*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. Continue reading