The Literary Phenomenon of Parentless Children

Have you ever stopped to consider how many child heroes and heroines from childhood stories (past and present) were either orphaned, abandoned, or raised by only one or the other of a parental unit?  It’s an enormous theme.  My roommate and I compiled an off-the-top-of-our-heads list via text one day and it’s crazy, really, to think how many of the children from the stories that shaped my life didn’t come from two-parent homes.

The Orphaned or Single Parent Child Hero List:

Alice in Wonderland / Alice Through the Looking Glass
Nancy Drew series
Dorrie the Little Witch
Half Magic / Magic by the Lake
Anne of Green Gables
The Wizard of Oz series
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory / James and the Giant Peach / The Witches
The Harry Potter series
Oliver Twist
David Copperfield
Charlotte’s Web (Wilbur, not Fern)
A Wrinkle in Time
The Secret Garden
A Little Princess
Great Expectations
What Katy Did

Disney, of course, is so rife with this phenomenon that it requires its own list.  Though when you think about it Disney isn’t truly to blame since almost all its stories come from fairy tales, books, or myths.  Still... here’s the Disney version of the list:

Aladdin and Jasmine from Aladdin
Ariel from The Little Mermaid
Mowgli from The Jungle Book
Snow White from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
Belle and Chip from Beauty and the Beast

Oliver from Oliver and Company
Prince Philip from Sleeping Beauty
Peter Pan and the Lost Boys from Peter Pan
Toulouse, Marie, and Berlioz from The Aristocats
Tarzan and Jane from Tarzan
Lilo from Lilo and Stitch

Why is this?  

My roommate noted, quite rightly, that “a child who has suffered loss immediately gets our sympathy” and further added that parentless children “have a void that needs filling and a deep curiosity to figure out who they are without the guidance of a parent.  They have a freedom that we as young readers crave.”  Never has the freedom issue been so evident as in Nancy Drew wherein Nancy, at eighteen years of age, prowls America (or the globe, even) in her Mustang convertible getting in and out of scrapes while solving mysteries without any objections from her attorney father Carson Drew because he is very busy either working or fobbing off aspects of his cases that involve bizarre mysteries to his teen daughter to look into.  There is definitely something about the absence of parent that makes the narrative much easier to propel forward.  Not only are these parentless children often unsupervised but they’re spunky, driven, curious, sometimes rebellious.  They are unafraid to open the door to see what’s behind it partly because they’ve already suffered the worst a child can suffer - the loss of one or more parents - and partly because there’s nobody around to tell them it could go badly if they do open it.  That sense of loss is also a keen part of the trope.  These kids seemingly have less to fear because of the fear they’ve already endured.  The security and sense of belonging that comes from being ensconced in the protective circle of a two-parent family is void if the young hero/heroine first endures the shattering loss of one of those parents.  And yet it isn’t that they fear less, it’s that they’ve already stared down the fear and understood its depths.  They know what lies at the end of the fear.  So it either makes them unceasingly curious and bold (Alice in her Wonderland) or withdrawn and guilt-ridden (Simba in The Lion King).  Either way much can be done, narratively speaking, with that sort of motivation.  The reader is already deeply sympathetic to the child and now gets to live through adventures they wouldn’t be permitted to embark on by stepping into the child character’s shoes.

I understand the motivation.  It’s narratively sound.  After all, children are meant to be protected.  And properly guarded and raised children really shouldn’t be able to tumble down rabbit holes or magic themselves onto a pirate island or run away with giant bugs, etc.  Where’s the fun in that?  Children dream of doing these things all the time so why shouldn’t books and films show them what it would be like?  Why not indeed?  I certainly am not of the opinion that our fantasy needs to strictly echo our reality on every level.  Fantasy and fiction should be an escape.  

And yet... there is also something awful about continually dealing with the parent issue at all by killing one or more of them off.  Why can’t the adventure happen without the necessary explanation that the child hero is an orphan?  Why can’t the adventure just happen without mention of the parents at all and let us, the reader, believe that the parents are around but simply not involved with this particular event?  Even better, why not write the child hero as having two loving and involved parents (either or both genders) who simply allow their child the freedom to find their own way?  In some ways it’s lazy to write the parents out of the equation.  It’s easier to have an abandoned child getting into scrapes and as readers we really want that child to succeed, certainly, but what message does that send?  That you must suffer a great loss - perhaps the greatest loss possible in a young life - in order to achieve greatness?  Loss does shape you and define you.  Suffering does school you.  But there is equal value in writing children who are able to define themselves in spite of safety.  Child heroes who embark on adventure and follow dreams and achieve greatness because they choose to, because they find inner strength and are encouraged by family.  Learning to become your true and best self in spite of security is a harder ask and a harder narrative to write but a necessary story to tell.  

I mean let’s not forget that The Incredibles adventured together as a family and they were each superheroes in their own right.  The Pevensie children had two parents that loved them enough to send them away for their own safety during the war; to a vast home full of eccentric curiosities where they found their way into Narnia.  And Hermione Granger had two Muggle parents who were sensible enough to recognize their daughter’s talents and let her go to Hogwart’s.  A lot can be achieved with the proper support.


- Corinne Simpson