Orphan Stories

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Orphan Stories


Works of children's literature that either feature orphaned children as protagonists or that examine orphans and child abandonment from the perspective of a young child.


Orphan stories chronicle the events surrounding abandoned children forced to navigate life independent of either their biological parents or parental figures. These tales are usually characterized by lost children struggling with issues of past, identity, and emotional security and are often sentimental in nature. A recurring motif throughout children's literature, orphan stories have proven popular among writers for the possibilities it offers in establishing a protagonist lacking either ties or an innate heritage, so as to fully develop the child hero from a blank slate without predetermined guidance. Their popularity may be, in part, due to the inherent sympathetic nature of the orphan, often playing off childhood insecurities about abandonment, displacement, and home. The usage of orphans in children's texts can be traced back to the origins of children's literature itself, with examples of abandoned children populating the mythic and literary traditions of many diverse cultures. Stretching from the canonical legends of such cultural paragons as England's King Arthur and Rome's Romulus and Remus—which depict mystical orphan children growing to epic greatness—to the biblical tradition of Moses, orphan narratives extend across the folkloric fabric of pre-history to the most modern examples of recent children's literature. The Victorian era particularly cherished the developing orphan story canon, with such authors as Charles Dickens establishing a concrete literary standard from which many contemporary orphan narratives are still drawn. Though often highly sentimental, these stories typically featured tragic elements, particularly with regards to establishing the narrator's orphan identity by detailing the deaths of the child's parents, or, in some cases, the dire fate of the child itself, as seen in such stories as Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Little Match Girl." From these conventions evolved a series of classic young girls' fiction that flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These turn-of-the-century orphan stories usually featured a plucky child orphan forced to live with emotionally detached relatives, as can be seen in Susan Coolidge's What Katy Did (1873), Johanna Spyri's Heidi (1880), Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess (1905), and L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (1908), among others. The use of the orphan as a literary protagonist remains an important literary device within contemporary children's fiction, adding an important mythic component to such present-day works as J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events books.

As a subgenre of children's literature, orphan narratives offer a recognizably formulaic plot with protagonists whom inspire inherent inborn sympathetic leanings from the reader. These orphan characters are also figures that can be built from scratch without inherent prejudice towards preconceived perspectives. These distinctions make them appealing protagonists, enabling the author to establish—through fundamental experience rather than familial constructs—a persona uniquely qualified to narrate adolescent growth. Melanie A. Kimball has suggested that these characters' lack of roots "symbolize our isolation from one another and from society. They do not belong to even the most basic of groups, the family unit, and in some cultures this is enough to cut them off from society at large. They are the eternal Other." This forced societal segregation engenders the reader's sympathy; lacking fundamental roots, the orphans are innately pitiable, noble, and fundamentally alone. Ironically, if, as Kimball has asserted, literary orphans are the personification of the "Other," their struggles for identity also make them symbolic of the so-called everyman, searching for place and self. "We are attracted to orphans in literature," Dirk P. Mattson has argued, "because they are the ‘common people.’ Orphans are heroes and heroines for us. We can identify with them, recognizing their feelings of insecurity as our own." At once distinctive and empathetic, orphan characters engender both compassion and understanding in the young reader, particularly through their embodiment of loss. Baruch Hochman and Ilja Wachs have described the orphan condition as "the ultimate reach of our ineluctable sense of loss." Ultimately, they have argued, this "radical sense of disinheritance, placelessness, and declassing that marks the orphan condition gives rise in the novels to an intense search for ways of reembodying the exposed and naked self."

In the young adult literature of the Romantic era, orphan stories often celebrated the tragic fates of their heroines, highlighting the orphan's perseverance and ability to overcome personal misfortune with cheer. The protagonists of such classic works of girls' fiction as the titular heroine from Pollyanna (1913) by Eleanor H. Porter and Susan Coolidge's Katy Carr of What Katy Did are saddled with not just the loss of their parents, but also with physical disability as well. As such, Joe Sutliff Sanders has stated, orphan novels of the late nineteenth century "make a point of instructing their weak characters (and readers) in the art of being pleasant, of being good invalids, orphans, or waifs." In the Romantic tradition, orphans were regularly used as emotional wellsprings meant to maximize the sentimental impact of their stories. In these narratives, sympathy, largely derived from the status of the abandoned child, drives the responses of the adult figures around them, enabling them to act with fresh insight that allow for, in the words of Claudia Nelson, "the spiritual and emotional uplift of adults," a process solely brought about by their interaction with the saintly orphan child. Such maudlin sentimentality is in direct contrast to the Naturalist school of literature, which sought to emphasize the role societal influences had upon characterization. "Naturalist theory," Nancy Tenfelde Clasby has noted, "focuses on the determining factors of heredity and environment and marginalizes free choice. It goes much farther than realism in emphasizing the dominance of impersonal forces over motivation and will." However, Clasby has claimed that such theories made for difficult storytelling, thus causing many writers to resort to the orphan archetype, that is, characters "in the pre-heroic state of development." Novellas such as Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) utilized their orphan protagonists to highlight issues of powerlessness and abandonment. "The perceptions of chronic orphans are so limited," Clasby has asserted, "and they behave with so little control or self-awareness that their lives resemble the fractured sequences proposed by naturalist theory. Writers discovered a new sympathy for characters whose validated the claims of determinist theory."

Beyond the portrayal of orphans in Romantic and Naturalist fiction, orphans have also been employed by many children's authors to show how society influences behavior under a variety of social conditions. Two of the most famous orphan protagonists of children's literature, Pip from Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (1861) and Huck from Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), are two such examples, created by their respective authors to propose two diametrically opposite goals. "In a new society of shifting social classes," Hana Wirth-Nesher has stated, "the roving orphan, or picaro, could create a past that suited his aspirations rather than his blood ties, and Dickens and Twain are both drawing on this literary heritage of either voluntary or involuntary disinheritance." Pip seeks social enfranchisement, whereas his American counterpart Huck—in deference to Twain's penchant for adventure over social grace—strives to escape the constraints of societal obligation. Such divergent goals may be reflective of cultural aspirations of their respective national identities. Wirth-Nesher has suggested that while "Orphanhood in American literature is a clean slate, self-reliance, and often enchanted solitude that veers dangerously close to real loneliness," orphanhood in the English narrative is less idyllic, featuring child protagonists who are instead "on a quest to find a place for themselves in society rather than arranging for a romantic exit." These evocations of national mindsets are further embodied in the imperialist usage of orphans in fascist Italian literary propaganda in the early twentieth century. In such narratives, called "aggressive patriotism" by Patrizia Palumbo, orphanhood is utilized to allow Italian children the chance for adventure in strange lands where the virtues of colonialization are championed. Even milder examples of this propagandist philosophy, such as Olga Visenti's story "The Olive Grove in the Sands" in Africanelle: Fiabe (1937), demonstrate the potential symbolic value of orphans by equating a new Italian identity for the Abyssian orphan slave Red Assam as being an improvement over his prior African self-identification. Red Assam's easily traded nationalism is afforded to him, in part, because of his orphanhood, which Palumbo has portrayed as a "cultural blankness [that] is a sort of utopian space, where the presumed values of the Italian settlers divulged by the author will not collide with his own cultural values, which were never, of course, transmitted to him by his missing family." The easy transition of orphans from one identity to another is evident even among more contemporary children's works, like those of Danish-American author, Erik Christian Haugaard. In many of Haugaard's texts, he attempts to explore how the orphan condition allows, at least, in terms of fictional characterization, his juvenile protagonists the opportunity to establish independent moral identities. Two of his works, Orphans of theWind (1966) and A Boy's Will (1983), particularly highlight this idea, offering two young men, twelve-year-old Jim and thirteen-year-old Patrick, the chance to make their own decisions regardless of familial influence. E. Wendy Saul has noted that "the death of [Jim's] parents and the cruelty of his guardian frees the protagonist from the ties that usually subsume ideology to personal loyalty. The reader is invited to feel the struggle and triumph that comes with unfettered moral action. Jim chooses his enemies as well as his friends." In the end, orphan novels can be most readily identified with identity, particularly, the search for personal history and the fashioning of a unique self-identity regardless of familial legacies or parental influence. Unbound by history, their destinies and personal evolutions are instead left to their own making, an enticing prospect for any children's author.


Louisa May Alcott

Eight Cousins; or, The Aunt-Hill (juvenile novel) 1875

Frances Hodgson Burnett

A Little Princess: Being the Whole Story of Sara Crewe, Now Told for the First Time [illustrations by Ethel Franklin Betts] (juvenile novel) 1905

Arnaldo Cipolla

Balilla Regale: Romanzo africano per giovinetti (young adult novel) 1935

Susan Coolidge

What Katy Did (juvenile novel) 1873

Robert Cormier

I Am the Cheese (young adult novel) 1977

Stephen Crane

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets—A Story of New York [as Johnston Smith] (novella) 1893

Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy's Progress. 3 vols. (young adult novel) 1838

*The Personal History of David Copperfield (young adult novel) 1851

Bleak House (novel) 1853

Little Dorrit (young adult novel) 1857

Great Expectations. 3 vols. (young adult novel) 1861

Theodore Dreiser

Sister Carrie (young adult novel) 1900

Salvator Gotta

Piccolo legionario in Africa Orientale (young adult novel) 1936

Erik Christian Haugaard

Orphans of the Wind (young adult novel) 1966

A Boy's Will [illustrations by Troy Howell] (picture book) 1983M

Prince Boghole [illustrations by Julie Downing] (young adult novel) 1987

L. M. Montgomery

Anne of Green Gables (juvenile novel) 1908

Gary Paulsen

Nightjohn (young adult novel) 1993

Eleanor H. Porter

Pollyanna: The Glad Book [illustrations by Stockton Mulford] (juvenile novel) 1913

Philip Pullman

Count Karlstein, or, The Ride of the Demon Huntsman (juvenile novel) 1982

Northern Lights (young adult novel) 1995; published in the United States as The Golden Compass, 1996

J. K. Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (young adult novel) 1997; published in the United States as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, 1998

Ouida Sebestyen

Out of Nowhere (young adult novel) 1995

Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler)

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 1: The Bad Beginning [illustrations by Brett Helquist] (juvenile fiction) 1999

A Series of Unfortunate Events, Book 2: The Reptile Room [illustrations by Brett Helquist] (juvenile fiction) 1999

Jerry Spinelli

Maniac Magee (young adult novel) 1990

Johanna Spyri

Heidis Lehr und Wanderjahre: Eine Geschichte fuer Kinder und auch fuer solche welche die Kinder lieb haben [Heidi: A Story for Children and Those That Love Children; translation by Louise Brooks; illustrations by Cecil Leslie] (juvenile novel) 1880

Mark Twain

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (young adult novel) 1884

Olga Visenti

Africanelle: Fiabe (fables) 1937

Susan Warner

The Wide, Wide World. 2 vols. (juvenile novel) 1850

Kate Douglas Wiggin

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm [illustrations by Helen Mason Grose] (juvenile novel) 1903

*Originally published in twenty serialized chapters between 1849 and 1850.

Originally published in twenty serialized chapters between 1852 and 1853.

Originally published in twenty serialized chapters between 1855 and 1857.


Dirk P. Mattson (essay date spring 1997)

SOURCE: Mattson, Dirk P. "Finding Your Way Home: Orphan Stories in Young Adult Literature." ALAN Review 24, no. 3 (spring 1997): 17-21.

[In the following essay, Mattson examines how several of noted critic Northrop Frye's "modes of literature"—most notably, the comedic, romantic, mimetic, and tragic modes—are typically utilized in orphan narratives for young adult readers.]

Being alone in the world to confront its challenges can be either inspiring or daunting. The thought may fill the mind with possibilities of no boundaries and no authorities. This freedom, however, also creates a loss of safety. The security of home and family no longer exists. Confronting the world's challenges is one thing; confronting them all alone is quite another. This condition is the struggle for the orphan as literary archetype. The initial response to being alone might be exhilaration at the challenge. However, the orphan's final objective is to return to home without harm. It is a return to refuge, for to remain outside the home is to remain an outcast of sorts. Our society does not value the perpetual state of orphanhood. It does value individualism; however, even the individualist usually has a place to call home.

In Awakening the Hero Within, Carol Pearson outlines specific objectives and practices of the orphan as an archetype in our world. The goal of the orphan is to find security for fear of being exploited. He or she will deal with a problem by allowing it total control, hoping for salvation, or grudgingly acquiescing to its demands. An orphan's task is to reckon with pain and disillusionment and to be receptive to the help others provide. The special qualities he or she possesses to handle these problems and tasks are a realistic approach to life, a recognition of his or her condition, and an ability to work with others (p. 82).

We are attracted to orphans in literature because they are the "common people." Orphans are heroes and heroines for us. We can identify with them, recognizing their feelings of insecurity as our own. Orphans in literature are attractive not just because of their unique status, but because orphanhood is often "described as if from the inside" (Simpson 182). Readers can find a special bond with the orphan that they might not be as quick to uncover with a sage, warrior, or other "empowered" archetype. The common objective Pearson identifies for orphans is to regain safety. They may share this objective, yet they may choose different paths to achieve it. These differences reflect the modes of literature that Northrop Frye develops in Anatomy of Criticism. In four YA novels, each narrates the orphan's quest for safety through a different mode: the comedic mode of Maniac Magee, the romantic mode of Nightjohn, the mimetic mode of Out of Nowhere, and the tragic mode of I Am the Cheese. However, the tragic mode differs. This orphan's quest follows another path. Instead of regaining safety, the orphan becomes completely separated—even from himself—by the novel's end. By honoring this tragic format, Cormier makes this orphan story unique.

The Novels

In Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli, Jeffrey Magee is raised by an uncaring aunt and uncle for eight years. He then decides to end that life and strike out on his own. His naiveté becomes the power behind his courage as he takes on bullies and takes in runaways while continually looking for an address he can call home. He finally finds that home with his friend Amanda Beales whom he met at the very beginning of his adventure.

Gary Paulsen's Nightjohn is Sarney's tale. She is an orphan of social practice, removed from her birthing mother and raised by another slave. With this "mammy," she does small chores until she begins having the "troubles," meaning she will either be used in the fields or as a birthing mother herself. Nightjohn teaches Sarney the alphabet so that she can learn to read. It is dangerous, but Sarney wants to learn. Eventually she tells their story as Nightjohn had hoped.

Harley is an orphan rejected by his selfish mother in Out of Nowhere by Ouida Sebestyen. Harley soon meets May, a woman who is herself trying to recover from a disastrous past. Together they make their way to the house May's mother has left her and meet its current tenant, Bill. When May's eviction notice to Bill goes unheeded, she tries to clear out both Bill and his collections that fill the house and garage. By the novel's end, Harley, May, and Bill all find a way to get along with each other and even depend upon one another.

Robert Cormier's I Am the Cheese sets Adam Farmer not only as orphan looking for his place but also his name. The novel shifts from a narrative that quietly recalls past events to a haunting interview between Adam and a psychologist as they search for the "gaps" in Adam's memory. Soon the questioning becomes disturbing and the narrative more disconcerting as Adam's past is not as he believed. Adam is not even his own name. In the end, those supposedly caring for him are only biding time while they decide whether his life will continue.

While other events certainly occur within these plots, they can be divided into the following stages within each book: 1). Losing the parents; 2). Establishing the orphan; 3). Confronting the enemy; 4). Finding a seeming peace; 5). Providing help to others; 6). Rejecting one life for another; and 7). Being claimed by another. Each novel models one of Frye's modes, but all four follow these seven stages. The tragic mode employed by Cormier is unique because it reverses these stages.

The Characters

The characters in each mode have particular tasks assigned to them. In Maniac Magee they represent those found in a comedy as defined by Frye. Mars Bar is the alazon, the "humorous blocking character" who is usually the impostor because of a "lack of self-knowledge" (p. 172). The eiron, Maniac, is the hero of the story who is "unformed" (p. 173). Russell and Piper are the buffoons who "increase the mood of festivity rather than to contribute to the plot" (p. 175). The fourth type of character found in the comedy is the agroikos. Grayson is this character in the novel, for he is "the straight man, the solemn or inarticulate character who allows the humor to bounce off him" (pp. 175-6). Grayson supplies Maniac information and materials that create the exaggeration or absurdity necessary in comedy.

In romances, two characters are prominent: the hero and the enemy. In Nightjohn this is true as well. Nightjohn and Sarney share responsibilities of the hero, however, as Nightjohn endures those dangers too extreme for the young girl. Frye asserts that the hero often comes from the "upper world" representing divinity and a renewed spirit (p. 187-88). To be sure, Nightjohn appears with knowledge that is freeing, and Sarney is anxiously seeking that knowledge. The opposite of the hero, of course, is the enemy. Old Waller's society of slave owners and masters is the enemy associated with "darkness" and "sterility" (p. 187). In the romantic mode the agroikos "call[s] attention to realistic aspects of life, like fear in the presence of danger" (p. 197). As the agroikos, Mammy continually warns of the dangers in learning to read.

In Out of Nowhere, its characters are specific to the mimetic mode. It has the alazon, yet here that character is a "blocking [humor] in charge of society" (Frye, p. 227). May acts as this alazon as she determines the rules and regulations for her society: her household. The eiron is the hero, but a realistic one, recognizing that life will have its ups and downs and accepts this. As the eiron, Harley views life with an "attitude of flexible pragmatism" (p. 226). Singer represents the ingenu (p. 232). She is an outsider, living by a simple code without all the intricacies that May and Harley bring to relationships.

Because the tragic novel is unique, the comedic, romantic, and mimetic modes together can provide a backdrop before considering Cormier's reversal in I Am the Cheese.

The Stages

1. Losing the Parents

In each of the three parallel modes, the parents leave soon into the novel. In the comedic, Spinelli is whimsical about the parents' demise and devotes only a paragraph to the narrative in this stage: "On the way back home, [Maniac's parents] were on board when the P&W had its famous crash, when the motorman was drunk and took the high trestle over the Schuylkill River at sixty miles an hour, and the whole caboodle took a swan dive into the water. And just like that, Maniac was an orphan. He was three years old" (p. 5). The vocabulary is fanciful and almost sounds like someone retelling a circus trick gone bad, with "kaboodle's" and "swan dives." This description is retold dramatically as comedy and legends often are. The event also took place when Maniac was only three, not old enough to realize its seriousness.

In the romantic mode, Paulsen's Nightjohn focuses on the despair of not only losing the parents, but also of never being able to identify them in the future. The cruelty of the system must be exposed if the reader is to see the glimmer of hope at the end of the novel. Sarney explains who her mammy is now and the difference between this woman and her birthing mammy who was sold because she was a good breeder. She even recounts the sale and departure of her biological mother. Yet this has been told to Sarney; she does not remember it (pp. 15-16). Like Jeffrey Magee, Sarney is protected from this horror.

In the mimetic mode of Out of Nowhere, Harley's loss of his mother is a picture of an all too familiar world. His mother is never "Mother," just "Vernie." Sebestyen devotes eight pages to Harley's abandonment. He displays how the world—especially today's world—can behave at its worst moments. Parents seek their own welfare first. Adults leave children to fend for themselves. The loss of the parent is displayed in all its crud.

2. Establishing the Orphan

In this second stage of Maniac, the reader sees a picture of what his life is like. Maniac encounters situations that are just a bit above believable. Each mysterious appearance early in the novel shows how he has learned how to fend for himself. His actions become legendary. They are exaggerated. A person doesn't challenge the neighborhood bully and get away with it, let alone hit a frog for a home run. This contributes to the comedy according to Frye: "Repetition overdone or not going anywhere belongs to comedy, for laughter is partly a reflex, and like other reflexes it can be conditioned by a simple repeated pattern" (p. 168). Early on Maniac Magee is full of repetition.

Sarney is established as an orphan—a subject of the slave system—in her second stage. It is a romantic mode, for the reader knows more of her condition than she does. Sarney is in a challenging situation, and yet there are hints of the quest to come (Frye, p. 187). Sarney is also too young to completely understand the concept of freedom. Somehow this provides relief for the reader as she recalls her childhood: "I was small then and didn't know about being free, or even how to think about being free, or even what being free meant" (p. 24). There is hope that Sarney can go a little longer without knowing the cruelty that is in store for her.

As Harley establishes himself as an orphan, he keeps a realistic perspective. He does not cry in the road nor wait in hope that his mother will return. He only admits the inevitable: "Okay. You know this had to happen, ‘he whispered. Sooner or later’" (p. 22). Harley's response to his orphan state is mimetic. This is how the world operates. Frye suggests that this is a basic element of the plot structure. This type of story "takes for granted a world which is full of anomalies, injustices, follies, and crimes, and yet is permanent and undisplaceable. Its principle is that anyone who wishes to keep his balance in such a world must learn first of all to keep his eyes open and his mouth shut" (p. 226). Harley quickly learns to do just that as he tries to regain his safety with May.

3. Confronting the Enemy

After establishing his identity as an orphan, Maniac confronts the enemy. Even this confrontation is amusing, without any real danger for Maniac as he verbally duels with the alazon, Mars Bar. Maniac's response to Mars Bar's challenge depicts the comedic mode's humorous exaggeration: "I said, tell me I'm bad. ‘Maniac blinked, shrugged, sighed. It's none of my business. If you're bad, let your mother or father tell you’" (pp. 34-35).

In Nightjohn, Sarney is saved from confronting the enemy—at least physically—in this third stage. Nightjohn will act in her stead as the divine hero would. When Mammy finds Sarney learning letters with Nightjohn, she chastises him for teaching her. Mammy warns of the beatings that will occur because Nightjohn is confronting the enemy. But in the romantic mode, the hope is greater than the despair: "They have to read and write so we can write about this—what they doing to us. It has to be written'" (p. 58). Harley does not confront a physical villain or destroyer, but rather the more mentally realistic enemy of loneliness. If Harley does not find his place, he is left with the prospect of living on his own. He tempers any hope with reality. Harley acts in the mimetic as he agrees to take life one day at a time. He "merely follows procedures … to maintain one's balance from one day to the next" (Frye, p. 226). As long as Harley maintains the status quo, it will be good enough for the time being.

4. Finding a Seeming Peace

Maniac finds a seeming peace with Grayson. At long last, he has found someone who can accept him and a place where he is safe. With Grayson, Maniac eats Krimpets, sleeps on catcher's gear, and talks baseball. Most of all, Maniac has a place that he can call home: 101 Band Shell Boulevard. This is not a true home. But to suggest it is once again is an exaggeration. The catcher's gear for bedding, the self-proclamation of the house number, and the diet of Egg McMuffins: all of these help to give Maniac a peace, but it is an exaggerated peace for the comedy.

In Nightjohn, this fourth stage is short in narration, yet is still important. Sarney is still a slave; those around her still are forced to do their work. Waller still whips them. For a few weeks, however, Nightjohn works with Sarney on the other letters. She learns "a whole family of letters," all the way to G (p. 60). With this, she makes her first word: bag. It will eventually be the word that causes the pain when Waller finds her writing it in the ground and punishes those who taught her. But for a few weeks Sarney thinks that she has found a peace in the despair of her condition. This stage reflects the hope in the romantic orphan story.

Harley finds that seeming peace as he makes his home with the other "disowned" tenants in the house. What would certainly make the census as a "non-traditional" household is fine with Harley: "Being needed as part of a team was new, and so was the little tingle of pride when he walked into a freshly painted room he had helped to transform" (p. 112). Harley was finding a place among others. This gave him that peace. It was not an unusual peace such as Maniac's, or a peace from the cruelty such as Sarney's. It was simply a peace "to be."

5. Providing Help to Others

After this seeming peace is established, the orphans in these three modes provide help to others. Maniac does this for many people: Grayson as he learns to read, Russell and Piper (Giant John's brothers) as they attempt to run away, and Mars Bar as he sees through the color just as Maniac does. The comedic mode shows the byproduct of bigotry that sits in Giant John's home—a pill box. Frye notes that the "social judgment against the absurd is closer to the comic norm than the moral judgment against the wicked" (p. 168). The bigotry of the real world exists, but is so exaggerated that the pill box seems almost beyond belief. It connects the comedy to Maniac's help of others.

In her fifth stage in this sequence, Sarney helps Nightjohn. It is again a short scene. But its brevity does not distill the conflict between the prevailing cruelty and future promise. Sarney is Nightjohn's student again after Old Waller has chopped off a toe on each of Nightjohn's feet. With this torture, the novel enters Frye's sparagmos in which the hero is torn to pieces (p. 192). Here, the meaning is literal as Nightjohn is disfigured for his teaching. Soon he will disappear as the sparagmos suggests. Still, Sarney provides help for Nightjohn as he calls her over only one night after being tortured to show her the next letter: H. She provides help to him after the seeming peace. In Out of Nowhere Harley contributes some "elbow grease" when he provides help to others. He does this for both May and Bill. May has the house to clean. Bill has his car to repair. He assists both as they adjust to their new situations.

6. Rejecting One Life for Another

Maniac has the opportunity to live with Mars Bar and his family, but Maniac knows that he does not belong there. He knows that he cannot live there. He is searching for that peace, while not perfect, that he once had with Grayson. He declines the offer.

The sixth stage in Sarney's tale is a mental struggle. Sarney's "troubles" come, and she knows that she will soon be sent to the breeding shed. But this is the life that she will reject because of Nightjohn's return. She may not be able to do so physically, but she will do it mentally like so many before her. Nightjohn persuades her to attend the pit school with him, and she goes.

In Out of Nowhere Harley's sixth stage in his mimetic mode revolves around a realistic problem. He makes a choice that will be a benchmark for how he solves problems in the future. He must decide if he will take money from Vernie for his dog's veterinarian fee—if she can even be found. When he calls Vernie for the money, she is using it for a new leather jacket. He realizes that he neither can get that money nor does he want it. Harley makes the decision not to treat others the way his mother treated him. He decides to save the dog by paying the fee. He rejects the life Vernie chose.

7. Being Claimed by Another

In the final stage of the orphan, Amanda Beales claims Maniac. It is Amanda, not her mother or father, who "lays down the law" and take Maniac as a part of her family. Its dramatic fashion adds to the exaggeration, such as when Shirley Temple was in charge of the household: "You got it all wrong, buster. You ain't got—ouuu, see'—she kicked him—you do not have a choice. I am not asking you. I'm telling you. You are coming home with me. This is not your home! Now move!'" (p. 183). In this final stage, Maniac will reside in the Beales household. This is where he belongs. Maniac has moved from chaos and disruption to order and a hope for a better future as the comedic mode would have him do.

In her final stage, Sarney is claimed by another. For Nightjohn, it is Frye's anagnorisis. He returns to overcome the despair established in the beginning of the novel. In Frye's romantic mode, it is "the recognition of the hero, who has clearly proved himself to be a hero even if he does not survive the conflict" (p. 187). Nightjohn claims Sarney, yet she claims herself as was his goal. The hope is fulfilled, and Nightjohn's task is complete. The final chapter of the novel is "Words." It is Sarney establishing herself—not necessarily as part of a family—but as part of humanity. She reaches the promise for which the romantic mode strives.

The final stage in Harley's mimetic story still reflects the reality of the situation. The book ends on a hopeful note, but Harley is still practical. At the novel's end, May decides that she will let Harley stay on. He is appreciative, but knows that this is still a tentative situation: "I know it's hard to have kids, May, so if you can't do it, like Vernie, I'll understand" (p. 182). The mimetic mode shows itself even as Harley is claimed by another.

The Cheese Stands Alone

The world of Adam Farmer in I Am the Cheese is similar to those of the three previous orphans and their quest to regain safety, but for Adam the chronology is reversed. This is what makes this novel uniquely different from the pattern of the other three modes. Adam travels through the stages of the orphan not only with tragic results, but also in an opposite order to emphasize tragedy's power over fate and over Adam, alias Paul.

This novel includes the characters of a tragedy as outlined by Frye. The eiron or source of evil is present, but never named until the last pages of the novel. Like pinning blame on the government bureaucracy that controls Paul, it is difficult to pinpoint the eiron. The eiron is lost in the uncaring government; it may very well be the government. The tragic mode also includes the soothsayer or prophet who moves the action without being affected himself. Brint certainly fulfills this role as he continually prods Paul for more of the story. Paul himself is the alazon. Frye notes that the alazon in tragedy is often "self-deceived" (p. 217), and the entire novel revolves around this deception. The tragedy finally involves the chorus. It is the "society from which the hero is gradually isolated" (p. 218). This chorus is Paul's family. The isolation will create the tragic orphan.

Cormier reverses the stages to slowly reveal this tragic orphan. Where the other three orphans' first stage was the loss of their parents, Adam has his parents at the novel's start. Instead Cormier begins with the last stage that the others encountered before being claimed by another. Adam rejects one life for another.

1. Rejecting One Life for Another

Adam decides to leave behind all that he knows and bicycles to meet his father. He delays in the house for a time as he decides whether he has the courage to leave. The reader is uncertain of exactly what he is leaving so early in the book, but the decision to leave is definitely a rejection of what is there. Adam suggests through his actions that he is not returning. He also rejects the pills. Again, the reader is unsure of their purpose, but the rejection is undeniable:

I went to the kitchen and took out the bottle of pills from the cabinet and decided not to take one. I wanted to do this raw, without crutches, without aid, alone. I opened the bottle of pills and turned it over and let the pills fallout—they are capsules, actually, green and black—and I watched them disappear into the mouth of the garbage disposal. I felt strong and resolute.

          (p. 14)

Through this independence, there is little reason to feel sympathy for Adam. He is strong. He will soon be with his father.

The audience respects this strength as well. Frye identifies six phases of tragedy which closely parallel the tragic orphan's seven stages. In this rejection of one another, Adam is given "dignity" for rejecting this life (p. 219). This is the first of Frye's phases.

2. Providing Help to Others

This is a latter stage for the orphans of the other modes, but Adam does so early in the novel. He is bringing a gift for his father and has taken great care in wrapping it and determining how he can deliver it without damage. It is his preoccupation during his bike ride. The cap that he is wearing is also important. It is a part of the help that he provides. Adam tells the service station attendant of his plan: "It's my father's cap, ‘I say. He kept it all these years. I'm going to visit him—he's in a hospital in Rutterburg and I figure he'll get a kick out of seeing the cap’" (p. 24). During the entire bike ride, Adam is focused on helping his father.

3. Finding a Seeming Peace

Adam enters the third reversed stage of the tragedy. He seems to have a peacefulness. The early recollections with Brint in the interview chapters suggest a peaceful state because Adam does not remember the evil that he encountered. Cormier tells of Adam's devotion to his father as they walk in the woods. The bond between them is strong: "Adam rushed to him, flung his arms around him. He had never loved his father as much as at that moment" (p. 47). This seeming peace is what Frye lists as the second stage: "the tragedy of innocence" (p. 220). Through Cormier's juxtaposition of the interview chapters with the narration, the reader knows that something is wrong. But at this stage, Adam still recalls the peace with his father. He still seems to be experiencing this peace—even if only recollected.

4. Confronting the Enemy

This confrontation is classically tragic because it is one that can be avoided—and if faced will ruin this seeming peace. Adam is confronted by his own memory and Brint. If he confronts what awaits him (that is, the memory of his past), he will enter an unknown world. Yet, he must confront it to move through this stage and forward the tragedy:


My boy, it is two fifteen in the morning. I told you at the beginning I would be available to you at any time of day or night. And that is true. That is why I am here. But you must also do your part. You must assist me.

(10-second interval.)

Tell me—what is wrong? Evidently, there is something wrong. What is it? I am here to help.

(6-second interval.)


What comes next?


What do you mean?


You know what I mean.


Explain, please.


The blanks. All the blanks. If you know what they are, fill them in for me …

          (pp. 91-92)

Adam confronts Brint and his own memory. He must do this to establish the next stage. It is not one that leads to seeming peace as the other three modes do. Frye states this is the hero's fall through the hybris (p. 221). Adam has not brought this fall upon himself: he has inherited it from his father. Frye cites this as a characteristic of tragedy (p. 208). The young child is at least protected from bringing this fate on himself.

5. Establishing the Orphan

This tragic novel is also different at this stage because Adam is gradually established as the orphan. Each of the other modes was rather quick and obvious in its creation of the orphan. For Adam, the process will be slow and the pace will be painful. Even his own name will be taken from him as he learns that he is not Adam Farmer but Paul Delmonte. At this later point in the novel, it becomes clear that Adam does not have contact with his parents; he also does not have contact with himself. He has encountered Frye's fifth stage of "lost direction and lack of knowledge" (p. 222). He has established himself as an orphan who has neither his parents nor himself.

6. Losing the Parents

Paul's loss of his parents occurs at the end of the novel. This loss promotes the tragedy: there is little opportunity for Paul to find hope in the situation. Just a few pages from the novel's end does the reader see what Paul saw: his mother lying dead by the side of the road. The reader hears what Paul is repeatedly told: his father is dead. Paul is medicated. There is no promise in this situation. The loss of the parents occurs when he is helpless to find hope. The tragic mode is reversed: "[J]ust as comedy often sets up an arbitrary law and then organizes the action to break or evade it, so tragedy presents the reverse theme of narrowing a comparatively free life into a process of causation" (p. 212). This reversal is uniquely tragic.

7. Abandonment

The final stage for Paul in the novel is again different from the other three. As where the other three orphans were claimed by another, Paul has no one to claim him in this institution. He is left alone. What is more, the novel ends the same way that it began. Cormier repeats the same narration that shows Paul pedaling to visit his father. He now lives in the "world of shock and horror," Frye's sixth phase of tragedy (p. 222). In the tragic mode, the character has no hope. Paul's only escape is to repeat the fantasy in his mind. The reader knows that Paul will never escape this fantasy: the advisory statement at the end of the novel explains in its "bureaucraticese" that Paul will never have anyone to claim him. Indeed, Paul now lives within the chief symbols of this final stage: the prison and the madhouse (Frye, p. 223). For Paul, his sentence in one confines him to life in the other.

In each of these four novels, the orphan is searching for that safety. This quest makes up the action of the plot. For Cormier's I Am the Cheese, the quest is reversed. Slowly revealing to the reader and the alazon that this safety will never be regained, the plot unravels itself like the core of a baseball that can never be rewound. Cormier reverses the stages of the quest to create the tragedy.

Works Cited

Cormier, Robert. I Am the Cheese. Dell Publishing, 1977.

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton University Press, 1957.

Paulsen, Gary. Nightjohn. Delacorte Press, 1993.

Pearson, Carol S. Awakening the Heroes Within. Harper San Francisco, 1991.

Sebestyen, Ouida. Out of Nowhere. Scholastic, 1994.

Simpson, Eileen. Orphans: Real and Imaginary. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987.

Spinelli, Jerry. Maniac Magee. Little, Brown and Company, 1990.

Melanie A. Kimball (essay date winter 1999)

SOURCE: Kimball, Melanie A. "From Folktales to Fiction: Orphan Characters in Children's Literature." Library Trends 47, no. 3 (winter 1999): 558-78.

[In the following essay, Kimball discusses the narrative patterns that occur in orphan stories from classic folklore and argues that such patterns reoccur in more modern works of orphan narratives for young readers.]


Once there was a child wandering about on the earth who was an orphan. He had neither father nor mother, and he was very sad. Nobody paid any attention to him, and nobody asked why he was sad. Though he was sad, the child did not know how to weep, for there were no tears yet in the world.

When the moon saw the orphan child going about, he felt compassion: since it was night, the moon came down from heaven, lay down on the earth in front of the child and said, "Weep, orphan child! but do not let your tears fall on the earth, from which people get their food, for that would make the earth unclean. Let your tears fall on me. I shall take them with me back to the sky."

The orphan child wept. Those were the first tears in the world, and they fell on the moon. The moon said: "I shall now give you the blessing that all people shall love you."

After the child had wept his heart out, the moon went back to the sky. From that day on the orphan child was happy. Everyone gave him whatever delighted and gladdened him. To this day people can see on the moon's face the stains of the orphan child's tears, which were the first tears in the world.

          —The First Tears (Algeria: Kabyle)

Orphan characters in folktales and literature symbolize our isolation from one another and from society. They do not belong to even the most basic of groups, the family unit, and in some cultures this is enough to cut them off from society at large. In other cultures, orphans are regarded as special people who must be protected and cared for at all costs. In either case, orphans are clearly marked as being different from the rest of society. They are the eternal Other.

Orphans are a tangible reflection of the fear of abandonment that all humans experience. Orphans are outcasts, separated because they have no connection to the familial structure which helps define the individual. This outcast state is not caused by any actions of their own but because of their difference from the "normal" pattern established by society. Orphans are a reminder that the possibility of utter undesired solitude exists for any human being.

Orphans are at once pitiable and noble. They are a manifestation of loneliness, but they also represent the possibility for humans to reinvent themselves. Orphans begin with a clean slate because they do not have parents to influence them either for good or for evil. They embody the hope that whatever the present situation, it can change for the better. When orphans succeed against all odds, their success ultimately becomes ours. We can look to orphans and say, "You see, there is hope for all of us if even this orphan child can overcome obstacles and succeed." Characters such as Dick Whittington and Yeh-Hsien (a Chinese Cinderella variant) go from rags to riches and so can we.

Orphan characters are prevalent in children's literature, both in folktales and in fiction. What is the relationship between the two? Are there patterns in folktales which recur across different stories and cultures? If such patterns exist, do they also occur in literary treatments of orphans? This discussion will show that such patterns can be found in folktales and that they do have a parallel in literary orphan stories.


For this study, I examined fifty folktales from different cultures (see Appendix A) to find similarities, differences, and patterns which contributed to the evolution of the literary orphan hero and heroine. I found most of the tales by using The Fairy Tale Index (Eastman, 1926, 1952; Ireland, 1985, 1989; Sprug, 1994), The Storyteller's Sourcebook (MacDonald, 1982), and Thompson's Motif-Index (L111.4-L111.4.4, "The Orphan Hero"). I found the remaining tales by searching through folktale collections for children.

I used several criteria for story selection. First, both parents of the orphan had to be dead (according to the American Heritage College Dictionary, 3d ed., an orphan can be a child who has lost only one parent). Second, the story had to be a folktale rather than a literary tale. Literary tales are stories created by a particular author. Examples of literary tales which include folkloric elements but which are not really folktales include the "fairy tales" of Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde. Folktales, by contrast, include "all forms of prose narrative, written or oral, which have come to be handed down through the years" (Thompson, 1946, p. 4). It is impossible to separate the written and oral traditions because they have become so interconnected (Thompson, 1946). While this crossover between literature and oral narrative makes it difficult to discern which is the "original" version, all of the stories in this study, as far as I have been able to determine, are folktales that originated as oral narrative.

Third, I limited the study to those stories which were available in English or English translation. I tried to cast a wide net across a variety of countries, ethnic groups, and cultures. In many cases, I had to take the stories at face value, as source notes were either very sketchy or nonexistent. Some collections, such as Raouf Mama's (1998) Why the Goat Smells Bad and Other Stories from Benin, had very detailed notes and explanations of changes that were made to the stories from their original form, while other collections, such as those of Ruth Manning-Sanders, had no notes at all beyond listing the country of origin.

A major drawback in this process is the unevenness of source notes in collections for children. Without clear notes, it is difficult to determine where or from whom the author obtained the story. Even more puzzling is the question of how authentic the tale is if it has been retold by someone other than a member of the culture from which it stems. Many of these stories were retold by authors with a European or American background. It is possible that the Western literary tradition of the orphan hero/heroine contributed to the interpretation of folktales with orphan characters. Because it was not possible to place each story in its cultural framework, I chose to do a structural study rather than a contextual one. For purposes of this study, there are enough stories with good source notes to be sure that many of these tales are "authentic," but it would make for an interesting further study to determine how much folktale collections for children have imposed a Eurocentric viewpoint when telling the tales of other cultures.

Orphans in Folktales

Folklorists, psychologists, literary scholars, and sociologists who study folktales agree that these stories represent more than simple entertainment for children. The meaning contained in folktales varies according to who is reading, listening, or telling the story; the cultural context in which it is read or heard; and the sense that the individual teller tries to convey. For example, Darnton (1984) points out that the world which peasants in early modern France inhabited was so difficult that we can hardly imagine it now. Stepmothers and orphans were common and this, in part, explains why they are customary figures in folktales.

In The European Folktale, Lüthi (1982) states that the hero in a folktale operates in isolation. In many folktales, the hero is outcast from those around him because of social status, poverty, or a "deformity" such as that of the animal husband. This isolation is far from being unique to European tales but is reflected in tales from across many cultures. The orphan is the quintessential outcast, operates in isolation, and thus makes the perfect hero figure.


Twenty-nine of the stories contain male orphan characters, seventeen have female orphans, and four have at least one of each. The breakdown of the orphan character by gender has significance because the ways in which orphans overcome obstacles in the stories are sometimes related to gender. In seven of the stories, the orphan uses wits to overcome obstacles; none of the orphans in these stories is female. The female orphans tend to overcome obstacles by their virtuous behavior rather than their cleverness. Also, female characters are rewarded by marriage more frequently than by any other means. Further study of the orphan character and gender issues is warranted in the future.


The orphan hero or heroine faces the same conflicts, assistance, and rewards as any other folktale hero. There is usually a journey or quest of some sort that includes obstacles that must be overcome in order for the protagonist to win his or her reward (Thompson, 1946). However, analysis of the orphan stories reveals some distinct patterns. Character types, mistreatment of the orphan character, the quest upon which the orphan sets out, the obstacles put in his or her path, the methods employed to overcome the obstacles, and the final reward for the orphan are all common elements in these tales.

In forty-six of the fifty stories used for this study, the orphan character is the protagonist. In the other four, the orphan plays a secondary, but pivotal, role. For example, in The Obsession with Clothes, the story centers on Basia Gittel, the distant relative and employer of the orphan character. She is the person who mistreats the orphan girl but is also the one through whom the orphan triumphs and gains the reward of a husband and children. The pattern of the story does not vary despite the fact that the orphan character is a secondary one. The outcome for the orphan is the same as if she had been the main character; only the point of view differs.

Helpers and Other Characters

Lüthi (1982) notes that no folktale hero or heroine is completely in charge of his or her own destiny but is assisted at precisely the right time by human or supernatural helpers. Every character has his or her function and, once that function is accomplished, the character usually disappears from the story line. The orphan interacts with other characters, some human, some animal, and some supernatural. They include siblings, godmothers, foster parents, step parents, employers, animal helpers, friends, grandparents, and spirits. Generally these characters exist for one of two purposes—either to help the orphan or to provide an obstacle for the orphan. There are no bystanders.


The majority of the orphans in these tales are mistreated. The mistreatment ranges from a simple tongue-lashing to physical abuse or the threat of death. It is not enough that the character be an orphan; his or her isolation must further be defined by hostility which, in many cases, stems from jealousy or from the fact that the orphan has something the other character wants. Some orphan boys are treated badly by their uncles (The Strongest Boy in the World and Coolnajoo, the Foolish One), and orphan heroines are often cruelly treated by their female relations (The Case against the Wind; Yeh-Hsien; and The Prince and the Orphan). Other orphans are made to suffer by their neighbors (The Story of Bhikkhu Sok; Kautaluk; and The Girl in the Moon). One of the saddest openings of all the orphan tales in this study is found in the Cherokee tale The Orphan Boy and The Elk Dog. In addition to being orphaned, Long Arrow is deaf, and the only person in the world who loves him is his sister. When she is adopted by another tribe, he is completely ostracized by the other members of his group and eventually abandoned in the woods. Their abuse is mitigated when he manages to rejoin them (having miraculously regained his hearing on the journey) and is taken in by Good Running, an elder of the tribe, but the earlier image of his waking up and finding himself completely alone in the world is haunting even read alongside so many other stories of the abandoned and isolated.


The performance of difficult tasks or quests is frequent in folktales (Thompson, 1946). Thirty-three of the stories in this study include a journey for the main character or characters. The reasons for undertaking such quests include the need to find employment (Mannikin Spanalong), a desire for riches (Dick Whittington; The Dragon; and Sliced in Two), the need to find a place in the world (The Orphan and the Leper; and John the Bear), to avenge wrongs done to siblings (Quick-Witted; and The Jurga), to prove oneself to the tribe (The Orphan Boy and the Elk Dog), and to escape danger (John and Mary and The Story of Bhikkhou Sok). Sometimes the wandering seems to stem from the simple fact that the protagonist is suddenly orphaned. After his parents die, Julio says: "Now that there is nothing to keep me here, I shall wander…. I travel the trail of life in search of my destiny" (Aiken, 1980, p. 124).

The folktale hero must leave home in order to find that which is essential (Lüthi, 1982). This wandering is made easier for the orphan characters because they often do not have a home. What the orphans seek, in fact, is a place to belong and the right to be there. In a typical coming of age tale, the hero or heroine seeks to break away from the family or group, to stand alone in the world as an individual. In a coming of age tale with an orphan hero or heroine, the protagonist seeks a sense of belonging, of finding an appropriate place in the world, of coming home. In the folktale, this homecoming may be quite literal as the hero or heroine marries royalty and goes to live in a palace. The difference between the ending of the orphan story and other folktales is that the orphan is not leaving the parents' home to become independent but finding a home after coming from nothing.1


The orphans in these tales come up against many obstacles in the pursuit of their quest. In most cases, other characters are the impediments. Jealousy and greed are prime motivators for these characters-as-obstacle:

There lived once … a proud and wicked woman. She was rich enough to afford anything she wanted, and yet her heart was filled with envy of anyone who was rich, contented, good-looking or young. If she saw someone in a happy mood, or heard of a true friendship, this was enough to arouse her bitterness and anger; indeed she was annoyed each time a poor person dared to smile.

          (Novak, 1970, p. 44)

Often it is the stepmother/stepsister/stepbrother who imposes extreme hardship on the hero or heroine, usually in the form of hard work, beatings, and lack of food (Wend'Yamba, The Market of the Dead, The Orphan and the Leper, Yeh-Hsien, Khavroshechka, The Prince and the Orphan, The Magic Drum). Sometimes it is a blood relative who causes problems (The Strongest Boy in the World; Coolnajoo, the Foolish One; The Obsession with Clothes; and The Little Orphan). Cruelty is not limited to relatives; employers can also be cruel (Yukiko and the Little Black Cat; Quick-Witted; and The Jurga).

In other stories, the danger is supernatural: either an evil sorcerer or witch (Foni and Fotia; Julio; Quick-Witted; Old Verlooka; and John and Mary), a monster (Qalutaligssuaq), or a bad spirit (The Skull). Less often it is the orphan's loneliness or extreme poverty that causes problems (The Orphan and the Leper; Spindle, Shuttle, and Needle; The Strongest Boy in the World; and Dick Whittington). The character becomes so overwhelmed by his situation that he wants to give up, perhaps even commit suicide.

Surmounting Obstacles

Because orphans are without the natural protection of family, they must stand on their own to conquer their problems. As is common in folktales, assistance is always provided at the crucial moment and is often rendered by supernatural means in the form of magical human beings, talking animals, or enchanted inanimate objects. Lüthi (1982) notes that, in folktales, such magical assistance is accepted without remark by the hero or heroine. No expression of astonishment is made when animals begin to talk, sorcerers appear, or ordinary objects run amok. These are simply taken for granted in the world of the folktale.

Supernatural assistance comes in many guises. Magic animals provide assistance for many characters (Yeh-Hsien; Khavroshechka; The Poor Turkey Girl; King Zargand's Daughter; Kenzuko Sudden Wealthy; and Yukiko and the Little Black Cat). Supernatural helpers can also come in the form of spirits disguised as mortals (The Prince and the Orphan; King Zargand's Daughter; and Julio). The gods provide another means to help orphans (The Angekkok; Kautaluk; The Orphan Boy and the Elk Dogs; The First Tears; The Legend of the Chingolo Bird; and The Girl in the Moon). A very powerful supernatural ally is the spirit of the dead mother. When, In The Market of the Dead, the twin boys go to the underworld and tell their mother about their stepmother's cruelty, she gives them a poison palm nut which kills the stepmother after she eats it. Still other supernatural assistance takes inanimate form (Spindle, Shuttle and Needle; Mannikin Spanalong; and Old Verlooka).

Supernatural help is not the only way that orphans surmount barriers. Sometimes the orphan uses his wits to outsmart his opponents (The Dragon; Sliced in Two; Qalutaligssuaq; Johnny and the Witch Maidens; Quick-Witted; Hans and His Master; and The Jurga). Some orphans prosper because of their virtue and kindness to others (The Prince and the Orphan; The Magic Drum; and Julio). Wend'Yamba is unfailingly good to his foster family even when they treat him badly. At the end of the story, he becomes a king:

My countrymen, when our king died, you sent me out into the world, as is our custom, to comb even the smallest village in order to find a truly virtuous young man to be our next king. I found this young man. He is an orphan…. His patience is equaled only by his kind heart, and his heart is that of a king.

          (Guirma, 1971, p. 67)

Other orphans are hardworking, industrious, or brave (Dick Whittington; Mannikin Spanalong; and The Skull). In some cases this virtue is not explicitly stated but is observable as the orphan endures abuse without complaint (Yeh-Hsien; Khavroshechka; Little Berry; and The Wooden Bowl). Finally, some characters are assisted by means other than the supernatural, wits, or virtue. Bhikkhu Sok (The Story of Bhikkhu Sok) is rescued by various kindly people as he runs from the murderous villagers who killed his family, and Sehou in The Orphan and the Leper is encouraged by the faith of a leper. In order to punish Tosuke for his greed (Ooka and Tosuke's Tax), Ooka, the wise judge, orders him to open his home to orphans who have lost their orphanage in a storm. Basia Gittel's Obsession with Clothes leads her to wrongly punish her orphaned relative. When Basia is on her deathbed, she asks her husband to marry the orphan girl in order to atone for this abuse.


Almost half of the orphan characters in this study, twenty-four out of fifty, are rewarded by marriage, wealth, and power. Thirteen of the twenty-two female characters marry while eleven of twenty-eight male characters prosper by marriage. In some cases, usually in non-European stories, success is achieved not through money or marriage but rather with a position of respect or honor. Bhikkhu Sok (The Story of Bhikkhu Sok), for example, becomes a Buddhist priest, Oolak becomes The Angekkok (Holy One) for his tribe, and Ma Liang uses The Magic Brush, which makes whatever he paints come to life, to better the lot of poor people.

Other orphans are "rewarded" by being saved from monsters (Qalutaligssuaq; Old Verlooka; and Johnny and the Witch Maidens). The orphans in Ooka and Tosuke's Tax get to move to a new house complete with a set of parents and eventually "Tosuke's taxless house was the happiest in all Japan" (Edmonds, 1994, p. 44).

Yukiko (Yukiko and the Little Black Cat) and the orphan girl in Mannikin Spanalong earn money and prosper without marriage. The character Wend'Yamba, in the book by the same name, and Sagbo in The Magic Drum both become powerful rulers on their own merits rather than through marriage. Long Arrow in The Orphan Boy and the Elk Dog earns his people's respect when he brings them the mythical Elk Dogs (horses) stolen from the gods. Sabadis, in The Strongest Boy in the World, is taken to a lodge at the end of the sky where he can live with the sister the spirits have given him and where he will never be lonely again.

In three of the fifty stories, the orphan is unsuccessful or lives in an unchanged situation at the end of the story. Poor Turkey Girl; Coolnajoo the Foolish One; and The Orphan Boy are all examples of stories in which the protagonist doesn't win out over the obstacles. In all three stories, the reasons for a lack of success lie in the nature of the protagonist. The Poor Turkey Girl is given a chance for happiness as long as she leaves the dance at dawn in order to tend to her flock of turkeys who magically helped her. Her indifference to this request makes the turkeys abandon her, and at the end of the story she is left even more poverty stricken than before because now she has no livelihood at all. "If the poor be poor in heart and spirit as well as in appearance, how will they be anything but poor to the end of their days?" (Sierra, 1992, p. 127).

Coolnajoo, in Coolnajoo, the Foolish One, is angry because his uncles, who take advantage of him and make him do all the domestic work, believe he is foolish. To spite them, he behaves very foolishly indeed, but takes it too far and is almost destroyed before Glooscap intervenes and sends him and his uncles on their way with an admonition to behave less foolishly in the future.

In The Orphan Boy, Kileken, the orphan, is actually the planet Venus who comes down to earth to live with a lonely old man. During a severe drought, he is able to keep the old man's herd of cattle strong and healthy by taking them to the stars where the land is green and lush. His only admonition is that the old man must never follow him to find out where he goes with the herd. The old man, enticed by a spiteful shadow, is unable to resist temptation, and Kileken returns to the sky, leaving the old man alone. While these three stories serve as cautionary tales warning of dire consequences for lack of gratitude, excessive foolishness, and too much curiosity, most orphan tales end with the orphan in better condition than at the beginning of the tale, less lonely, usually rich, and often in a position of power.

Punishment of Those Who Oppose Orphans

Those who oppose orphan heroes and heroines are usually punished, often by death. The death of evil-doers is generally accomplished in deus ex machina fashion, by flying rocks (Yeh-Hsien), angry cats (Yukiko and the Little Black Cat), poisonous food (The Market of the Dead), and so forth. In the Armenian stories King Zargand's Daughter and Quick-Witted, the evil-doers are killed by the hero, an unusual occurrence in orphan stories. Some tales have less dire consequences for those who abuse the orphan. The step-relations in The Prince and the Or-phan and The Magic Drum are reviled by their respective communities. Some stories end with the orphan interceding on behalf of those who mistreated him. Wend'Yamba returns good for evil when he is made king and brings the foster family to live with him in the palace. His stepmother, finally moved by his goodness, reforms and becomes good herself. In The Orphan Boy and the Elk Dog, Long Arrow brings horses to his tribe so that his people may prosper despite the fact that they previously made him an outcast, and, when his fortune is made, Dick Whittington gives money to everyone in the household, even the cook who treated him badly.

Orphans in Children's Literature

As orphan tales passed from the oral to the written tradition, literary conventions for this type of story developed. By the nineteenth century, the orphan heroine was an established character in English and American literature (Avery, 1994), but the genre was found in other countries as well. Classic novels such as Heidi, Pollyanna, The Little Princess, The Secret Garden, and Anne of Green Gables are all examples of this type of heroine. Male orphans also had their place in the literature as exemplified by the novels of Dickens (Oliver Twist; David Copperfield; and Great Expectations) and Horatio Alger (Ragged Dick), but female orphans predominated. These heroines were usually left with relatives who did not want them, a hardhearted aunt being the favored foil, but by the end of the story the orphan heroines transformed the lives of those around them by the force of their spunky, but sweet, natures (Avery, 1994).

Orphans continue to appear as characters in children's fiction. Examples of contemporary fiction with orphan characters include Joan Aiken's (1962) The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Midnight Is a Place (1974), Joan Lowery Nixon's (1987-1989) Orphan Train series, Philip Pullman's (1982) Count Karlstein, and Geraldine McCaughrean's (1998) The Pirate's Son. The reality of orphans in society and their function as a hero type explains their presence in folktales, but the continuing use of orphan characters in literature for children indicates that they still hold great fascination for authors and have great meaning for readers.

It is from the folkloric elements previously outlined that the standard story of the orphan developed: the outcast main character; the secondary characters who affect the orphan for both good and evil; the task or quest that the orphan must perform; the usually happy resolution with the orphan finding success through marriage, wealth, and position; and the punishment of those who mistreated the orphan. Each of these elements has a parallel in literary orphan stories. Tracing the orphan hero motif in folktales makes it clear that this literary genre had its roots much further back than the sentimental novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. To see how these folktale patterns asserted themselves in literary orphan tales, we can turn to a comparison with a well-known children's novel.

Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic The Secret Garden was first published in 1911 and has remained a beloved fixture of children's literature ever since. It has been published many times over and has been the subject of numerous movie, television, and stage versions. The story of orphaned Mary Lennox is familiar to many readers, and it is a good representative example of the type of orphan story popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which makes it ideal for the purpose of comparison with the folktales in the study.


The central character in The Secret Garden is Mary Lennox. Mary's psychic isolation is mirrored in her actual physical isolation from her parents even while she lives with them. From the time of her birth she is "kept out of the way," taken care of by Indian servants. She develops into a tyrant, loved by no one, isolated physically and psychically because she is so unpleasant. She is, in essence, an untouchable. When her parents die, her isolation is made quite literal:

It was in that strange and sudden way that Mary found out that she had neither father nor mother left; that they had died and been carried away in the night, and that the few native servants who had not died also had left the house as quickly as they could get out of it, none of them even remembering that there was a Missie Sahib. That was why the place was so quiet. It was true that there was no one in the bungalow but herself and the little rustling snake.

          (p. 9)

The other character who could be considered an orphan is Colin Craven, Mary's cousin. Although he does not fit the definition imposed on the folktales in this study, he does fit the dictionary definition of an orphan. Colin's mother died at his birth, but his father is still alive. His father is seldom home and rarely visits the bedridden Colin. Colin parallels Mary in his physical isolation from everyone in the house. His fear of death and deformity causes self-inflicted separation from other people. His selfish spoiled nature further isolates him. Colin is also the Enchanted Prince,2 under a spell until he is freed by Mary and the helper figures in the story.

There is a third character in The Secret Garden who, although not an orphan, is just as isolated as Mary and Colin. Mr. Craven is devastated by his wife's death. He blames his son for causing her death and can barely stand to be in the same room with him. He is constantly away from home, seeking diversion by moving restlessly from place to place. He mirrors Colin in the role of Enchanted Prince. His anguish has made him just as much a prisoner as if he were locked away physically:

He had not been courageous; he had never tried to put any other thoughts in the place of the dark ones…. A terrible sorrow had fallen upon him when he had been happy and he had let his soul fill itself with blackness and had refused obstinately to allow any rift of light to pierce through … darkness so brooded over him that the sight of him was a wrong done to other people because it was as if he poisoned the air about him with gloom.

          (p. 356)

Part of the story of The Secret Garden is about his redemption as well as the healing of the two children.

A major difference between this story and folktales is the way the main characters are rendered in a three dimensional manner. Literature can capture not only action, but also the feelings of the characters. We are privy to the psychic pain of both Mary and Colin and made aware of their fears, their gradual awakening to the world around them, and ultimately, the triumph of their physical and emotional healing.

Helpers and Other Characters

Just as folklore heroes and heroines were assisted in their quests, so Mary and Colin receive help from other characters in The Secret Garden. Chief among the helper figures is Dickon. In this story, he is clearly a human helper, but in a folktale he would more likely be a supernatural helper, probably a type of benign earth spirit. While he does not possess the outright magic that such a character would in a folktale, there is certainly something mystical about the way he interacts with nature and wild animals. "I believe Dickon knows some Magic, but perhaps he doesn't know he knows it. He charms animals and people" (Burnett, 1938, p. 299).

Other human helpers are Dickon's sister, Martha; Ben Weatherstaff, the old gardener; and Dickon's mother, Mrs. Sowerby. Martha, who works as a chambermaid for Mr. Craven, is the first person Mary meets after arriving at Misselthwaite Manor. Martha is an important conveyor of information. She tells Mary about the existence of the secret garden. She also tells Mary about Dickon and piques her interest in going outside. Later in the story, Martha facilitates Mary's initial secret meetings with Colin.

Ben Weatherstaff is a cantankerous plainspoken Yorkshireman. He is a reluctant helper figure, almost against his will. When Mary meets him, she is taken aback at his straightforward assessment of her:

"Tha' an' me are a good bit alike," he said. "We was wove out of th' same cloth. We're neither of us good lookin' an' we're both of us as sour as we look. We've got the same nasty tempers, both of us, I'll warrant."

This was plain speaking, and Mary Lennox had never heard the truth about herself in her life…. She had never thought much about her looks, but she wondered if she was as unattractive as Ben Weatherstaff and she also wondered if she looked as sour as he had looked before the robin came. She actually began to wonder also if she was "nasty tempered." She felt uncomfortable.

          (p. 51)

Mrs. Sowerby does not actually appear in person in the story until the penultimate chapter, but her presence is felt from the moment Mary first hears about her from Martha. Although an off-stage actor, Mrs. Sowerby provides the orphaned children with a live mother figure. She provides both figurative and literal sustenance by sending advice and food via Dickon. She also advises Mrs. Medlock (the housekeeper) and Mr. Craven about how better to take care of the children. She sends Mr. Craven a note that gives him the impetus to come home, thus providing the happy ending to the story. She is, albeit in a very practical manner, a Fairy Godmother figure.3

The robin is the main animal helper in the story. He shows Mary where the secret garden is, and shows the way to the key and the door in the wall so she can get in. He is the first creature that befriends Mary and is clearly a magical being. Dickson's animals are also helpers, though in a less straightforward way. They help Colin, in particular, come out of his preoccupation with himself and care for something even more helpless than he is.

Supernatural helpers exist in this text too. The spirit of Colin's dead mother is present in the story, a parallel to the spirits of dead mothers in such traditional stories as Cinderella and The Juniper Tree. In these folktales, the spirit of the dead mother lives in a tree. In The Secret Garden, the tree motif is turned on its head and, rather than being the living embodiment of the mother, is associated with her because it is the instrument of her death. At the beginning of the story, her presence is not strongly felt because both Colin and his father have shut her away from their minds. Colin has covered her portrait in his room, and Mr. Craven has run away from the places that remind him of her. As the story proceeds, her presence is more and more strongly felt. Colin feels able to look at her picture again because he likes to see her laughing down at him as he regains his health and strength. Finally, she is strong enough to break into Mr. Craven's dreams and tell him to meet her "in the garden."

Nature, as embodied by the moor (wild) and the garden (tamed), is another supernatural helper. Nature is the healer of both children. They move from sickliness to health as they spend more and more time out of doors. Bodies and appearance are crucially important in this story, as they are in folktales, because they are an outward sign of the psychic healing process going on internally in the characters. Those characters, such as Dickon and Mrs. Sowerby, who are already psychically whole, are described as looking healthy, while at first Mary and Colin are thin and pale. As the children play outside, their bodies and souls are healed. This is most dramatically demonstrated when Colin learns to walk while in the garden, but Mary also responds to nature's healthfulness. At the beginning of the story, Mary has "a little thin face and a little thin body, thin light hair and a sour expression" (Burnett, 1938, p. 1). She also is described as having yellow skin because she has been a sickly child. By taking an interest first in the garden, then in Dickon and his animals, and finally in Colin and his problems, Mary becomes less and less self-centered and more and more outwardly oriented. It is done unconsciously and naturally; much of the time Mary doesn't notice that a change has occurred until after it has happened. As her personality transforms, so does her outward appearance until, by the end of the book, Mrs. Sowerby assures her that she will be a "blush rose," a true beauty like her mother.


The mistreatment suffered by both Mary and Colin stems from their parents. In Mary's case the neglect is a result of deliberate selfishness. By the time Mary arrives at Misselthwaite Manor, her soul has died symbolically because of neglect, lack of love, and loneliness. The mourning clothes she wears for her parents are symbolic of this death. When she casts off her black clothing and puts on new clothes her first morning in Yorkshire, it marks the rebirth of her soul and the blossoming of her body and inner person into good health.


Mary and Colin both have several quests to fulfill. As in many of the folktales studied, Mary's quest begins with a journey. Hers is from India to Yorkshire and her quests are to find and renew the garden, to transform herself into a healthy, loving, and beloved child who is not isolated from the rest of the world, and to help Colin do the same. Colin's quest is similar in that he also needs to be transformed into a complete person, but he must rescue his father as well.


Just as folktale orphans encounter obstacles to the successful completion of their quest, so too do Mary and Colin. These obstacles are both external and internal. Mary's external obstacles include Mrs. Medlock, who tells her she is to keep to her rooms and not wander around the house. If Mary had obeyed this edict, she wouldn't have found Colin. Another obstacle is that the garden Mary wants to see is locked up and the key buried.

Colin's obstacles are more internal than external. His fear of deformity and the fear that he won't live to grow up so dominate his thoughts that they keep him bedridden and unwilling to interact with anyone other than his caretakers. His lack of physical health is also an obstacle. He cannot walk or even sit up without help, not because of any real physical problem but because the muscles are weak from lack of use. He has made his own home a prison. His external obstacles include Dr. Craven. While he is not actively promoting Colin's decline, the doctor does nothing to help Colin do the things that are healthy for him. Colin believes that the doctor wants him to die so he will inherit the manor, but there is no mention of that by Dr. Craven himself. Rather than an active obstacle, the doctor is a passive one, as are the other grownups. The servants, the nurse, the doctor, none of them, tries to lessen Colin's spoiled nature or see him as anything other than a tiresome duty.

Surmounting Obstacles

The obstacles faced by Mary and Colin are overcome in two ways: first, with assistance from others, and second, by their own "virtue." As seen in the discus- sion of helpers, Mary and Colin are assisted by an assortment of characters. The helper characters each advance the quest a bit further by providing key bits of information or by physical and emotional assistance. Dickon, Martha, Ben, and Mrs. Sowerby are all obviously helpers.

In the folktales studied, many of the characters overcome impediments by their virtuous nature. Mary and Colin are scarcely virtuous in the same way. They are both spoiled, selfish, and stubborn. These traits would ordinarily weigh on the minus side of the ledger but in this case are turned into assets. If Mary weren't so stubborn, she would have behaved when Mrs. Medlock told her not to go exploring around the house. If she had been a "nice" child, she wouldn't have become angry with Colin when he had a temper tantrum. By shouting at him, she startles him into voicing his greatest fear, that he has a lump on his back and proving him wrong about his illness:

"There's not a single lump there!" she said at last. "There's not a lump as big as a pin—except backbone lumps, and you can only feel them because you're thin…. There's not a lump as big as a pin! If you ever say there is again, I shall laugh!"

          (p. 223)

Mary's lack of sympathy does more to convince Colin that he isn't going to be a hunchback than any statement the doctor or nurse ever made.

By the same token, Colin's Rajah-like imperiousness and assumption that everyone will do as he asks ensure that they can go to the garden every day without being disturbed. When Ben Weatherstaff calls him a cripple with crooked legs, he becomes so angry that he stands up and walks a few steps. His bad temper cures any reluctance he has about using his legs. When at the end of the story his father sees him running like any normal boy, it serves to heal his father as well.


As with any folktale, the good characters must gain a reward at the end of the story. Mary and Colin are not poor as are most orphans, so their reward is not a material one. Rather, they are physically and emotionally healed. They stand apart from everyone at the beginning of the story and, by the end, they stand together as a family. Mary has found a home with people who love her, Colin has found the love of his father and that of Mary, and Mr. Craven has regained his son, home, and happiness. While not explicitly stated in the story, it is even possible that this familial relationship will continue with Mary and Colin marrying when they are older, paralleling the happy folktale ending even more.

Punishment of Those Who Oppose Orphans

Unlike the folktales studied, those who mistreated the orphans are not punished. Mary's parents die, it is true, but there is no indication that their deaths come as some sort of divine retribution for what they have done to their daughter. In Colin's case, the person who has wronged him the most, his father, is also suffering and in some degree is more to be pitied than censured. Far from being punished, he is rewarded by a renewed happiness in life with his son.


It has been said that there are no new stories, just retellings of old ones. A comparison of orphan tales from around the world has shown that, while the details of the stories are not the same, there are some common elements that can be extracted. The isolated orphan character; mistreatment of the orphan; human, animal, and supernatural helpers; quest; obstacles to fulfillment of the quest; punishment of those who wrong orphans; and, in the end, happy rewards are found in most of the orphan tales studied for this discussion.4 These same elements exist in literary tales about orphans as shown in the representative example of Burnett's The Secret Garden.

It is because the orphan so deeply represents the feelings and pain of us all that the character continues to exist in children's literature. And until the day when none of us feels the pain of isolation, orphans will continue to symbolize it for us. The use of elements from orphan folktales in literature is an indication of the depth with which this particular character resonates. Darnton's picture of orphans running rampant in early modern France is very different from the America of 1998, but what orphan characters represent is just as real now as when the first orphan wept the first tear.


1. This idea stemmed from a conversation with Christine Jenkins at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois sometime in early 1998. We discussed coming-of-age stories and she postulated that orphans find a home instead of breaking away from one.

2. Janice Del Negro suggested the idea that Colin functions as an Enchanted Prince figure in a conversation about this project in Autumn 1998.

3. In the course of reviewing this article, the guest editor asked if I thought Mrs. Sowerby was the Fairy Godmother. My initial reaction was in the negative, but as I re-read the catalog of what she actually provided the children, I reasoned that she acted as much like a Fairy Godmother as the stock character we have come to think of in relation to Cinderella. Mrs. Sowerby is not overtly magical, but there is something other-worldly in the way she "observes" the children from a distance and in the stories about them told to her by others.

4. These categories were created by the author and are not meant to correlate with similar categories found in the motif and tale type indexes.

Appendix A

Alphabetical Listing of Fifty Folk Tales

Ah Tcha the Sleeper, Chrisman, A. B. (Chinese)

Alenoushka and Her Brother, Ransome, A. (Russian)

The Angekkok, Shelley, N. (Inuit)

Celery, Manning-Sanders, R. (Mediterranean)

Coolnajoo, the Foolish One, Hill, K. (Wabanaki)

Dick Whittington and His Cat, Reeves, J. (English)

The Dragon, Sliced in Two, Spicer, D. G. (Swiss)

The First Tears, Jablow, A. & Withers, C. (Algerian: Kabyle)

Foni and Fotia, Manning-Sanders, R. (Sudanese)

The Girl in the Moon, Deutsch, B. & Yarmolinsky, A. (Siberian: Yakut)

Hans and His Master, Manning-Sanders, R. (Hungarian)

John and Mary, or the Girl with the Chopped Off Hands, Carriere, J. M. (Missouri French)

John the Bear, Carriere, J. M. (Missouri French)

Johnny and the Witch-Maidens, Manning-Sanders, R. (Bohemian)

Julio, Aiken, R. (Mexican)

The Jurga, Belpre, P. (Puerto Rican)

Kautaluk, Metayer, M. (Inuit)

Khavroshechka, Carey, B. (Russian)

King Zargand's Daughter, Sheohmelian, O. (Armenian)

Kuzenko Suddenly Wealthy, Wyndham, L. (Russian)

The Legend of the Chingolo Bird, Courlander, H. (Paraguayan)

The Little Orphan, Ekrem, S. (Turkish)

Little Berry, Illyes, G. (Hungarian)

The Magic Brush: A Han Folktale, Sadler, C. E. (Chinese)

The Magic Drum, Mama, R. (Fon: Benin)

Mannikin Spanalong, Manning-Sanders, R. (German)

The Market of the Dead, Carter, A. (Fon: Kingdom of Dohomey)

Mary-Ann and the Cauld Lad of Hylton, Finlay, W. (English)

Merafa, Wheeler, G. C. (Mono-Alu: Solomon Islands)

The Obsession with Clothes, Peretz, I. L. (Jewish)

Old Verlooka, Manning-Sanders, R. (Russian)

Ooka and Tosuke's Tax, Edmonds, I. G. (Japanese)

The Orphan and the Leper, Mama, R. (Fon: Benin)

Orphan Boy: A Massai Story, Mollel, T. M. (Massai: Tanzania)

The Orphan Boy and the Elk Dog, Yolen, J. (Cherokee)

Oudelette, Manning-Sanders, R. (Mediterranean)

Poor Turkey Girl, Sierra, J. (Zuni)

The Prince and the Orphan, Mama, R. (Fon: Benin)

Qalutaligssuaq, Caswell, H. (Inuit)

Quick-Witted, Hoogasian-Villa, S. (Armenian)

The Skull, Manning-Sanders, R. (Tyrolese)

Spindle, Shuttle, and Needle, Lang, A. (German)

The Stolen Jewel, Hitchcock, P. (Nepalese)

The Story of Bhikkhu Sok, Carrison, M. P. (Cambodian)

The Story of Mordecai and Esther, Barash, A. (Jewish)

The Strongest Boy in the World, Hill, K. (Wabanaki)

Wend'Yamba, Guirma, F. (Upper Voltan)

The Wooden Bowl, Hearn, L. (Japanese)

Yeh-Hsien, Sierra, J. (Chinese)

Yukiko and the Little Black Cat, Novak, M. (Japanese)


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Joe Sutliff Sanders (essay date spring 2008)

SOURCE: Sanders, Joe Sutliff. "Spinning Sympathy: Orphan Girls Novels and the Sentimental Tradition." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 33, no. 1 (spring 2008): 41-61.

[In the following essay, Sanders traces the evolution of orphan novels targeted towards female readers from their origins in the sentimental tradition of literature throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.]

When Katy Carr, of Susan Coolidge's 1873 novel What Katy Did, awakes on Christmas morning in her invalid's bed, she is delighted to discover three important gifts. From her cousin Helen, who is also an invalid, there is "a little silver bell." Tied up near it is "a beautiful book … ‘The Wide Wide World’" (203). These gifts and others adorn a new chair, a gift from her father and the place in which she will spend many of her waking hours over the coming years. All three gifts will be important for the novel's happy ending. From this chair, Katy will assume a severely limited position in her family that allows her to find fulfillment and a measure of power. With the use of her bell, she will be able to summon siblings and servants so that she may exercise that power on them and well beyond her physical reach. Armed with a strategy preached in Susan Warner's pivotal sentimental novel (The Wide, Wide World was published in 1850 and sold through printing after printing faster than anyone, including the author, anticipated), she will make them eager to answer her summons, impatient to do her bidding. Together, these three gifts symbolize the promise and the threat of girls' fiction that follows the sentimental tradition. Such fiction offers girls dreams of power and a roadmap to achieving that power through what would later be called "sympathy." But to exercise that power, girls would have to accept profound limitations.

When Warner's book appeared in Coolidge's story, The Wide, Wide World needed no introduction. Sally Mitchell has claimed that Warner's novel "was the best-loved" of a group of mid-nineteenth-century novels written for adults but that enjoyed long-lived popularity with girl readers in Britain (152), and the assumption on the part of the narrator of Coolidge's American novel seems to be similar for that audience. What Katy Did occupies a historical position between sentimental novels about girls and a later flowering of girls' fiction fundamentally indebted to novels such as The Wide, Wide World. The purpose of this article is to trace one trope through the history in which Katy appears at the middle, a history beginning with sentimental novels of the mid-nineteenth century and ending with novels about orphan girls at the turn into the twentieth century, specifically 1880-1920. These popular, later novels borrowed a plot from earlier sentimental novels in order to revise sympathy—a hallmark of sentimental fiction—to fit better the reality of girls during the first acme of consumer culture in America.

I join other scholars in saying that these orphan girl novels exist in a literary-historical continuum with women's sentimental novels of the midcentury,1 but it is important to add to this standard argument two points about the transition from sentimentalism to turn-of-the-century orphan girl stories. First, the terms of that transition were controlled by sentimentalism: the formulaic plot in which a disempowered female protagonist uses sympathy to knit the people around her into a group bound by sameness was scripted for girls' novels by fiction of the earlier part of the nineteenth century. Second, although the terms are dictated by the previous generation, the new generation works endlessly to revise those terms so they are more suited to girl readers. Although it is true, as Claudia Nelson has argued, that turn-of-the-century orphan narratives demonstrated that sentimentalized children were required to tend to "the spiritual and emotional uplift of adults" (7), that moral work did not preclude spiritual and material benefits for the imagined girls. These books were bestsellers of their day in part because they appealed to adults and told traditional stories about the ways children could be useful to adults, but orphan girl novels at the turn of the century rejected the old model that girls must happily sacrifice themselves in order to fix the adults around them without any hope of reward to themselves. These girls do continue the work of improving the lives of adults who are sympathetic to them—a duty that was their chief responsibility in sentimental novels. However, the performance of those duties in the Progressive Era provides—in forms and dimensions not possible in sentimental fiction—material and social comfort for the girls themselves.

The first scholars to give sustained, rigorous attention to American sentimental novels took a limited body of work as their subject. When Nina Baym, Ann Douglas, and Jane Tompkins talked about this fiction, they meant what Baym called "woman's fiction," a set of midcentury novels written by women (ostensibly) for women. For these scholars, sentimentalism was a strategy (literary, cultural, or political) that endorsed an excess of emotions that could be expressed in conjunction with bourgeois femininity. Sentimentalism became the hallmark of the nation's first best-sellers, and the market encouraged more of the same, leading to a period in the middle of the nineteenth century in which many novels embraced sentimentalism. Therefore, sentimentalism can mean both an emphasis on an excess of emotions and a period of literary history in which novels that embraced such an emphasis dominated the literary landscape. In the time since Baym and company defined the field, scholarship has made a point of expanding the scope of sentimentalism, showing that this term can be used profitably to define fiction by men, fiction from the previous century, and even canonical fiction. However, when best-selling girls' fiction between 1880 and 1920 borrowed tropes, character types, plots, and morals from sentimentalism, girls' fiction consistently turned to best-selling woman's fiction from the midcentury. Their source texts included previous best-selling orphan girl novels such as The Wide, Wide World and The Hidden Hand as well as phenomenally popular books such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, books that the first wave of scholarship on sentimentalism viewed as crucial to the movement. Therefore, my argument will rely on this early definition of sentimentalism.

Such an approach has parallels with existing scholarship. Claudia Nelson, for example, has made tremendous contributions to the study of sentiment in children's fiction and culture between 1850 and 1929, and although she and I consider many of the same texts, there are important differences in our strategies and in our use of sentimentalism. One of Nelson's original contributions is the revelation that although sentimentalism as a genre came to a conclusion by 1880, sentimentality certainly did not. In fact, although writings and theories about children adopted a quasi-scientific tone at the end of the century, an emphasis on the nonpragmatic value of children did nothing but swell over the decades between 1880 and 1920. It is the emotional value and valuing of children to which Nelson refers when she talks about "sentiment." Therefore, when Nelson says, "As the child ceased to contribute in meaningful practical ways to its family, its sentimental importance was magnified proportionately" (17), she could be offering a reading of a text such as the sentimental novel The Wide, Wide World, but her real use of the term sentimental is to name an emotional reaction, not precisely the midcentury literary movement. Although the emotional value of children during this period has implications for my argument, for the purposes of this article sentimentalism always means the mid-nineteenth-century fiction that Baym and others cordoned off as a distinct genre. Few scholars, in fact, have insisted on sustaining an inquiry of sentimental influences on children's literature, with the result that the revisions and even repudiations of sentimentalism implicit in turn-of-the-century girls' fiction have gone unnoticed. Focusing on changes fiction for girls in the new century required of sentimental tropes borrowed from the previous century will reveal historically specific insights about what girls' literature could offer its readers.

In the last ten years sympathy has become for scholars of American literature the identifying trait of sentimentalism, even when talking about books that clearly predate Warner or that take as their scope something much larger than the domestic setting typical of sentimental fiction. Sympathy is, for current scholars, that process by which people achieve a synchronicity of feeling. In other words, sympathy can be recognized by its effects: where people are sympathetic to each other, they strive to be and feel the same. But we can also recognize sympathy by its characteristics as it is in motion. Sympathy is an emotion (which is why it flourishes in sentimental novels) made up of a potent concoction of guilt, affection, and admiration. A person feeling sympathy feels an obscure guilt over his or her revulsion at the person who is ill or weak in addition to a certain amount of guilt at being able to be happy, wealthy, or mobile. But affection and admiration are also key to sympathy: without them sympathy becomes pity or even disgust. Thus, sentimental fiction and its descendants make a point of instructing their weak characters (and readers) in the art of being pleasant, of being good invalids, orphans, or waifs. Children, women, and invalids who bear up well under the weight of their affliction (which can range from illness to financial hardship to unsympathetic relatives) are admired for being unlike all those other children, women, and invalids who have become embittered. Sympathetic girls will make being around them as pleasant as possible and will allow visitors every opportunity not to think about the inequity that has made those creatures weak.

The irony is that by doing so, the girls of stories in the sentimental tradition make it impossible for the people around them to think about anything else. Sympathy therefore creates a network of guilt and affection that forces the healthy and powerful to obsess over the weak, which allows—in sentimental fiction—moral instruction to flow out from the object of sympathy to the people wringing their hands around her sickbed. As this article will demonstrate, such a network conveys a certain power to the girl around whom the network is arrayed: the girl attains a moral position from which she can instruct and improve the people around her. As this article will conclude, orphan girl novels of the turn of the century revise the story of sympathy to offer Progressive Era readers a version of sympathy more relevant to the new consumer culture: girls at the center of a sympathetic relationship are still able to improve sympathizing adults, but the later novels offer girls a centrality ensured by consumerism.

Beginning in the Middle

Rather than beginning my survey of sympathy in novels about girls in midcentury, when these patterns were enjoying their first exposure through popular sentimental novels, I will begin with What Katy Did, which, published in 1873, figures as a transitional book between the midcentury high point of sentimentalism and the turn-of-the-century Progressive Era. Katy's scenes clearly sum up the steps required for establishing sympathetic power; therefore, it was in- strumental in the transmission of the sentimental model to Progressive Era children's fiction.

Coolidge's novel tells the story of Katy Carr, who is imaginative, hot-tempered, and a natural leader. A half-orphan, she obeys her aunt when she chooses and adores her often-absent father. The narrator makes clear that Katy is essentially a good girl who has a great deal of trouble controlling herself, and although she is always genuinely sorry for her indiscretions, her plans to be great and good are rarely sustained past an initial swell of promise. But when Katy disobeys her aunt and plays on a broken swing, she suffers a terrible fall that leaves her an invalid for most of the rest of the novel. From this point on, the novel becomes a record of Katy's successes and failures in learning the lessons of sympathy. Katy's happiness, the maintenance of her home, and her relationship with those she loves depend on how she negotiates the sympathy they feel for her.

Fortunately for Katy, she has had an excellent tutor in the figure of her cousin Helen, who is also an invalid and whose example Katy follows carefully. The first phase of sympathy, however, is not pretty. Before Katy's accident, Helen has had to expend a great deal of effort in order to become a favorite of the children at the Carr house. One of Katy's siblings "backed away with his hands behind him" upon first meeting Helen, "staring hard for a minute or two" (125). Secretly, Katy and others worry that Helen might envy and even resent their healthy bodies (137-38). Sympathy may only exist between the weak and the strong, and although many sentimental stories about the relationship between the weak and strong often choose to ignore the potential for resentment on the part of the former or guilt and aversion on the part of the latter, What Katy Did makes the original state of sympathy clear. One party must be weak, the other must be strong, and there is good reason to think the inequity will wedge the two apart.

And yet even Philly, the boy who held himself back from Helen, somehow comes to cherish her caresses. The means by which the original state of sympathy is overcome is absolutely key to the model of sympathy sentimental novels (and novels, such as Coolidge's, that follow in that tradition) espouse. "There was something in Cousin Helen's face and manner," the narrator says, "which made the children at home with her at once" (125). That "something" is more carefully constructed than Katy first realizes. Helen later tells Katy, "sickness is such a disagreeable thing in itself, that unless sick people take great pains, they soon grow to be eyesores to themselves and everybody about them" (185). Helen is no fool. Keenly aware of the aversion and guilt that can fill the well upon sight of the ill, she repeats a lengthy conversation she once had with her father when she first fell ill:

[Her father said,] "My daughter, I'm afraid you've got to live in this room for a long time. Now there's one thing I want you to do for my sake."

"What is that?" she asked, surprised to hear there was anything left which she could do for anybody.

"I want you to turn out all these physic bottles, and make your room pleasant and pretty for me to come and sit in. You see, I shall spend a good deal of my time here! Now I don't like dust and darkness. I like to see flowers on the table, and sunshine in at the window. Will you do this to please me?"

"Yes," said the girl, but she gave a sigh, and … she felt as if it was going to be a dreadful trouble.

"Then, another thing," continued her father, "I want you to look pretty. Can't night-gowns and wrappers be trimmed and made becoming just as much as dresses? A sick woman who isn't neat is a disagreeable object. Do, to please me, send for something pretty, and let me see you looking nice again. I can't bear to have my Helen turn into a slattern."


Throughout this exchange, we again see the threat behind sympathy: the weak can become an eyesore, in which case they will be lucky to have any friends. Therefore, it is incumbent upon them—as Helen, her father, and the novel argue—to be pleasant and pretty. This passage demonstrates that some people will visit the ill out of duty—Helen's father is resigned to spending "a great deal of time" in Helen's room even though he is fed up with the conditions of the place—but other passages make clear that the ill themselves have a duty. "A sick person," Helen tells Katy, "ought to be as fresh and dainty as a rose" (177), both for those who must visit and for those who might be induced to visit. When Katy protests that she can no longer get up to interact with her siblings and friends, Helen says, "But you can make your room such a delightful place, that they will want to come to you! Don't you see, a sick person has one splendid chance—she is always on hand. Everybody who wants her knows just where to go. If people love her, she gets naturally to be the heart of the house" (185).

Becoming the heart of the house is the goal of the weak party in such a sympathetic relationship. Helen's phrase introduces the idea that girls in sym- pathetic relationships must be the center of those relationships. They will be the sentimental heart of the home, radiating daintiness and delight. They will be the moral center of the home, as Katy becomes when she teaches her siblings to be kind to a horrid relation (253). They can even become the organizational center of the home, as Katy does when she takes over the duties of managing the house when her aunt dies; the narrator remarks that "Katy, sitting up stairs in her big chair, held the threads of the house firmly in her hands" (234). Getting "naturally to be the heart of the house" is the essence of the promise inherent in the sympathetic relationship, for it means that the powerful no longer need to feel guilty and that the weak can find power.

In the sentimental model there is another important social obligation for the weak party in the sympathetic relationship, an obligation that can be achieved successfully because of the new centrality possessed by these girls. The weak must use their position at the heart of the house to change the powerful so that the latter are more like the former. This is not to say that the powerful must become weak but rather that the powerful must become humble, charitable, kind, industrious, joyful, or whatever other characteristic now defines the girl at the heart of the home. Helen certainly uses her sympathetic power in this way, to the approval of Katy's father (138), most remarkably in the transformation of Katy, who consciously sets out to mimic Helen even before Katy has her accident (143). Later, Katy—again following Helen's model by becoming a model of behavior herself—uses her own sympathetic ties to change her able-bodied siblings. Well into her invalidism, Katy becomes the only person who can effectively discipline Philly, the boy who was once so disturbed at the sight of Helen. When the boy has done something naughty and refuses to take correction from others, Katy calls him to her now-charming room, holds him in her lap, speaks to him gently, and asks him to behave better. "I will!" says Philly. "Only kiss me first, because I didn't mean to, you know!" "Philly was very fond of Katy," the narrator informs us. "Miss Petingill said it was wonderful to see how that child let himself be managed" (247). Katy is to manage not only the house from her big chair but also her siblings. She is to mold them into her own image: they will become obedient, as she now is, sweet and approachable, as she now is, and any number of other traits that the new moral center of the house has acquired. When she rings her silver bell, the children race each other to see who can reach her big chair first (239), and the influence she shines upon them is guaranteed by the sympathetic arrangement proposed by The Wide, Wide World and the sentimental philosophy of previous decades. When Helen returns to the Carr house, she makes a point of recognizing Katy's success:

And Katy, darling, I want to tell you how pleased I am to see how bravely you have worked your way up. I can perceive it in everything—in Papa, in the children, in yourself. You have won the place, which, you recollect, I once told you an invalid should try to gain, of being to everybody "The Heart of the House."


Katy has indeed worked her way up. Helen probably means this compliment in the sense that Katy is no longer depressed, but it is also true that Katy has ascended—upstairs in her big chair—to a position of influence. She is still weak in body, but, following the rules of sentimental sympathy, she has parlayed that weakness into an opportunity to become the center of her household. Her success in becoming the heart of the house is documented by her success with Papa and the children as well as herself. Without moving from her room, she has made her father and siblings happier and better, and if she has gained some power along the way, all the better.

Sentimental Origins

But there are important limitations on the power a girl such as Katy can wield, and these limitations become more dramatic as we look back to the girls of midcentury sentimental novels—girls who made the terms of sympathy clearest. Consider, for example, Eva St. Claire, the girl who plays so prominent a role in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851). The immense popularity of this novel—and its publication during an era when family time often involved adults reading novels to the family "so that children often heard stories that were far beyond their reading abilities" (Murray 53)—means it is extremely likely that middle-class girls outside the South knew the story well. As such, it is an important predecessor in the emergence of later girls' fiction. The doomed Eva similarly makes herself the moral center of her household, in the process drawing a disobedient slave and both her uptight aunt and disappointing father into sympathetic relationships. She makes herself charming and lovable, eventually correcting the faults of those around her through the sympathy her pitiful state, charm, and boundless love enable. Topsy's willfulness, Ophelia's heartlessness, and Mr. St. Claire's devotion to the bottom line all lose their sharpness, and the characters become, through sympathy for Eva, more like the little girl: obedient, kind, and loving. Eva is able to remake the people around her according to her own tastes, and because she is so adept at the game of sympathy, they do not resent her interference. Indeed, they are grateful for it.

Clearly, this is an important kind of power, but at what cost does Eva gain her power? Studies of sympathetic children in midcentury fiction have been skeptical of the power such fiction pretends to offer girls. In a lengthy study of the cultural use of children at midcentury, Karen Sánchez-Eppler argues that although fictional children of the period were imagined to exude influence over adults, this influence "does not fundamentally alter the structures of power" (72). For example, in a chapter on temperance fiction, Sánchez-Eppler notes the ways in which a thinly veiled eroticism enables children to seduce their fathers away from alcohol. The children then reward the newly temperate father with caresses and promises of further tenderness. The reward for children—fictional children or those reading the temperance narrative—is that their fathers will be less abusive and more caring; the cost for those same children is permanent subjugation: "As the loving domestic scene is proffered as a replacement for the dissipation and excesses of drunkenness, the child's love works to enforce a bourgeois patriarchal order that leaves the child as vulnerable as ever" (3). This is not dissimilar to Eva's story. As Bridget Bennett's new work on Uncle Tom's Cabin points out, the sacred fetishes little Eva leaves for her new converts in the form of locks of hair serve to highlight the disappearance of everything but Eva's bodiless message. It is as though the heart of the home only has power when she acts as a centrifuge: Eva radiates influence outward, losing her body in the process.

Therefore, the terms of sympathetic power offered by midcentury literature were conflicted at best. Girls could have power but at a horrible personal cost. As girls' fiction borrowed the story of sympathy from sentimentalism, it faced the difficult task of revising those terms in order to leave its protagonists happy and intact. But from early in the history of fiction explicitly for girls, that revision was already taking place. Consider again What Katy Did, in which Helen and Katy figure as effective sympathetic centers without dying. Coolidge's novel is firmly aware of its origins, and Coolidge makes clear her link to novels such as Stowe's when, for example, Helen gives one of the children "a cunning little locket" holding a bit of her hair (141). Helen, it seems, is already feeling the pull of the centrifuge. And yet she resists dissipation, and her student Katy not only avoids death, she actually learns to walk again. The genres of "woman's fiction" and girls' fiction are bound to each other, but girls' fiction tests those bonds from the very beginning.

Progressive Era Revisions

There is certainly much fiction of the subsequent decades that owed little or nothing to midcentury sentimental fiction, but there was a strain of girls' fiction that relied heavily on patterns established by "woman's fiction." I am referring to the group of novels—most of them best-sellers, as were the midcentury novels—about orphan girls, which flourished between 1880 and 1920. Many scholars have pointed to the connection between the two genres, whether as a general point about a shared interest in excessive emotions,2 a point about the shared readership between orphan stories and women's popular fiction (see Reynolds 94 and 101), an observation about the "feminine, flowery world" of turn-of-the-century orphan girl fiction (see Johnson 65), or specific arguments about the overlap of sentimental fiction and the "classic" orphan novel (see Nelson 6 and 135). Because this particular subset of girls' fiction at the turn of the century is predicated on common plots, structures, and characters from sentimental fiction of the earlier part of the nineteenth century, it is the best place to look at how girls' fiction confronted and revised sentimentalism. Therefore, I am not making a claim about all of girls' fiction at the turn of the century; rather, I am talking about that specific descendant of sentimentalism whose audience would have recognized it as part of the same tradition as The Wide, Wide World, Beulah, The Hidden Hand, and other sentimental novels that were still in wide circulation at the same time.

The clearest example of an heir to Eva and Katy is Pollyanna, of Eleanor H. Porter's 1913 novel of the same name. Pollyanna is the poor orphan of a recently deceased minister, whom her mother married over the protests of her family. As a result, Pollyanna arrives at her aunt Polly's house as an unwanted burden and a perpetual reminder of her mother's indiscretion. As Aunt Polly says in the opening pages of the novel, "just because I happened to have a sister who was silly enough to marry and bring unnecessary children into a world that was already quite full enough, I can't see how I should particularly want to have the care of them myself. However, as I said before, I hope I know my duty" (13). Pollyanna is not an invalid—not yet—but she is weak, wracked with grief, penniless, and left with no relatives but the ever-frowning Aunt Polly. Because she has been thrown on Polly's charity, the power relationship necessary to sympathy is a given from the beginning. Because Polly sees her niece as an imposition and an heirloom of family shame, the requisite aversion is also in place. The novel's project is to narrate the story of how Pollyanna manages to become the heart of the house and what she does with the power her new position gives her.

The great majority of Porter's novel endorses the old model with minor changes. The story follows Pollyanna as she trips gaily through the town, across social barriers, and into the hearts of the disparate, stagnant townspeople. The philosophy Pollyanna follows and preaches is one she learned from her father—namely, the glad game, which is the perfect philosophy for a standard tale of sympathy from the previous century. It is activated when things are bad—it was invented when Pollyanna received a crutch instead of a doll for her birthday—and requires the sufferer to ignore what is wrong, to focus only on what will make her pleasant and happy. By finding something to be glad about in any situation, Pollyanna is able to smooth out the various pains of the people in the town and bring them all into a synchronicity of, to borrow a phrase from Stowe, right feeling. As with Katy's effect on her father and siblings, Pollyanna forces pain and joy to commingle in order that the secret grudges, petty jealousies, and moral inadequacies of the townspeople evaporate. Their unenviable situations—loneliness, lameness, fussiness—are refitted with happy faces because of the glad game, which means they can become sympathetic heroes in their own right. Pollyanna's cheerful response to her own pitiable situation—not only is she an orphan, but she also has to live with Aunt Polly, a fact that inspires great pity in the book (27)—makes her the cheerful sufferer necessary for the sympathetic structure. As a result, Pollyanna is at the center of the new community. Like Katy in her big chair upstairs, Pollyanna has a moral vantage point from which to keep the town in order. There are variations on the old theme in that Pollyanna has created new, limited sympathetic centers throughout the town. But the basic plot is still in place: Pollyanna has taught the people of the town to be sympathetic toward her as well as sympathetic like her. As Eva did, she uses their sympathy to help push her moral code onto them.

It is significant to note that one of the revisions girls' fiction proposes to the sentimental model of sympathy is a broadening of its scope. Sánchez-Eppler has indicated that this potential was always implicit in sympathetic models, particularly those tied to children, even in Sunday school stories that used sentimentality to endorse an imperial right to impose white, bourgeois, American Protestantism through missionary work.3 Alice Mills has shown how Pollyanna and its sequels tell the ongoing story of how the orphan girl is able to use her pathos to spread her philosophy of life to ever-wider circles, and Laureen Tedesco has revealed that Progressive Girl Scout handbooks enabled girls to enforce bourgeois American codes on the tides of immigrants reaching America during these decades. Although these scholars do not connect girls' literature of the new century with midcentury fiction, they do indicate that the imperialist, hegemonizing potential of sentimental sympathy was always latent in children's culture.4 They further indicate that sympathy was used on broader stages upon which to knit people together. The scope of sympathy, therefore, became broader and broader, working its way ever outward as the decades passed. But as we will see next, sympathy also developed a tendency to turn toward its center, even as the heart of the house spread her influence wider.

When Pollyanna is struck by a car, the accident leaves her seriously wounded; although the accident is not fatal, it becomes quickly apparent that Pollyanna will never walk again. Yet the physical blow is not so great a danger as the new spiritual wound that most threatens her: Pollyanna's faith in the glad game is uprooted when she overhears the doctor's gloomy diagnosis. Bereft, Pollyanna, like Katy before her, enters into a deep depression from which there is no sign she will emerge. In Gail Schmunk Murray's reading of novels such as Pollyanna in the broader context of the history of childhood, she argues that what happens next feels very similar to what might have transpired in a midcentury sentimental novel:

[Porter] used the accident only as a device to complete the transforming power of Pollyanna's positive thinking. In Porter's hands, the suffering caused by the accident does not bring redemption in and of itself, but it multiplies the number of persons drawn into "the glad game" as they seek to comprehend the tragedy that has befallen the heroine.


For Murray, this fallout from the quasi-deathbed scene is similar to what one might find in midcentury portrayals of perishing daughters. As we have seen, midcentury sentimentalism knew well how to turn an ailing child into an opportunity to influence adults. Murray's reading, too, is consistent with the bulk of the novel: this has been a story of how Pollyanna drew more and more people into the glad game, radiating influence with a gusto that would have been the envy of any of her predecessors.

But for all that, this reading is not exactly accurate. I want to emphasize that this reading makes sense, given everything leading up to the accident, including the events leading up to it from other novels clearly in the same tradition. But Pollyanna's illness does not, in fact, allow her to convert masses of adults to the glad game. A string of people do stop by the house, but not to gaze upon the child's wilting body and thereby draw inspiration from her (noble bearing of) pain. Pollyanna does not serve the adults of the community after her accident; she is still the heart of the house, indeed of the town, but she is no longer directing the people around her and dispensing moral instruction. Instead, this stream of people comes to serve the little girl herself. As Polly's servant Nancy puts it, the line of people dropping by the house during Pollyanna's illness has a very clear message: "It means that ever since last June that blessed child has jest been makin' the whole town glad, an' now they're turnin' round an' tryin' ter make her a little glad too" (202, emphasis added). The first part of the novel leads us to expect a further widening of the glad game, but the conclusion provides no such thing. It might multiply the number of sympathizing characters of whom we are aware, but these people come to the house—that is, present themselves in a space where the reader can see them—because, as they say one after the other, they are already grateful to her for the changes she has previously wrought in them. Those people have already been helped, and their visits to Pollyanna are made with the intention of working for Pollyanna. This ending significantly revises the traditional use of sympathetic communities centered around ailing girls: this is not a widening but a tightening—a reversal from centrifugal to centripetal—in which the adults remain in the sympathetic structure built by the little girl but turn to her to heal her body and shine her own influence back on the wounded child.5 The purpose of the sympathetic relationship now becomes, to paraphrase Nancy, to make the child glad.

As a direct result of this sustained adult attention, Pollyanna's mood does in fact improve, and—to complete the bargain—a specialist in Pollyanna's specific ailment is located, invited, and successfully engaged to heal the little girl. To be sure, the adults around Pollyanna benefit from her influence, but the change in this story of sympathy is dramatic. Not only does Pollyanna avoid the fate of sentimental girls in the mold of Eva St. Claire, girls whose deaths cemented their life's work in building the sympathetic network, but Porter's novel goes so far as to suggest that the point of sympathy is to construct a community of adults who will provide for the child. From the vantage of Pollyanna, even What Katy Did looks old-fashioned in this sense. Certainly a weak, sympathetic girl will make a point of directing the moral and mundane lives of the people around her, Porter's novel suggests, but her real power lies in making the people around her want to make her happy.

And whatever good these sympathetic adults may do Pollyanna's spirit, it is significant that one of the services they offer her is improvement of her body. Although Eva distributes bits of her body at the end of her life in order to help those around her remember, her body is a barely necessary conduit through which the people standing around her deathbed or fingering bits of her hair access her message. When Katy spins influence from her big chair, she retains her body and regains her health but only accidentally; the sympathetic arrangement offers her power and distraction from her illness until her invalidism disappears of its own accord. In Pollyanna's story, however, the body is a major reason the adults come together. Healing it, serving it, and providing it with pets and trinkets is the reason adults surround Pollyanna's body. Right feeling and morality radiate from Eva's bed, and like her bits of hair, Eva and her message dissipate from the bed outward. Pollyanna's wounded body, however, becomes the magnetic center of adult attention. Although she has lived her life previous to this moment ranging far and wide in her personal outreach program, at the end of the novel she has stopped radiating and begun consuming the fruits of her labor: adult attention. It is significant that this attention leaves the girl with a body that is more solid, healthier, stronger, and more attended to than before.

Reflecting on the Transition

The changes taking place in the sympathetic model borrowed from sentimentalism are most dramatic when viewed through high points in the overall narrative—a sentimental story written in 1851, a transitional story written in 1873, and a late-Progressive Era novel in 1913—but these changes had been taking place all along. Louisa May Alcott's Eight Cousins (1875), for example, is both a foundational text in the history of orphan girl novels and closely bound to the sentimental tradition; as such, it is a transitional book that can make clear the creeping changes these books enact upon the sympathetic model. Eight Cousins clearly arranges its male cousins around the orphan girl, and a major turning point of the novel is Rose's discovery that she can and should influence the boys. She is a pitiful, morose, sickly child at the beginning of the novel, and only when she ignores her sadness—à la Katy—in service of influencing her cousins does she become stronger. By helping rid the boys of their vulgar habits and instilling in them a love of bourgeois lifestyle, she reshapes them as girls on either end of the historical spectrum might. There is some promise of reward for the girl herself—"Work away, my dear," one grown-up tells her, "and help their mother keep these sons fit friends for an innocent creature like yourself" (183)—but the reward is delayed and slots Rose for the kind of "second-class citizenship" Alcott herself found so unsatisfying (Strickland 162). The orphan girl of this novel, situated at the opening of the period, uses sympathy as a sentimental girl might; there is only a hint that there might be some significant reward in this relationship for herself.

Later orphan girl novels of the period use sympathy with uneven results. One such novel written just after the turn of the century, Kate Douglas Wiggin's Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903), shows a movement toward Pollyanna and away from Eva. Like Rose in Alcott's novel, Rebecca sets up a sympathetic network, this time of neighbors, teachers, and peers. The old man who delivers Rebecca to her aunts' home is enchanted by the little girl, and when she later tells him that she has decided to run away, his devotion to her pays off:

Mr. Jeremiah Cobb's mental machinery was simple, and did not move very smoothly save when propelled by his affection or sympathy. In the present case these were both employed to his advantage, and mourning his stupidity and praying for some flash of inspiration to light his path, he blundered along.

          (Wiggin 86)

Guided by sympathy, Cobb does quite well, finding exactly the right words to keep the girl in the home where her education and social mobility will be provided for; sympathy guides an adult to see to the girl's needs—not the other way around. But the benefit to the girl is not so neatly defined as it will be ten years later for Pollyanna. Following the successful conversation with Cobb, the narrator sighs that Rebecca "had been saved from foolishness and error," which should be read as a benefit for the child, but the sentence goes on to explain that she has also been "kept from troubling her poor mother; prevented from angering and mortifying her aunts" (92). On the same page, the narrator reveals that Rebecca's "heart was melted now," which is to say that she has become the target, not the dispenser, of sympathy, "and she determined to win Aunt Miranda's approval by some desperate means," which is to say two things at once: she will attempt to act in accordance with Miranda's moral code in order to repair the sympathetic relationship that will give Rebecca a happier life in Miranda's house. This sort of ambivalence about the direction of sympathy continues throughout the novel until the end, at which point another man, the wealthy Adam Ladd, is moved by love for the girl and pity for her family's dire financial situation (the mixture of the two yielding sympathy) to negotiate a business deal that will finally relieve Rebecca of the financial burdens she has been under throughout the narrative. In this way, the novel seems to be leaning toward but not fully committed to the process of forging sympathetic communities that will grant the girl benefits.

When sympathetic communities do shift from centrifugal to centripetal, they tend to do so in terms such as these, terms emphasizing real, financial gains, not just the spiritual rewards awaiting the girls upon marriage or death. In Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess (1905), for example, the suddenly destitute Sara creates a sympathetic community around herself first by telling compelling stories, then by using that oldest of sentimental tricks: looking pathetic. The attorney who will be instrumental to Sara's restored social status, for example, joins with his family to watch and discuss the pitiful—yet somehow still noble—girl they see on the street. For the Carmichael family, Sara is a reminder of the hideously precarious nature of wealth. But because Sara is so noble, kind, and unresentful—think of Cousin Helen's cheerfulness toward the able-bodied—the Carmichaels can look at her with pity and admiration; they can sympathize. In addition, Sara's neighbor, Tom Carrisford, who knows what happened to her father and who will one day take his place, devours stories about the girl who holds up so well in her misery, and his servant—Ram Dass—secretly watches Sara, eavesdropping on her dreams of luxury. Anyone at all susceptible to sympathy falls for Sara, and just as Adam Ladd provided Rebecca with financial ease or Aunt Polly showered trinkets on her young charge, these sympathetic adults go out of their way to give the orphan girl the money and goods her heart desires. Carrisford and Dass conspire to fill the poor girl's room with furniture and treats for which they have overheard her longing, and when he discovers that she is none other than the daughter of his deceased business partner, Carrisford bestows the wealth of bursting diamond mines upon her. In the last half of the novel, after the sympathetic network has been established according to sentimental guidelines, the people who feel sympathy for Sara come into a synchronicity with her: they learn her desires and desire those things for her. The novel's happy moments come with a little girl receiving material goods after a long period of knitting together a sympathetic community. Like Eva, Sara spins her influence out, but like Pollyanna, the purpose of that influence is to arrange adults around her so that she can draw in from them worldly satisfaction. The direction of sympathy is still mixed, as the novel ends with a scene that emphasizes the good influence Sara has had on the adults who watch her, whether that be through Carrisford's suddenly improved health or the charity of a baker inspired by Sara's own charity during her days of poverty. So even here, in a novel whose conflict is that the right adult (Carrisford) has yet to pay the right kind of attention (passing on her father's wealth) to an orphan girl, the influence of the sentimental model is heavy.

But there is a pattern emerging in these later texts. When sympathy turns to seek its center—namely, the girl who has been radiating influence in the tradition of sentimental narratives—the adults who have been forged into a community of likeness through their devotion to the girl can now show their conversion not just through good deeds directed to heaven or one another. Now they can tell the girl they love her by bestowing her heart's desire, which is no longer a father who will be less alcoholic or give up his slaves; now the promise is of diamonds, decorations, pets, clothes, property, and cash. These sympathetic communities were designed by a sentimental project that deferred satisfaction to the afterlife and insisted on the importance of sympathy because of the good that girls could do for the people around them. At the turn of the century, sympathetic communities still exist to make adults, cousins, and siblings feel right, but now making adults feel right means that children gain. And that gain is not a happy surprise, a positive side effect of pleasing or healing adults. The goal is to make sure children are happy, and happy adults look increasingly like a means to that end.

The Price of Being a Consuming Subject

Therefore, girls were central to the sympathetic communities imagined in novels in this tradition from at least 1850, but their centrality took on different forms. In the earlier novels that centrality only guaranteed them an opportunity to provide services (moral or mundane) for people around them. As they influenced the people connected to them through sympathy, they also ran the risk of losing their bodies and lives to the sympathetic process. When the sentimental model of sympathy migrated to novels featuring orphan girls, that process changed in such a way that it confirmed rather than eliminated the body of the girl at the center of the relationship. The result was a validation of the girl as a subject. Rather than a vessel for a message, the girl existed in happy endings as a solid, well person. One of the key ways these novels demonstrated that their girls were valid subjects was through the concentration of material goods upon these able bodies.

But this is not to imply that the protagonist of Progressive Era novels was necessarily more liberated or subversive than her sentimental predecessor. As we have seen, the cost for midcentury girls at the center of a sympathetic relationship was dissolution in the needs of those who sympathized with her. That cost is no longer necessary for girls after the heyday of sentimentalism as a genre, but the very centrality that enables the sympathetic relationship also places profound limitations on the girls wielding power through sympathy. These girls become consumers of the goods the sympathetic adults shower upon them, and in doing so they achieve a historically appropriate subjectivity that requires them to remain in a position of weakness.

The subjectivity offered to girls in these novels is one marked by the ability to consume. That consumption is done in a variety of ways, usually passively and often with the aid of—this should be no surprise—sympathy. Jane H. Hunter has said that the Progressive Era sought to produce girls who "found shopping … to be an arena in which they could demonstrate taste and through taste, self" (274, original emphasis). The protagonists of these orphan girl novels very rarely purchase things themselves, but they do find ways to manipulate adults into purchasing for them—indeed, into purchasing in accordance with the girls' tastes. This pattern has already emerged in scenes in which the sight of a pathetic-but-brave Sara Crewe inspires Carrisford and Dass to give her exactly the gifts of which she dreams, but a Canadian novel written in this tradition during this period and made into an enduring best-seller in America contains an example more clearly motivated by the emotional synchronicity enabled by sympathy. Anne of Green Gables (1908) features a shy, with- drawn man who pities the poor girl he has accidentally adopted, and when the brave girl overwhelms him with affection, Matthew is transformed into what Anne would call a "kindred spirit," a sure marker of sympathetic synchronicity. Anne declares that "Matthew and I are such kindred spirits I can read his thoughts without words at all" (Montgomery 203), and Matthew is evidently similarly keyed in to Anne's thoughts because he buys for her a dress for which she has longed without her even asking him for the gift. When Matthew purchases the dress with puffy sleeves for Anne, Matthew's sister is amazed: "I'm sure the child must feel the difference between her clothes and the other girls'. But to think of Matthew taking notice of it!" (270) One of the most important kinds of influence these sympathetic girls employ—and Anne's influence on Matthew is a prime example—is that they can teach the adults around them to desire what the girls desire so that the adults can exercise the girls' taste. Here, Matthew knows exactly what dress to buy for Anne. She does not shop, as Hunter implies she would if she were to express her position as a consuming self, but because she is such a skilled wielder of sympathy, she hardly needs to. She can express her taste and therefore self through the choices Matthew makes under her unspoken direction.

Consumption at the turn of the century thus promised girls a sense of self, a confirmed subjectivity. Girls of this period could partake of that promise because they played an important role in the earning and spending cycle of bourgeois life at the turn of the century. David I. Macleod's research, for example, shows that from 1890 to 1920 American children provided crucial supplemental earnings to the household budget, and in some circles girls contributed more of their earnings than did boys (7-8). Not all of that money went to the home, however, which is no doubt one reason why literature marketed for children at this time flourished. Suzanne Rahn's recent work on the popular children's magazine St. Nicholas argues that the magazine flattered its readers as individuals (109), and Catherine Van Horn's work on the magazine shows that its editorials used sympathetic pleas to the children reading the magazine to buy: not just to buy the magazine but to buy the products advertised in its pages as well (126). Thus, again, sympathy, subjectivity, and consumption intermingle. Van Horn's findings further confirm my suggestion that there was a historical shift in these years toward perceiving children as important participants in consumer culture. For instance, although she recounts how consistently the majority of nineteenth-century advertising in children's magazines "addressed mothers and families more than it did children" (122), she indicates that at the close of the century that pattern underwent a very quick change: "As they worked to make their advertising pages pay, publishers of children's magazines became pioneers in casting children in the role of an advertising class" (122). This mission, she suggests, largely had been achieved well before the end of the Progressive Era. Therefore, Van Horn's study demonstrates that a new emphasis on the child at the center of the process of consumption came into being during the period of the sympathetic plot I have been following. As these fictional girls were becoming consuming subjects at the center of their sympathetic networks, the girls reading those stories were being assured of an important role as a consumer at the center of the new economy.

Seen this way, the new foregrounding of consumption (passive or shopping-by-proxy) as a sign of successful sympathy is also liberatory—probably. The question of whether participation in consumer culture is empowering or debilitating has spawned a debate that crosses into nearly every arena of literary studies. In the words of Peter Stoneley, "is the girl buying, or is she sold?" (5) A girl reader might, he suggests,

be flattered by her own centrality to the world of the novel and her ability to smooth the contradictions [between class, leisure, and consumer culture] that adults seem unable to manage. There is even a sense that the girl has an aptitude for the new world of consumerist exchange. But all the while, the child-reader is being informed of what she is needed to be: naïve, innocent, and available to the world of commerce.


Other studies of girls' culture and their participation in the world of consumption often find similarly ambivalent answers. Kelly Schrum's analysis of the origins of Seventeen magazine, for example, demonstrate that the magazine is, first, a good example of how consumerism forces the broader culture to put girls at its center and, second, an example of how consumer culture both dominates and is casually shrugged off by the consuming girls it addresses. Sherrie A. Inness has made both a case for the possibility that girls can "shape market-place commodities in ways that might or might not have been intended by their adult creators" (Introduction 4) and that specific bits of girls' consumer culture (such as the American Girls franchise) can serve to keep girls focused on being part of consumer culture, thereby, ignoring inequity and sexist discrimination ("Anti- Barbies"). Others, such as Rhona Justice-Malloy, have argued that even when girls take an active role that allows them some agency over the images of consumer culture, there is something inherently coercive, something that cannot be resisted, in the images consumer culture feeds them.

In scholarship on sentimentalism, the conclusion is no clearer. Gillian Brown has made the point that American literature often conflates spending with citizenship and subjectivity. Read at face value, then, the role of girls in real and fictional models of consumption guarantees girls citizenship and a subject position in which to absorb the goods of consumer culture. Compared with the dissipation that I have argued usually awaits girls in sentimental narratives, this is a tremendous improvement. But critics such as Ann Douglas have been skeptical of the subjectivity consumerism offers. As a new wave of leftist criticism has come to dominate discussion of American sentimentalism, scholars such as Lauren Berlant have revived a criticism originally leveled by Douglas: Sentimentalism uses consumerism and other tools to make its reader passive and happy in subordination. Right feeling heads off the need for action, allowing inequity to persist.

Certainly, this is the case even in the most liberatory of these orphan girl novels. Through sympathy, these girls win an important place in their communities. Through consumption enabled by sympathy, they mark out a subjectivity. But that process is predicated on a power relationship that insists on one party's weakness. Sympathy cannot exist without an inequity of power. By wielding sympathy to gain some kind of power—call it subversive—these girls have accepted the terms of sympathy—namely, that they will be weak. Do they gain power? Of course.6 Are they as powerful as the people who feel sympathy for them? The definition of sympathy says not. If they exceed or even match the power of the people around them, sympathy must end. The technology of sympathy requires a disappointing limit on the power sympathy can offer.

And yet it would be hasty to dismiss these novels as complicit, to say, in an echo of Berlant's criticism of woman's fiction, that girls' fiction is not revolutionary enough. The bodies—marked out by consumption—these girls manage to retain will become the site of arguments about women's rights for the twentieth century, and the fact that the happy ending in Pollyanna coincides with the community celebrating the girl's healthy body will have crucial implications in the coming decades. The terms by which she is given the tools to achieve that solid, valid—as opposed to invalid—body impose awful limitations, but the ability to spin sympathy without being dissipated by the centrifuge is an important improvement.

Therefore, I prefer to avoid reading these orphan girls as either fully complicit or subversive, as a failure or success based on their liberatory potential. Instead, I suspect that these novels are part of a longer history. My fear is that the history was aborted before it reached its potential, that American culture took a direction that made these stories of sympathetic power irrelevant or offensive before they could mature into tales of how girls could be a meaningful part of American culture and economy without accepting conditions that required them to be weak. But it is possible that later children's literature took up this thread and continued the evolution I have been describing from midcentury to turn-of-the-century novels. Perhaps they did not feature orphans as the others did, or perhaps they redefined sympathy. But rather than consider these orphan girls to be the terminus of a story that already covered seventy years, I am optimistic in hoping that this story continues elsewhere. If so, these orphan girl novels are not a failure but rather an important step in progress that the Progressive Era was not ready to see to its conclusion.


I am grateful to Richard Flynn and two anonymous readers from the Quarterly, whose advice focused this article's argument in ways that have only strengthened it.

1. This scholarly inquiry begins with Nina Baym in 1978 (see 296 for the most specific connection) and includes more recent scholars such as Anne Scott MacLeod (1994) and Michele Ann Abate (two articles in 2006).

2. See particularly chapter 6, "Reading Feelings," of Sally Mitchell's book on British girls' culture at the turn of the century.

3. See chapter five of Dependent States.

4. Jerry Griswold has made exactly this point about Porter's novel at the turn of the century. He includes an example of "the Glad Kids, a group of prisoners in a penitentiary whose ages ranged from thirty-two to seventy-six." These prisoners modeled themselves after Pollyanna and happily acknowledged their influence on her.

5. See Porter 190-91, where the narrator describes this chain of events at length.

6. This is Griswold's reading of Pollyanna. He dubs Pollyanna "a genius at ‘reverse psychology’" (220) and thinks of characters such as Pollyanna as "audacious kids who refuse to be vanquished" (236).

Works Cited

Abate, Michele Ann. "Launching a Gender B(l)acklash: E. D. E. N. Southworth's The Hidden Hand and the Emergence of (Racialized) White Tomboyism." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 31.1 (2006): 40-64.

———. "Topsy and Topsy-Turvy Jo: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and/in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women." Children's Literature 34 (2006): 59-82.

Alcott, Louisa May. Eight Cousins. 1875. Racine, WI: Golden Press, 1965.

Baym, Nina. Woman's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by and about Women in America, 1820-1870. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1978.

Bennett, Bridget. "Spirited Away: The Death of Little Eva and the Farewell Performances of ‘Katie King.’" Journal of American Studies 40.1 (2006): 1-16.

Berlant, Lauren. "Poor Eliza." No More Separate Spheres!: A Next Wave American Studies Reader. Ed. Cathy N. Davidson and Jessamyn Hatcher. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2002. 292-323.

Brown, Gillian. The Consent of the Governed: The Lockean Legacy in Early American Culture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2001.

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. A Little Princess. 1905. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1963.

Coolidge, Susan. What Katy Did. 1873. Classics of Children's Literature, 1621-1932. New York: Garland, 1976.

Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. 1977. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.

Griswold, Jerry. Audacious Kids: Coming of Age in America's Classic Children's Books. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.

Hunter, Jane H. How Young Ladies became Girls: The Victorian Origins of American Girlhood. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2002.

Inness, Sherrie A. "‘Anti-Barbies’: The American Girls Collection and Political Ideologies." Delinquents and Debutantes: Twentieth-Century American Girls' Cultures. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. New York: New York UP, 1998. 164-83.

———. Introduction. Delinquents and Debutantes: Twentieth-Century American Girls' Cultures. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. New York: New York UP, 1998. 1-15.

Johnson, Deidre A. "Community and Character: A Comparison of Josephine Lawrence's Linda Lane Series and Classic Orphan Fiction." Nancy Drew and Company: Culture, Gender, and Girls' Series. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State UP, 1997. 59-73.

Justice-Malloy, Rhona. "Little Girls Bound: Costume and Coming of Age in the ‘Sears Catalog’: 1906-1927." Delinquents and Debutantes: Twentieth-Century American Girls' Cultures. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. New York: New York UP, 1998. 109-33.

MacLeod, Anne Scott. American Childhood: Essays on Children's Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1994.

Macleod, David I. The Age of the Child: Children in America, 1890-1920. Twayne's History of American Childhood Series. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.

Mills, Alice. "Pollyanna and the Not So Glad Game." Children's Literature 27 (1999): 87-104.

Mitchell, Sally. The New Girl: Girls' Culture in England, 1880-1915. New York: Columbia UP, 1995.

Montgomery, L. M. The Annotated Anne of Green Gables. 1908. Ed. Wendy E. Barry, Margaret Anne Doody, and Mary E. Doody Jones. New York: Oxford UP, 1997.

Murray, Gail Schmunk. American Children's Literature and the Construction of Childhood. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998.

Nelson, Claudia. Little Strangers: Portrayals of Adoption and Foster Care in America, 1850-1929. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2003.

Porter, Eleanor H. Pollyanna. 1913. New York: Dell Yearling Classic, 1990.

Rahn, Suzanne. "St. Nicholas and Its Friends: The Magazine-Child Relationship." St. Nicholas and Mary Mapes Dodge: The Legacy of a Children's Magazine Editor, 1873-1905. Susan R. Gannon, Suzanne Rahn, and Ruth Anne Thompson, ed. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2004. 93-110.

Reynolds, Kimberley. Girls Only?: Gender and Popular Children's Fiction in Britain, 1800-1910. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1990.

Sánchez-Eppler, Karen. Dependent States: The Child's Part in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2005.

Schrum, Kelly. Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergence of Teenage Girls' Culture, 1920-1945. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Stoneley, Peter. Consumerism and American Girls' Literature, 1860-1940. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly. 1851. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994.

Strickland, Charles. Victorian Domesticity: Families in the Life and Art of Louisa May Alcott. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1985.

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Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Van Horn, Catherine. "Turning Child Readers into Consumers: Children's Magazines and Advertising: 1900-1920." Defining Print Culture for Youth: The Cultural Work of Children's Literature. Ed. Anne Lundin and Wayne A. Wiegand. Westport, CN: Libraries Unlimited, 2003. 121-38.

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Hana Wirth-Nesher (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Wirth-Nesher, Hana. "The Literary Orphan as National Hero: Huck and Pip." Dickens Studies Annual 15 (1986): 259-73.

[In the following essay, Wirth-Nesher argues that the orphan narratives of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain were emblematic of national and cultural identities of the time, with Pip from Dickens's Great Expectations seeking social status and Huck from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn seeking an escape from that selfsame responsibility.]

While it is always legitimate to yoke two authors together for the purpose of literary analysis, it sometimes necessitates a great deal of verbal acrobatics to justify the comparison. This is not the case for Charles Dickens and Mark Twain; it seems perfectly natural to discuss them together. In the nineteenth century, there are no rivals for the positions that each held in his respective culture. Each appealed to a vast public of low-brow and high-brow, child and adult readers. In fact, each developed a reputation as a writer for children, and each depicted the child as the victim of his society's moral degeneration. Dickens and Twain were both authors who translated their moral outrage into accessible literary texts that left a searing imprint on their respective literary traditions.

The similarity between these two authors goes beyond the place they occupied in their culture, however. With the advent of modernism, each was found deficient for inclusion in a literary canon marked by formal elegance, and each has been zealously retrieved in the name of mythopoeic power. Their acute sensitivity when it came to hypocrisy, child abuse, and institutionalized injustice found expression in strikingly similar plots, characterization, and images, yet each within the particular vision of his civilization. What is potentially valuable about an investigation of the parallel elements in their fiction is that the difference in function of each of these elements brings to our attention, in the most dramatic manner, what makes Dickens English and Twain American.1

This is most apparent in two works which share many common features, Great Expectations and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While it is true that Twain was familiar with a great deal of Dickens and had also heard him read his work on his American tour,2 there is no specific record of his having read Great Expectations. But to juxtapose these two works is not to argue that Twain was influenced by Dickens in his writing of Huck Finn. Instead, it is to note that similar structural elements function in such a way as to give the two youthful protagonists goals and quests that are deeply embedded in their national consciousness: Pip wants to be a gentleman and Huck wants to break away from civilization altogether and light out for the territory. While Pip fits comfortably into the European novel tradition of the young man from the provinces setting out for the city where he will acquire urban sophistication and life experience, Huck is a young provincial who sets out for the wilderness to cleanse himself of the corruption of society.

Let us begin with the recognition that Pip and Huck are both orphans occupying a low rung on the social ladder and bearing names that reinforce their insignificance. The name Pip is a palindrome with several meanings, one of which is the small seed of fruit, something to be discarded but also the source of another generation of fruit. In Twain's time a "huckleberry" was a slang expression meaning someone of no consequence but, similarly, it could also mean precisely the right person for a particular purpose. Both names share the connotation of low esteem. Huckleberries, incidentally, resisted attempts at domestication and could not be transported to the city successfully.3

Pip and Huck are born into a tradition of literary orphans who, by virtue of their not being limited by the rules and constraints of parents and kin, are free to seek spiritual surrogate parents and moral codes. The rise of the novel is in part a response to the newly found freedom of such individuals in the wake of feudalism. In a new society of shifting social classes, the roving orphan or picaro could create a past that suited his aspirations rather than his blood ties, and Dickens and Twain are both drawing on this literary heritage of either voluntary or involuntary disinheritance. Great Expectations begins with Pip at the gravesite of his parents, where an ogre seems to rise from his father's tomb, an ogre who eventually becomes his spiritual parent. Huck, enslaved by a parent who abuses him, chooses to stage his own death, so that he can be free to follow his own course.

The loner, cut loose from family responsibilities, is an inherent part of the romance of America, of the myth of eternal fresh starts. Huck's predecessors are Natty Bumpo and Ishmael; his successors are numerous, from Isabel Archer and Milly Theale, orphan heiresses of the ages, Sister Carrie, and Jay Gatsby springing from "his Platonic conception of himself," to Frederick Henry walking off into the rain, Vag making his way across the U.S.A., the Lone Ranger, and Humphrey Bogart. Orphanhood in American literature is a clean slate, self-reliance, and often enchanted solitude that veers dangerously close to real loneliness. Huck's actual orphaning occurs long after his pretended death out of society and is revealed to him only at the book's end. Huck chose orphanhood for himself, and reality simply caught up with his wishes.

While English literature has no shortage of orphans, they are usually on a quest to find a place for themselves in society rather than arranging for a romantic exit. Sometimes the foundling discovers that he has had a respectable, even privileged position in society all along, as in Tom Jones or Jane Eyre, so that the state of being orphaned has simply been educative, part of the maturation of the gentry. An example of Dickens' version of this formula would be the status of Esther Summerson in Bleak House. In such cases, the social fabric is not threatened by the orphan upstart. In other cases, the orphan manages to wrench power and privilege from the upper class, as does Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, but he wants access to familial descent, not the abolition of it. The result is a reinstatement of family inheritance with no biological heir for the orphan interloper. Genuine orphans of uncertain social standing, such as Heathcliff or Becky Sharpe, don't get away with very much prior to Dickens. And if they do manage to make their way into more respectable society, they inevitably find lost relations who legitimize their social achievements, as in Tom Jones or Jane Eyre. In Dickens' universe, where we expect more liberality in the area of social claims and rights, orphans such as Esther Summerson attain their social positions not only through good deeds but also through birthright. We have to wait for George Bernard Shaw to arrive on the English literary stage to witness the comic apotheosis of the foundling in Major Barbara. And even this reversal cannot be mistaken for the American brand of romantic orphan because it merely substitutes one privileged class for another with success still being measured by social organization rather than social escapism.

Pip, therefore, in keeping with the English literary tradition, is an orphan who has social aspirations. Unlike Huck, Pip wants to be a gentleman. He wants to be freed of labor so that he can become encumbered with the cares of the gentry. His acquiring the money requisite to the life of a gentleman sends him to the city, into the very thick of society.

Huck and Pip are both plagued by well-meaning but tyrannical surrogate mothers who are out to civilize their young male charges. Pip's sister Mrs. Joe, with her "impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles," is a perverse caricature of maternal nurture. She has vowed to bring him up "by hand," a phrase that Pip understands literally. While the Widow Douglas may not have the same sadistic streak, her campaign to "sivilize" Huck consists of a tyrannical regimen that makes him feel "all cramped up." Civilization is largely woman's domain for both authors, but Dickens provides examples of women, such as Biddy, who succeed in this endeavor, which is ultimately endorsed as worthy, even sacred. Huck encounters women far more congenial than the Widow Douglas, such as Aunt Polly and Mary Jane, but their penchant to civilize is always stifling. Both authors treat women sentimentally, yet only Dickens submits to their regime, because in his world they are agents of Christian values that go hand in hand with middle-class virtue. Twain has no illusion about Christianity as a force for good in the world. For him, Christianity is just another social institution that enslaves and corrupts man.

Pip and Huck are both initiated into their new lives by violating one of their society's precepts and, in doing so, acting morally without being aware of it. Each feels sinful and guilty about his action because his inconsequential status has led him to mistrust his intuition when it comes to moral matters. Pip filches a pie from his sister's pantry to feed a starving fugitive on Christmas Day; Huck helps another fugitive escape from his rightful owner. Each boy, while believing he sins in doing so, acts charitably toward a man who becomes the boy's spiritual father and is actually the vehicle of his moral awakening rather than of his moral downfall.

The nature of each fugitive's status is in keeping with the source of his society's corruption: Magwitch is an escaped convict who has been victimized by social and economic injustice; Jim is the victim of slavery. J. M. Ridland has pointed out that "runaway convict and runaway slave are similarly escaped from societies in which the institutions of slavery and legal justice that have sentenced them are closely allied with the rigid religious training that produces the ‘the deformed conscience’…. In assisting Magwitch, Pip had thus performed precisely the sort of action against the moral conventions of his community as had Huck in not informing on Jim."4 Ridland goes on to argue that while these actions are similar, they are different in their importance to the whole work. "Pip's bravery in helping Magwitch carries the entire plot to its very conclusion," he writes, but "Huck's decision to go to hell fails to become the vehicle for plot unity which a decision of such magnitude would seem to deserve."

This is an important observation, but its implications go beyond an aesthetic judgment as to whether thematic elements are treated in proportion to structural ones. The fact that Pip's action affects the entire plot and Huck's does not also points to the different visions of the individual conscience and social organization that shape each work, visions that stem from their respective societies. Pip steals food for the escaped convict only in part because he is moved by his hunger; he also fears for his life. While this act of trespassing moral law seems pale beside Huck's willingness to face hell without any external threats to do so, Pip's act is only a rehearsal for his climactic test at the book's end, when he risks his position and fortune to save his spiritual father, whose very presence, in his eyes, has already harmed his social standing. Pip has wanted to be a gentleman, but he has wanted this because he believed it to be the only route to attaining his deeper goal—the love of Estella.5 When he is finally tested, his act of saving Magwitch, which he believed would result in his forfeiting his romantic quest forever, actually does the opposite, because by making Magwitch Estella's father Dickens has linked romantic love with Christian charity and social responsibility. Having committed petty thievery at a young age because of a severe external threat, Pip has experienced victimization at the hands of society (Mrs. Joe's bringing him up "by hand" is another example of society's hand upon him). This has ultimately made him sensitive to the victimization of others who have also had to transgress and have been unjustly punished for it. His saving Magwitch at the end is the sign of his moral maturity. In Dickens' terms, Pip has grown up because he now understands the link between romantic love and moral commitment, and the differences between a social and a moral gentleman.

In the case of Huck Finn, the romantic quest and moral responsibility are not linked; they are, in fact, at odds with each other. Huck and Jim both want their freedom, and in the course of seeking that freedom they find each other. Much has been said about the relationship of Huck and Jim as an emblem of the American Dream, of a new society based on equality and mutual acceptance. D. H. Lawrence first noted this characteristic of American literature in the works of Cooper, in the relationship of the Indian and the white man: "in his immortal friendship of Chingachgook and Natty Bumpo he dreamed the nucleus of a new society. That is he dreamed a new human relationship…. This is the new nucleus of a new society, the clue to a new world-epoch."6 More recently, Leslie Fiedler has placed the friendship of Huck and Jim in the tradition of the "Sacred Marriage of males" in American fiction, of the dream of "acceptance at the breast he has most utterly offended."7 For Fiedler, Twain's novel is an embodiment of that dream of reconciliation for a visionary society corrupted by slavery: "It's too good to be true, Honey," Jim says to Huck. "It's too good to be true" (HF, 420).

But Huck never relinquishes his original goal of freedom, which he understands in terms of a complete escape from society, not the establishment of a new order. Despite his awareness of "lonesomeness" (which he experiences with less intensity when he's on the raft with Jim than when he is by himself), he prefers that to any compromise with society. Even his sense of profound lonesomeness as he arrives at the Phelps' farm, where it seemed "like everybody's dead and gone … it makes a body wish he was dead, too" (HF [Adventures of Huckleberry Finn], 173), is not enough to keep him from setting out again on his own after he has found Jim. The sacred marriage of males, it seems, the mutual trust and affection that is achieved on the raft, is a temporary by-product of their genuine quest for freedom. Huck's notion of freedom is incompatible with his loyalty or affection for Jim acquired during their sojourn together. Only Jim's understanding of freedom could be compatible with the establishment of a new social order, for Jim seeks his liberty in order to buy his family out of slavery, and, unlike Huck, in order to establish domestic and social bonds. But these are the adventures of Huckleberry Finn, not of Jim, and they have not moved the hero to modify his dreams.

Unlike Pip, who assumes moral responsibility for Magwitch as soon as he acknowledges him as his spiritual father, and even risks his own achievements in society to rescue him, Huck assumes no moral responsibility for Jim once he is back on land and within society. By assisting Tom with his zany scheme to rescue Jim, he knowingly endangers his life. The knowledge that Jim has been a kind protector during their journey down the river, and that he has earned his status as Huck's spiritual parent by having spared him the sight of his biological parent's corpse, is not enough to make Huck feel morally obliged to him in any way. Jim's freedom comes about through a manipulation of the plot that gets Huck off the hook ethically, that permits him to maintain his cherished outsider status. The so-called new society of equals on the river amounts to nothing but a gentle interlude on the way to cherished amoral solitude and self-reliance.

The two young orphans then, Pip and Huck, commit crimes in the eyes of society and in their own eyes for the sake of two victims, whose response to their sympathetic actions is to adopt them as spiritual sons. The subsequent action of their spiritual fathers wins the boys' love and loyalty, but only in the case of Dickens' work is this love finally reconcilable with the boy's aspirations for himself. Pip can be a gentleman in a moral sense by helping Magwitch escape from the law, although the same action cancels his claim to be a gentleman in a social sense, a goal that he now sees as tarnished. In Twain's book, Huck's affection for Jim cannot be reconciled with his unquestioned acceptance of his society's codes and his unquestioned self-exemption from participation in that society. In each case, the spiritual father risks his own freedom as a result of his love for his adopted child: Magwitch returns to England in order to see the gentleman he has created, while Jim helps to care for Huck's friend Tom, the source of Jim's prolonged ordeal, although he knows that the price will be his recapture and enslavement.

It is striking that the actions of both the boy and the father are far more radical in the case of Twain's novel. Huck helps Jim at the risk of eternal damnation, not temporary imprisonment (although Pip's imagined punishment is far more immediate and comprehensible than is Huck's). While Magwitch's return to England is done partly out of self-interest, to enjoy the fruits of his labor and scheming, to see the success of his revenge on society through the gentleman he created, Jim's action is free of all self interest: he has nothing to gain from helping Tom, and everything to lose. In Dickens' novel there are fewer acts of altruism, but there is moral progression, incremental gains in humanity as the consequences of actions take root in the character of individuals. Twain offers benevolent actions that are more dramatic, but also more transient. Pip bears the guilt of Magwitch's death, because he knows that it came about partly through the older man's love for him. When Magwitch is imprisoned again at the end of the novel, Pip remains with him: " … and when I took my place by Magwitch's side, I felt that was my place henceforth while he lived" (GE [Great Expectations], 456). Huck incurs no feeling of guilt about Jim's risking his freedom because of his and Tom's schemes, and Jim is saved despite Huck's betrayal. In contrast with Pip's actions, Huck recalls, "Then they come out and locked him up. I hoped they was going to say he could have one or two of the chains off, because they was rotten heavy, or could have meat and greens with his bread and water, but they didn't think of it, and I reckoned it warn't best for me to mix in" (HF, 224). Pip's loyalty cannot help him to rescue Magwitch; Huck's irresponsibility cannot harm Jim.

Even their differing attitudes toward fairy tales exemplify the sharp difference in world views between these two writers in books that appear to be telling much the same story. In his naive state, Pip assumes that life can be very much like a fairy tale, that Miss Havisham is his fairy godmother and that he has been magically chosen to be tested for the hand of the princess, Estella. His stupendous good fortune could only be the product of a supernatural force working on his behalf. What he fails to perceive is that his good fortune is actually his reward for acting charitably, that the only magic wand is his own timid resistance to the uncharitable laws of his own household and, by extension, of his society. Dickens' book is a closed moral system in which every action produces a reaction, and Pip is eventually disabused of his fairy-tale vision of life (in which his immaturity leads him to mistake the witch for a fairy godmother and the godfather for an ogre) by a neat reversal. The fairy-tale formula is at odds with a genuine moral code. Huck, on the other hand, never fully believes Tom's fairy tales about genies and wizards, but he never challenges Tom's privilege to impose such "lies" onto society. Since Huck believes that lies of this nature are the foundation of civilization, he does not need to be disabused of them in order to function properly and morally in his community. The only way to deal with Tom's fairy tales is to leave them behind, to reject civilization entirely. It's not a question of mistaking appearances for the truth; it's a question of locating the truth outside of society altogether.

The boyish extremism of Twain's work in contrast to the modulation of Dickens' novel is evident in the structure and point of view as well. The episodic picaresque structure of Huck Finn allows for a continuous series of fresh starts, the very essence of the American dream. Each unit is a discrete episode that need not affect the others; there need not be a cumulative reckoning, i.e., what we call history. Huck's disgust at the brutality of the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud, drawn from the romantic codes of chivalry, has no bearing on his consent to Tom's cruelty toward Jim in the name of that same romantic tradition. Huck always starts anew, ever hopeful, never wiser. Great Expectations is an organic work in which all of the elements are interconnected. His growing knowledge of the interconnections in his world chastens Pip. It brings him wisdom, but the density of such a world and his guilt resulting from his own complicity with it weigh him down.

While both books are first-person accounts told in retrospect, Pip has grown up to tell his tale from the point of view of an adult. Huck Finn, on the other hand, recalls his adventures from the point of view of eternal adolescence. This means that Pip can see his own past misunderstandings ironically, while Huck, still seeing the world from the same point of view when he tells the tale as he did when he experienced it, is the target of Twain's irony. The adult Pip reminds us of his childish misperceptions at every opportunity, as in his naive literal-mindedness when he reads "wife of the above" on the family tombstone "as a complimentary reference to my father's exaltation to a better world" (GE, 73). Huck's religious literal-mindedness is most evident in his resigning himself to a place "below," when he tears up the letter to Miss Watson about Jim: "All right, then, I'll go to hell." It is ironic, of course, because he acts morally at the very moment when he believes himself to be sinning, but it is also comical in his belief in his literal fate for doing so. By that point in the book, we know that Twain equates religious stories with the romantic tradition of Tom Sawyer's Sunday School.

The mature hindsight of Pip infiltrates his entire narration. When he describes Magwitch as he first saw him at his parents' gravesite, he appears both as the ogre that he was to the child, "I'll have your heart and liver out" (GE, 37), and as the Christ-like victim of society that he later understood him to be, "A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars" (GE, 36). But when Huck describes how he came upon a man on Jackson Island just after his escape from society, there is no hint that this man would later become his protector, moral guide, and spiritual father. While Pip, seeing the man leap up from behind his parent's grave, believes him to be an ogre, a shade from the land of the dead (and he does become a father to Pip), Huck appears to Jim as a ghost, because it is generally known that Huck is dead. The first glimpse of the slave on Jackson Island, then, is Jim's childlike prostration before the ghost and Huck's "making him understand I warn't dead."

When the mature Pip describes Magwitch as a combined Christ figure and ogre, it is the result of his familiarity with the major literary texts of his culture. Unlike Tom Sawyer, who reads such texts literally, forcing analogues onto the world around him, Pip reads these images ambiguously, with the hindsight to recognize that his original impression was both right and wrong in ways that he could not have understood at the time. Pip's ironic use of these terms in his narrative reveals his critical distance from both the biblical and fairy-tale traditions, so that the adult Pip describes his culture's texts with the self-awareness that is the mark of his maturity.

While literacy has an ambiguous value in Great Expectations, as it is often mistakenly seen to be a badge of moral superiority, it is finally endorsed, for wisdom requires the contemplation of experience from the distance of the written word.8 At times Dickens seems to romanticize the innocence of illiteracy. Joe, Pip's other father figure, derives his goodness from his childlike attitude toward his civilization. But even Joe does not assume full maturity until he marries Biddy, a woman who does not treat him like a child. Their idyllic courtship is characterized by the bond of literacy, their love expressed by the many hours Biddy devotes to teaching him to write.

Although Magwitch mistakenly associates being a gentleman with having a well-stocked library and Pip does flaunt his reading as a mark of social status, the value of literacy finally is endorsed by Dickens. As in Wuthering Heights, published twelve years earlier and ending with young Hareton being taught to read by his beloved Cathy, the resolution of conflict is depicted by a perfect marriage in which the woman initiates the kind-hearted but ignorant husband into literacy. In Great Expectations, two couples convey the tentative resolution of that text: in the first, the male assumes his paternal role only after he enters society by his literacy; in the second, the young man is ready to join with the woman he loves only after he has escaped from the bonds of his too literal reading of her as a princess in a fairy tale. Pip is initiated into the next level of literacy above that of Joe's simple skill at reading: the ability to read the texts of which he himself is a part.

For Twain, reading is clearly a source of cultural entanglement that has damaging results. Tom Sawyer's book learning, after all, is seen to be the source of many of society's ills, such as the cruelty of the Grangerford-Shepherdson feud and the exploitation of Jim at the end. But illiteracy is also no sign of humanity, as evidenced by Pap's abusing Huck ostensibly because of his objection to literacy for his son. Pap's denunciation of his society, his racist harangue, demonstrates how his culture has infected him even without direct access to its written texts. Jim, while immersed in an oral folk culture, comes closest to being immune from the corruption of society, but mainly when faced with loss, as when he expresses his love for Huck after he thought him drowned, or when he recalls his deaf daughter, truly shut off from the language around her. Early in his career Twain romanticized and longed for natural man in an unsignified world, innocent illiteracy. The persistent theme of Innocents Abroad, for example, is the grandeur of American nature, splendid for its unstoried and unsignified state when compared to Europe's sights, whose value is derived solely from cultural significance, most often a context of lies and human misery. While Twain ridicules his Americans for their gaucherie and literal-mindedness, the contamination of Europe's landmarks by the humbug of civilization dominates his travelogue. In his late, bleak writings, Twain is aware that everyone is implicated in culture, that all meaning is a product of man's imagination, and that nihilism is terrifying.

While Twain's early writing is occasionally marred by the naive desire for an unmediated experience of nature, as in his Lake Tahoe rhapsodies in contrast to the Sea of Galilee's dependence on the Bible for its beauty, his late writing is marred by the bitter knowledge that mediated experience is endemic to mankind: "Nothing exists save empty space—and you!"9 The enduring power of Huck Finn lies in the perfect balance between the possibility of such a natural state as aspired to by Huck and Jim and its impossibility, as those same aspirations betray their touching ignorance.

When we come to the endings of these works, the differences between the visions of life on each side of the Atlantic are most pronounced. In neither case was the ending a simple matter for the author. Dickens revised his conclusion to conform to the criticism leveled against it by one of his contemporaries. Twain had trouble writing his ending, and given the critical controversy stirred up by Huck's and Tom's last escapades, he might have wished that he had revised it as well. The problem that each writer faced was how to reintroduce the boy's original quest in light of his subsequent experiences. Dickens endows Pip with sufficient new understanding to redefine his original quest of becoming a gentleman; Twain denies Huck the kind of growth that demands redefinition. Huck wants what he has always wanted; only the reader is made aware, by the moral and aesthetic failure of the ending, of the price of that compulsion to be free.

The fate of Pip offers an opportunity for speculation about the moral vision of the work, for Dickens altered his original ending when he accepted the suggestion of Bulwer Lytton that he unite Pip with Estella.10 In the final paragraph of the original, two years have passed before Pip catches a glimpse of Estella in the street, having already heard of her unhappy life with her first husband, Pip's rival, her separation from him, his subsequent death, and her remarriage to a Shropshire doctor. He passes a little pony carriage when the lady within has him called to her: " … the lady and I looked sadly enough on one another … ‘I am greatly changed, I know; but I thought you would like to shake hands with Estella, too, Pip. Lift up that pretty child and let me kiss it’ (She supposed the child, I think, to be my child.) I was very glad afterwards to have had the interview; for, in her face and in her voice, and in her touch, she gave me the assurance, that suffering had been stronger than Miss Havisham's teaching, and had given her a heart to understand what my heart used to be" (GE, 496). In the revised ending, Pip and Estella meet on the grounds of Satis House on a cold, silvery moonlit evening, and Estella asks that Pip accept her as a friend "now, when suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be."

"We are friends," said I, rising and bending over her, as she rose from the bench.

"And will continue friends apart," said Estella.

I took her hand in mine, and we went out of the ruined place; and, as the morning mists had risen long ago when I first left the forge, so, the evening mists were rising now, and in all the broad expanse of tranquil light they showed to me, I saw no shadow of another parting from her.

          (GE, 493)

As Angus Calder has pointed out, drawing on evidence from the manuscripts of the novel, Dickens originally intended that Pip learn his moral lesson by not winning Estella at the end, but rather profiting only from his unselfish act as secret benefactor to Herbert Pocket, whose clerk he becomes. In the later version he is "conspicuously rewarded, as well, for his infatuated folly in worshipping Estella."11 Yet Dickens seemed to have made a partial peace with his present ending, calling it a "pretty … little piece of writing" (GE, 494). The last phrase of the second ending, however, in the first bound edition read "I saw the shadow of no parting from her" (GE, 496). The final version, then, is more ambiguous, as it suggests that while Pip in the poignance of that moment saw no shadow of a parting from her, a parting may nevertheless loom in the distance. The mood of this second ending in which Pip and Estella walk off hand in hand is melancholy, and trails behind it biblical echoes of being banished from the garden, of becoming exiles to paradise, of growing up.

The ending of Huck Finn was problematic for Twain himself, and has deeply disturbed readers over the years. Indeed, it has become a matter of dispute in which discussions inevitably lead to the larger questions of Twain's vision of America. T. S. Eliot and Lionel Trilling both defended the book's structure on aesthetic grounds, Eliot claiming that, as a book about the myth of the river and of eternal nature, it is appropriate that it end where it began. While Trilling did admit a slight "falling off" at the end, he insisted that the ending had "formal aptness." For Trilling, the river-god appears to embody a great and moral idea but is actually neither ethical nor good, so that while Huck and Jim create a "primitive community of saints" on the river, the mythical dimension of the book demands that "Huck must return to his anonymity."12 Leo Marx took issue with Trilling's and Eliot's conclusions in a resounding attack on their formalism that could indifferently justify the failing moral vision of the book. As the novel is about a quest for freedom, Marx argues, the ending is a deeply disappointing reversal of that quest and betrays the book's vision.13 James Cox, in his repudiation of Marx's interpretation, claims that the book was never a story about a quest for freedom, but rather an escape from freedom, always in pursuit of the pleasure principle. If one grants this assumption, the farcical ending is true to the book's spirit.14

Trilling and Eliot both neglect to address the issues raised by the burlesque ending of the boys' cruel rescue effort on behalf of Jim in order to underscore Huck's lighting out for the territory. Marx's commentary serves as a necessary corrective by focusing on the full scope of the final chapters, but he gives Huck more moral awareness about a self-conscious quest for freedom than the text will sustain. Huck's lighting out for the territory is actually quite compatible with his assisting Tom in his farcical adventure, for Huck sees himself outside of civilization altogether. Twain seals Huck off by creating a self-regulating social system in which Miss Watson is responsible for enslaving Jim and then for freeing him. That is, Huck has no influence on the workings of society; this he takes for granted and this Twain underscores by his plot. Hence, just as Huck takes himself to be an orphan before reality catches up with him, so he also lights out for the territory spiritually long before he actually announces his intention to do so literally. He feels no guilt about aiding Tom Sawyer because freeing Jim is a social act, and as a person outside society he does not feel responsible for any of its turns. Freeing Jim is not part of his romantic quest to be rid of all civilization; it is a social act of protecting property. His affection for and kindness toward Jim in the past have been incidental to his main drive to be free, and that affection, as it inspires any bonds, moral or otherwise, is not reconcilable with freedom.

In his well-known comparison of what he terms the American romance and the English novel, Richard Chase claims that one of the characteristics of the romance is "a willingness to abandon moral questions or to ignore the spectacle of man in society."15 Huck's willingness to abandon Jim, in contrast to Pip's moral commitment to Magwitch, is striking evidence for this assertion. In this respect, Huck is one variant, albeit a spellbinding one, of an American literary tradition. The tragic irreconcilability of freedom and moral responsibility as it haunts the American became Henry James's great subject, as in the story of his orphan Isabel Archer when she learns that she cannot exercise her freedom without harming someone. When Hemingway, a great admirer of Huck Finn, is intent on preserving the link between freedom and heroism, he resorts to biology to keep his heroes morally clean: Jake Barnes is impotent and therefore need not commit himself to any woman nor participate in history through generation; Frederick Henry is saved just in time from the fate of domesticity without actually abandoning his lover, nature punishing her for her part in conspiring to deny Frederick his freedom by killing her in childbirth. Prior to Huck Finn, only Melville carried the anti-social drive to preserve freedom at all cost to its absurd outcome in the story of "Bartleby the Scrivener," the man who willed his own death and defied every moral and communal impulse on the part of his desperate employer. Almost a century later, Hollywood lets its heroes have it both ways, as Twain attempted to do for Huck, when Humphrey Bogart lights out for the misty beyond in Casablanca having won the girl's love but having given her up along with compromising domesticity for the sake of his moral responsibility toward the war. To be utterly free, utterly good, and utterly loved—it takes the movies to perform that American sleight of hand without the self-conscious discomfort evident in the ending of Twain's work.

Two young men whose intuition led them to moral acts condemned by their societies' moral codes move off in opposite directions at the end of their adventures. Like quicksilver, Huck sets out in search of paradise, leaving behind the civilization that he continues to define as he always did, as restrictions on his solitary self. He has been to that civilization before, just as he has been to the wilderness before, and neither seems his last resting place because he is eternally young and eternally homeless. At a mellower pace, Pip joins another as they wend their way through the ruins of childhood toward civilization, to join history, having undergone a rite of passage that is irrevocable. Both of these youths have great expectations, and without the irony of hindsight that is granted to Pip, Dickens' title suits Twain's book just as well. For it is the irony, or lack of it, in assessing those expectations that keeps these books, and their respective cultures, an ocean apart.


1. The editions cited in the text are Samuel Clemens, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the Norton Critical Edition, edited by Bradley, Beatty, Long, and Cooley (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977) and Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, edited by Angus Calder (London: Penguin, 1965), abbreviated as HF and GE, respectively. For a comparison of these two authors and specifically of these two works, see Nicolaus Mills, American and English Fiction in the Nineteenth Century (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973). Mills argues that the similarities between the works invalidate any approach that recognizes separate literary traditions for English and American fiction. When he does point out "important differences in each story," such as the style and the endings, he chooses not to "insist" on these. By stressing structural similarities but ignoring the content, Mills glosses over the significance of these differences as they reflect the cultural context from which each work originated.

2. See Joseph Gardner, "Mark Twain and Dickens," PMLA, 84 (January 1969), 90-101.

3. James Calwell, "Huckleberries and Humans: On the Naming of Huckleberry Finn," PMLA, 86 (1971) 70-76.

4. J. M. Ridland, "Huck, Pip, and Plot," Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 20 (1965), 286-290.

5. H. M. Daleski, Dickens and the Art of Analogy (London: Faber & Faber, 1970).

6. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (New York: Viking, 1973), p. 54.

7. Leslie Fiedler, "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey," The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler (New York: Stein and Day, 1971), I, 142-151. Reprinted in HF, 413-420.

8. See Murray Baumgarten, "Calligraphy and Code: Writing in Great Expectations," DickensStudies Annual, 11 (New York: AMS Press, 1983), 61-72; and Max Byrd, "Reading in Great Expectations," PMLA 91 (1976), 259-265.

9. Samuel Clemens, "The Mysterious Stranger," in The Mysterious Stranger and Other Stories (New York: New American Library, 1962), p. 252.

10. See Angus Calder, "The End of the Novel," appendixed to HF.

11. Ibid., p. 495.

12. See Trilling's and Eliot's introductions to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (New York: Rinehart Editions, 1948 and London: Cresset Press, 1950, respectively), reprinted in HF, pp. 318-328 and 328-335.

13. Leo Marx, "Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn," The American Scholar, 22:4 (Autumn, 1953). Reprinted in HF, pp. 336-349.

14. James Cox, "The Uncomfortable Ending of Huckleberry Finn," Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966). Reprinted in HF, pp. 350-358.

15. Richard Chase, The American Novel and its Tradition (New York: Doubleday, 1957), p. ix.

Baruch Hochman and Ilja Wachs (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Hochman, Baruch, and Ilja Wachs. "Introduction." In Dickens: The Orphan Condition, pp. 11-31. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Hochman and Wachs study how Charles Dickens's embracing of the orphan condition as a narrative device allowed him to more fully develop his characters' essential identities.]

Orphans and orphanhood are everywhere in Dickens. Oliver Twist, Little Nell, David Copperfield, Esther Summerson, Amy Dorrit, Pip, and a host of other Dickens characters are all orphaned, and their plight as orphans is a powerful emphasis in the novels that depict them. However complex the plot of a Dickens novel, however florid its rhetoric, however urgent its moral statement, the orphan condition, with its pain and its pathos, is always close to the center of its concerns.

So deep is Dickens's imaginative implication in the challenges of the orphan condition that we come to feel that his ultimate loyalty is to the abandoned child. Indeed, the development of his work is toward an evermore fierce critique of the world from within the perspective of that child, or of the adult who cannot separate from that child. Again and again, and with ever greater explicitness, the novels scrutinize, from the position of the abandoned child, the implications of embodying oneself in the concrete roles available in the world and of fulfilling oneself in terms of the attitudes and ideologies that define that world. As a result, Dickens's fiction questions all the forms that give shape to the self—status, work, citizenship, marriage, parenthood, and property—and it does so from the subjective vantage point of what may be termed the orphan imagination.

The shape of Dickens's novels is determined by this perspective, as is the texture of the world represented in the novels. Their moral passion and their hectic urgency are also a derivative of the orphan imagination. Indeed, it is the unresolvable tension between the conflicting impulses of the orphan state that feeds his inexhaustible inventiveness. The taproot of Dickens's art may be said to be the clash between the orphan's wish to accommodate to the received world and the fury-driven compulsion to obtain restitution for its abandonment.

Because of its close identification with the conflict-ridden consciousness of the abandoned child, all of Dickens's art is transformative of reality. Dickens does not so much seek to reproduce reality as to constitute it imaginatively. His fiction has as the condition for its creativity a tenuousness in the boundary line between fantasy and reality; it draws upon the magical consciousness of the wounded child and uses the magically omnipotent power of fantasy to ward off the disintegration threatened by the experience of powerlessness that is caused by abandonment. Even at its most horrendous, the world becomes tolerable for Dickens only when it has been reprocessed and repossessed by the imagination—only when the concerns of the abandoned child have been incorporated in such a way as to give it meaning.

The depth of Dickens's identification with the orphan experience should not, of course, obscure the real-world targets of his critique of society. Dickens was deeply concerned with corrupt political and judicial systems, with social neglect and abuse, and with inefficient and dehumanizing bureaucracies. Yet both the energy and the figuration of his assault upon the evils of his society spring largely from his capacity for not only empathizing with the orphan condition, but also for transforming it into an image of the hu- man condition. The ripest and richest of Dickens's works judge the world in terms of a vision that never leaves the orphan perspective behind.

No novelist exhibits a more intense hatred of falsehood, a keener scent for the inauthentic and the hypocritical in adult experience. The critical thrust of the novels ordinarily takes the form of an interminable process of hunting for and unmasking fraudulent claims to moral integrity. Dickens's radical distrust of false forms of being and the related craving for forms of life that can be absolutely trusted derives from the experience of the child whose world suddenly collapses because of its abandonment—the child who interprets its abandonment as a betrayal of the promise of constant love.

In placing orphans at the center of his actions, Dickens carries to an extreme a tendency of the English novel itself. Moll Flanders and Tom Jones, Dorothea Brooke, Pendennis, Becky Sharp, Jude the Obscure are all orphans, and much has been said about why such figures are central to the tradition Dickens belongs to. Critics have referred the ubiquitous presence of orphans in British fiction to its concern with the realities of social life and to the interest that follows from it, in figures that must evolve an identity and a place in a world where social mobility becomes an evermore urgent challenge. Indeed, Nina Auerbach has suggested that the orphan's lack of antecedents provides novelists of different periods with a plasticity that provides them with the opportunity to dramatize their notions of identity and of the ways of shaping it (403). Others relate the preoccupation with orphans to the harsh conditions of life in the world, where disease was far more likely to carry off the parents of young children with alarming suddenness and where anxiety about survival pervaded the reader's imagination. For some time now, readers have been suggesting that the "death of God" made for the suspension of a deep-rooted and reassuring fantasy of sheltering under the wings of an all-powerful cosmic parent.

All these reasons hold for Dickens as much or as little as they do for other novelists of his time. None of them, however, adequately explains the depth of his involvement in the orphan condition, and none of them interrogates that involvement for all it is worth. Dickens does not merely mine an available vein of the nineteenth-century novelistic imagination; rather, he brings to it a unique charge of imaginative energy, and he channels that energy in ways that are decisive for the shape and substance of his work.

What we mean by "the orphan condition" is both obvious and elusive. Orphans lack parents or, at best, one of their parents. In the extreme, as with Oliver Twist or Pip, they are born into a violent and assaultive world and are reared without the sheltering presence of parents. Oliver lives in perpetual danger of being dropped into the fire, of being battered or cannibalized by the other children at the baby farm, and of being slowly starved to death on the meager gruel that constitutes his daily fare. Pip enjoys the advantages of a home and of surrogate parents, but his tale bears witness to a pervasive sense of abuse. Though he is assured of his daily bread, his life is full of tormenting terror and suffocating guilt.

Again and again, Dickens returns to scenes of deprivation and brutalization reminiscent of Oliver's life in the workhouse and Pip's experience with Mrs. Joe. Dotheboys Hall is a machine for repression and torment; Nicholas Nickleby's experience there bears home on us the torment it inflicts on its inmates. Paul Dombey's life at school highlights his plight as a motherless child. David Copperfield's initial experience at Salem House is a suitable concomitant of his emotional battering by the Murdstones.

The conditions of abuse and exposedness in the institutions that Dickens pillories serve to foreground the sorts of deprivation to which he is profoundly sensitive. Yet these conditions do not wholly define the orphan condition. Amidst the ostentatious opulence of her home, Florence Dombey suffers the deadening chill of relentless rejection. For Esther Summerson, not only is there rejection, but the inculcation of guilt for her very existence. Arthur Clennam, who does not even know that he has lost his real mother, is subjected to an analogous emotional battering within what he takes to be an intact family.

In this sense, the orphan condition is not essentially the objective state of growing up without one's real parents, or even of being bruised and battered by wicked stepparents and brutal, exploitative institutions. It is, rather, a state of mind that besets the orphan child and the adult whom that child eventually becomes, but that also, ultimately, informs some part of everyone's imagination. Loss is a primary condition of human life; orphanhood is the ultimate reach of our ineluctable sense of loss. This, we suggest, explains much of Dickens's continuing power over his readers. Much of Dickens's magic lies in his gift of rendering our universal experience of loss and of our need to contend with this experience. In the phrase he has Joe utter to Pip, life is a series of "partings welded together" (Great Expectations, 246), and it necessarily entails a struggle with the danger of their coming apart.

The orphan condition entails a profound sense of having been rejected and abandoned. In its radical form, it gives rise to a virtually insatiable craving for the warmth and the shelter that have been lost—or that, still more damaging, have never been experienced and, therefore, endlessly tease the imagination. It also involves rage at the parents who are felt to have withdrawn their sheltering attention and love. Dickens's orphans feel that their parents have abandoned them both to the brutality of the world outside and to the violence of the conflicts that fill their souls.

These conflicts, with fantasies to which they give rise, help to explain the toll that orphanhood and abandonment take in the stunting of human possibilities, as Dickens explores them. At one extreme, fantasies overwhelm his heroes, and most notably Oliver Twist, with a craving for a return to a state of protectedness and secure maternal nurture. At the other extreme, they mobilize the rage stirred by the sense of abandonment and impel them to crave just retribution against those who are responsible for the abandonment.

Ultimately, Dickens's protagonists are trapped within a vicious circle of desires and fantasies that numb and neutralize them and that culminate in paralysis or even, in fantasy, extinction. Both the wish to merge with the lost mother and the desire to kill her threaten a loss of self. Fusing with the mother, the abandoned child loses its identity; killing her, it is subject, in its imagination, to retributive violence. This double fantasy of merger and also of murder subverts the possibility of evolving a stable identity. Having eliminated its mother from the field of its inner life, the abandoned child loses the basis for grounding its identity in its real experience.

Hence, the pallor and the paralysis—ultimately, the relentlessly self-consuming depressiveness—of Dickens's adult protagonists, who cannot effectively come to grips either with passive wishes or with murderous rages. In the great works of his maturity, Dickens gives us stunning, stylized portrayals of people who are subverted by these difficulties. In Esther Summerson, he renders the dire consequences for personality of the struggle to contain the desires and the rages that fill the imagination of a child who started out in life as a discard on a dustheap and was raised under the tyranny of punitive hatred for her as the incarnation of her mother's transgression. In Arthur Clennam, he portrays an essentially failed struggle to overcome the repressive depression of an orphanhood that turns out to be literal but that is undergone under the conditions of punitive rejection by a surrogate mother he believes is his own. In Pip, Dickens renders both the quintessential sense of brutalization that is the core of the orphan's sense of the world, and of a hampered struggle to overcome the subjective consequences of that battering as well as of the guilt that springs from it.

Dickens's insight into the psychology of orphanhood is profound, and the depiction of individuals such as Esther and Clennam that springs from it has no counterpart in English letters. Yet to linger with the psychology of orphanhood or of individual characters, even with the astuteness of critics such as Alex Zwerdling in his treatment of Esther, is to lose sight of the larger horizons of Dickens's achievement. Dickens's insight into the orphan condition not only gives him a grip on the phenomena of orphanhood, but it also generates an extraordinary gift of world-making and the capacity to use the worlds he generates in his novels to create perspectives for judging the world outside.

For though Dickens identifies with the orphan condition, he is, after all, not a Clennam or an Esther, and certainly not a Nell. His unique ability imaginatively to engage and then to transmute the orphan state permits him to furl out a galvanizing vision of life, a vision that refracts the dreams and desires of the orphaned and the abandoned and embeds them in works of astounding coherence and overwhelming moral and imaginative force. Indeed, it is our thesis that both the substance of the novels and their decisive formal and stylistic features spring from Dickens's unremitting concern with abandonment and from a titanic struggle with the propensities it gives rise to.

Substantively, the greatest of Dickens's novels dramatize polarized possibilities. They concretize utopian impulses implicit in the Edenic craving of the orphan imagination, as it reaches for images of restoration to the comfort of the lost mother. At the same time, they mobilize the abandoned child's vindictive rage both to create and to excoriate a fiercely threatening world which is also, as Dickens comes to see it, apocalyptically dead and deadening, and which makes it impossible to achieve a more satisfactory mode of existence.

The brilliant literary formalization of the materials out of which the novels are shaped does not mute or muffle the cravings of the orphan sensibility but rather focuses them sharply. Indeed, that formalization serves, among other things, to reflect the impossibility, for the orphan imagination, of envisioning a normatively embodied novelistic "world," or of imagining more complexly integrated personalities than its internally rifted sensibilities can allow.

The radical sense of disinheritance, placelessness, and declassing that marks the orphan condition gives rise in the novels to an intense search for ways of reembodying the exposed and naked self. Each of the novels relentlessly probes reality to envision some mode of being that will both provide the stability that comes from belonging to the world and yet confer upon the self the realization of unmet childhood needs. It is the absolute nature of those needs and their irreducibility that, in our understanding, dooms to failure the struggle to embody the self in viable forms. At the same time, however, it is this unresolvable tension that accounts for the radically humane quality of Dickens's work and for the depth and power of his persistent indictment of social falsehood.

The very development of Dickens's art pivots on this tension—on Dickens's fierce need to temper his own orphan sensibility and to qualify the imaginative patterns it instinctively gives rise to. By the middle of his career, we find Dickens engaged in a mortal struggle between the tendency to abandon himself to the impulses and fantasies of the orphan condition and the effort to contain and even countermand them. Indeed, the present study argues that Dickens's deepest engagement with the orphan condition stems from his effort to wean himself and his reader from the temptations of that condition and to master the passivity and paralysis it entails. A major turning point in Dickens's career is the effort, in David Copperfield, both to vanquish the passive needs of the orphan imagination and to contain its aggressive thrust.

Before we proceed to trace the logic of Dickens's development, it is important to characterize the features of the work that are most visibly shaped by the logic of his own version of the orphan imagination. Both the passivity and the aggressive luridity of the orphan state are schematically evident in the early novels—most notably, in Oliver Twist. Within it, we see virtually all the basic elements of the orphan condition as they manifest themselves in Dickens's writing.

Oliver Twist embodies an abandoned child's wishful fantasy of gratuitous warmth, love, and identity-conferral. This is achieved for Oliver through the benign operation of a providential plot that saves him both from corruption and the gallows. Within the prototypical fantasy that Twist embodies, the inheritance of property and of a ready-made place in the world symbolizes the safety of a mother's unconditional love, permitting a passive enjoyment of that love and of everything it stands for. It should not surprise us that his mother's spirit is said to hover over the family tableau that at the end surrounds Oliver in contemplation of the tablet that has been erected in her memory outside the country church.

It is, moreover, not only the positive wish-fulfillment elements that refract Dickens's most forthright version of an archetypal orphan fantasy. The dark, enraged hemisphere of the orphan imagination finds its expression in the concerted hostility of the world with which Oliver must contend, and more specifically in Monks's plotting to ensnare Oliver in the coils of Fagin's malevolence and hence, of the law.

This polarization of the novel's world into extremes of good and evil finds expression in the splitting of its action between what we find convenient to call "paranoid" and "providential" plots. Paranoid plots entangle the protagonists and threaten to destroy them. They are usually organized by malevolent characters who literally plot and scheme against the protagonist. Fagin's collusion with Monks to entrap Oliver in crime is such a plot. Providential plots work independently of the characters' volition to counteract the paranoid plots. They provide their victims with release and, in the simplest instances, redemption. In Oliver Twist, as we have already noted, the inheritance plot serves this function by freeing Oliver from the fate Monks would generate for him and restoring him to a substitute family that is a simulacrum of the one he has never known.

In Oliver Twist, as in the other novels, the melodramatic plot is the correlative of the absence in Oliver himself of a complex inwardness, an inwardness that might grapple with both passive desires and aggressive needs. Altogether, the plotting of the novel reinforces our sense of Oliver's passivity by its intricate ordering of coincidences that determine his fate. It seems to us that what is vital and energized in the novel springs from Dickens's immersion in Oliver's passivity; it is Dickens's failure to imagine a psychically and imaginatively active Oliver that dictates the displacement out of him of the impulses and energies that would otherwise be in him. The rampant evil of Monks must be seen, in this perspective, as the projection outward of the rage inherent in Oliver's orphan condition. This displacement foreshadows the splitting that in later novels displaces aggression out of Pip into Orlick, and surrounds David Copperfield with figures that embody impulses and emotions he cannot come to grips with. Displacements of this sort are responsible for the simplicity and the transparency of Oliver, but also for the attentuation of the heroes of the later novels. The process of displacement is also responsible for some of the stunning formal innovations of the later novels—most dramatically, for the splitting from Esther of the third person narrative voice in Bleak House.

The decisive turning point in Dickens's development as a novelist comes when he tries actively to bring under control the passivity that dictated the form and substance of Oliver Twist. Already in the novels that immediately follow, we see him groping toward envisioning more active modes of being than are possible in the world of Oliver Twist. Little by little he begins to try to imagine ways of making it possible for his protagonist to forge an identity that can actively meet the challenge of adaptation to the world—more specifically, to the Victorian middle-class world that he and his readers inhabit. In David Copperfield, he finally portrays a character who must, in form at least, renounce his orphan desires and strive actively to survive.

This challenge, of renunciation for the sake of adaptation to a repressive world, is in fact the trigger and pivot of his richest and most challenging work. As we have already noted, the ongoing dynamism of Dickens's writing springs from the conflict between his susceptibility to the yearnings of the orphan condition and his growing conviction that he must move his characters out of the debilitating circuit of orphan imaginings. His achievement as he moves from novel to novel reflects his changing relation to the psychic and historical pressures that determine the shape of his novels and the way they express the conflict.

The historical dimension is indispensable. In speaking of the tension between the need to hold on to primordial orphan desire and the imperative of embodying the self in adult modes of socially viable being, we are not invoking what is often taken to be a universal psychic reality, of conflict between a pleasure principle and a reality principle. Rather, we are talking about a culturally determined, historically specific set of terms that are at play. Dickens's treatment of the orphan condition refracts, not only an idiosyncratic personal vision, but a prevailing middle-class preoccupation with children and childhood. This preoccupation, which had already emerged by the middle of the eighteenth century, is one term of what in Victorian England becomes a nightmarish contradiction within the middle-class ethos. The concern with childhood in the prevailing middle-class culture of Dickens's time opens the way to a powerful identification with the passive desires of infancy even as it calls for their strict control. Dickens's emphasis on adaptation catches up the latter impulse. It expresses the wish to control passive needs and desires to impose a stringent ethic of work and vocation—in effect, the Protestant ethic as it figures in the Victorian world. That ethic promises self-advancement which is to be attained through upward social mobility in a market economy. Only powerful control of childhood desire and regressive imaginings can achieve the structure of self required for such advancement.

The way he lives out the tension between adaptive and regressive impulses gives Dickens a unique insight into the realities of childhood. Dickens is the first novelist to render on a considerable scale the subjective experience of childhood; he is also the first deliberately to realize on any scale in his fiction Wordsworth's dictum that "the child is father of the man." However, because the fathering of Dickens's adult heroes is carried out by abandoned children, his characters can never successfully complete their project of self-integration or negotiate a satisfactory accommodation to the world.

If we stay within the terms of this paradox, the abandoned child is sterile; as we have already noted, though in very different terms, he cannot father himself or engender a process of development that results in a fully realized adult. The abandoned child continues to occupy his ostensibly adult self, haunting that self with archaic memories and desires, and forcing it into a position of estrangement. Even in David Copperfield, where Dickens strives to represent a positive process of becoming a productive middle-class adult, the abandoned child in David will not allow itself to be incorporated and trapped in the adult form. Rather, his blocked energies spill out into the energized doubles of the novel. The evacuation from David of the abandoned child that he was leaves him in a state of empty maturity.

Dickens's relation to both childhood need and to the work ethic is not static; it changes as he boldly explores the relation between them. So does his response to the outer historical reality with which his characters must deal. He moves from angry rejection, in Oliver Twist, of the external reality of scarcity and of the struggle that springs from it, to a qualified ac- ceptance in David Copperfield of that reality and its dictates, and then to a horrified contemplation of its negativity in Bleak House and Little Dorrit. The horror stirs up ever-greater depths of rage and yearning that make for an exploration in both of these novels of dimensions of the orphan imagination unimaginable in the earlier, more obviously orphan-centered work. Indeed, it is in these novels that we find Dickens's truly magisterial depiction both of the psychological ravages of the orphan condition, as in the portrayal of Esther and Clennam, and of an inhuman world created by the projection of their orphan subjectivity. It is as though the struggle to renounce passive desire stirs up a more vigorous imagining of its nature and consequences than was possible in the earlier and less self-conscious fiction.

There is a deep irony here. By the time he writes David Copperfield, Dickens shows all the signs of having mobilized himself to relinquish a fantasy of inheritance that is central to the early work, and with it, the orphan fantasy of renewed access to the mother's lost body and breast, and all the forms of passive yearning that inform it. In fact, Copperfield celebrates that renunciation. Yet the representation of David's development reflects a deep conflict; despite its earnest commitment to an active work ethic, David Copperfield is rifted from within by fantasy elements that undercut David's affirmation of work and purposive identity. It is these elements that contribute to the creation in Copperfield of one of the richest meditations on individual identity in nineteenth-century fiction—and to the emptying out of David's vitality.

Dickens's conflict with regard to the ideal of personality implicit in the work ethic erupts still more vigorously in Bleak House, where it produces a sharp polarization of values between Esther Summerson and the third-person narrative voice and generates one of Dickens's most striking stylistic and imaginative achievements. In Esther, Bleak House represents a strenuous struggle to achieve a normative middle-class identity. Through her, it directly explores the terrible price of a Bildung which is governed by the imperative not only of renouncing regressive needs but also active, sustaining desire. So high is the price that Esther pays for achieving functional adaptivity that she undergoes a splitting more dramatic than David Copperfield's.

Esther's dramatically significant other is the novel's third-person narrative voice. Through the third person, Dickens projects a protean, narcissistic response to life that, not only breaches the boundaries of personality that Esther sets for herself, but also defies the normative forms of personality itself and violates the ground rules of normative discourse. The third person abrogates the most fundamental narrative conventions, like telling stories in the past tense, and gives itself the freedom indiscriminately to project its fantasies into the world.

More than anything else in his work, the third-person narrative voice epitomizes aspects of the creativity that Dickens managed to elicit by simultaneously containing and expressing the extraordinary tension between unmet, unevolved childhood needs and the will to become a productive, socially embodied adult. Through the third-person voice and the world it evokes, he in fact distills the essential qualities that characterize his art at its best. We mean the freedom of his novels from false conventional values, the depth of their tragic vision of life, their gift of macabre and often cynical comedy, and the capacity, visible everywhere, for identification with the afflicted and the oppressed.

The presence of the third-person voice, with its psychological and imaginative underpinnings, in fact casts light on the sustained intensity of the novels' imagined worlds. Even when a novel renders the deadness of its world—as in Bleak House and Little Dorrit—there is very little that is neutral or dead in Dickens's representation of that world. Indeed, Dickens has the capacity to irradiate every moment in the world he creates with an energy of meaning perhaps unparalleled in nineteenth-century fiction. The source of this capacity is, finally, a mystery, but we believe that our focus in this study on the never-absent figure of the abandoned child sheds some light upon it. As in the whirling discourse of the third-person voice, we come to feel that every moment of represented experience is informed by the life and death issues posed by the horror of abandonment. Everyone and everything in the novel, from Tulkinghorn's ominously rusty presence to the complex injustice perpetrated by Chancery, is given vital meaning by the rage and the need for nourishment of the abandoned child. Everything represented by the third-person voice has the quality of always being on the edge, as all of Dickens is on the edge, simultaneously resonating with terrible danger and promising rescue and reparation. That energy of representations emanates from the bruised consciousness of the abandoned child.

In Little Dorrit, the critique of the personality ideal implicit in the work ethic is still more dire than in Bleak House. Little Dorrit dramatizes through Clen- nam how the vitality of the self is drained by the repressiveness of the Protestant Ethic in its most radical form, as pressed to a grotesque extreme in his mother's distorted version of Calvinism. If Esther invests her energy in generating the self she needs to survive, Clennam, shown in his debilitated maturity, has withdrawn his energies from that struggle, and seeks release from the terrible depression that afflicts him. It should come as no surprise that around him, Little Dorrit projects a world still more desolate than the world of Bleak House.

Nor should it surprise us that the desolation of Little Dorrit's represented world contains an extraordinary range of utopian images. Throughout Dickens's work, the restitution wished by and for the abandoned child is the source of an uncommon range of utopian themes, images, and motifs. Typical of these are Miss Flite's apocalyptic vision of a world in which estates are conferred at the end of time, the communitarian ideals that play themselves out in Micawber's discourse, and the pastoral rentier heaven at the end of Oliver Twist. These earlier images have their analogues in Little Dorrit in an astonishing range of pastoral and golden age references and in the text's insistent reversion to images of Christian redemption. Both sets of images, however, evoke the inaccessibility of any form of transcendence and the pathos (but also the pointlessness) of longing for transcendence.

Little Dorrit, moreover, pushes to the extreme another aspect of the hopelessness of utopian fulfillment. Partly because of their origin in the abandoned child's passive need for nurture and merger, the visions of transcendence in Dickens never achieve historical and political specificity. This is so because these visions hover on the boundary line between fantasy and vision. In Little Dorrit, where the deadness of the world is an overwhelming reality, these images seem more than usually ghostlike—dim, wavering echoes of nearly extinguished desire. At the same time, the fitful light they emit, like the distant, inaccessible stars to which the text of Little Dorrit refers, serves to highlight in a poignant, intermittently tragic way, the darkness of the scarcity-ridden world that has exacted from Clennam and Amy so exorbitant a price in renunciation and repression. It also serves to intensify our awareness of the pain of the hopelessness and meaninglessness that informs the world of Society as represented in the novel, and of the heart-rending consequences of living within the falsified values not only of the Merdles, but of all the pathetically yearning souls in the arid places that surround the Merdles' garishly lighted realm.

In Bleak House and Little Dorrit, Dickens, for the moment at least, seems to have exhausted the possibility for imagining any kind of vital selfhood that can be generated through striving within the work ethic. Great Expectations, for its part, renounces the possibility of an actively striving selfhood, at least in the world as Dickens knows it. In Expectations, Dickens again confronts the workings of the orphan imagination, and he does so on an unprecedented scale and with unprecedented felicity. Pip is shown to emerge from the mists of his illusions into a life that is not very vital, but that is also not wholly vitiated by his orphan needs. By renouncing the despair-fraught challenge of portraying an energetically striving protagonist, Dickens realizes in Pip an extraordinarily rich portrayal both of orphan desire and of the difficult process of trying to achieve liberation from it. He also realizes the vision, implicit everywhere in his work, of the orphan condition as the human condition—a vision that implies that the grief, the sense of loss, and the longings that fill the imagination of the Pips of the world are paradigmatic for all of us.

The development we have been describing leads Dickens toward a growing sense of the world as blocking every possibility of finding the fulfillment that David Copperfield ostensibly achieves. In Bleak House, we have a near-apocalyptic critique of Victorian society and then in Little Dorrit a still more generalized negation of the possibility of life itself. Great Expectations takes a more temperate view of life, but its sober representation of Pip's maturation conveys a sense that the possibilities of the self are drastically limited, as is the possibility of conferring meaning on the world.

There is, of course, no correlation between the novels' sense of life's severely depleted potentialities and the energizing richness of the novels themselves in representing that depletion. Quite the contrary. The more deeply Dickens engages the challenge of mediating between his identification with the orphan condition and his sense of the need to accommodate to the world, the more desperate his vision becomes—and the more brilliant his orchestration of the elements that convey it. This is especially true in the novels that depict the draining from the world of possibilities for vision and desire.

That draining is, to be sure, not solely an expression of Dickens's considered judgment of the world he knew. It is also a manifestation of the double bind of the orphan imagination, which cannot escape the vicious circle of its impulses. Dickens's vision of the empty world and the correspondingly empty self is rooted in one of the limiting conditions of the orphan imagination—in its inability to liberate itself from the cravings that consume it. Dickens's great novelistic success lies in his ability not to break out of the orphan impasse, but rather to derive from it images that project its substance and also provide a vantage point for envisioning and judging the world.

Read in this way, the sequence of novels suggests that the moment Dickens even provisionally affirms the normative Victorian way, he embarks on a thoroughgoing critique of its consequences for his characters—and for the world in which his characters must take shape. The affirmations of David Copperfield engender the darkness of Bleak House, as Dickens more deeply engages the psychic and historical implications of David's values. That darkness deepens still further in Little Dorrit, and is not wholly dispelled in the last novels. Great Expectations represents a moment of great lucidity and balance that casts dazzling light on the orphan condition but offers no point of positive emergence from its dilemmas.

The pain as well as the splendor of the development we are describing lies in Dickens's inability (or unwillingness) to affirm the values linked to striving—that is, ultimately, to affirm the ethos of the Victorian middle class. As he explores its implications, he moves toward an evermore trenchant critique of it. The narratives in which this critique is cast are overwhelmingly drawn from the reservoir of fantasies implicit in the orphan condition.

* * *

In one sense, our reading affirms a very traditional view of Dickens. We think that the plight of the insulted and the injured stands close to the moral and imaginative center of his work, and we feel that the power of his work derives from his passionate identification with the outcast, the downtrodden, the abandoned. We believe that this identification is rooted in an imagination of abandonment possibly unmatched in literature. In this we align ourselves with many readers, ranging from Dostoevsky to Dorothy Van Ghent. Indeed, we affirm with Van Ghent that for Dickens the two unforgivable sins were abuse of children by parents and abuse of social power for any purpose whatever. We hold, moreover, that in dealing with these "sins," Dickens achieves a level of articulate indignation probably surpassed in nineteenth-century fiction only by Dostoevsky himself.

Although we agree with a variety of traditional readings, we also differ from some of the readers who have weighed heavily in the critical tradition over the past sixty or so years. It seems worth trying to place ourselves in relation to that tradition—doubly so, because in laying out our argument we will rarely engage directly with other readers.

In his essay on Dickens, George Orwell complains that Dickens shared the Victorian middle bourgeoisie's dream of passive leisure. What he does not grasp in his discussion of Oliver Twist is the depth and the imaginative value of the regressive needs that are satisfied by the Brownlows and the Maylies. We will show that these needs are rooted in Oliver's pathetic orphanhood and that it is precisely Dickens's identification with these needs that provides him with grounds for a fierce and informed critique of the marketplace from which the Victorian bourgeoisie derived its power. This critique is made by identifying Fagin, as entrepreneur, with the philosophy of "number one." Indeed, the demonization of Fagin is part of a judgment of the economic marketplace which is informed by Dickens's participation in the orphan experience, a participation that uses the lurid unexpressed fantasy life of the orphan to subvert the very middle-class values that Orwell sees Dickens as affirming. Steven Marcus's reading of Oliver Twist as a critique of utilitarianism as the apotheosis of "number one" seems to us dead right; we differ from him chiefly in that we derive its rich imaginative resonance from the stressfulness of the orphan condition, as it is brought to bear on a world increasingly dominated by the market and the ideology that supports it.

Unlike Orwell, Northrop Frye has a strong sense of Dickens's critical stance toward the world, and, like Frye, we take that stance as one of the great strengths of his work. We differ, however, with Frye's notion that behind the devitalized mechanization of the Dickensian characters and the creaking mechanism of the Dickens plot, both of which for Frye reflect the life-denying realities of the world Dickens knew, we can hear the rustling of an excluded sexuality that vitalizes the work. We believe that the vitalizing element is not a marginalized sexuality, but rather the rage of abandonment and its craving for restitution. We argue that this rage, in all its myriad refractions, fuels the imaginative enterprise that is Dickens's work and vividly colors the substance of the vision it embodies.

We would also qualify Edmund Wilson's sense that Dickens's great work after Copperfield springs primarily from his engagement with the issues of de- classing that are figured in the Murdstone and Grinby episode. Although we think that the blacking factory experience was seminal for Dickens's sense of self and of life, we feel that earlier, chiefly preoedipal experiences are probably what feed the intensity of his response to the blacking episode. Both experiences—the inaccessible early experience and the all-too-accessible blacking factory experience—trigger what we call an orphan response in him, and open the way to his prodigious involvement with the orphan condition. Dickens himself was, self-evidently, not an orphan, yet earlier experience, of neglect or rejection, as activated by the trauma of the blacking factory, would seem to have given him broad access to the radical imagination of orphanhood. Positive evidence for such early experience is hard to find, yet, as we argue in our Bibliographic Essay (201-217), the body of his work bears witness to it. It is the concern of this book to excavate and interpret that evidence.

With Wilson we do hold—as Wilson writes in "The Two Scrooges"—that Dickens's greatest work is the work of the 1850s. But we differ seriously with the New Critics who valued the great "social" novels of that decade for the power of their unified moral judgments and for their splendid formal articulation. What rivets our attention in these texts is, rather, the conflicts that animate them, and the expression of these conflicts in their rifted formal structures, as exemplified in the two voices of Bleak House. It is these conflicts that not only generate visions of staggering power but also are the grounds for Dickens's straining to find a vantage point for envisioning a transcendence which, ultimately, the novels can neither achieve nor represent.

We further differ from the New Critical tradition in our conviction that it is Dickens's relentless struggle with the values he futilely tried to affirm which is the source of his value for us. We differ no less with those postmodernist readers who would deny the stabilizing value of his commitments. We hold that it is from within a preoccupation with crystallized identity that Dickens generates his powerful representations of a world that precludes the realization of identity or the fulfillment of the potentialities of the self.

Hence we feel that it is not, as David Musselwhite and other neo-Marxists will have it, Dickens's early, free-wheeling representation of the world, including the world of England's proletariat, that constitutes his towering achievement, or the dominant statement of value within it. It is, rather, his relatively claustrophobic representation of the struggle for being of middle-class characters such as David, Esther, Richard, and Clennam that generates his most vivid imaginative work, and informs his most telling critique of the world. Dickens operates within the imaginative arena of the bourgeois individualist imagination. His culture, essentially, is the culture of bourgeois humanism, his values are essentially the values of that culture.

In taking this view, we align ourselves with Georg Lukacs's sense that the strengths of the nineteenth-century novel stem from its simultaneous identification with dominant ideologies and its creation of a world which contradicts those ideologies. In this perspective, we would suggest that what are often taken to be Dickens's novelistic failures—that is, his failure to work within the conventions of nineteenth-century novelistic realism as established in the work of writers such as Stendhal, George Eliot, and Tolstoy—do not stem from mere idiosyncrasy or sheer incapacity. Rather, they are the result of identification with humanist values that lead to a revulsion from the world in which it is impossible to realize those values.

Dickens's failure to embody character in the realist manner is not, as many have suggested, a given limitation of his talent as a writer. Nor is it only a result of his entanglement in the imaginative orphan condition, which precludes both the envisionment of integrated others and the achievement of a viably integrated selfhood within the victim of the orphan condition. It is also a refusal of an aesthetic mode and of its substantive implications. For him to have represented character in the realistic manner would have been to affirm the possibility of self-realization within the world he knew, and hence, implicitly, to have affirmed the world itself. Dickens's refusal to portray character as other great nineteenth-century novelists did is grounded in the judgment that the world does not permit such self-realization.

In this perspective, we see a radical error in the tendency of the more traditional of the recent critics to read Dickens simply as a positive exponent of embodied identity. In very different ways and for very different reasons, John Kucich, Karen Chase, Lawrence Frank, and others have tried to retrieve something resembling a vision of embodied individuality from the texts we are dealing with. To read Dickens thus, even with the sensitivity to nuance that Karen Chase brings to the analysis of his work, is to miss one of the main thrusts of the oeuvre, whose final refusal of such direct representation is one of its salient qualities.

At the same time, we distance ourselves from postmodernist and neohistorical readers who deconstruct Dickens with a view to showing that character has (and can have) no coherence and that the nineteenth-century bourgeois sense of the unity or the givenness of character is no more than an ideological illusion. We affirm, with them, that Dickens's representations of people are rifted and grotesque and that his struggling heroes never come to autonomous "life" as convincingly "real" or coherent entities. But we insist that this is not because he did not believe in the desirability of such reality and such coherence, but because he felt that it was not achievable in the actual world.

Dickens, of course, is not alone among novelists, even among nineteenth-century novelists, in his pessimism with regard to the possibility of achieving an integrated and life-affirming identity, or a vitalizing relation to the world. In his Theory of the Novel, Lukacs proposes that the novel tradition itself arises from the effort to envision coherent worlds and identities in a state of universal alienation within which such coherence and meaning are unachievable. Lukacs's view develops the Hegelian notion that modern—that is, nineteenth century—culture is dominated by the unhappy consciousness, and there is a strong critical tradition that understands the history of the novel as an unfolding of that consciousness.

Although the nineteenth-century British novel is not, on the whole, informed by articulate worldviews such as those that shaped the beginnings of German prose fiction, it does in fact develop in the shadow of writers who were haunted by a sense that the world was losing its vitality. The first generation of British Romantics were preoccupied with a sense of the world as being drained of vividness and of mankind as losing touch with its life-affirming power. Blake, for one, articulated a full-blown nightmare vision of the fallenness of the post-Lockean universe, with its entrapment within its modes of scientific ratiocination. And Wordsworth's sense that the shades of the prison house close around the growing boy was not a mere figure of speech, or a universalizing sense of the dimming of the primordial light as the child matures. It was, rather, a concrete sense of the impact of urbanization, and of alienation from the underlying realities and rhythms of life.

Indeed, Wordworth's vision of life pivoted on the dire necessity for mediation, between the soul of the child that is intruded into a potential state of alienation and the vitality of nature. For Wordsworth—significantly, in our context—it is the maternal presence that mediates between the child and the world. Wordsworth himself was, in fact, no stranger to the orphan condition. Unlike Dickens, who suffered with his parents till he was well along in life, Wordsworth lost his mother very early, and his father not so many years later; we think not enough has been made, in studying his work, of the link between his personal sense of orphan desolation and the poems, from those of Lyrical Ballads through The Recluse, which deal with loss. Hence the special poignancy of the germinal passage, in which he enunciates the centrality of mothering in the child's relation to the circumambient scene—to the world:

            Blest the Infant Babe
(For with my best conjecture I would trace
Our Being's earthly progress) blest the Babe,
Nursed in his Mother's arms, who sinks to sleep
Rocked on his Mother's breast; who, when his soul
Claims manifest kindred with a human soul,
Drinks in the feelings of his Mother's eye!
For him, in one dear Presence, there exists
A virtue which irradiates and exalts
Objects through widest intercourse of sense.
          (The Prelude, Book II, ll. 232-41)

In the absence of such mediation, we have a dead world.

With Wordsworth, but with Blake as well, and certainly with Dickens, what matters, however, is not the particular biographical source of the sense of the world's desolation but rather its pervasiveness—and the power to infuse it with culturally negotiable imaginative contents, many of which are rooted in the orphan condition.

This is also true for Emily Brontë. Brontë is haunted, from within her own overwhelming sensibility of the orphan condition, by the possibility of such deadness, which she formulates with unparalleled intensity in one of the climactic scenes in Wuthering Heights. In the course of her "catechism" by Nelly, Catherine, weighing the life-affirming and life-denying implications of her relation to Edgar and Heathcliff, says:

What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in the world have been Heathcliff's miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning; my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn to a mighty stranger.


The final reach of Catherine's outburst is theological: "My love for Heathcliff," Catherine says, "resembles the eternal rocks beneath," but the language of her formulations, and especially her insistence that "I am Heathcliff," again and again echoes the issues of separation and fusion that inform the orphan state. Critics have often noted this; J. Hillis Miller's treatment of this motif in The Disappearance of God foregrounds the theological orphanhood implicit in Catherine's eloquent outburst—and typifies the sense of experience we are foregrounding here.

What is important in Dickens is not the abstract statement of alienation, but the concrete contents of the feeling. Dickens's emphasis in Little Dorrit on the remoteness of the transcendent Christian world—on the impossibility of transforming "the crown of thorns into a glory" (862)—renders the theological and existential implications of such unmediated and unmediateable distance. His achievement, however, lies in the richness of the contents that he can give to the abstract formulation. In Little Dorrit, as in the entire range of Dickens's best work, we have the interreverberation of the psychic and the substantive, of the orphan sensibility and the firmly grounded historical judgment, so that the issues of deadness and of loss, of social corruption and institutional lethality take on concrete and meaningful shape in our imagination.

It is the concrete articulation of Dickens vision, as it takes shape within his imagination of orphanhood and his simultaneous confrontation of his world, that we shall lay out in the rest of this book. Although it seems useful to us to point out the congruity between Dickens's core vision and that of his fellow nineteenth-century novelists, his importance for us rests on the particularity of his vision and its power. That power is what we wish to explore.


Brontë, Emily. 1965. Wuthering Heights. Edited by D. Daiches. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.

Chase, Karen. 1984. Eros and Psyche: The Representation of Personality in Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, and George Eliot. New York: Methuen.

Dickens, Charles. 1971. Bleak House. Edited by Norman Page. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.

———. 1966. David Copperfield. Edited by Trevor Blount. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.

———. 1965. Great Expectations. Edited by Angus Calder. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.

———. 1967. Little Dorrit. Edited by John Holloway. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.

———. 1966. Oliver Twist. Edited by Peter Fairclough. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.

Frank, Lawrence. 1984. Charles Dickens and the Romantic Self. Lincoln: University of Nebraska.

Frye, Northrop. 1963. The Well-Tempered Critic. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kucich, John. 1987. Repression in Victorian Fiction: Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lukács, Georg. 1964. Studies in European Realism. Introd. Alfred Kazin. New York: Grosset and Dunlap.

———. 1971. Theory of the Novel. Translated by Anna Bostock. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Miller, J. Hillis. 1958. Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard.

———. 1963. The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth-Century Writers. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard.

———. 1972. "Introduction," to Bleak House. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin.

Musselwhite, David. 1987. Partings Welded Together: Politics, and Desire in the Novel. London: Methuen.

Orwell, George. 1954. Eight Essays. New York: Viking.

Van Ghent, Dorothy. 1950. "The Dickens World: A View from Todgers." Sewanee Review LVIII: 419-38.

Wilson, Edmund. 1954. "The Two Scrooges." In Eight Essays. New York: Doubleday.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude (1850 version).


E. Wendy Saul (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Saul, E. Wendy. "On Three Works by Erik Haugaard: Prince Boghole, A Boy's Will, and Orphans." In The Phoenix Award of the Children's Literature Association, 1985-1989, edited by Alethea Helbig and Agnes Perkins, pp. 110-13. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993.

[In the following essay, Saul notes how Eric Haugaard's use of the orphan condition in three of his works of children's literature allows his protagonists unfettered freedom to choose their own moral destinies.]

A boy, seemingly alone in the world. Eric Haugaard plays with this image in three books addressed to young people of varying ages, set in different times and places.

The newest of these, the picture book Prince Boghole, is a slightly irreverent look at three fairy tale suitors, each vying for the hand of the lovely Princess Orla. Her father, King Desmond, "had reached an age when even a golden crown rests heavily on the head." He contacts his counterparts in Leinster and Ulster to see if they have a son capable of managing a kingdom and winning the love of his daughter. During the interim a third young man, Prince Brian, arrives at the castle gate. His raven hair pleases the princess and his speech pleases her father. But the servants "titter softly" at the youth's shabby clothes and one of them whispers, "His father's kingdom is a bog, only good for cutting turf. Let's call him Prince Boghole."

Needless to say, Princess Orla likes neither of the other rich princes nearly as well as the altogether bright, energetic and pleasant Brian. In a test of wisdom all three are sent to "bring back the bird he thinks is most wonderful." A year and a day later the overbearing Prince of Ulster returns with an eagle, the foppish Prince of Leinster with a peacock, and belatedly in strolls the ragged Brian with a "drab, colorless" nightingale. The wise nursemaid Gormlai asks each to have his bird sing, and Brian, somewhat the worse for wear, wins the contest and is wed to the overjoyed Orla.

Although this is surely a story dipped from the well of happily-ever-after, it is interesting to note Brian is not a wealthy prince in disguise, but rather a boy who without money or connections (even the servants sneer at him) finds a creative solution to an archetypal riddle and achieves what others with material resources are unable to garner. Brian's victory is not just the result of his own ambition, for each of the suitors searches far and wide. Instead, he wins because the wise nursemaid develops a test she knows he can pass and, furthermore, defines success in terms which highlight only his achievement. The book is playful, reassuring, but also makes an telling statement about the importance of finding moral, sensible, and kind allies outside of the family.

A Boy's Will, a work of historical fiction appropriate for elementary school age children, takes place during the American Revolution on and around the Irish island of Valentia. The protagonist, a handsome, thirteen-year-old orphan, Patrick, lives with his paternal grandfather. The boy's mother had not managed to leave him much besides his good looks and popish heritage, and his father was lost at sea some three years before the story opens. The grandfather, a smuggler and drunkard, talks disparagingly of Patrick's Catholic mother, and gives the boy little respect.

Patrick has long overheard discussions of the American colonies' dissatisfaction with the taxation laws, and sides with those, like the Irish, who are held in contempt by the imperialistic British. His sympathy for the rebels finds an outlet when the youngster learns that a decoy ship has been set up in his own harbor to ambush a small American fleet. Patrick decides to warn John Paul Jones, captain of the American flotilla. The boy is aware that this action has consequences: warning the Americans is tantamount to cutting off all ties to his past. After a harrowing chase at sea, the lad escapes his grandfather, is taken on board the American frigate, and is rewarded with the praise of John Paul Jones himself.

Patrick, like Prince Boghole, is a boy without wealth or family who manages to make his way in the world. And even in this seemingly realistic work, the appeal of familial ties is neatly obviated by the peculiar circumstances of Patrick's life—there is a conspicuous absence of caring and love at "home." In fact, one could argue that Patrick took up the American cause in defiance of his grandfather. Still, the boy might well have "come of age" simply by leaving to seek his fortune; instead Haugaard uses moral outrage as the force which finally propels Patrick to action. The adolescent searches not for wealth or love, the stuff of which fairy tales are made, but for a new community where his ideas and bravery will be valued.

The highly acclaimed Orphans of the Wind is the most complex of the three works cited here. The tale begins in Bristol, England, where twelve-year-old Jim, again an orphan, has been left in the custody of his miserly uncle and aunt, characters who share much in common with the most scurrilous Dickensesque villains. The uncle lies about the boy's age to the captain of a ship loaded with cargo for America who signs the child up as cabinboy. In this conspicuously male world Jim learns to differentiate among the adults in his midst—to trust the kind and wise cook, Rolf; to despise the unscrupulous captain; and to fear the insanity of a scripture-quoting deckhand.

Once aboard the Four Winds the sailors learn that their ship is actually a blockade runner carrying ammunition to the Confederate Army. Not only does this fact make the journey considerably more dangerous, but an argument ensues among the crew about the morality of aiding the slave owners' cause. Somewhere off the coast of Charleston the crazed deckhand goes down to the hold with a lit candle and the ship explodes. Jim, Rolf, and two other sailors sympathetic to the abolitionists find land and work their way north, posing as soldiers in the Confederate Army. Although one youth is killed in the Battle of Bull Run, the other three sailors manage to desert the Confederacy and join the Union Forces. At the Union camp, Jim is recognized as a boy too young to go to war, and he is sent to the District of Columbia where he signs on an American ship, happy to be back at sea, sailing with a just and friendly crew.

Orphans of the Wind presents yet another dramatic example of the way moral decisions may lead a boy into manhood. Again, the parents of birth have left the young man with nothing but his own stamina and good sense. Again, the death of his parents and the cruelty of his guardian frees the protagonist from the ties that usually subsume ideology to personal loyalty. The reader is invited to feel the struggle and triumph that comes with unfettered moral action. Jim chooses his enemies as well as his friends.

But the moral universe displayed in Orphans of the Wind is more complex than that evidenced in Haugaard's books for younger readers. Here one encounters several characters who are kind in spite of their politics, decent people living in the Southern states. Religion crosses the line into madness. Misrepresentation of the truth is, in certain instances, justified.

The metaphorical content of Orphans in the Wind also helps mark it as a book intended for older readers. Jim is an orphan who in effect is adopted by a small community of sailors. These men identify themselves as orphans, individuals without families who don't even know the others' real names. But by the tale's end Jim realizes that even his wise friend Rolf might have misunderstood the orphan status of the sailor: "We were not ‘orphans of the wind’; we were brothers of the earth, and the wind and the sea were our parents" (183).

The book concludes with Jim on the deck of his new ship, thinking about himself as "a real tar."

The thought pleased me. I looked up at the mast and the little clouds high above it. The world is good, I thought. And it is mine. Mine the whole world, the sea and the wind.


Jim, like the reader, has learned that nature offers gifts to even the most despairing of humans; this is a world of hope. The appeal of Orphans of the Wind lies finally in that vision: orphans can find the direction and solace of parents in nature and community.

Nancy Tenfelde Clasby (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Clasby, Nancy Tenfelde. "Naturalism and the Orphan Archetype: Dreiser, London, and Crane." In New Jerusalem: Myth, Literature, and the Sacred, pp. 105-23. Scranton, Penn.: University of Scranton Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Clasby offers a critical reading in how several naturalist children's writers utilized literal orphans and orphans of circumstance throughout their texts.]

Life is a mess … It is like yeast, a ferment, a thing that moves and may move for a minute, an hour, a year or a hundred years, but that in the end will cease to move. The big eat the little that they may continue to move, the strong eat the weak that they may retain their strength. The lucky eat the most and move the longest, that is all.

          —Jack London, Seawolf

Naturalist theory focuses on the determining factors of heredity and environment and marginalizes free choice. It goes much further than realism in emphasizing the dominance of impersonal forces over motivation and will. Writing in 1900, social scientist Ernst Haeckel declared:

The great struggle between the determinist and the indeterminist, between the opponent and the sustainer of the freedom of the will, has ended today, after more than two thousand years, completely in favor of the determinist. The human will has no more freedom than that of the higher animals, from which it differs only in degree, not in kind … We now know that each act of the will is as fatally determined by the organization of the individual and as dependent on the momentary condition of his environment as every other psychic activity.

          (130-131, in Mitchell viii)

Theorists reveled in the triumph of necessitarian thought, but writers of fiction struggled with the problem of constructing stories based on characters who are, in Zola's words, "completely dominated by their nerves and blood, without free will." Theory dictated characters who were little more than "occasions for passing events." Issues of motivation and decision, so crucial to earlier writers, receded in importance for committed naturalists. Concocting plots stripped of human agency presents particular difficulties because narrative, in its nature, links events in terms of cause and effect. As E. M. Forster noted, "The king died, then the queen died" is a mere chronicle. It becomes a narrative when causality plays a role: "The king died then the queen died of grief." Viewing sequence without causality can be as tedious as counting sheep.

Naturalists tried a number of different strategies for overcoming these obstacles to story telling, but the most important lay in selection of character. They often choose as their subjects people in a pre-heroic state of development: archetypal orphans, adrift in an uncaring world. The perceptions of chronic orphans are so limited, and they behave with so little control or self-awareness that their lives resemble the fractured sequences proposed by naturalist theory. Writers discovered a new sympathy for characters whose experience validated the claims of determinist theory. Or it may be that sociological theory coincided with the emotional profile of a generation of writers who expressed their puzzlement and suffering through projection onto their fictive creations.

Characters such as Stephen Crane's Maggie, girl of the streets, and Dreiser's Sister Carrie are typical orphans. They function on the first, often lengthy, stage of consciousness after the fall from the garden. The stable hierarchy of care and support afforded by parental figures has failed them. Life has not rewarded their gratitude and obedience and they are frightened. "Any pain, any suffering, is an indication that something is wrong—with them (God is punishing them) or with God (maybe God is dead)" (Pearson 25). Feelings of powerlessness and abandonment result in a fear so profound that it must be masked through various strategies of denial. Orphans effectively distance themselves from their own pain and lack of direction by adopting denial mechanisms such as anger and withdrawal. "Denial is a much underrated survival mechanism … [It] works to protect us from the knowledge of the extent of our suffering, precisely because we are not equipped to deal with all of it at once" (36, 46). If the orphan turns to anger as a way of deflecting awareness of fear the anger may be turned inward, producing guilt, or outward, against God, parents, society, ("Why me?" "How can God allow it?"). In another common form of denial, orphans suppress conscious awareness of their plight and "try to cling to innocence." They become "narcissistic and oblivious to other people's pain in addition to denying their own" (Pearson, 29).

When orphans try to assume more demanding roles such as martyr or warrior, they fail because fear prevents them from acting independently. Instead of genuine selflessness, the would-be martyr engages in self-induced victimhood, enacting manipulative and demanding charades of service. The pseudo-warrior never really recognizes the dragon because he is thoroughly self-absorbed. Instead of attacking a genuine problem, "he behaves as if in a tantrum" (30), blind to the destruction caused by his macho pose. Jealousy, dependence, addiction, conformity, worship of strong leaders and cults, inability to bear criticism or recognize contrasting views—all typify orphan behavior. Inasmuch as everyone passes through an orphan stage (often several times), these qualities are part of the universal human condition.

Until the rise of naturalism, few writers dealt with orphans. They appeared as bystanders, bit players, or relatively inconsequential villains. Orphans do not willingly take chances, make hard choices, or fight dragons. If pressed they may strike out in badly focused, self-destructive rage. Self-centered and indifferent to others, they often inflict great harm without being aware of it. Growth and change are very difficult for them and they are always looking for the "quick-fix." While they may be very intelligent, their imaginal lives are stunted: their taste in fiction runs to rescue fantasies and rags-to-riches stories. Soap operas and situation comedies have great appeal because they depict life as predictable and people as unchanging. In every episode the social surface is gently agitated and then restored so that the characters can re-enact their familiar roles in the next installment.

In serious fiction the orphan's inability to change leaves the writer in a dilemma. As subjects for narrative, orphans have little to offer the writer except their genuine though unarticulated pain. Naturalist writers seized the premises of deterministic thought and used them as a staging area for a rescue mission. In The Hero Within, Carol Pearson calls naturalism an antidote to the debilitating "legacy of sin, the belief that suffering is somehow ‘our fault’" (45). Working with the determinist principle that free will is an illusion, the naturalist concludes that there can be no bad people in a world devoid of moral principle and the opportunity for choice. Orphans are guiltless, and God, the caretaker and avenger, is dead. Suffering is not the product of sin, nor does it connote guilt. Life has no rules or patterns except those imposed by superior force. No moral blame can be assessed for breaking society's rules.

In an inscription to Hamlin Garland's gift copy of Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Stephen Crane wrote:

It is inevitable that you will be greatly shocked by this book but continue please with all possible courage to the end. For it tries to show that environment is a tremendous thing in the world, and frequently shapes lives regardless. If one proves that theory, one makes room in Heaven for all sorts of souls (notably an occasional street girl) who are not confidently expected to be there by many excellent people.

The social theorists of determinism present a world devoid of human autonomy, without meaning or love, and the naturalist writers seize upon the theory as grounds for demanding compassion for society's orphans.

By focusing on hurt and confusion, the naturalist writer opens the reader to a gradual realization of pain that will eventually make denial less necessary. Pearson notes that, in the safety of a therapeutic situation, some people "may feel their pain more consciously in the telling of their story than they did in the living of it" (42). An empathetic reading of the stories of other victims also promotes healing. If the causes of pain are established as being outside the individual, "not their fault," guilt begins to dissipate. The double movement of acknowledging pain and letting go of guilt is crucial to the orphan's development. Characters in naturalist fiction—prostitutes, brutal coal miners, alcoholics, capitalist tycoons—are frozen in place, unable to begin the hero's journey. The writer himself assumes the heroic role, suffers with the sinners, articulates their pain, and offers unconditional absolution. They are not guilty, the writer says, because they do not know what they are doing. In a complete turnaround, a literature which appears, on the theoretical level, to deny all the premises of struggle and transformation that inform the myth is made to function as a way of consoling and strengthening embryonic heroes. Orphans, passive narcissists though they be, have the potential to change. The naturalist writer, playing the not-uncommon role of artist as savior, has come to redeem just such sinners.

Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, and Stephen Crane illustrate three successful approaches to characterization in a world theoretically devoid of free will and heroes. Dreiser's story "Second Choice" gives us Shirley, the orphan, seduced and abandoned. Jack London's "To Build a Fire" presents a character so crippled by a distorted ego as to be beyond blame, like a natural force. Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" shows us orphans of the storm who are at the same time so heroic as to be beyond mere conscious virtue.

Dreiser's "The Second Choice" develops the orphan archetype in the figure of Shirley, an innocent, a young woman living comfortably on the level of pre-heroic awareness, a "good enough life." Until Arthur Bristow comes along, she is satisfied with her suitor, Barton Williams, "stout, phlegmatic, good natured, well meaning." Though Shirley envies "more fortunate girls" who have "fine clothes, fine homes, a world of pleasure and opportunity," she accepts the dull routines of life on Bethune Street, and plans to marry Barton, who will "make her a good husband."

Dreiser introduces Arthur, with his "slim, straight figure and dark hair and eyes" as a mythic intrusion into Shirley's unimaginative life. He is Prince Charming, come to bring her into a "world of color and light—a color and light so transfiguring as to seem celestial." She is a sleeping beauty, waiting for rescue:

When Arthur came, how the scales fell from her eyes! In a trice … there was a new heaven and a new earth.

Though Dreiser calls his story "The Second Choice," he is very careful to shield Shirley from appearing to make a (theoretically impossible) choice. He emphasizes Arthur's powers and Shirley's helplessness. Something "had come over her—a spell…. Somehow, without any boldness on his part, he had taken possession of her." With Arthur she goes to a world "Far, far away from all commonplace things and life." Without any apparent volition on her own part, Shirley transgresses against the sexual mores of her society. On a symbolic level, her seduction is a taste of the apple in the garden, and the consequence will be a knowledge of good and evil. Her way back to the innocent world of childhood is barred.

When Arthur leaves her, as he inevitably does, she becomes an orphan. The fallen world, hitherto unseen, stretches ahead of her in a vision of stifling conformity. Dreiser does a masterful job of presenting the drabness of mass-produced society:

Here, in their kitchen, was her mother, a thin, pale, but kindly woman, peeling potatoes and washing lettuce, and putting a bit of steak or a chop or a piece of liver in a frying pan day after day, morning and evening, month after month, year after year. And next door was Mrs. Kessel doing the same thing. And next door Mrs. Cryder. And next door Mrs. Pollard. but until now, she had not thought it so bad. But now—now—oh!

By many standards, Shirley's future seems average, even comfortable, but the desolation of the orphan condition need have little to do with objective circumstances.

After a month of brooding over her abandonment, Shirley feels that "she must act—her position as a deserted girl was too much." It occurs to her that she can save face by picking up with Barton Williams again. He will "be grateful for even the leavings of others where she was concerned." She does not directly confront the moral implications of her plans for Barton, but excuses herself by an apparent assumption of conventional standards of judgment. "‘I'm a bad girl,’ she kept telling herself. ‘I'm all wrong. What right have I to offer Barton what is left?’" Proclaiming her guilt allows her to go ahead with her plan; she is only doing what comes naturally to her fallen nature. Barton "thrills dumbly" when he sees her, and immediately accepts her invitation to visit.

So—she could have him again—that was the pity of it! To have what she really did not want, did not care for! At the least nod now he would come, and this very devotion made it all but worthless and so sad.

It is, Shirley concludes, "her fate" to be loved in this pleading way, and it is the fate of "dull, commonplace" Barton to love her in this unsatisfied way. Shirley is firmly at the center of her own drama, while Barton plays a minor role. She attempts to assuage feelings of guilt by attributing her actions to fate and social pressure: "She must marry. Time would be slipping by and she would become too old. It was her only future—marriage."

The evening of her meeting with Barton she stares from the window at her future:

What should she do? What should she really do? There was Mrs. Kessel in her kitchen getting her dinner as usual, just as her own mother was now, and Mr. Kessel out on the front porch in his shirtsleeves reading the evening paper. Beyond was Mr. Pollard in his yard, cutting the grass … For the moment it choked and stifled her.

After a while, Shirley turns from the window asking, "What's the use? Why should I cry?" Arthur has left her; she has failed at love. She rolls up her sleeves, removes a lace collar from her throat and moves into the kitchen. She thinks, "I don't amount to anything, anyhow." Looking around for an apron, she asks her mother,

"Can't I help? Where is the tablecloth?" and finding it among napkins and silverware in a drawer in the adjoining room, proceeded to set the table.

Though Shirley appears to acquiesce passively in her fate, certain aspects of her behavior hint at another possible outcome. Her efforts, however ineffective, to deny guilt, and her agonized awareness of pain, may be symptomatic of an as yet unrealized movement toward maturity. She mourns her loss and acts, though selfishly, to save herself. Feeling pain is often a symptom that the orphan is preparing to move on to another level of awareness and independence. If that is the case, then Shirley has suffered a fortunate fall.

Jack London's tale "To Build a Fire" concerns a man who feels no pain at all. Though he causes himself the greatest agony, his self-alienation is so great as to put him beyond feeling and beyond moral agency. The setting is the Yukon in mid-winter. An "intangible pall" hangs over the frozen, undulating hills. The blank whiteness of the terrain suggests the unmeaning of Melville's "colorless all-color of atheism" (Watson 45). Across the formless desert a "dark hairline trail" stretches toward the island of life represented by the camp on the left fork of Henderson Creek. The nameless protagonist and his dog are the only living things in the landscape.

A newcomer to the Yukon, the man is described as being "quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances." The "trouble with him," London says, is that he is "without imagination." He is one of the class of entrepreneurs who have come to the Klondike for gold and timber, viewing the land as raw material to be exploited. Lacking imagination, he cannot respond fully even to the intensity of the cold. It is so cold that when he spits, the spittle crackles, frozen in the air before it reaches the snow. Yet in spite of the extremities of nature, nothing in the wilderness leads him "to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man's frailty in general."

The dog who trots at his heels is "depressed by the tremendous cold." A creature of instinct, it is in tune with nature and senses the terrible danger they are in:

This man did not know cold. Possibly all the generations of his ancestry had been ignorant of cold, of real cold, of cold one hundred and seven degrees below freezing point. But the dog knew; all its ancestry knew, and it had inherited the knowledge.

Although the two travel together, and share what appears to be a symbiotic relationship, there is "no keen intimacy between the dog and the man." The protagonist treats the dog as his "toil slave," and the "only caresses it had ever received were the caresses of the whip lash." The exploited dog makes no effort to warn the man of the fatal danger he faces. Early in the story, the man forces the animal to walk ahead of him in a dangerous area of snow-covered springs. The dog falls through the thin ice, but is able to recover. "Warm and secure in its natural covering," the dog is in harmony with the vast forces of life and death represented by nature. The man envies and despises him.

Although the protagonist has potential for being at one with nature (His "blood was alive, like the dog"), he lives entirely in the ego, separated from the reality of his body, which is gradually turning numb as the "cold of space smote the unprotected tip of the planet." He seeks to dominate and control the primitive forces by relying on his whip, and on fire, the magical spark technology has given him. He is a firemaker, and he faces the darkness with all confidence in his ability to dispel the cold with his meager box of matches.

At first, all goes well. He successfully makes a fire at lunchtime, eats, and presses on toward the camp. Then, in mid-afternoon, he breaks through the ice and soaks his feet and legs. If he is to survive, he must make a fire and dry out his footgear. He is shaken, and recalls the advice given him by the old-timer on Sulpher Creek. "No man," said he, "must travel alone in the Klondike after fifty below." Restrictions are often a part of myth. Orpheus must not look back, Eve must not eat the apple, certain doors and boxes must not be opened. The ideal hero accedes to these limitations without question. He or she is open and trusting—willing to play by mysterious rules that make little sense to the conscious mind.

Initially, London's protagonist feels a sense of dread. He controls himself, however, and succeeds, after great effort, in building a fire. Drying out before it, he expresses the essential hubris which drives him: "He had saved himself. Those old-timers were rather womanish, some of them, he thought." His scornful reference to the old wise-men as "womanish" reveals his enmity toward the feminine aspects of reality and of his own psyche. The old man's wisdom associates him with such mythic figures as Tiresias, the aged prophet, who lived both as a man and a woman. Tiresias's androgyny is symbolic of his capacity to synthesize the feminine, instinctive aspects of the psyche with the rational, masculine side. The prophet's knowledge could save the protagonist, but he rejects this wisdom, and tells himself, "All a man had to do was to keep his head and he was all right."

His celebration is short-lived. The fire loosens the snow in the spruce tree, and it tumbles down onto the fire, extinguishing it. "It was his own fault or, rather, his mistake. He should not have built the fire under the spruce tree." London here suggests causality (a fault or mistake), but clearly other forces, heredity, the environment, and the character's limited development, contribute to the disaster. The man realizes that it is "as though he had just heard his own sentence of death." He tries frantically to build another fire, but it is beyond him. The flames will not catch, and his growing numbness makes his every clumsy effort fail. "Heat, energy and the capacity for motion are depleted one by one as the system—the natural body … approaches degree-zero or entropy" (Seltzer 225). In mounting desperation, the man pulls off his gloves, and, clutching the entire bunch of matches with the heels of his hands, he strikes a fire, and holds it to a bit of birch bark. "As he so held it, he became aware of sensation in his hand. His flesh was burning. He could smell it. Deep down below the surface he could feel it." The pain intensifies; it is the fear of death finally penetrating through the frozen layers of his ego to the living core. Still the fire will not take hold.

In a scene of great horror, he recalls a story in which a man, "caught in a blizzard … killed a steer and crawled inside the carcass, and so was saved." He resolves to kill the dog, split open its bowels, and "bury his hands in the warm body until the numbness went out of them." The dog comes when called, and the man seizes it. It is too late, however. His hands are so stiff that he can neither throttle the dog nor draw his sheath knife to stab it. Sitting in the snow, his arms encircling the animal, he is a figure of terrible irony. The man can no longer dominate and use the vital aspects of nature and the psyche represented by the dog. His murderous embrace is impotent, and his victim ultimately eludes him.

With his remaining strength, he runs blindly toward the distant camp. As he runs on his frozen feet, he seems to himself "to skim along above the surface, and to have no connection with the earth." He remembers a picture of winged Mercury and wonders if the god "felt as he felt when skimming over the earth." The reference again suggests the hubris of a man who dares, like the gods, to place himself above the sphere of the earth. His penalty is to freeze to death, a process which London depicts as involving a gradual isolation from the body. "He did not belong with himself anymore." The man has a vision of himself standing aside, looking at his own corpse in the snow. Like Dante's Satan, locked in ice, London's character lies petrified and alone.

All the humble yet life-giving aspects of the maternal earth are focused in the subhuman figure of the dog. Instincts, emotion, and sensuality are typically projected onto a devalued figure in modern literature, but usually the shadow retains some parity with the ego. In Hawthorne's stories the flawed, doomed feminine figures are endowed with great beauty. In the many stories dealing with the "faithful Indian companion" the hero recognizes his kinship with his dark companion. Natty Bumpo of The Deerslayer asserts his "white gifts," but he also follows the "bias of his feelings." Chingachgook is built on the same heroic scale as Natty and is inseparable from him. Natty is, in D. H. Lawrence's words, "hard, isolate, stoic and a killer," but he maintains a fundamental respect for the natural forces the Indian embodies. In a similar trope in Moby Dick, Ishmael is saved from Ahab's fate by clinging to the coffin of Queequeg, the "soothing savage."

In London's story, both aspects of the divided personality are drawn in extreme and degraded terms. The man is completely unfeeling, shielding himself from natural forces (snow, cold) and exploiting natural creatures (timber, dog). Lacking imagination, he exists on the most literal plane. Everything, even the cold that will take his life, is reified, quantified. "Fifty degrees below zero was to him just precisely fifty degrees below zero. That there should be anything more to it than that was a thought that never entered his head."

The dog, whose "instinct told it a truer tale," wins our sympathy by being associated with nature and being the man's intended victim. Yet its wolf-like qualities are emphasized. At the end of "To Build a Fire" the dog sits, facing the dying man, and waiting. It wants the man to make a fire. When at last it catches the scent of death, it bristles and leaps back. For a short time it howls under the cold stars, then it turns and trots "up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where there were other food providers and fire providers." The dog is a party to a relationship of mutual use, rather than of shared life. Its needs are for food and fire, and it will turn indiscriminately to anyone who provides them.

London introduces some suggestions of causality as an element of the plot, as in his reference to the man's "fault" or "mistake" in traveling alone and in building the fire under the tree. But the author emphasizes the inevitability of the outcome, attributing it to the man's hereditary failure of instinct: neither he nor his ancestors know "cold, real cold." The story's mythic level, however, points to hubris, a concept incongruous in a naturalist setting because it is so weighted with issues of blame and choice. The man's actions, particularly his treatment of the dog, indicate a level of fault exceeding the "guilt-free" parameters of naturalist theory. Has London created a villain who is nevertheless blameless?

Most discussion of will and choice focuses on issues of self-direction. It may be helpful to look at the broader aspect of control as it pertains to free will. At one end of the spectrum of control is the innocent, the infant consciousness—spontaneous, unfettered, oblivious to efforts at constraint. Freedom is no issue at this level. In normal development, the first experience of restraint comes from the outside, from the caregiver. But the aim of discipline is self-discipline. If all goes well, the developing consciousness develops inner controls; it learns to say no to its own impulses, thus beginning the painful process of internalizing the capacity to make difficult choices. Orphans have difficulty with self-direction and tend to prolong their reliance on exterior authority. They obey, or evade, or sometimes react against the demands of authority. To the degree that consciousness shrinks from assuming self-direction it limits capacities for free choice.

If the emergent ego is wounded in its initial experience of power, it may never successfully internalize the urge toward control. The ego may view the instinctive aspect of the self as alien, a refractory, unrelated energy to be firmly repressed. Ego stands outside and treats the instinctual self as an object. No true interior dimension has developed. As the drive for power deepens and expands, other people appear as mere objects to be controlled. The ego then assumes the active role first experienced as external power and adopts the strategies of coercion and manipulation. The wounded ego is like a slave, jealous of the slavemaster, seeking to replace him in his punishing role. No liberation can come from that exchange. The experience of power becomes more important than the ostensible goals toward which force is directed. Instead of will as purposeful choice, the volitional energies flow into compulsive, obsessional behavior. The resultant monster of ego is dangerous indeed.

If the initial efforts at restraint go well, the ego internalizes control and takes pleasure in experiencing its own increasing powers. Next, ego seeks to extend control over the social environment. In an ideal development the ego honors the claims of the unconscious and maintains a rootedness in feeling and instinct, while increasing its skills in managing the objective world. Because it maintains contact with the inner, subjective elements of the psyche, the heroic ego recognizes others as subjects, not as mere objects of control. The developing will rises from infant chaos, avoids the obsessive behavior of the wounded ego, and begins the search for its goal. The final trajectory of will manifests itself as heroic service to the true self and to others. Perfected will expresses itself in act—in habits of choice, skills honed to easy perfection, talents and abilities so refined as to seem natural, even careless. Robert Frost called this freedom "moving easy in harness."

In literature there is a tradition of painting certain villains as being in the grip of what Coleridge called "motiveless malignity." The actions of a character like Iago in Othello or Claggart in Billy Budd do not proceed from clearly motivated free choices. They are out of proportion and depart from the ordinary habits of mind by such a margin that, Melville says, we must move by "indirections" to comprehend them. On the surface, such characters appear to be in complete control, especially "subject to the law of reason." But for them, reason and restraint are but "ambidexter implement[s] for effecting the irrational." They are "naturally depraved."

London's protagonist plays on a smaller stage than Iago or Claggart, but he plays a similar role. The hints of hubris directed at him suggest the separation between the ego and the other faculties of the psyche. His egotism, his overweening confidence in his ability to control his fate, brings the whole psychic structure to disaster. We see, in his treatment of the dog, that his power relationships are destructive to all participants. He brings his fate on himself, and yet he has not acted freely, but under the compulsion of his distorted appetite for power. His behavior falls outside the bounds of rationally motivated choice, so London can find even this orphan "not guilty," because his behavior is compulsive rather than freely chosen.

Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat" shows us a community of sufferers who, because of their heroism, also elude the definitions of moral free choice. Based on Crane's experiences in a shipwreck off Florida in 1897, the story details the fates of four men, the cook, the wounded captain, Billy the oiler, and the correspondent, who is the narrator. While one level of the text reflects the premises of naturalist thought, another distills a riveting portrait of the archetypal hero.

The sea is "emerald green streaked with amber lights, and the foam like tumbling snow." It tosses their small boat like a toy.

None of them knew the colour of the sky. Their eyes glanced level and were fastened upon the waves that swept toward them. The waves were of the hue of slate, save for the tops which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colours of the sea.


The men playing over the surface of the water in their fragile boat are no more substantial than the light on the waves. Yet their critical peril focuses their attention, drawing their concentration to a fine, collective focus as they consider the sea's fierce splendor. The "shining and windswept" expanse was "probably splendid, it was probably glorious," but such considerations are pointless in view of their shared recognition of the disparity between the power of nature and of human beings. The men are orphans—"with their fragmentary clothing and haggard faces, they were the babes of the sea—a grotesque rendering of the old babes in the woods" (83).

Initially they row toward the land, toward what they hope is a life-saving station. Crane emphasizes the grueling monotony of their progress as they take turns rowing across the empty sea. A lighthouse appears, "a small, still thing on the edge of the swaying horizon" (72) As they near the shore they taste a moment of triumph. The land "slowly and beautifully" looms out of the sea. They discover four cigars among their stores and light them: "the four waifs rode impudently in their little boat, and, with an assurance of impending rescue shining in their eyes, puffed at the big cigars" (75). As they near the thunderous surf and no rescuers appear, their hopes fade, and they must push out to sea again to avoid swamping in the waves.

Even in these early hours of danger and shared labor the correspondent experiences a comradeship that he knows to be "the best experience of his life." The voyagers share in:

The subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in the boat, and each man felt it warm him.


There is more to their relationship than "a mere recognition of what was best for the common safety." Something "personal and heart-felt" informs their shared experience. Shipwrecks are "apropos of nothing," but the men's relationship generates an island of meaning in the midst of an impersonal sea.

As they pull wearily away from shore, the correspondent expresses the frustration the men feel:

If I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned—if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life? It is preposterous. If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men's fortunes.


Rowing north along the coast, they see a man running on the shore, waving at them. The captain ties a towel to a stick and waves back. A large vehicle that they hope is the life-saving boat drives down the beach. It is only a hotel bus full of tourists. One removes his coat and waves it at them, spinning it vigorously around his head. The crowd mills about, the man continues his inscrutable signals, and daylight fades into evening. "What do you suppose he means?" the correspondent asks. Billie growls, "He don't mean anything; he's just playing." As darkness falls the pointless exercise ends and the men must row on, exhausted.

That night, the correspondent takes his turn at the oars while the others sleep. An enormous fin glides through the dark water, trailing them. He swears at the shark, but is too tired to fear it as he might have in other circumstances. What he hates most is that he is alone with it. As he rows, he thinks over his position. People have been drowning at sea for all of human history, but somehow, in his own case, it seems an "abominable injustice." He has "worked so hard, so hard." Ruefully he concludes that he doesn't deserve his fate:

When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples.


If only there were someone to plead with, he would kneel as a supplicant and say:

"Yes but I love myself." A high cold star on a winter's night is the word he feels that she says to him.

Still the correspondent rows on. A half-forgotten verse plays through his mind:

A soldier of the legion lay dying in Algiers;
There was lack of woman's nursing, there was dearth
  of woman's tears;
But a comrade stood beside him, and he took that
  comrade's hand,
And he said, "I never more shall see my own, my native

In childhood the narrator learned about the soldier's death, "but he had never regarded the fact as important." It was not his affair; it was "less to him than the breaking of a pencil's point" (85). As a boy, he was, like nature, oblivious to the suffering of others. Now, as he faces death in the company of his comrades, his capacity for compassion develops. The soldier's death comes to him as "a human living thing." Rowing and imagining the man lying in the sand, the correspondent is "moved by a profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension. He was sorry for the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers."

The narrator's irony is an important element, a transitional device allowing Crane to shift easily between the detachment of the naturalist and the compassion he feels for his characters. Throughout, the narrator reports conventional expectations and responses in a series of ironic asides designed to express the inadequacy of socially conditioned responses to the enormity of the human dilemma. The correspondent, for example, wishes for a second chance at life. As the boat appears certain to capsize he resolves to "mend his conduct," he will be "better and brighter during an introduction or at a tea."

As the night wears on, the correspondent takes turns rowing with the cook and the oiler. The Captain, unable to row because of his injuries, has been awake all night, even during the time when the shark circled. The men are numb, worn almost to indifference to their fate, but they share the work of rowing without a murmur. Not one seeks an advantage over the others. Dawn comes with a splendor of "carmine and gold … painted upon the waters."

On the distant shore the men see a collection of little cottages and a tall white windmill. The high surf continues to pound on the beach, but the captain concludes that they will soon be too weak to swim at all, so they agree to take their chances going ashore at the village. As they approach, the correspondent stares at the windmill.

This tower was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in a degree, to the correspondent, the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual—nature in the wind and nature in the vision of men. She did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent.


The men's ordeal has left them too exhausted to "grapple fundamentally with the fact" that they face death. The correspondent knew "that they were not afraid, but the full meaning of their glances was shrouded." His own mind is dominated by his muscles, "and his muscles said they did not care." It occurs to him merely that it would be "a shame" if he were to drown. As a group, they are barely conscious. Their numbed reaction to a deadly and uncontrolled situation is the very essence of the naturalist vision of the human condition. A "huge, furious, implacable" wave swallows the dinghy and the men are scattered into the icy sea. The oiler swims powerfully toward shore. The cook in his cork jacket bobs on the water, the correspondent clings to a bit of life-preserver, and the captain, holding onto the overturned boat, urges them all on to safety. The correspondent reflects that he is so weary that drowning might be rather comfortable, "a cessation of hostilities." He will not mind dying as long as it does not hurt.

At that moment, the narrator sees a man running along the beach and undressing: "Coat, trousers, shirt, everything flew magically off him." As the correspondent struggles, a wave lifts him, with marvelous ease and speed, over the boat and propels him toward the shore. That happy chance, a small but "true miracle of the sea," sweeps the correspondent into the shallow waters, where he is promptly caught in an undertow. Meanwhile, the running man bounds into the water and saves the cook. The captain waves him off to the struggling correspondent:

He was naked—naked as a tree in winter; but a halo was about his head and he shone like a saint.


The stranger grasps the correspondent's hand and pulls him from the surf. "Thanks, old man," says the correspondent, "schooled in the minor formulae." Then they see a form floating face downward in the shallows. It is the oiler, Billy, the most fit of all the men, the most likely to survive, here, ironically, the only one to perish. The narrator's ironic asides pale beside nature's reversals of expectation.

Soon the beach is full of women with coffee pots and blankets, "all the remedies sacred to their minds," and the survivors are quickly reintegrated into the comforting routines of life ashore. But the oiler's dripping form, carried slowly up the beach, will meet only with "the sinister hospitality of the grave."

Crane's images of nature as flatly indifferent, his furious confusion at the prospect of being drowned in sight of land, his urge to "throw bricks at the temple," only there are no bricks and no temple—all these are the clearest possible expressions of the naturalist world view. Chance and environmental pressures play a large role in determining the story's outcome. The men do what they must to survive. Rowing and bailing, their main tasks, are constrained and repetitive. The narrator's ironic commentary suggests that manners, normal expectations, conventional behaviors are ephemeral, even laughable, in the face of nature's inscrutable energy. The men are orphans adrift in a world certain to disappoint and enrage them.

And yet, the image of the savior, the shining saint who pulls them from the sea, is the story's final focus. The archetypal figure shoulders his way past the anomalies of fate and the absurdities of the sea and pulls the men into his sphere. The savior is a distillation of the simple, heroic love of the men for their comrades. His dramatic gesture summarizes their many small acts of mutual support. In the last words of the story, the narrator says that when night comes, and the survivors hear the wind and the "sound of the sea's great voice," they feel that "they could then be interpreters." Their shared agon, the night sea voyage, rewards them with a new capacity for understanding. Billy, who died in the sea, may represent the old self. The stranger, stripped for his struggle with the elements, is the newborn self, the first fruits of "the subtle brotherhood of men." Their feelings of rage and powerlessness subside, and the self-created world of the open boat becomes a talisman, the "best experience" of their lives.

Just as it is possible to create a character so destructive as to seem beyond the ordinary parameters of conscious evil, so the hero sometimes exceeds the usual understanding of freedom of choice. In such a story as "The Open Boat" where all the small acts of choice are compounded and concentrated in the savior's gesture, the particularities of day-to-day decision making are obscured and swept aside. The narrator attempts no analysis of the hero's willingness to put his life at risk, no speculation as to motivation or inner struggles. The savior is stripped to his essential function. He is like a great athlete moving with an ease so intrinsic as to make his gesture appear simple and natural. His plunge into the sea comes with such inevitable grace as to seem fated. But he moves freely, "easy in harness."

So Crane is able to preserve the naturalist vision of a world ruled by "the seven mad gods," and yet also portray the heroic will at work. The ascendancy of the savior image suggests the triumph of Crane's artistic imagination over his theories. In his hands the competing worldviews are blended in a vision of the terrible beauty of the indifferent sea and the intensity of the heroic will toward order.

Patrizia Palumbo (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Palumbo, Patrizia. "Orphans for the Empire: Colonial Propaganda and Children's Literature during the Imperial Era." In A Place in the Sun: Africa in Italian Colonial Culture from Post-Unification to the Present, edited by Patrizia Palumbo, pp. 225-51. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2003.

[In the following essay, Palumbo suggests that orphan narratives were used by some 1920s Italian children's authors in support of fascist and imperialist dogma.]

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Apseloff, Marilyn Fain. "Abandonment: The New Realism of the Eighties." Children's Literature in Education 23, no. 2 (June 1992): 101-6.

Discusses prominent contemporary works of juvenile literature dealing with abandoned children.

Eaton, Anne. "A Broader Field: A Swiss Alp." In A Critical History of Children's Literature, edited by Cornelia Meigs, p. 191. New York, N.Y.: Macmillan Company, 1953.

Attempts to explain the enduring popularity of Heidi as a work of children's literature.

Mills, Claudia. "Children in Search of a Family: Orphan Novels through the Century." Children's Literature in Education 18, no. 4 (December 1987): 227-39.

Studies several of the most famous orphan novels of the twentieth century.

Nelson, Claudia. "‘In These Days of Scientific Charity’: Orphanages and the Social Engineering in Dear Enemy." In Children's Literature and the Fin de Siècle, edited by Roderick McGillis, pp. 91-9. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.

Examines the social themes of Jean Webster's Dear Enemy.

Nodelman, Perry. "Progressive Utopia: Or, How to Grow Up without Growing Up." In Proceedings of the Sixth Annual Conference of the Children's Literature Association, University of Toronto, March 1979, edited by Priscilla A. Ord, pp. 146-54. Villanova, Pa.: Children's Literature Association, 1981.

Notes the similarities in setting, plot, and denouement between various orphan narratives, including Pollyanna: The Glad Book.

Walter, Virginia A. "Hansel and Gretel as Abandoned Children: Timeless Images for a Postmodern Age." Children's Literature in Education 23, no. 4 (December 1992): 203-14.

Study of abandonment in fairy tales.