The Tale of the Orphan Trope: How Writers Revitalize a Common Story

When authors choose to use familiar character tropes, they either employ the trope with care, ensuring that the orphaned character’s loss serves a narrative purpose, or they introduce fresh approaches to the trope’s characterization and problems.

Among the common character types that exist in fiction, the orphaned protagonist[*] is one that readily elicits sympathy from readers. Regardless of material circumstances, both the real and perceived disadvantages of parental loss[†] make for excellent storytelling. As author Liz Moore observes, the orphaned character has a “built-in problem, which leads to built-in conflict”. Since her works feature orphans, she worries “whether it is facile to rely on this trope”. The answer to this conundrum lies in how the story is written. When authors choose to use familiar character tropes, they either employ the trope with care, ensuring that the orphaned character’s loss serves a narrative purpose, or they introduce fresh approaches to the trope’s characterization and problems. In the following, I discuss some common features of the orphan trope and provided examples that illustrate how writers make the orphan trope meaningful.

Trope Expectations and Succinct Storytelling

Creating a character that comes with a problem needing resolution, one that readily generates sympathy, also allows writers to streamline their storytelling. As John Mullan explains, “The orphan is above all a character out of place, forced to make his or her own home in the world…set loose from established conventions to face a world of endless possibilities (and dangers).” Since the orphan trope includes these expectations, we don’t need the author to explain why their orphans beg or steal (Ren from the The Good Thief, the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist); we already know they must fend for themselves and possess few options for doing so. Childhood (mis)adventures, too, are more readily undertaken without parental objection, giving writers incentive to remove parents from the plot.[‡] However, such reasons alone are insufficient for orphaning a character. Julie Just points to the recent trend of young adult fiction replacing dead parents with absentee, inattentive, or incompetent parents,[§] a move that still affords young characters both opportunity and reason to adventure or “act out”. Similarly, characters can experience social isolation or loneliness without being orphaned. Therefore, employing the orphan trope must serve a greater narrative purpose than mere convenience.

  • All the Living

In All the Living, C. E. Morgan’s thoughtful approach to the orphan trope lets the story focus on her young lovers and quietly makes Aloma’s orphaning central to the novel’s conflict as it explores how varied the experience of loss can be. As an orphan (now grown), Aloma can more readily ignore social convention when she moves in with boyfriend Orren to help him run his family’s farm following the sudden deaths of his brother and widowed mother.[**] While Aloma’s childhood loss avoids uninteresting complications parents would add to the plot, it also leaves her unprepared for Orren’s grief and how it alters him. Unlike Orren, she cannot recall her parents and experiences their deaths as an absence. Because Aloma never had a home, she cannot empathize with Orren when he refuses to either reside in or rent the house he once shared with his deceased loved ones and they quarrel. Orren also misunderstands her behavior, finding her tendency to “look outward” infuriating because he forgets or fails to see that her actions reveal an orphan’s need for connection. In Morgan’s hands, sharing a history of loss prevents these lovers from finding common ground. Thus, their losses generate more misunderstanding than they provide comfort.

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Advert for the National Children’s Home and Orphanage. Ephemera Collection National Children’s Home and Orphanage (Great Britain). Published: circa 1920. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. http://wellcomeimages.org. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Unhappy Upbringings

Of course, literary orphans lose more than family when their parents die. For many orphans, parental loss also affects their material, emotional, and social support. However, their new “homes” rarely offer respite or welcome orphaned children—even when they are kin.[††] The orphan’s quest to find acceptance arises in response to this rejection. The trope’s difficulty here lies with the reasons the child isn’t wanted. Literature happens to be littered with cruel, prejudiced or indifferent guardians that range from rotten relations (stepparents, aunts and/or uncles) to unkind orphanage staff. Failing this (or even in conjunction with it), the other common difficulty that necessitates the child’s quest for belonging involves the guardian’s financial distress (Aloma, Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables). Of note, Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, and Aloma all lived with aunts and/or uncles before departing to a boarding school. And Jane and Harry both lived with guardian(s) who begrudged them their upkeep, even though they could readily afford their expenses. While some literary orphans manage to find acceptance through self-improvement and changing the status quo (Mary Lennox, The Secret Garden), most do not. Therefore, inventive approaches to writing these characters’ unhappy circumstances is critical when using these common themes.

  • The Harry Potter series

In the Harry Potter’s series, Vernon and Petunia Dursley’s have few qualms about expressing their displeasure with Harry’s presence in their lives. Rowling, however, complicates their distaste for Harry by rooting it in intolerance and jealousy. Vernon Dursley rather straightforwardly dislikes people unlike himself and wants to curb any magical ability Harry displays, prompting him to take extraordinary measures to prevent Harry from learning he’s a wizard. Petunia Dursley’s motivations, however, are more nuanced. Her sister, Lily Potter, is regularly described in glowing terms (beautiful, smart, kind, etc.), making Petunia one of her rare detractors. She denounces Lily as a freak but in the same scene indicates that their parents admired Lily’s magical ability, exposing her envy. Petunia obviously feels overlooked because her young sister managed to be remarkable in yet another way. She transfers her resentment to Harry, spoiling her son while denying Harry material comforts to ensure Dudley never feels as she did. Regardless of how much trouble Harry causes her, she begrudgingly allows him to stay, suggesting that some lingering duty or love for her sister remains.

Ambiguous Identity and Transformation

Mullan’s observation that orphans are “out of place” gives them the freedom to reinvent themselves and discard their old lives. Although their unfixed social status allows them to transcend their social circumstances, this ambiguity also makes maligning them easy. The same orphan can be classified as both dangerous or brave—incidentally, terms used to describe both Harry Potter and archvillain Lord Voldemort. The orphan’s ambiguous status also provides ample opportunity to create and resolve conflicts in the narrative (a boon for developing story arcs), but such volatility should have a goal (eg, revealing character). Conferring wealth as a reward to the orphaned protagonist, for example, ensures a happy ending but feels unearned when a previously unknown relation exists solely to enrich said orphan by dying.[‡‡]

After Jane Eyre endures a punishment that causes her to faint, the kind apothecary caring for her learns that her aunt’s mistreatment caused her collapse. He offers Jane an opportunity to attend Lowood Institution, a school that educates poor girls. The promise of a fresh start, however, soon sours when her Aunt Reed unjustly characterizes her as a liar to the school director. Accepting Aunt Reed’s word without question, he assures them that the staff will be told about Jane’s wicked behavior. Beyond creating conflict and generating future difficulties for Jane, Brontë’s goal here is to provide Jane with a defining moment. With this latest bit of malice, Aunt Reed finally pushes Jane into finally speaking up for herself, an ability she needs to develop since she has no one else to defend her. Jane grows as a character, no longer willing to suffer slights.

Summary

While the orphan trope has its stock characters, genre expectations, and standard plot lines, writers who make these moments purposeful transform an old story into a meaningful discussion about belonging and identity, something every young protagonist (parents or not) considers as they age into adulthood. And that conversation is an interesting one, however many times we have it, when more considered approaches make the story feel new again.

NOTES:

[*] Most orphans (by definition) are children. Adults usually do not identify as orphans unless they lost their parents during childhood.

[†] Contrary to expectation, some orphans prosper without at least one of their parents (eg, Huckleberry Finn). Being spared parental mistreatment, however, neither offsets nor lessens the child’s experience of loss.

[‡] For much the same reason, most orphan characters are only children.

[§] The trend here is also somewhat practical given that pandemics are less common than they once were.

[**] Of note, Aloma lives in a prevalently conservative area of rural Kentucky during the 1980s, where couples were discouraged from living together before marriage.

[††] Rose from Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins is a notable exception where guardian and extended family alike welcome her.

[‡‡] While one can argue that Jane needs to become wealthy to attain equal footing with Mr. Rochester, he already had no objections to marrying her without money and his injuries better serve this purpose.

Book Review: All the Living

“That was what she wanted. That more than family, that more than friendship, that more than love. Just the kind of day that couldn’t be called into premature darkness by the land.”

All the LivingAll the Living by C.E. Morgan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

“That was what she wanted. That more than family, that more than friendship, that more than love. Just the kind of day that couldn’t be called into premature darkness by the land.”

Wreckage of What Was

All the Living, a novel that debates whether a young woman should “submit to love” (as the cover put it) or find her way in the world, offers readers a tension-filled love affair. When Aloma arrives at the farm Orren inherited, she sees the mountains that she hates, that remind her of postponed dreams to go far beyond them and play piano without being lost in their shadow. The house, the first in which she’ll ever live, is dilapidated just as the piano Orren promised that she could use for practice is ruined. The tremendous change in Orren, wrought by grief, surprises her. Her own orphaning occurred when she was too young to recall anything but her parents’ absence,  thus leaving her unprepared for Orren’s new emotional distance. Her ignorance of farm life and lack of cooking and cleaning skills, the duties she is preparing to take on, too suggest future difficulties.

Young Lovers at Cross Purposes

To these disadvantages, Morgan adds her characters’ youth (Aloma is around 21 or 22; Orren is three years older)—something which becomes more concerning as the details of their courtship unfolds. They met at the settlement school, where Aloma worked as the staff pianist since her graduation. Their dates consisted mostly of driving near the school and sex, which means they didn’t share in each other’s daily existence. Orren, an “Aggie” student at a college three counties away, planned to own a large farm one day and wants to marry her. She responded to his suggestion with humor, as her plans involved leaving. With their goals at cross purposes, it’s not difficult to envision how this relationship might falter over time if they couldn’t compromise on their goals. Meeting his family at the farm might have her eased into the lifestyle there—or at least given her an opportunity to walk away from that life with less at stake. With tragedy spurring their decisions, their relationship has the potential to founder badly.

Points of Confusion

But I found myself puzzled at points while reading this story. Because Orren mentioned marriage before the deaths occurred, it seemed strange that he never brought her to meet his family. Eighteen months is a long time to date a person, let alone a potential marital partner, without introductions to the other important people in one’s life. And unless he hasn’t mentioned his relationship with Aloma to his mother at all (which puts his intentions in question), I’d be surprised if Emma wasn’t interested in meeting his girlfriend. For storytelling purposes, it’s important that Aloma doesn’t interact with his family so that she cannot share in Orren’s loss or see the expectations he might have for her as his future wife by visiting the farm. While it makes sense that Aloma belatedly realizes she should have met Orren’s kin (she, after all, has no family to think of), it seems to strange that Morgan drew attention to this point and chose not explain it however briefly.

barn-all-the-living-review-artful-sequenceAnother puzzling moment involved the time period in which the story was set, something which was more difficult to decipher than it should have been. In fairness, Orren’s note and Aloma waiting for his arrival (instead of texting or calling) could suggest an era before widespread cell phone use (something which continued into the 1990s)—or just bad reception. For me, it certainly did not clearly signal the decade of the setting (1980s), which would have created the correct expectations for Aloma’s trip to the grocery store. Although the farm is isolated, the nearby community is small enough that most people know each other’s business. Since Aloma is charging her purchases to the Fenton account, the clerk mentions Emma “Sure had a lot of opinions”, which seemed odd (Heaven forbid a woman have opinions!). Her next remark was to ask whether Aloma and Orren were married. Aloma lies, but her blush betrays her and the clerk’s cordiality disappears from her face. Knowing that this story occurs in the 1980s would have explained the cultural attitudes towards women in general and marriage specifically. In a scene following the grocery incident, I eventually located one specific cultural landmark that places this story during the early 1980: the “Where’s the Beef?” posters, presumably referring to a Wendy’s ad campaign. I missed its significance in my initial reading, and I can see how somehow not familiar with this time would not understand it at all.

Mounting Tension

Were it not for Morgan’s prose (with rarely a word misplaced), Aloma’s efforts to conquer housework and cooking might have become tedious. The slow pace, however, allows the friction to arise between this disconnected couple. While submerging herself in work helps Aloma focus on Orren’s wants instead of her own, she becomes cognizant of how little she knows Orren. And the lack of piano coupled with not being married grates on her and they quarrel often. Morgan shines in making their days contentious. Although I’m not fond of Morgan’s tendency to provide conclusions about Aloma that the reader could be gleaned from the story, Aloma repeatedly shows that she’s “the girl who was always looking outward, getting to ready to leave”. Both Bell and Orren see this is in her: Orren accuses her of “fixin’ to leave”. Bell, the preacher who hires Aloma to play piano at services and who is unaware of her attachment to Orren, says she is cagey about whether she wants her freedom or to be “took in”. Her interactions with him represent that outward turn. Aloma does not intend to hurt Bell, but she’s lonely and wants the attention Orren once gave her, attention Bell now provides. She doesn’t think, however, how her behavior might affect Bell or consider the implications behind the attention he gives her even though she knows that he believes her to be single.

Once Aloma becomes the church pianist, the collision between these discontented forces seemed destined. To be truthful, I half hoped that she might call it quits with Orren, though I didn’t expect it. The book’s prevalent drift is towards submitting to love (the topic of Bell’s first sermon), which often reads to me as “the woman has to sacrifice her dreams”. I can’t say I agree with that drift under most circumstances. Here, it’s too easy to imagine Orren and Aloma unhappy together despite Aloma’s submission, even though it helps her bitterness dissipate. Still, Morgan’s conclusion doesn’t promise an easy future and is satisfactory enough. And it kept me thinking about what love requires of us in terms of selflessness over self-centeredness long after the cover closed.

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