From Oliver Twist to Harry Potter, the orphan transcends eras

Because this is the moment where never to plunge back into the insight and inventiveness of the great writers who preceded us, The duty intends to revisit, in the coming weeks, the great symbols and the great literary figures that have contributed to the construction of our collective imagination.

In the vast world of literature, parents are a rare commodity. Popular folklore is filled with children left on their own to navigate the world, confront the forces of evil, violence and corruption, and make their way to adulthood and self-discovery.

No wonder the orphan – a figure who represents a range of possibilities and is, in essence, detached from established conventions – has been exploited by the greatest authors in history. Some of these characters are so striking that the mere mention of their names – Oliver Twist, Tom Sawyer, Anne Shirley, Jane Eyre, Harry Potter – provokes an influx of memories in the reader.

“I think this fascination comes from the desire to be free from our parents, to write our own history,” says the writer Heather O’Neill, who notably brilliantly recovered the figure in his novel Lonely Hearts Hotel.

“For me who grew up in a violent and neglectful environment, orphans have always been guides since they educated themselves and created like me their own value system. Maybe we all have to consider ourselves orphans at some point if we really want to become ourselves and get out of the negative cycles in which we are raised. “

A universal figure

While most recurring literary figures evolve according to era, customs and beliefs, the figure of the orphan seems rather to transcend eras and cultures. While most of the story characters represent an intangible strangeness, everyone can recognize themselves in the questions inherent in a growing child.

“Since the emergence of the novel as a genre, at the very beginning of the XVIIIe century, the hero is often a character who starts from nothing to become someone, says John Mullan, professor of literature at University College London. In the initiatory tales, this quest manifests itself in the transition from childhood to adulthood. This type of story seems to have universal appeal, and is found in most languages ​​and cultures. And the orphan is the ideal representative, since it is really difficult to have extraordinary adventures when our parents are there to watch us. “

The orphan in a way represents our desire to belong, to establish our legitimacy, to find a home, a family, some form of recognition. It is, in a way, the emblem of everyone’s isolation in society, of this eternal comparison which forces them to regroup and demonize differences.

“Orphans don’t even belong to the most basic group, the family unit, and in some cultures, that’s enough to cut them off from society in general,” wrote Melanie A. Kimball, professor at Simmons University, in a dissertation. published on the Semantics Scholars website. They are always considered to be different. They are the eternal Other. A tangible reflection of the fear of abandonment that all humans feel, they remind us in a way that no one is safe from loneliness. “

Exposing prejudices

However, the orphan himself needs the other to ensure his survival, and is therefore without judgment. Like Oliver Twist, who forges his own family by befriending nefarious characters without ever losing his good heart and intelligence, “the orphan must find heroes and allies in environments where an adult would assume that there are none, exposing the biases that limit our interactions with the world, “says Heather O’Neill.

While traditional heroes are often endowed with superpowers which attribute them indisputable advantages, abandoned children find their strength within themselves, in their will, their resourcefulness, their naivety which often hides a tiny kindness.

Neglect often creates irreparable injuries. Orphan heroes transform sadness into hope, emptiness into stories. Anne Shirley, in her house with green gables, turns everyday life into poetry that keeps her alive. Little Mary Lennox, in The secret garden, gives hope to all the inhabitants of the dismal mansion where it was gathered by restoring its colors to an abandoned garden.

“Orphans are a manifestation of loneliness, but they also symbolize the possibility for humans to reinvent themselves,” says Melanie A. Kimball. They start from scratch since they have no parents to influence them, neither on the side of good nor on the side of evil. Whatever the current situation, they embody the hope that [la vie] may change for the better. When orphans succeed against all odds, their success becomes ours. Like them, we can overcome obstacles and succeed. “



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