*Note: I started writing this post as an attempt to capture my observation of the role of orphans in stories, I didn’t mean it to be this serious. Apologies for the sort of “academic” tone.
There have been numerous orphan protagonists in various works of literature. Besides Anne Shirley, we have Cinderella, Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, Harry Potter, the Baudelaire siblings, Dorothy Gale, Mary Lennox, Heidi, Huckleberry Finn, and Tarzan among others. Before I started writing and researching for this post, I never imagined there were that many fictional orphans. Why are orphans and their journeys interesting?
Caroline Myss writes of the archetype of the orphan child:
The Orphan Child is the major character in most well known children’s stories, including Little Orphan Annie, the Matchstick Girl, Bambi, the Little Mermaid, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, Cinderella, and many more. The pattern in these stories is reflected in the lives of people who feel from birth as if they are not a part of their family, including the family psyche or tribal spirit. Yet precisely because orphans are not allowed into the family circle, they have to develop independence early in life. (Source)
In elementary school, we are taught that family is the basic unit of society. Orphans are defined as having lost one or both parents — rendering them without that basic form of community most of us possess at birth. Family is a child’s first source of belongingness and identity. Orphans, then, are the outsiders of society, left to make their own connections and circles in the world. In stories about orphans, our fears of being abandoned and left alone are drawn out.
While the lack of a family most often causes abandonment and neglect, orphans are in a special position to create their own identity and eventual “destiny.” As kids, we begin building our identities and our possible futures based on the lives of our parents and the opportunities available to them. Orphans like Anne Shirley can develop traits like imagination, sensitivity, resourcefulness, and survival skills earlier than most children would have, if they even ever did.
In Anne Shirley’s case, she was orphaned as a baby. She was passed from the Thomases to the Hammonds and finally to Hopeton Assylum. She had no friends, was (possibly) physically and emotionally maltreated, and learned to be responsible for her own well-being at a very early age. But Anne had a special “shield” that protected her from all this: her imagination. Unloved and unwanted, Anne was able to imagine for herself a different future, a different life. She made-up her own friends, she speculated on the other orphans’ histories, and she was able to squeeze hope out of her fantasies.
I find orphans in literature fascinating because they have a unique perspective. Their reality is based on their personal experience rather than what their parents taught them of the world. Fictional orphans are often observant and they can be used as a device to judge the intentions or actions of the other characters.
Fictional orphans will eventually come into a family of their own — whether good or bad. Anne had Matthew and Marilla, Dorothy was adopted by Aunt Em and Uncle Henry, Heidi was taken in by her grandfather, and Mary Lennox came to live with her uncle and cousin. In several books, orphans like Harry Potter, Tarzan, and Dorothy Gale had special “destinies” in their worlds. Their presence and actions change history. This is true even of Esther, a biblical orphan.
But in books like Anne of Green Gables, the focus of the stories are on the orphans themselves and how they come to affect the people around them. Anne, in the first book of the series, was at first socially unbridled and she acted unabashedly on her desires. But these very qualities gave her air of uniqueness in the small town of Avonlea, slowly endearing her to everyone.
Anne is a person with unusual persuasive “power” because she does not always adhere to her society’s preset rules of interaction and socialization. This is clearly displayed when Anne won over the friendship of old Josephine Barry just by attempting to apologize for jumping on her bed and appealing to the imagination of the old woman. (Other books with similar themes are Heidi, The Secret Garden, Pollyanna, and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm)
My three favorite orphan books are Anne of Green Gables (but, of course!), Daddy Long Legs, and Jane Eyre. I especially like Daddy Long Legs for its journal format that gives readers a direct perspective on how Judy Abbott relates with other people and how she aims to make her own fortune in the world. All three protagonists are smart and capable women who set out to make something of themselves despite lacking worldly connections and wealth.
The reason why stories about orphans appeal to me is because they give me hope. These characters managed to not only survive but thrive in a world where the odds are against them. Even without the guidance and protection of parents, the fictional orphans that I am familiar with rose above their circumstances and lived (relatively) fulfilled lives. If Anne Shirley could do it, surely so can I.