Top 10 escapes in literature

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To say that “escape” is a broad term in popular literature is an understatement. It can refer to pushing boundaries and attempting to escape from your social station, in stories such as Great Expectations or The Grapes of Wrath. It could imply a personal escape from one’s inner turmoil, as in The Catcher in the Rye.

However, the kind of escape I am interested in – and the kind I have explored in my book The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall – is a physical escape. The book explores the early years after the Wall’s construction began in 1961 and the daring attempts (some successful, many not) by young West Germans to bring to freedom friends, lovers, family members and even strangers. They didn’t have to outsmart brutal jailers. Instead they contended with East German police and military and the Stasi secret police, not to mention British and American officials and intelligence operatives, while avoiding – or at times soliciting – dramatic media coverage.

1. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1845)
The pinnacle of prison escape novels, Dumas’ novel is a tale of suffering and retribution. The eponymous count escapes his prison confines and retrieves a hoard of treasure, setting in motion his justified revenge. Our sympathies always remain with the innocent Edmond Dantès, and we relish every second of his reprisal.

2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859)
Yes, we may remember Madame LaFarge and the closing execution scene, but the plot actually pivots on the Sidney Carton/Charles Darnay prison switcheroo. And the memorable line tied to the escape: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

3. The Return of the King by JRR Tolkien (1955)
Sometimes the point of an escape in literature is to test human endurance or to explore themes of brutality and cruelty. At other times, the point of an escape is to provide thrilling suspense with a satisfying climax. Frodo and Sam’s escape from Mount Doom with the help of the Great Eagles is the seamless ending to this epic adventure, the majestic Eagles acting as a purifying moment after this arduous journey.

4. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré (1963)
Le Carré’s breakthrough novel makes an appearance in my book, noting that it was written by the spy master in the very year I follow in Berlin (1962). The Berlin Wall had just gone up and escapes in any and all forms were attempted daily. The book concludes with the memorable scene atop the Wall as hero Alec Leamas attempts to help his lover Liz Gold over the barrier – but she falls backs as gunfire erupts and instead of jumping to safety in the west he leaps back to the east and certain death.

5. Papillon by Henri Charrière (1969)
Described as “the greatest adventure story of all time” by Auguste Le Breton, Henri Charrière’s autobiography presents escaping as a sport. Over the 14 years of Papillon’s life that we follow, he escapes multiple prison islands in ingenious ways, never giving up on his quest for freedom. Papillion is an exuberant hero who fully exemplifies the human spirit. (It’s no wonder almost all of the titles I’ve listed were made into prominent movie dramas.)

6. Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King (1982)
There is no character we root for in this oddly titled novella more than Andy Dufresne. Andy’s resolution is idyllic to say the least, as his unbelievably well-organised escape – from tunnelling through the prison wall to the black rock hiding a crucial letter – works perfectly in his favour, leaving the reader with a smug sense of satisfaction as the duped prison warden is left scratching his head.

7. Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington (1992)
Having to escape an institution that has been sanctioned by the government to support prejudicial and extremist philosophies is not unusual in literature. After all, history has given us many real-life events to draw upon. But Pilkington’s novel, focusing on the “stolen generation” of Indigenous Australian children removed from their families by government agencies, is particularly unsettling because it explores a period of history not often discussed and because the escapees are children.

8. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
Hosseini has called The Kite Runner’s protagonist Amir “an unlikable coward who failed to come to the aid of his best friend”. While Hosseini’s assertions are true, this is perhaps the greatest strength of the novel. Feeling no direct sympathy for Amir, the reader can assess the circumstances depicted with a degree of objectivity and feel a greater repulsion for the atrocities that take place in Afghanistan – creating more sympathy for the people who, unlike Amir, could not escape.

9. Room by Emma Donoghue (2010)
Donoghue’s story of a young boy called Jack and his resourceful ma, held captive and forced to exist solely in “Room”, is a very different kind of escape novel. Told entirely from the innocent point of view of Jack, who has no experience of the outside world, the escape itself is a gruelling moment as we desperately hope that this confused and vulnerable child will be able to save himself and his mother. But what really makes this novel so distinct is its depiction of the aftermath; there is no immediate fist-in-the-air triumph, but a long and difficult struggle to return to normality after a traumatic event.

10. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016)
And let’s close with a current novel, which won the National Book Award in the US and has been published to favourable reviews in the UK. You might say it is one long escape saga, as slaves in the American south attempt to make their way to freedom in the north at great risk. (The tunnels under the Berlin Wall that I wrote about in my book were often referred to as a kind of underground railroad.) This may sound like academic nonfiction, but Whitehead brilliantly introduces the fantasy of actual underground trains ferrying people to the north. “Two steel rails ran the visible length of the tunnel,” Whitehead writes, “pinned into the dirt by wooden crossties. The steel ran south and north presumably, springing from some inconceivable source and shooting toward a miraculous terminus.”

  • The Tunnels: Escapes Under the Berlin Wall by Greg Mitchell is published by Random House.