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Why We Love Stories About Orphans

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BAMBI DISNEY
Disney Junior via Getty Images

From fairy tales and comic books, to classic and contemporary novels, the orphan's journey is a compelling and recurring theme in literature. Why are we drawn to them? What do they have to teach us? And what does our endless fascination with them reveal about us?

I was only five, but I still remember the vivid images on the screen when I watched Bambi, stumbling unprotected through a forest filled with predators after his mother was shot. I was so inconsolable that I had to be ushered from the theatre. It was years before I watched the end, and learned that the Disney tale had reenacted the trajectory of the orphan tale. Though Bambi has a father who is rarely on the scene, making him technically a half-orphan, he sets out on the three quests all orphan characters must pursue: learning to survive, creating a family of choice (usually quirky and exceptionally loyal) and ultimately claiming his or her strength. As a result of their adversity, many of these characters develop a singular power or gift.

The orphaned girls of traditional fairy tales create a slight variation. Reflecting their times, they achieve success (often in the form of a handsome prince) through kindness, and by refusing to give in to the cruelty they encounter. No small victory, of course. However they also fulfill the quest in their own way. Cinderella, for instance, develops the special power to commune with birds and animals, and Snow White finds a unique family in a band of adorable (and adoring) elves.

Male orphans, on the other hand, define themselves through bold action. It's not a coincidence most popular triumvirate of comic book heroes, Batman, Superman, and Spiderman are all parentless, and that they are to varying degrees driven by their loss to become who they are. Drawing on their woundedness, they develop superhuman gifts, as well as the will to protect the vulnerable and to right wrongs at any cost.

The more realistic orphans of literature survive on the sheer force of their personalities. Tom Sawyer described as "the smartest boy in town," also becomes known for his fighting skills, and his friendship with the charming, unruly Huck Finn, who is himself a semi-orphan, left to the care of his drunken father.

Girls fare differently in novels, too. Unlike her fairy tale counterparts, Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables beguiles us with a passionate, adventurous spirit that is the match of Tom Sawyer's. And Mary Lennox from A Secret Garden shatters the myth of the sweet female foundling, by presenting a dour, pampered character who is transformed by her efforts to save a sickly, isolated boy, taking on the the role of rescuer not rescued.

Another reason we love our fictional orphans is for their utter lack of self-pity. Most of them simply don't have the luxury to spend their time bemoaning their fate. Nor do they have anyone to assume responsibility but themselves. The "poor and plain" Jane Eyre is an example of that clear-eyed vision. She engages our imagination in a way that the countless beauties celebrated in novels do not because everything she gains, is earned through strength of her character, diligence, and a focus that dwells on others rather than self.

Perhaps no author created as many memorable orphans as Charles Dickens, who was both traumatized, enlightened, and driven by the time he spent apart from his family when his father was in debtor's prison. From his own trials, he produced David Copperfield, Oliver Twist and Pip from Great Expectations, who lead us through their own harrowing redemptive stories, but also hold up a mirror to those around them and to the society in which they live. Through them, we see humanity at its most exploitive and callous, and we also witness our potential for generosity and compassion. Choose, Dickens tells the reader, just as his Christmas ghosts challenged Scrooge. Who will you become? How will you treat the vulnerable among you?

Not all literary orphans are noble, however. There are also those who are twisted and fatefully embittered by their experience, most notably the villainous Tom Riddle in Harry Potter, and the impossibly romantic, but destructive Heathcliff. Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is another semi-orphan who challenges the myth with her darkly complex character, even as she extends it by dazzling us with her very contemporary "super power" as a hacker and her unflinching courage.

And finally, there is Harry Potter himself, the quintessential hero who makes the quest his own as he navigates the challenges of the magical and emotional words, spins one of the most rich and colorful new families out of a cast of witches and wizards, and saves his world--all while leading millions of readers, young and old, to rediscover the joy of reading. Now that's the power of an orphan.

I know I have left out many, including some of my own favorites. Please feel free to add to the list.

Patry Francis' second novel, The Orphans of Race Point, was published by Harper Perennial on May 6th, 2014. She is also the author of The Liar's Diary, which was recently optioned for film.