THE BLOG
07/02/2013 01:38 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

Orphans in Literature

When recently rereading Uncle Tom's Cabin, it struck me that this heartbreaking novel about slavery was also about something slavery caused: the orphaning of children. Whether their parents were yanked away at auction or killed, many kids in the brutal antebellum South lost their moms and dads.

A major orphan character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's powerful page-turner is Topsy, who was turned into a psychological mess by cruel owners until the love of the child Eva and, eventually, the love of parent figure Ophelia help transform her. Ophelia was partly based on Stowe herself, who died almost exactly 117 years ago on July 1, 1896.

After reading Uncle Tom's Cabin -- whose brave, devout title character doesn't deserve the slur later associated with his name -- I thought about other orphans in literature, and why those characters can make novels so compelling. Their difficult starts in life draw our sympathy, and when they overcome obstacles via their own efforts and/or help from others, it is especially inspiring. If they unfortunately don't achieve some sort of happiness, well, that can be compelling, too.

Perhaps the most famous orphan in recent literature is J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter character, whose mom and dad were killed by that Voldemort guy. After spending his first 11 years with his nasty relations the Dursleys, Harry gets a wonderful extended "family" in the wizard community -- including surrogate "parents" such as Dumbledore, Sirius Black and Molly and Arthur Weasley.

Because of movies, another orphan seems recent but actually dates back several decades in the original literary work. That's Frodo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.

A memorable orphan from earlier 20th-century literature is Anne Shirley of L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables. Anne comes to live with Matthew and Marilla, who initially thought they were adopting a boy to help on their farm. Matthew is almost in awe of the precocious Anne, but Marilla is initially a much tougher nut to crack.

Going further back in time, you won't find more famous literary orphans than Heathcliff in Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights and the title character in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. Jane has to mostly make her own way in the world (with a little help from Lowood teacher Maria Temple), but eventually fares better than Heathcliff does in Emily's tempestuous classic.

Other renowned 19th-century orphans? Charles Dickens had quite a few of them, including the titular Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, as well as Pip and Estella of Great Expectations. There was also Quasimodo in Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Denise Baudu of Emile Zola's The Ladies' Delight and Mark Twain's iconic Tom Sawyer, among others.

The most famous 18th-century literary orphans would certainly include Henry Fielding's Tom Jones character. Then there's Cormac O'Connor, who, in Pete Hamill's Forever, becomes an orphan in 1700s Ireland before going to America for what turns out to be an extraordinary, and extraordinarily long, life in Manhattan.

Why so many orphans in novels written or set long ago? One obvious answer is the higher mortality rate of earlier centuries -- though of course the added military and civilian casualties of modern warfare create countless orphans in today's world.

Last but not least, a novel with more parent-less kids than most is John Irving's The Cider House Rules, much of which is set in an orphanage run by the eccentric but principled Dr. Wilbur Larch.

Who are some of your favorite literary orphans?

Note: Thanks to commenters Brian Bess and "geddy lee is a god" for encouraging me, respectively, to read Pete Hamill's Forever and reread Uncle Tom's Cabin. And speaking of Harriet Beecher Stowe, she and Mark Twain both lived many years in Hartford, Conn., where I attended a wonderful National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference late last month. Part of the conference took place at the Mark Twain House/Museum, next door to where Stowe lived!

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Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional includes a preface by columnist Heloise; back-cover endorsements by Arianna Huffington, "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson and others; appearances by Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King, Martha Stewart and others; and a mix of humor and heartache. If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at dastor@earthlink.net.