Watching Hugo reminded me of the great popularity of orphan heroes in literature. Many successful fairy tales, children’s stories, and novels are about orphans, or about children separated by circumstances from their home and family. Great Expectations, Oliver, Jane Eyre, The Secret Garden, Heidi, Anne of Green Gables, The Narnia Stories, The Golden Compass series, The Homecoming and Dicey’s Song, The Great Gilly Hopkins, Kim, Little Orphan Annie, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn… and HARRY POTTER!
The young people in these stories are on their own, free from parental supervision and interference. They can make their own decisions and find their own solutions. Their intelligence and character are what count… and this reassures their young readers that they, too, would be able to dig deep and find the courage and resourcefulness to cope and succeed on their own.
Then to-day at Arts and Letters Daily, I found an essay about parental bonding. It begins by arguing that in our digital culture, where it is so easy to phone and text constantly, young people of even college age remain in much closer contact with their parents than was previously the norm. (Do we have a generation of “bubble wrapped” teens and young adults?)
Professor Terry Castle, in Don’t Pick Up, Why kids Need to Separate from their Parents, argues that separation is necessary, and that both “helicopter” parents and “snowplow” parents are over involved in the lives of her already over burdened students. During a discussion about this she shocks her class by blurting out, “”But when I was in school… all we wanted to do was get away from our parents!” “We never called our parents!” “We despised our parents!” “In fact,” I splutter—and this is the showstopper—“we only had one telephone in our whole dorm—in the hallway—for 50 people! If your parents called, you’d yell from your room, Tell them I’m not here!”
How times have changed!
Castle explains orphanhood as an archetype in literature…
Orphanhood conceived, that is, in the broadest sense: as a metaphor for modern human experience, as symbol for unhappy consciousness, as emblem of that groundwork—that inaugural experience of metaphysical solitude—that Martin Heidegger deemed necessary for the act of philosophizing. About orphanhood conceived, in other words, as a condition for world-making—as both the sorrow and creative quintessence of life.
She discusses Greek tragedies, Hamlet, Paradise Lost, many great classics, even Moll Flanders, and makes this enormous claim:
More than love, sex, courtship, and marriage; more than inheritance, ambition, rivalry, or disgrace; more than hatred, betrayal, revenge, or death, orphanhood—the absence of the parent, the frightening yet galvanizing solitude of the child—may be the defining fixation of the novel as a genre, what one might call its primordial motive or matrix, the conditioning psychic reality out of which the form itself develops.
… The novel, in its origin, might almost be said to be a transgressive mode, inasmuch as it seemed to break, or mix, or adulterate the existing genre-expectations of the time. It is not for nothing that many of the protagonists of the early English novels are socially displaced or unplaced figures—orphans, prostitutes, adventurers, etc. They thus represent or incarnate a potentially disruptive or socially unstabilized energy that may threaten, directly or implicitly, the organization of society, whether by the indeterminacy of their origin, the uncertainty of the direction in which they will focus their unbonded energy, or their attitude toward the ties that hold society together and that they may choose to slight or break.
Like the Prostitute or Adventurer, the Orphan embodies the new genre’s own picaresque “outlaw” dynamism.
I leave the rest of this detailed and rather long lecture for you to explore at your leisure. If you love books as I do, and have read widely in the classics, you may find it very thought-provoking.