Orphans are a go-to favorite for some authors. Think Harry Potter or Cinderella. Or perhaps Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, the boy who never could get enough of that slop his caretakers called porridge. Then, there is Dicken’s Great Expectations in which an orphan named Pip who falls in love with the young girl of whom he is enlisted to be the playmate. Of course, there is also Dicken’s David Copperfield. Man, did that Dickens have a thing for orphaned characters or what?
Orphan protagonists, especially in 19th century literature, were extremely popular with authors because such characters provide certain literary functions and possibilities. For authors, parentless kids, while at times tragically tear-jerking, have room to pursue certain things because they have little to no familial obligations. In a sense, they are free to run amok, providing ample opportunity to authors for adventures. It’s every kid’s dream really: playing with no parent supervision. Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn are good examples of this breed of orphan. The mischievous Tom Sawyer plays pirates and Indians, crashes his own funeral and clears an innocent man’s name of murder. He’s a savvy trickster of sorts, duping some neighborhood kids into paying him to finish his fence-painting chore. He also stumbles across a treasure chest of gold, a young boy’s childhood fantasy come alive. He’s the less obnoxious Bart Simpson of his day. But his buddy Huck is no Millhouse. Huck also lives like a freewheelin,’ happy-go-lucky orphan, though technically his drunk of a dad is still around but too incapacitated to be particularly fatherly. Even though Tom lives with his Aunt Polly, he moves with ease between the realm of family and the adventures of independence unlike a child with actual parents. Making both of these characters relative orphans gives Twain not only make their adventurs and their mischievous self-sufficiency possible, but it also gives them probability. Their exploits are much more believable without parents supervising or delegating chores. Though, if Tom did have a parent who gave him mundane tasks, we are pretty sure he’d find a way to get out of it.
But the orphan life is not all treasure and trickery. Authors can use their orphaned protagonists as metaphors for the human search for self-awareness and self-knowledge, as orphans are cut from their roots and have to redefine themselves in a world without the protective influence of parents. Enter Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre the classic story of a young orphaned girl who, despite the abuse of her family, pulls herself up through education to become a governess and teacher through hard work and perseverance. Of course, she finds out her reformed rake of a fiancé is already married to a madwoman in an attic who has a tendency for arson, but Jane Eyre nonetheless has the elements of the conventional rags-to-riches bildungsroman, a novel in which the character undergoes personal growth and development from childhood to adulthood. She suffers more hardship and responsibility than Tom or Huck do— perhaps because she is a woman—but her orphan status gives her a strong sense of independence and personal agency unlikely for most women during the mid-1800s, when the book was written. The orphan status of protagonists plays a large part in developing the character, opening them up to actions and adventures that are not only more plausible, but are also more ripe for the authors’ thematic picking.