Literature is chock full of orphans. There are so many orphans in storyland, you have to wonder whether an epidemic was killing off most couples at any given time in history. To name just a few of the better known ones off the top of my head: Harry Potter, Batman, Jane Eyre, Tarzan, Anne of Green Gables, Emily of New Moon, Heidi, Mary Lennox of The Secret Garden, Pollyanna, Little Orphan Annie, Oliver, David Copperfield, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz, Kinsey Milhone, the kick-ass private eye of the alphabet mystery series, and Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights.
Then there were the children who were orphaned for a short time, such as the girls in Little Women, and the children in Narnia. Their prime adventures seemed to happen in the absence of parents. Nancy Drew had only her father. Many of these orphans had relatives that took them in and gave them good homes, and instilled in them the love of duty, hard work, and great wisdom. They were the lucky ones, I guess.
Others, such as Heathcliff and Jane Eyre, felt like outsiders forever, and experienced such awful humiliations and agonies growing up, they vowed vengeance on their persecutors (always an exciting prospect in any book) and thus is a plot born.
There must be something about having parents who are alive and well that takes the mystery of a person’s evolution right out of the realm of imagination, and eliminates the excitement of the unknown. It is a little like watching a trapeze artist who works without a net. If he falls, he is toast. If he has a net below him, the thrill is gone for the audience, and the medical community can sleep more peacefully, albeit poorer, at night.
To spring unsung from the womb of the earth, with no one to tell you what you can and cannot do, appeals to our sense of individuality, and our sense of pathos; to our desire to meet challenges alone, and our longing to rise above the agony of being abhorred by an uncaring public who has no clue who we really are.
We love the bitterness and the bleakness of the the little princess in the attic who has no one’s lap in which to lay her head, and no one to stroke her brow in sympathy. This bathos appeals to all those who lie in bed at night, wondering who their ‘real’ families are; they are positive they were adopted at birth, because they can see no resemblance between themselves and these people with whom they are forced to live.
Often these literary orphans live with guardians (who later marry them, which is kind of pervy) or with maiden aunts. These maiden aunts may be devoted to their little foundling, or they may be hard taskmasters, who show little emotion. Sometimes there are two aunts, and one is hard, the other soft. There is very little mention of which parent to whom the aunts were related, although we generally know.
If the parent was the mother, she was a silly little thing, who insisted on marrying that good-for-nothing. If it was the father, he was a stubborn boy who was determined to marry that flibbertigibbet. If parents are conveniently gone, they flourish in a lonely imagination as the jet setting, glamorous intellectuals we wish to become, instead of those embarrassing people we are forced to introduce to our friends. Or, perhaps they were royalty, and all of those kids who make fun of us will be sorry someday.
I have been building a theory for some time that children raised without parents are the foundation of our ailing nation. They are the ones who achieve wealth and status in the community, whether because of the upbringing bestowed upon them by an emotionally detached, and therefore more stable, relative, or through the motivation of bringing some longed-for vengeance down upon some very deserving heads.
As for orphans such as Tarzan, he is the embodiment of the dream of being able to live in your own tree house, swing from a rope with no one saying you are going to kill yourself if you don’t come down from there right this minute, and being able to bring all your wildlife friends into the house to sleep in your bed. What could be better?
How many times have we dreamed as children, and adults, of that happy day when everyone would respect, envy, and fear us? Tarzan, Batman, Harry Potter, Dorothy, all can strike some of those qualities into people’s hearts. How cool would that be?