph Conrad's writings in the context of his exile from Poland.]

The tragedy of Poland was not only geographic, but psychological. It was bad enough that fate had ringed her with powerful enemies. Worse still was that the same fate did not equip her to discharge effectively the role demanded by a malevolent geography.

For nearly two centuries Poland has been forced, against her own nature and traditions, into a conspiratorial underground, a role she has played with notable...

(The entire section is 5235 words.)

Andrew Gurr (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Gurr, Andrew. “A Foot in Both Jungles: Katherine Mansfield.” In Writers in Exile: The Identity of Home in Modern Literature, pp. 33-64. Sussex, England: Harvester Press, 1981.

[In the following excerpt, Gurr comments on Katherine Mansfield's attitude toward her being, in effect, an exile in England from her native New Zealand.]


The exiled artist is like the rag which is tied in the middle of the rope used in a tug of war. He marks the still point between two straining forces. From one direction he is pulled by the sense of his own individuality which helped to make him an artist, the distinctive voice ready to...

(The entire section is 5142 words.)

Asher Z. Milbauer (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Milbauer, Asher Z. “I. B. Singer: The Convergence of Art and Faith.” In Transcending Exile: Conrad, Nabokov, I. B. Singer, pp. 73-120. Miami: Florida International University Press, 1985.

[In the excerpt below, Milbauer focuses on Isaac Bashevis Singer's novel Shosha as a vehicle for the writer's commenting both on his own destiny as an exile and on the collective destiny of the Jewish people.]

Binele, I won't abandon you. I swear by the soul of your mother.

I. B. Singer, “The Lecture”

I will make it so you will live forever.


(The entire section is 5840 words.)

Bettina L. Knapp (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Knapp, Bettina L. “Huysmans's Against the Grain: The Willed Exile of the Introverted Decadent.” In Exile and the Writer: Exoteric and Esoteric Experiences—A Jungian Approach, pp. 75-92. University Park: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.

[In the following excerpt, Knapp discusses Joris-Karl Huysmans' controversial novel Against the Grain, suggesting that des Esseintes's self-imposed exile attests to his being deprived of love in childhood, resulting in his present inability to love.]

Willed exile and the deepest condition of introversion was the way chosen by Duke Jean des Esseintes in Joris-Karl Huysmans's1 extraordinary...

(The entire section is 7928 words.)

J. Gerald Kennedy (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Kennedy, J. Gerald. “Modernism as Exile: Fitzgerald, Barnes, and the Unreal City.” In Imagining Paris: Exile, Writing, and American Identity, pp. 185-242. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

[In the following excerpt, Kennedy discusses F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night in light of some American writers' attempts to go into voluntary exile in Paris in order to refresh their cultural perceptions.]

Gertrude Stein remarked that modernist writers and artists of her time had converged on the capital of France because “Paris was where the twentieth century was.” The city not only incorporated within its diverse cultural life the most...

(The entire section is 23817 words.)

Samuel Lyndon Gladden (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Gladden, Samuel Lyndon. “‘Sebastian Melmoth’: Wilde's Parisian Exile as the Spectacle of Sexual, Textual Revolution.” Victorians Institute Journal 28 (2000): 39-63.

[In the following essay, Gladden analyzes Oscar Wilde's journal, written under the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth, in terms of his thoughts about being exiled from England after serving his prison term.]

Many men on their release carry their prison about with them into the air, and hide it as a secret disgrace in their hearts, and at length, like poor poisoned things, creep into some hole and die. It is wretched that they should have to do so, and it is wrong, terribly wrong,...

(The entire section is 10113 words.)

Criticism: German Literature In Exile

Wm. K. Pfeiler (essay date 1957)

SOURCE: Pfeiler, Wm. K. “German Literature outside the Third Reich.” In German Literature in Exile: The Concern of the Poets, pp. 3-23. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1957.

[In the following excerpt, Pfeiler examines the circumstances that led to the creation of a German literature in exile and comments on some of its main characteristics and figures.]

The unprecedented political upheaval following Hitler's assumption of power, specifically after the Reichstag fire in February, 1933, manifested itself to Germany's neighbors dramatically by the early exodus of tens of thousands of people who, for “racial” reasons or political nonconformity, thought it...

(The entire section is 10900 words.)

Thomas A. Kamla (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: Kamla, Thomas A. “Konrad Merz: Ein Mensch fällt aus Deutschland—The ‘Inner’ and ‘Outer’ Exile of Youth.” In Confrontation with Exile: Studies in the German Novel, pp. 35-44. Bern: Herbert Lang/Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1975.

[In the following excerpt, Kamla focuses on the ideas and career of Konrad Merz, an anti-fascist novelist who left Germany to write in exile.]

Konrad Merz numbers among the younger writers who made their literary debut in exile. Written shortly after his flight to Holland in 1934, Ein Mensch fällt aus Deutschland (1936), an epistolary novel, describes the traumatic experiences of the uprooted emigrant who attempts...

(The entire section is 5419 words.)

Egbert Krispyn (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: Krispyn, Egbert. “A Year of Decision.” In Anti-Nazi Writers in Exile, pp. 45-58. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978.

[In the following excerpt, Krispyn analyzes the political and social climate of Germany in 1935-36, commenting on why such writers as Thomas Mann and Arthur Koestler chose to continue writing in exile.]

While the emigrants were arguing among themselves about the true nature of exile literature and its contribution to the antifascist cause, Hitler pressed forward relentlessly with his political battle plan for the stabilization and expansion of his power. His first objective was the Saar territory which since the end of World War I had...

(The entire section is 4920 words.)

Günter Berghaus (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Berghaus, Günter, “Producing Art in Exile: Perspectives on the German Refugees' Creative Activities in Great Britain.” In Theatre and Film in Exile: German Artists in Britain, 1933-1945, edited by Günter Berghaus. Oxford: Oswald Wolff Books, Berg Publishers, 1989.

[In the following essay, Berghaus traces the contributions of noted German artists living in exile in Great Britain after 1933.]

Following Hitler's appointment as Chancellor on 30 January 1933 a number of laws were passed which enabled the Nazis to assume total control over the German population: a Law for the Reconstruction of the Civil Service (7 April), a Denationalization Decree (14 July), a...

(The entire section is 13635 words.)

Further Reading


Emery, Mary Lou. Jean Rhys at “World's End”: Novels of Colonial and Sexual Exile. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990, 219 p.

Study of Rhys's works that emphasizes her treatment of the theme of exile.

Fuchs, Anne. A Space of Anxiety: Dislocation and Abjection in Modern German-Jewish Literature. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1999, 200 p.

Discusses the themes of separation and difference in the work of several Jewish authors, including Sigmund Freud and Albert Drach.

Iribarne, Louis. “Lost in the ‘Earth-Garden’: The Exile of Czesław Miłosz.” World Literature Today 73, no. 4...

(The entire section is 298 words.)