Orphans: the Superheroes of a Romantic Culture, part 2

Orphans: the Superheroes of a Romantic Culture, part 2 February 20, 2017

All human beings secretly wish they could be orphans.

An absurd statement?  However improbable it might initially appear, if like Superman you were to come to earth from another planet, you would certainly be forgiven for drawing that conclusion.

It would be hard to do otherwise if you were to scan the fiction written since the early nineteenth century.  You would have to conclude that orphans – like Superman – are our idols.

Before I substantiate the point, we should note that the idealization of the orphan is part of a broader cultural change.  In Romantic literature, there is an astonishing shift in attention from the lives of adults to the lives of children.

The popular explanation for it is risible.  Children, we are told, were previously seen as miniature adults, and children were only appreciated for who they are when humanitarian-minded individuals arose around the time of the French Revolution.  The only historical basis for the statement I can see is in the failure to understand that medieval artists were not interested in naturalistic portraits of the infant Jesus.  He looked like a miniature adult.

Yet there can be no dispute that children become central to the Romantic worldview, and that it was unprecedented.  ‘The child is the father of the man’, declared the great Romantic poet Wordsworth, in his rejection of the past, and all the benefits of inherited culture and of maturity that would chiefly come from listening to his parents:

Thou best philosopher, who yet dost keep
Thy heritage, thou eye among the blind,
That, deaf and silent, read’st the eternal deep,
Haunted for ever by the eternal mind,—
        Mighty prophet! Seer blest!  115
        On whom those truths do rest,
Which we are toiling all our lives to find


More central and more striking than this faith in the child’s wisdom over that of the mature adult is the Romantic focus upon the orphan, on a child without parents.

This isn’t only a mark of children’s literature.  It marks adult fiction as well.  The list of heroic orphans in the fiction of the modern democratic societies of the West is so long and comprehensive that it would be far easier to list the few child heroes with parents, or the few adults who were not orphaned.

The list of famous orphans would include among many others the Byronic hero; the Brontë sisters’ most famous characters, i.e. Heathcliff and Jane Eyre; a character in every Dickens’ novel; Victor Hugo’s Esmerelda and Quasimodo; Huckleberry Finn; Anne of Green Gables; James Bond; Tarzan; the central protagonists of Walt Disney cartoons; comic book superheroes ranging from the members of the ‘Justice League’ to the X-men; Frodo Baggins; and even Harry Potter.

Such consistent type casting of our best-loved fictional heroes cannot be dismissed as mere accident.  Nor can their endurance for centuries be simply attributed to a wish to imitate the pattern of success of a popular book, or a comprehensive failure among our best writers to imagine alternatives.  Their enduring popularity merely begs the question: what is it that makes the orphan such an appealing and credible figure?

We might suggest that the large numbers of men who died in the two World Wars made fatherlessness a more common phenomenon than in the past.  People could identify with orphans.  But this hardly seems sufficient to explain the duration of the phenomenon.

To solve the dilemma, we will have to probe a bit further.

The Narrative Shift from Action to Psychology

Along with this shift in attention to the lives of children rather than adults, we should also notice another in the period: the shift from attention upon external action to attend to the feelings of the protagonists that the poet Wordsworth made central to his ‘poetic experiment’.  In fact, if plot and character were historically accounted to be the two most significant features of any story, we would have to say that the shift is not only to psychology, but to child psychology.

And it is the characterless character of the child that most appeals to the Romantic mind.

Now, in normal circumstances we would hardly admire someone with no character, let alone wish to be described so ourselves.  But if natural innocence is attributed revolutionary and transformative power, and if, furthermore, it is marked as a path that decisively breaks with the evils of society (and its historic representations of adult virtue and character), then we might imagine how an unformed ‘childish’ character might be highly desirable.

And no character type more naturally escapes the corruption of the world and attains the super power of a natural supernaturalism than someone who has been unmarked by the influence of adults: the orphan. He is compelled to be self-reliant, and succeeds because of it.

The orphan’s enduring appeal to his audience is that he embodies the ideal of the Enlightenment. The orphan does what the great philosopher Kant challenges all enlightened people to do: escape the self-imposed tutelage to the past.

Discover for yourself who you are.  Be yourself.

Sapere aude.  Dare to know.

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