'Places Of Longing': The Escapist motif in the works of Garland, Sutcliffe and Krakauer

Master's Thesis, 2013

87 Pages, Grade: 1,3




1. Literary aspects
1.1 Influences of the 'Bildungsroman'
1.1.1... definition
1.1.2... IntotheWild (1996)
1.1.3.. The Beach (1997) and Are You Experienced? (1997)
1.2 influences of travel literature
1.2.1.. Are You Experienced? - India
1.2.2... The Beach - South-East Asia as Africa
1.2.3... Into The Wild - North America Emerson andThoreau Jack Kerouac Jack London
1.3 Unreliable Narration
1.3.1... definition
1.3.2 Richard in The Beach
1.3.3 Dave in Are You Experienced?

2. Cultural aspects
2.1 Escape through travel
2.1.1 the construction of authenticity in The Beach and Are You Experienced?
2.1.2 the hyper-real of The Beach
2.1.3 terra incognita in Into the Wild and Lonely Planet in The Beach & Are You Experienced?
2.2 Escape into Drugs
2.2.1... cannabis as familiar patterns of consumption in The Beach
2.2.2... cannabis as a sign of civilization in Are You Experienced?
2.3 Danny Boyle's The Beach (2000)
2.3.1... adaptation - book versus movie
2.3.2... the visualization of paradise
2.3.3 the ending
2.4 Sean Penn's Into The Wild (2007)
2.4.1... politics and the aesthetics of 'indie' cinema
2.4.2... structure, voice and literary influence
2.4.3 moral ambiguity




Such is the heavy emphasis on individualism today that people are compelled, and daily, to be proactive or self-legislating in all aspects of life. Only those practised in the arts of escape...manage to hold to a sense of what is tantalizing in the very thought of subjective escape. For what we need to escape from.. .says a great deal about both ourselves and our contemporary cultural malaise.

(Elliot;Lemert, The New Individualism)[1]

In today‘s fleeting, globalized world, people more than ever seem to feel at odds with themselves. They escape wherever and whenever they can - from the workplace, from the mundane duties of everyday existence, from social pressure and expectations, from each other. Escape from reality is not a new concept, for mankind’s „innate dissatisfaction with existence“[2], as Evans calls it, is probably almost as old as existence itself. In the 21st century however, the possibilities of retreat are endless and pervade every aspect of life. Digital entertainment has become abundant and, ironically, almost inescapable, while mass media carries the viewer off to exotic places without him even having to leave the house. Amidst this virtual word, the modern wanderlust has found its place. Entire legions of travelers move on to remote places, in search of relaxation, diversion and the solution to their unfulfilled yearnings for utopian landscapes.

In his essay The Rationality of Escapism and Self-Deception, Longeway defines escapism as “the attempt to avoid awareness of aversive beliefs.” He goes on to say that ’Escapist’ entertainment’s essential purpose is to draw us away from our everyday troubles, and, sometimes, to help us to fantasize ourselves as better, more important, and better off than we really are. Indulgence in such entertainment helps us avoid, temporarily, unpleasant truths that we must live with, and it is this escape from unpleasant reality that gives us the terms ‘escapist’ and ‘escapism’.[3]

The notion of escapism evokes a whole chain of terms and concepts directly connected to it; repression, distraction, travel, leisure, self-discovery and, of course, places, imagined or real, to whom the individual wishes to escape to.

In this paper, I want to analyze three books on escapism and the various ways in which it presents itself in them. My focus will be on Alex Garland’s backpacker cult novel The Beach and William Sutcliffe’s debunking of the gap-year traveler in Are You Experienced?, as well as Jon Krakauer’s non-fiction book Into The Wild. The first two belong to backpacker fiction, a genre that emerged particularly forcefully at the turn of the 21st century. The authors of these narratives employ satire in order to debunk the escapism and self-fashioning of a demographic of young, urban, Anglophone travelers who exert traveling mostly as a staged interest for other cultures, while in truth they seek self-fulfillment and self-gratification. Into The Wild on the other hand is not fictional but largely an account of real events. It stands apart from Garland’s and Sutcliffe’s novels, structurally as well as thematically. While escapism also plays a major role here, the reasons and characteristics of it are different as will be shown.

I have broken up my paper into two parts. First, I want to provide a literary background. This seems important to me, for not only are all three narratives either closely informed by or linked to certain literary genres like the Bildungsroman (a genre that entails escapism) they also, in part, employ unreliable narration. This narrative strategy is essentially a form of self­deception on side of the fictional narrator.[4] Because all three novels deal with traveling in one way or another, I will likewise make an attempt to draw a connection between them and aspects of travel literature, particularly focusing on either the colonial subtext (The Beach, Are You Experienced?) or nature writing and road narratives (Into The Wild).

The second part then deals with cultural aspects such as questions of authenticity that are raised during the narratives, the role of drugs as a means of escape and also the problematic relationship between travelers and tourists. Finally, I am going to analyze two film adaptations, Danny Boyle’s The Beach (2000) and Sean Penn’s Into The Wild (2007) and how they compare with their literary sources.

1. Literary aspects

1.1 Influences of the Bildungsroman

1.1.1 definition

The term Bildungsroman, coined in 1820 by the literature professor of Karl von Morgenstern (1770 - 1852), denotes a literary genre that emerged at the late 18th century in Germany.[5] Central to this type of novel is a young protagonist, whose individual development is narrated as a time of self-discovery and the attempt to find a place in society. The heroe’s life-path of self-education (Bildungsgang) thereby marks a process of maturation in which, by way of conflicts and crisis, the character’s natural assets are shaped.[6] According to the Oxford Online Dictionary, the Bildungsroman is “a novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education.” Boes likewise describes it as “a kind of novel that focuses on the spiritual and intellectual maturation of its protagonist.”[7] By merging the words Bildung and Roman, Morgenstern emphasized the importance of the educational aspect in these novels.[8] The 18th century held personal education in high esteem and regarded it as a key element to a free, individual development towards a higher, positive goal which is independent from the restrictive norms set by state and society.[9] From the very start however, the term proved to be problematic. While Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795) is commonly regarded as the prototype of the genre, the inclusion of subsequent novels, which followed to a greater or lesser degree the narrative pattern, launched heavy debates about the genre’s boundaries or, alternatively, extensibility. Since the German Bildung heavily draws on humanistic ideas and ideals of education as self-formation, delineations of the Bildungsroman genre often stand or fall by the interpretation of this multifaceted term.[10]

The genre first entered public awareness on a larger scale with the definition provided by Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911), who pointed out the „optimism of personal development“ as a vital element in every Bildungsroman. A hero is shown ” .. .wie er in glücklicher Dämmerung in das Leben eintritt, nach verwandten Seelen sucht, der Freundschaft begegnet und der Liebe, wie er nun aber mit den harten Realitäten der Welt in Kampf gerät und so unter mannigfachen Lebenserfahrungen heranreift.[11]

Well into the 1960’s, the Bildungsroman was seen as a distinctly German genre that was rooted in a tradition of bourgeois intellectual values in 18th century Germany.[12] Critics of the 1970’s and 1980’s however focused more on the developmental aspects of the Bildungsroman hero, discarding a specific German identity of the formation novel. Jürgen Jacobs, for example, introduced a more general concept:

Zu den Merkmalen des Bildungsromans gehört, daß sein Protagonist ein mehr oder weniger explizites Bewußsein davon hat, nicht bloß eine beliebige Folge von Abenteuern, sondern einen Prozeß der Selbstfindung und der Orientierung in der Welt zu durchlaufen. Dabei gilt in aller Regel, daß die Vorstellungen des Helden über das Ziel seines Lebensganges zunächst von Irrtümern und Fehleinschätzungen bestimmt sind und sich erst im Fortgang seiner Entwicklung korrigieren.[...] so lässt sich als Charakteristikum der in den Bildungsromanen erzählten Entwicklungsgänge festhalten, daß deren Protagonisten sich in einer Welt zurechtfinden müssen, die ihren spontanen Wünschen und ihrem Sinnverlangen nicht unmittelbar entgegenkommt. Daher bleiben ihnen Irrtümer und Niederlagen nicht erspart, ja diese negativen Erfahrungen erweisen sich in aller Regel als höchst förderliche Phasen der individuellen Entwicklung.[13]

As there are a vast number theories and approaches to the Bildungsroman genre which often add more confusion to the discourse rather than clarity, I will draw on Jacob’s outline while analyzing the novels presented here.

Individuals which find themselves at odds with society are one of the most common motifs in literature. Candide (Voltaire, 1759), David Copperfield (Dickens, 1850) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain, 1884), Martin Eden (London, 1909), The Catcher in the Rye (Salinger, 1951) or The Kite Runner (Hosseini, 2003) to name just a few, all deal with protagonists who have to prove themselves within society and its moral deficiencies.

Since the classical Bildungsroman hero is characterized by his youth and therefore equipped with a typical “inner restlessness inherent in the fleeting qualities of youth”[14], his unhappiness with the world and the search for his own answers usually spur a getaway from the confinements of the familiar. Escapism and a journey are therefore vital parts of a Bildungsroman. By travelling, that is, embarking on a factual journey as a means to discovery and personal improvement, a character’s inner journey ‘of the soul’ to some sort of self­realization can be aptly demonstrated. The travel plot formula has often been utilized, most notably in the picaresque Der abentheuerliche Simplicissimus (Grimmelshausen, 1668), Empfindsame Reisen durch Deutschland (Schummel, 1771/72) or Faserland (Kracht, 1995)[15]. The travel motif furthermore puts a particular emphasis on the coming-of-age and initiation aspects of the hero. Travelling as a dynamic and active enterprise inevitably involves boundaries that have to be overcome and which, in return, coerce the individual to grow along the way.

1.1.2 Into The Wild (1996)

In Into The Wild, author and journalist Jon Krakauer tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a 24-year old young man from an affluent American middle-class family who, after graduating from college, abandoned all his possessions, donated his college-fund savings to Oxfam and left home to embark on a two year odyssey across North America. McCandless had his mind firmly set on hiking to Alaska, where he intended to live off the land and escape the excesses of modern consumer society. There, in a derelict bus in the midst of the wilderness, he was found death four months later. The case became widely known across the US when Krakauer first covered it in the January 1993 issue of Outside magazine. He later decided to expand the story and began to gather detailed information on McCandless’ background. He questioned his family as well as numerous people across America who met him and had, in one way or another, grown attached to the boy. Krakauer furthermore enriched the story with other known cases of social dropouts who got lost in the great outdoors of the American landscape and even added a chapter on his own experiences as a young mountaineer. The result is a piece of investigative journalism that falls under the category of ‘creative non-fiction’ where factual information is mixed with speculation and augmented with narrative embellishments to make it read like a novel.[16] [17] In the author’s note, Krakauer admits to this creative freedom, stating that “I won’t claim to be an impartial biographer” and that “McCandless’s strange tale struck a personal note that made a dispassionate rendering of the tragedy impossible” (ITW, x).

Into The Wild, both as a literary and a film text, strongly resembles a Bildungsroman. As non­fiction, Krakauer’s narrative is neither a novel nor a novel of formation, yet it depicts a subject matter that is characteristic for the genre. The author describes a young man on a moral quest, a “raw, transcendent experience” (ITW, ix) whose escape is spurred by authors like Thoreau, Tolstoy and London. The fashion in which he struggled his way across the country, moneyless and often hitchhiking from one place to the next, was part of his ambition to live life “to the fullest extent” (ITW, p.38). The Bildungsroman deals with a person’s struggle to achieve spiritual education within a conformist society and the individualist McCandless who, in an act of self-fashioning, traveled under the alias of Alexander ‘Supertramp’, apparently followed this narrative pattern to detail - dissatisfaction with society, grand or “grandiose” spiritual ambitions (ITW, 181), a journey, growth of character along the way. The mere fact that he was driven into the wilderness instead of remote urban areas can be seen as a direct affront to society, for as Lah and Zonn state:

Trying to experience nature is perfectly fine, indeed it is at the core of the national ideology, but it is acceptable only if it is done in socially acceptable ways, which are essentially conservative, i.e. they minimize the amount of risk and ensure that the person is going to return to his “normal” life, to his socially defined position, while his (or, less likely, her) youthful adventure soon becomes just a story about the folly of youth.[...] On the other hand, if a person refuses to conform to social pressures and tries to escape, to go beyond the scope of dominant ideology, he becomes a threat to society.[18]

McCandless who took “risk-taking to its logical extreme” (ITW, 181) violated these social norms and thus became a threat to the establishment. Instead of further pursuing the path to becoming a valued member of American mainstream society (Krakauer describes him as a brilliant and committed college student who at first pretended to continue his path of institutional education in law school), he soon countered these expectations by breaking off all social bonds. In seeking communion with nature, he wanted to “kill the false beast within” (ITW, 162) and learn his own lessons about life and how it should be lived. In the Bildungsroman, the closure of a successful journey of self-formation is the return and re­integration into society. From one of Chris’ diary entries, Krakauer concludes that McCandless indeed intended to “get himself back to the world of men and women” as “he seemed to have moved beyond his need to assert so adamantly his autonomy” (ITW, 167). This shows that he had apparently reached some insight and had attained a level of self­realization in which social relationships were, after all, not as unwelcome as he initially saw them. The return however is thwarted by his inability to pass the Alaskan Teklanika River whose water level had risen considerably at the beginning of springtime. Chris’ reconciliation with society fails because, as Krakauer surmises, he overestimated himself while dangerously underestimating the environment. To make matters worse, McCandless poisons himself by ingesting a toxic plant that he took for a similarly looking edible one. As he literally begins to starve from within, he truly is “trapped in the wild”, for, as we are told, his weakening condition most likely prevented him from seeking another route out. By an ironic twist of fate it is now nature which confines him whereas civilisation could be his rescue. In a copy of Doctor Zhivago finally, Krakauer finds Chris’ final realization noted down “Happiness only real when shared.” (ITW, 188). The journalist states that It is tempting to regard this latter notation as further evidence that McCandless’ long, lonely sabbatical had changed him in some significant way. It can be interpreted to mean that he was ready, perhaps, to shed a little of the armor he wore around his heart, that upon returning to civilization, he intended to abandon the life of a solitary vagabond, stop running so hard from intimacy, and become a member of the human community. (ITW, 188) Maybe at this point, McCandless realized that compromise is possible. As Jacobs points out in his definition of the Bildungsroman: “Vor dem Absturz in vollständige Desillusionierung wird die Bildungsgeschichte durch die optimistische Prämisse bewahrt, daß ein Kompromiß zwischen den Aspirationen des Individuums einerseits und den Forderungen der Welt andererseits[...] nicht unmöglich ist.”[19]

Sean Penn probably also recognized this underlying Bildungsroman structure of McCandless’ story when he subdivided his film adaption into chapters that draw on a classical coming-of- age development.[20] It is particularly the end however in which he seems, at least visually, to conclude what Krakauer’s research merely implied. Upon Chris’ last minutes in the ‘Magic Bus’, Penn shows a short vision of him and his parents being happily reunited again and thus mentally closes the Bildungsroman circle. Similar to Krakauer’s conjecture but more explicit, this scene shows that the director likewise interprets Chris as an essentially reformed human being, whose return to society was foiled by his premature death. The narrative of the film then appears to restore the social order that was endangered by McCandless’ recklessness.[21]

1.1.3 The Beach (1997) & Are You Experienced? (1997)

Rudiments of the Bildungsroman can also be found in Alex Garland’s popular fictional travel novel The Beach from 1997. In an interview, the author even admitted that J.G. Ballard’s autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun had been one of his major influences.[22] Apparently, Garland has also drawn heavily on other thematically linked novels and genres which makes The Beach an intriguing mixture and places it somewhere between a dystopian novel, a robinsonade and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

“The first I heard of the beach was in Bangkok, on the Khao San road” (TB, 1).[23] [24] The first sentence establishes a first-person narration while at the same time indicating that the following events are already in the past and, as sort of a travelogue, recounted and evaluated. Narrator and protagonist is 21-year old Englishman Richard, who comes to Thailand in search of meaning and adventurous experiences. In a guesthouse in Bangkok, he finds a map nailed to his door with directions to a hidden lagoon, a seemingly untouched paradise of seclusion in the midst of tourism-spoiled South-East Asia. Together with a French couple, Richard claims his piece of ‘heaven on earth’ and embarks on a trip to the island where he finds a selected hippie commune living in apparent self-sufficiency and harmony. Eagerly adopting the community’s principles, newcomer Richard integrates quickly but, as can be anticipated, seals with his intrusion the fate of the beach whose secrecy is compromised by a copy of the map he left behind on the mainland. The group’s elitism of autarky and a ‘true’ lifestyle (as opposed to the banal consumerism of the ‘outside’ society) is continually put to the test, either by being forced to make occasional trips to the mainland for additional food-supplies and luxury items or by having to deal with the victims of a shark attack. As these events gradually unfold, Richard slowly descends into a jungle psychosis in which the boundaries between dream and reality begin to dissolve. Despite his nightmarish experiences towards the end though, including a nearly fatal stabbing by drugged beach members, Garland’s protagonist does not come out as an educated or generally more reformed individual. While the Bildungsroman is marked by an education of the individual through reality, the potential realization that the ideals of idyllic seclusion and unspoiled paradise do not match with the realities of a postmodern, globalized world, elude Richard altogether. The strong motif of escapism and the hero’s quest for experience, for ‘something else’ which underlies the whole narrative, seem to implicate the beginnings of a reformatory journey, but in The Beach its fails to shape into a process of higher insight. The protagonist’s last words, a sober conclusion of the events he witnessed read like the self-fashioning of a young, middle-class hedonist who has now collected the extraordinary experience he initially travelled for in the first place: “I’m fine. I have bad dreams [...]. I play videogames. I smoke a little dope. I got my thousand yard stare. I carry a lot of scars. I like the way that sounds. I carry a lot of scars” (TB, 439).

Particularly Richard’s narcissistic stance towards the injuries he sustained indicate that he has not learned anything on a grander scale and that the events have apparently not left stronger psychological repercussions on him other than bad dreams. Hence the potentially educative social beach experiment seeps away, leaving an individual whose character is the same as in the first chapter.

Seeking out individuality through adventure travelling is also a crucial part in Are You Experienced? William Sutcliffe’s protagonist and narrator Dave is, like Richard, a young, urban Englishman. When his friends brag about their travel ambitions into remote and presumably risky countries, he feels compelled to make his own trip through India together with his friend Liz. During his journey he encounters a range of different characters, each of them challenging his beliefs about India. After suffering various psychological and physical setbacks, Dave comes to terms with his experiences and his ultimate position of a traveler within a society of travelers. Like Garland, Sutcliffe uses the backpacking culture as a backdrop to underscore the falsity of a self-imposed strife for individuality among the conformities of western cultural life-models. The element of travelling as a ‘tour de force’ to discovery is more shaped here. Dave is constantly on the move, never being in one place for more than a few days before getting his ticket to the next destination. Whereas Richard’s literal journey ends abruptly when he reaches the myth-enshrouded beach (where he stays for the entirety of the novel, apart from one supply run to the mainland), Dave’s journey is more like that of the protagonist’s in Simplicissimus or Faserland, a tour of varied places and people. Being back in “silly, little England” (AYE, 223)[25] at the end, he reflects:

As for a social life, I decided that it was time to start again.[.. ,]Over the course of my big trip, I had matured so much that I was almost a new person.[.] I would be able to begin again as the new me - not as Dave the mediocre North London schoolboy, not as Dave the sexual failure, but as Dave the traveler. (AYE, 235).

His conclusion seems less fragmented than Richard’s but is, in fact, no more substantial. The narrative undertone implicates that he wears his newly adopted status as a ‘traveler’ much like Richard wears his scars; as an artificially excavated ‘badge of courage’ to impress people at home, or, with Levin’s words, to “gain enhanced social capital”[26] for a future working life. The novel’s title already hints at this predictable shallow résumé of westerner’s exotic experiences by ironically posing the question much like it would be expected from an employer scanning a CV. It is also remarked upon when Dave encounters an English journalist on the railroad to Udaipur who communicates his opinion on westerner’s travel ambitions to the East:

The real point would have to be about how going to India isn’t an act of rebellion these days, it’s actually a form of conformity for ambitious middle-class kids who want to be able to put down something on their CV that shows a bit of initiative. All the top companies want robots with initiative these days, and coming to the Third World is the ideal hoop for you to leap through.[...] Then having got the nasty business of travel out of the way, you can go home and prove to employers that you’re more than ready to settle down for a life of drudgery.

(AYE, 140)

Naturally, Dave thinks of himself as ‘different’, but he hardly is. His trivial motivation for going to India (sleeping with his best friend’s girlfriend) exposes his shallowness.

On the surface, both narratives suggest a strong resemblance with the genre. They are focused on young individuals who escape in search of something beyond what they perceive to be a dissatisfying reality. They also display a conflict between ideals of self-determination (individuality) and the demands of socialization (“normality”).

However, the classification of The Beach and Are You Experienced? as a Bildungsroman is problematic. Firstly, the prototypical Bildungsroman hero is confronted with his own moral aspirations that have to be brought into accordance with the world. His journey therefore is a result of his desire to align his values with society. In The Beach, the protagonist ventures into the world to gain experience merely for the sake of experience, if need be by willfully looking out for physically and psychologically demanding situations:

Collecting memories, or experiences, was my primary goal when I first started travelling. I went about it in the same way as a stamp-collector goes about collecting stamps, carrying around with me a mental list of all the things I had yet to see or do.[.] Of course witnessing poverty was the first to be ticked off the list. Then I had to graduate to the more obscure stuff. Being in a riot was something I pursuit with a truly obsessive zeal, along with being tear- gassed and hearing gunshots fired in anger. (TB, 164)

The protagonist of Are You Experienced? appears to be no less a thrill-seeker who, at the end, is grateful for having lived through exciting situations that enhance his own life narrative. Dave has not prepared a mental “to-do” list of potentially dangerous situations, yet he comes to appreciate the benefits of these situations as convenient anecdotes, particularly an incident of food-poisoning by India’s local cuisine: “In the end, I was glad I’d done it, but I had to admit that the having done it was more fun than the doing it. Crapping your pants, for example, is a dire and miserable experience; but having crapped your pants - I mean, that’s a pretty good conversational party piece” (AYE, 213 ff.).[27]

Bianca Leggett notes that despite a very physical travel and return plot, The Beach and Are You Experienced? are both “defiantly static in terms of its characters growth.[28] ” As growth of character is the foremost ambition of Bildungsroman protagonists, the escapism of Richard and Dave is mainly based on a narcissistic character that seeks social approval instead of self­improvement.

1.2 influences of travel literature

The field of travel writing is extremely heterogeneous and encompasses a wide range of literary works whose exact demarcations from other genres are difficult to draw.[29] As Jonathan Raban states, “travel writing is a notoriously raffish open house where different genres are likely to end up in the same bed.[30] ” Putting into question “whether travel writing is really a genre at all”, Borm argues that it is rather “a collective term for a vari ety of texts both predominantly fictional and non-fictional whose main theme is travel.[31] ” He goes on to say that, in general, “the literary is at work in travel writing” which leads him to the conclusion that travel literature and travel writing are essentially synonymous terms.[32]

The continuous attraction and persistence of travel literature as narratives of adventure, exploration, journey, and escape is, according to Blanton [...] undoubtedly related to human curiosity and to a travel writer’s desire to mediate between things foreign and things familiar, to help us understand that world which is other to us. [...] The traveler/narrator’s well-being and eventual safe homecoming become the primary tensions of the tale, the traveler’s encounter with the other its chief attraction.[33]

Carl Thompson on the other hand, has a rather negative explanation for the ongoing success of travel narratives. He links it directly to a sort of escapism from contemporary realities when he states In an age when many cultures and societies are less homogenous than they once were, and when many people possess what is sometimes termed a ‘hyphenated’ identity [.] distinctions between ‘them’ and ‘us’, ‘home’ and ‘abroad’ seem less sharp than they used to. Travel writing responds to this situation [...] by reinstating a firm sense of the differences [...] and by dealing in stereotypes that are frequently pernicious. And by doing so [...] the genre usually delivers a consoling, self-congratulatory message to the privileged, middle-class Westerners who are its principal readership.[34]

Adventure, escape, safe homecoming and encounter with the ‘other’ are dominant themes in Into the Wild, Are You Experienced? and The Beach yet each of these narratives can be traced back to different influences and literary traditions within travel writing. Although they are linked by their core element, the self-imposed disaster of extreme travel[35] or, as Levin states, travelling as “a dramatic negation of the social field of signification”[36], they branch out in terms of their specific cultural ingredients. Into the Wild calls to one’s mind nineteenth century transcendental writings of Thoreau and Emerson, London’s Alaska narratives and late twentieth-century American road narratives of the ‘Beat Generation’, a generation that sought to “escape normative culture” to “live in the moment.[37] ” The geographic spaces and individuals of Are You Experienced? and The Beach on the other hand, evoke the past of British Imperialism and nostalgia and particularly the role of English travelers abroad.

1.2.1 Are You Experienced? - India

According to Roldan-Santiago, the main objective of travel writing has always been “.the faithful portrayal of the ‘other’, that is, the third world [or] marginal groups like ethnic and racial minorities.[38] ” These portrayals however were in part also always fictional, particularly because Western travel writings are generally “geared to notions of colonial narratives” and therefore misrepresent or distort the places they narrate about.[39] In this context, Dissayanake and Wickramagamage have utilized the term of the ‘colonial gaze’, that is, a decidedly condescending manner in which travel writers observed far away countries and their inhabitants.[40] This patronizing attitude which deems a society as inferior and ‘backwards’ in terms of cultural, social or historical achievements is also employed in Garland’s and Sutcliffe’s novels where the protagonists treat their respective foreign country with a mixture of superiority and suspicion. The authors therefore deliberately pinpoint to the colonial past of their narratives as part of contemporary English travel fiction, and also its sub-genre, the “backpacker fiction”[41]. The roots for this kind of colonial post-modern traveler can be found in European economic and political expansion since around 1750.[42] The eighteenth century saw Britain’s rise to global power. After multiple successful wars against France and the Netherlands, vast colonies were created in Canada, Australasia, the West Indian islands, West Africa and India. As a result, larger and larger numbers of missionaries, explorers and travelers ventured into these parts to report upon them.[43] As Pratt argues, “travel writing made imperial expansion meaningful and desirable to the citizenries of the imperial countries” while it gave “European reading publics a sense of ownership, entitlement and familiarity with respect to the distant parts of the world that were being explored, invaded, invested in and colonized.”[44] Helen Carr states that it was particularly in the heyday of the British Empire, the time period between 1880 and 1940, when travel writing not only condoned but outright supported the nation’s imperialist expansion.[45] The amount of travel writing that has come out since (and before that period) is, of course, abundant. What follows is therefore only a small selection that is supposed to illustrate that the distinctive elements of the colonial and the cultural angst have ever been present in travel writing of the period and, as a subtext, still persist in the British novels presented here.

Notable for travel writing about India is, to begin with, Rudyard Kipling’s Letters of Marque (1887-1888), a series of travel sketches that were initially published in the all-Indian newspaper Pioneer, and later collected together in the first volume of From Sea to Sea[46] Its narrative loosely revolves around the observations and adventures of an ‘Englishman’ (Kipling’s alter-ego) on the road, who communicates with a variety of people he encounters along the way, like Residents, carriage drivers, salesman, stable-boys and tourists.[47] There are clear parallels to the narrative of Sutcliffe. Letters of Marque also begins with an English traveler’s desire to travel as a form of escape from a “stale and claustrophobic” lifestyle. He is somebody who “knows” India and is sensitive towards its culture, whereas other Englishman are “Globe Trotters” who pretend to know the places they travel to but are, in fact, merely experts on banalities like hotels and food.[48] [49] Tellingly though, the ‘Englishmen’ has a phobia of “native bodies” and hence avoids contact with them since he fears “an invasion of private space and a deracination of self”.[50] Because Kipling’s narratives are generally regarded as discourses on colonialism in which India is a place of alterity and potential threat that challenges colonial authorities and tourists alike, cultural angst is often a part of these narratives. As Jo Collins states For Kipling [...] India, as a space and people to be ruled, must be seen as ‘other’, yet the uncanny threat which may lurk within this alterity must be surpressed in order for imperial rule to continue securely. However, when the uncanny threat becomes literalised the colonizer experiences terror; not only individually, but also where alterity threatens to undermine the colonial project itself.[51]

Kipling’s short story The City of Dreadful Night, whose title is derived from a poem by James Thomson, has a similar tone as it is a descent into the underworld of Calcutta as a symbol of menace. The capital city of India was a symbol for travel writers because it was the epitome of the prosperity of British rule, but at the same time it symbolized the anxieties of the colonizer: fear of the people, the place, of contamination and disease.[52] The ‘terror’ towards the ‘uncanny’ is apparently deeply embedded within the colonial traveler’s psyche, something that Sutcliffe picks up on when Dave, upon arriving in India, observes the inhabitants:

It wasn’t that they looked physically different, or even that they were wearing weird clothes. There was something else I couldn’t put my finger on that looked completely alien. Something in the way they moved, and in their facial expressions. Whatever it was, it scared the shit out of me. (AYE, 10)

In the twentieth century then, J.R. Ackerley’s Hindoo Holiday: An Indian Journey (1932) is noteworthy, because it also heavily satirizes the British in India. Ackerley's narration is a memoir of his brief engagement as secretary to an Indian Maharaja in the city of Chhatarpur. Less arch in tone but nonetheless an authority in British travel writing about India is E.M.

Forster with A Passage to India (1924) and The Hill of Devi (1953). Both are based on Forster’s experiences in India.

In the early 1960’s, post-tourism travel writing emerges, with an emphasis on inscrutability, paradox and interrelationships.[53] This is particularly articulated in the travel writings of V.S Naipaul, whose multi-nationality (he was born in Trinidad but grew up in England) gives him a distinct outsider perspective. His first impressions of India were recorded in the non- fictional An Area of Darkness (1964), where the subcontinent is “a land of abject poverty, dirt, and defacation.”[54] Blanton furthermore observes that Naipaul finds in India an “inherent disorder of a postcolonial society that has been both improved and irreparably damaged by the years of Western dominance.”[55] The crux of Naipaul’s dilemma as he travels to places like India, Africa, or the Middle-East is, according to Blanton, the awareness that “there is no going back to the realm of myth and magic in which tradition is rooted, yet the shoddiness of what passes for progress in these places angers and saddens him.”[56] [57] The author’s nostalgia is also noticed by Nixon who states that Naipaul’s “...notion of the ‘real’ India is overdetermined by his lifelong mythologizing of it; he requires of this other, personally abstracted country that it complete his identity, allowing him to become (to use a term he favors) a ‘whole man.’”

This nostalgic attitude is not a postmodern phenomenon. It is a result of the intersection between the “real” and the imagined India, in which the ‘colonizing imagination’ always looks into the past where the ‘true’ India of the ‘Golden Age’ can be found. As Singh states, this contradiction of first colonizing a place and then lamenting its bygone era as part of a nostalgic projection, already emerged in the eighteenth century, when the “classical past” was contrasted with contemporary “images of disarray and decadence”.[58] He goes on to say that “when India gained independence in 1947, a centralized, class-based nation-state was buttressed by an idealist version of India’s glorious past wherein lay the universal “essence” of Indianness.”[59] A sort of nostalgic evocation of the past occurs in Are You Experienced? as well. Having seen mostly dirt and poverty, Dave suddenly meets an “oldish man” (AYE, 169) by whom he is invited into his house. Upon entering, Dave is surprised “how much it looked like an English one: TV set in the corner, a few chairs, a rug, pictures on the wall. Everything seemed pretty recognizable, really.” (AYE, 170). The host, who introduces himself by the name of Charles A. Tripathi junior, turns out to be a descendant of British Christian missionaries.[60] His strong English vernacular combined with an almost stiff sense of politeness evoke images of the archetypical English ‘gentleman’ and, at the same time, indirectly refers to pre-independent India as a ‘better time’:

‘Oh, most assuredly. Johnny, Peter and Freddie were the names of my three closest chums.

Of course, they all departed after 1947.’

‘All of them?’

‘Partition, old chap. A lot of good eggs decamped pretty sharpish.’

‘That’s terrible.And.. .er, why did you have so many English friends?’

‘British, old boy. One musn’t forget our Caledonian compatriots. Freddie was a Scot, you see.’ The English gentleman figure is, in fact, a self-ironic figure through which nostalgia is filtered in contemporary - especially British - travel writing.[61] As Holland and Huggan remark:

Hopelessly behind the times, perversely guarding a code of honorable conduct long since superseded, the latter-day English gentleman-explorer becomes the figure for a genre itself outmoded, a genre of adventure writing that simultaneously laments and celebrates its own imagined obsolescence.[62]

Sutcliffe here seems to bring together not only two entirely different generations, but different types of English travelers at that. Dave as a representative of the postmodern English backpacker on the one side is juxtaposed with the old man as a remnant of British India. The conversation then is marked by a strong sense of anachronism. Dave’s host clings very much to the nostalgic, stating things like “English schooling is still the best in the world, I am pleased to see.” (AYE, 172) and, convinced to see in Dave a reflection of himself, continuing “You have the mark of a gentleman stamped all over you.” (AYE, 172). Dave on the other hand shows a distinct lack of common knowledge of his own country (for example, upon asked whether he is Christian and a member of the C of E, he does not know that the latter stands for Church of England) as well as ignorance. Finally departing, his conclusion of the meeting is telling:

Although we hadn’t really managed much of a conversation, and I’d been mostly bored out of my skull, I felt that the visit marked a significant and positive watershed. I had actually gone inside an Indian house. Gone inside, sat down and talked to a real Indian person [...].

Previously, I’d never been able to get beyond the odd glance through a window or door, but now I’d actually broken through. I had seen the real India. I had discovered how people lived. (AYE, 172)

For Dave then, the ‘real’ India which he prides himself on having found is very much like his native soil. He is not aware what kind of person he just met but is nonetheless convinced that he talked to a ‘real Indian person.’ His own obliviousness towards the meaning of this experience is a sign of his unreliable character.[63] It is furthermore telling that Dave feels at home and comfortable in India only when, of all people, he is in the presence of a man who represents the missionary colonial roots. Sutcliffe here shows that the postmodern English traveler is - perhaps often unconsciously - merely a rehash of the modern one and an extension of the old colonial structures. He travels abroad to meet the ‘other’ and to experience exoticness, but when confronted with otherness, he flees into the familiar. Another utterance of Dave only confirms this. While traveling to Kerala on train together with two British girls, he listens to a Pink Floyd CD. He states that “if you had seen what I saw, you would know that the Indian countryside was designed with a Pink Floyd soundtrack in mind”(AYE, 152). Dave is able to appreciate the country and its otherness only when filtered through western culture and conceptions, that is, his ‘colonial gaze’. The mere thought of traveling on his own frightens him (AYE, 122) because he would be forced to expose himself to him to the alterity of an unknown space. Accordingly, when he tries to communicate with others, it is always with other travelers or, as seen above, with former colonial ones. A real contact is evaded, for as he states: “I dunno - it’s as if the best bits - the bits that feel most like India - are the places where you don’t have to talk to any Indians” (AYE, 94).

1.2.2 The Beach - South-East Asia as Africa

With regards to the actual and implied geographies of The Beach, it is particularly Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) that pervades the subtext of Garland’s narrative. Heart of Darkness, which Cedric Watts characterizes as a “rich, vivid, layered, and problematic novella” about British colonialism in Africa is decidedly ambiguous and paradoxical.[64] He goes on to say that Conrad’s novel was “ahead of its time” because it was “intelligently of them; Conrad addressed issues of the day with such alert adroitness and ambiguity that he anticipated many twentieth-century preoccupations.”[65]

Some of these preoccupations are indeed reflected in Garland’s novel. A few central paradoxes that Watts identifies in Heart of Darkness are:

a. ) Civilization can be barbaric. It is both a hypocritical veneer and a valuable achievement to be vigilantly guarded.
b. ) Society saves us from corruption, yet society is corrupt.
c. ) Morality is a sham. Without it, human beings become sham humans.[66]

The novel’s title is already a juxtaposition of two seemingly incongruous words that provoke different images in the reader’s mind; the more or less positive associations of ‘heart’ (love, truth, emotionality, paradise) are set against ‘darkness’ (unknown, evil, savagery, death). Such being the case, the composition ‘Heart of Darkness’ overrides the positive associations of ‘heart’ and at the same time increases the negative effect of ‘darkness’ because the novel apparently takes place not only somewhere in the darkness, but at the very core of it. The title therefore elicits a disquieting, even alarming feeling because it contains something inscrutable. Similarly, Garland’s title ‘The Beach’ may initially appear rather plain and unobtrusive, yet in its harmlessness (which is almost too obvious) it achieves, to a lesser degree perhaps, the same effect. As a geographical space, the beach is in modernity associated with positive things like leisure, freedom, purity, nature, consistency, sexuality, regeneration, in short, paradise.[67] However, as Ron Blaber notes with regards to the meaning of the shore in Heart of Darkness, there is a “lingering but powerful pre-modern figure of the beach as a place of risk” because the “colonial coast” also signifies an unknowable territory and an “unsettling contact zone.”[68] In pre-modern times, the beach was furthermore a place “where the monsters of the deep, in their time of death, were cast ashore as a reminder of what dangers and evils lay beyond.”[69] Garland’s designation of not just a beach but the beach implies that the novel deals with a unique place, but what exactly this uniqueness constitutes of remains unclear. The title seems to echo ‘paradise’ somewhat but, in an uncomfortable way, also hints at the possible failure, or even foolishness of such a notion.


[1] Elliott, Anthony; Lemert, Charles: The New Individualism - The Emotional Costs ofGlobalisation (Revised Edition), London: Routledge, p.94

[2] Evans, Andrew (2001): This Virtual Life - Escapism and Simulation in our Media World, London: Fusion Press, p.5

[3] Longeway, John L.: The Rationality of Escapism and Self-Deception, in: Behaviour and Philosophy, Vol.18, No.2, Fall/Winter 1990, pp.1-20, here: p.1

[4] see also Longeway, 1990, p.l

[5] Gutjahr, Ortrud (2007): Einführung in den Bildungsroman, Darmstadt: WBG, p.9

[6] Ibid., p.8

[7] www.oxforddictionaries.com, Bildungsroman, [20/11/2012]

[8] Boes, Tobias (2012): Formative Fictions - Nationalism, Cosmpolitanism and the Bildungsroman, Cornell: University Press, p.1

[9] „...die von staatlichen und gesellschaftlichen Normen freie individuelle Entwicklung des Einzelnen zu einem höheren, positiven Ziel.", in: Selbmann, Rolf (1994): Der deutsche Bildungsroman, 2.Auflage, Stuttgart: Metzler, p.2

[10] as Jürgen Jacobs and Markus Krause point out: "Das Wort Bildung nämlich kann vieles meinen, zum Beispiel einen Entwicklungsprozess, aber auch den Zustand am Ende eines solchen Prozesses und ebenso den Begriff kultureller Werte, aus dem ein Einzelner, eine soziale Schicht oder ein Volk ihre geistige Existenz begründet. [...] Durch reine Worterklärung ist daher dem Gattungsbegriff, und das heißt zugleich: dem zentralen, die Gattungsgemeinsamkeit begründenden Thema nicht beizukommen." They go on to quote an „anglo-saxon critic" who notes that „any generalisation about the Bildungsroman as a genre is apt to be bedevilled by the variant meanings of the word ,Bildung' in German." (Jacobs, Jürgen; Krause, Markus (1989): Der deutsche Bildungsroman, München: C.H Beck, p.19)

[11] Dilthey, Wilhelm (1906): Das Erlebnis und die Dichtung, in: Malsch, Gabriele (ed.)(2005): Wilhelm Dilthey - Gesammelte Schriften, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck&Ruprecht, p.252

[12] Saariluoma, Liisa (2004): Erzählstruktur und Bildungsroman, Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, p.8

[13] Jürgen; Krause, 1989, p.37 ff.

[14] Doub A., Yolanda (2010): Journeys of Formation: The Spanish-American Bildungsroman (currents in comparative Romance languages and literatures), New York: Peter Lang Publishing, p.3

[15] Selbmann, 1994, p.34

[16] Cf. Rosenthal, Caroline: Thoreau's Long Shadow: Ideas of Wilderness and Wildness in John Krakauer's book and Sean Penn's Film Into the Wild, in: Archivfür das Studium der Neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 247.2 (2010): 303-316.

[17] Page numbers referto: Krakauer Jon (2007): Into The Wild, London: Pan Books

18 Unpublished manuscript of Lah, Joseph; Zonn, Leo: Crossing to the imaginary: Bildungsroman, Mobility and Into the Wild, p.4. At this point, I would like to thank the authors for allowing me to cite their work.

[19] Jürgen; Krause, 1989, p.37 ff.

[20] Penn broke his film up into a prologue and five chapters: "My Own Birth", "Adolescence", "Manhood", "Family", and "Getting of Wisdom". The film will be discussed more extensively in a chapter of its own.

[21] Cf. Lah, Joseph; Zonn, Leo: Crossing to the imaginary: Bildungsroman, Mobility and Into the Wild, p.8

[22] Bowen, Roger (2007): Journey's End - Conrad as Revenant in Alex Garland's 'The Beach', in: Conradiana, Volume 39, No.1, pp.39-47, p.3. The novel can be regarded as a Bildungsroman. It recounts the Second World War experiences of a young British boy in Shanghai. Upon the Japanese invasion, he gets separated from his parents and lives alone throughout the turmoil of war before being reunited with his family in the end.

23 Ibid., p.3. More on the connection between Heart of Darkness and The Beach in the chapter on travel literature

[24] The page numbers refer to: Garland, Alex (1997): The Beach, London: Penguin Books

[25] The page numbers refer to: Sutcliffe, William (1998): Are You Experienced?, London: Penguin Books

[26] Levin, Stephen M.(2008): The Contemporary Anglophone Travel Novel - The Aesthetics of Self-Fashioning in an Era ofGlobalization, London: Routledge, p.74

[27] Cf. Moretti, Franco (2000): The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture - New Edition, London: Verso, p.15

28 Leggett, Bianca (2011): Baggage Claims - The figure of the English backpacker in the contemporary travel novel, in: JPCS, Vol. 1 & 2 January-April 2011, http://www.ipcs.in, p.9

[29] Cf. Pordzik, Ralph (2005): The Wonder of Travel - Fiction, Tourism and theSocial Construction of the Nostalgic, Heidelberg: Winter, p.3

[30] Raban, Jonathan (1988): For Love & Money: Writing, Reading, Travelling 1968-1987, London: Picador, pp.253-54

[31] Borm, Jan: Defining Travel - On the Travel Book, Travel Writing and Terminology, in: Hooper, Glen; Youngs, Tim (ed.)(2004): Perspectives on Travel Writing, Cornwall: Ashgate, p.13

[32] Ibid.,p.13

[33] Blanton, Casey (2002): Travel Writing - The Self and The World, London: Routledge, p.2

[34] Thompson, Carl (2011): Travel Writing, London: Routledge, p.5

[35] Cf. Huggan, Graham (2009): Extreme Pursuits - Travel/Writing in an Age ofGlobalization, Michigan: University Press, p.130

[36] Levin, 2008, p.3

[37] Paes de Barros, Deborah: Driving that highway to consciousness - late 20th century American travel literature, in: Bendixen, Alfred; Hamera, Judith (ed.)(2009): The Cambridge Companion to American Travel Writing, Cambridge: University Press, p.229

[38] Roldan-Santiago, Serafín: V.S. Naipaul's Vulcanization of Travel and Fiction Paradigms, in: Ray, Mohit K. (2002): V.S. Naipaul-Critical Essays, Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, p.172

[39] Ibid., p.170

[40] Dissayanake, Wimal; Wickramagamage, Carmen (1993): Self and Colonial Desire - travel writings of V.S. Naipaul, New York: Peter Lang Publishing, p.21

Cf. Hatcher, John: Lonely Planet, Crowded World - Alex Garland's 'The Beach', in: Studies in Travel Writing, Vol.3, Issue 1, 1999, p.131-147, here: p.131

[42] Cf. Pratt, Mary Louise (2008): Imperial Eyes - Travel Writing and Transculturation, London: Routledge, p.3

[43] Bridges, Roy: Exploration and Travel outside Europe (1720 - 1914), in: Hulme, Peter; Youngs, Tim (ed.)(2002): The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing, Cambridge: University Press, pp.53-69, here: p.55

[44] Pratt, 2008, p.3

[45] Cf. Carr, Helen: Modernism and travel (1880 - 1940), in: Hulme, Peter; Youngs, Tim (ed.)(2002): The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing, Cambridge: University Press, pp.70-86, here: p.71

[46] Cf. Booth, Howard J.: Introduction, in: Booth, Howard J.(ed.)(2011): The Cambridge Companion to Rudyard Kipling, Cambridge: University Press, pp.1-6, here: p.2

[47] Cf. Ching-Liang Low, Gail (1996): White Skins/Black Masks - Representation and Colonialism, London: Routledge, p.136

[48] Ibid., p.138

[49] Cf. Sullivan, Zohreh T.(1993): Narratives of Empire - Thefictions of Rudyard Kipling, Cambridge: University Press, p.19

[50] Ching-Liang Low, 1996, p.137

[51] Collins, Jo: The Alterity of Terror: Reading Kipling's 'Uncanny' India, in: Rooney, Caroline; Nagai, Kaori (ed.)(2010): Kipling and Beyond - Patriotism, Globalisation and Postcolonialism, pp. 79-100, here: p.83

[52] Cf. Teltscher, Kate: India/Calcutta: city of palaces and dreadful night, in: Hulme, Peter; Youngs, Tim (ed.)(2002): The Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing, Cambridge: University Press, pp.191-206, here: p.195

Blanton, 2002, p.83

[54] Teltscher, 2002, p.194

[55] Blanton, 2002, p.83

[56] Ibid., p.86

[57] Nixon, Rob (1992): London Calling - l/.S. Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin, Oxford: University Press, p.81

[58] Singh, G. Jyotsna (1996): Colonial Narratives/Cultural Dialogues, London: Routledge, p.3

[59] Ibid.,p.3

It is also possible that he is supposed to be a member of the Church of South India, a foreign branch of the Anglican Church of England that was created in September 1947. See also Abraham, C.E.: The Rise and Growth of Christianity in India, in: Sharma, K. Suresh; Sharma, Usha (ed.)(2004): Cultural and Religious Heritage of India, Vol.4, New Delhi: A Mittal Publications, pp. 17-47, here: p.26

[61] Cf. Holland, Patrick; Huggan, Graham: Varieties of Nostalgia in Contemporary Travel Writing, in: Hooper, Glen; Youngs, Tim (ed.)(2004): Perspectives on Travel Writing, Cornwall: Ashgate, pp. 139-151, here: p.141

[62] Ibid., p.141

More to this in the chapter on unreliable narration

[64] Watts, Cedric: Heart of Darkness, in: Stape, J.H (ed.)(1996): The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad, Cambridge: University Press, pp.45-63, here: p.45

[65] Ibid., p.45

Ibid., p.47

[67] See also Lencek, Lena; Bosker, Gideon (1998): The Beach - The History of Paradise on Earth, New York: Viking Press

[68] Cf. Blaber, Ron: Colonial Coastlines - 'Unsettled' Settlements, in: Hosking, Susan; Hosking, Rick; Pannell, Rebecca; Bierbaum, Nena (ed.)(2009): Something Rich and Strange - Sea Changes, Beaches and the Littoral in the Antipodes, Adelaide: Wakefield Press, pp.305-314, here: p.311 ff.

[69] Ibid., p.308

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'Places Of Longing': The Escapist motif in the works of Garland, Sutcliffe and Krakauer
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Hannes Krehan (Author), 2013, 'Places Of Longing': The Escapist motif in the works of Garland, Sutcliffe and Krakauer, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/262597


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