Monday, May 16, 2011

On Orphans in Literature

Recently, I read two novels that had as their main character an orphan.  Both were set in modern times; neither was an adventure or fantasy book.  In both cases, the parents were lost in automobile accidents and the main characters were sent to live with eccentric and emotionally unstable relatives.  And I found myself thinking about my own upbringing in modern times and how few true orphans seemed to exist.  Advances in medicine have pretty much eliminated plagues in developed countries and unless you’re in a war-torn area, your chances of losing both parents in childhood are probably slim.  And it got me thinking about all the famous orphans of literature—Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Huck Finn, Harry Potter, et. al.—and why this is such a popular choice for writers.
Wikipedia, as it always does, had an answer:

“The lack of parents leaves the characters to pursue more interesting and adventurous lives, by freeing them from familial obligations and controls, and depriving them of more prosaic lives.  It creates characters that are self-contained and introspective and who strive for affection.”

Who writes this stuff?  In the case of one of the books I recently read, I felt that the main character’s orphaned status served as an excuse, a crutch.  The character was unable to have any type of “normal” life.  The writer used the fact of her orphaning as a device to allow the character to act in totally irresponsible and atypical ways.  This particular character could not properly relate to any other person; she was a social misfit, a pariah from the rest of the world (a characterization, by the way, I might take offense to if I was an orphan).  And it struck me as sort of a lazy characterization ploy, this removing of the parents.  Because what’s more difficult, more multi-faceted, more abundant with opportunities for excavation, than the parent-child relationship?

Again, our expert at Wikipedia:

“Parents, furthermore, can be irrelevant to the theme a writer is trying to develop, and orphaning the character frees the writer from the necessity to depict such an irrelevant relationship.”

“Irrelevant relationship?”  I’m no psychologist, but I think this Wikipedia contributor may need to explore his relationship with his parents, in therapy.

I’d be interested to hear from writers who have written an orphaned main character and what your reasoning was, what freedoms it gave you in the writing, what drawbacks.  Maybe I’ve spent too much time in my books dealing with the ripples of childhood, the influence of parents, and that is why so many of my characters are depressed!


  1. The parent-child,father-daughter relationship between the paranoid Gerard and his seven-year-old, Rosie, was absolutely pivotal to - and the raison d'être for - my novel "A Child from the Wishing Well," so this draws me to your article.

    As if by default, Gerard's paranoia made him doubt and agonise over the sincerity of his affection for his daughter and not only left him often inept and numbed to the closeness which is normally the joy of a parent-child relationship, but which also left Rosie a kind of 'emotional orphan'.

    I burned to explore this concept; the emotional rift between father and daughter, when a father nevertheless yearned to feel normal and to give to his child the affection that a 'normal' father could give.

    Forgive me the preamble - particularly if it seems self-serving. I make it only because I hope it will make it self-evident to you that the writer of the Wikipedia article entirely misses the power and centrality that parent-child relationships can so effectively assume in a novel, quite contrary to the view that the relationship needs to be conveniently sidelined as a plot device to accelerate pace.

    In so far as Rosie was an 'emotional orphan' or felt emotionally ostracised by he to whom she most wanted to matter, then I needed no 'freedom' to shift to anything more sensational and I would have found that cheap.

    As a father, a novelist and holding a degree in psychology, I would say that I do not think that you or I could ever spend too much time exploring "the ripples of childhood, the influence of parents..."

    Without those ripples, we would not have had the child who was driven to do what Hitler did, not the child who became Mother Teresa, nor the ten-year-old dreamer by the riverbank who composed the beautiful music of Edward Elgar.

    Raymond Nickford

  2. I have to say that I am often puzzled when mature people use as an excuse their "upbringing" maybe the loss of both parents is an extreme case and would naturally have an impact but at what point do we "grow up" and take responsibility for our own actions, surely we can't blame childhood for ever.


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka