Why Are So Many Protagonists Orphans?

1800s Edition

Okay, I’ll admit that not all  protagonists are orphans, but I’ve seen a suspicious number of them, particularly in romantic literature from the 1800s.  Let’s take some famous examples here:

Jane Eyre and Edward Rochester: Orphan

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No, Jane, we’re not mocking you.  You can’t help that your parents are gone. (Charlotte Bronte could have, but she didn’t.)

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Um, maybe this is why he is so unhealthily fixated on Jane.  Plus, I bet if he still had parents he wouldn’t have tried to marry Jane when he had a crazy wife in the attic.

Jack, Algernon, and Celia (Basically all the main characters in the Importance of Being Earnest excepting Gwendolin): Orphans

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Maybe Algernon wouldn’t have to eat his feelings if he had his parents. (Ahm, Oscar Wilde?)

Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights): Orphan

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Maybe he would have been more happy and less crazy if he had his parents.  Not to mention less clingy.  (Blame Emily Bronte for your agony, Heathcliff, and maybe see if you can find Rochester and plot to destroy the sisters who destroyed your chance at happiness.)

Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Pride and Prejudice): Orphan

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As I mentioned in a previous post, I love Darcy, but that fellow does have his issues. He’s proud (I know, I know, it’s in the title).  He’s a bit of a snob.  He really sucks at discussing his feelings.  And he doesn’t seem to realize that standing in the rain can cause a cold.  I’m guessing if his parents were still alive they would have pressured him into resolving at least one of these problems.

Nicholas Nickleby (Nicholas Nickleby): 1/2 Orphan

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I know he’s not a complete orphan, but I think he deserves a mention all the same, because his mother isn’t the most sensible of women.  Sure, he’s a good fellow, but really?  life would have been much easier if he still had his father.  No crazy boarding schools, no sexually harassed sister, no evil uncle in charge of his fate.  Blame Dickens!!! (Who, by the way, orphaned plenty of his other characters.)

Dracula (Dracula): Orphan

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Admittedly this is pure supposition on my part.  I have no idea if Dracula’s parents are alive, but it seems likely that they are deceased (or undead, which I think still qualifies.)  Should Dracula’s parents still be alive, I’m fairly certain they would disapprove of his blood-sucking ways.  “Maybe you should take up a hobby,” his mom would suggest, her brow furrowing in concern, “Like knitting.  Something to occupy your free time.”

And these are just a few of the examples.  Admittedly, I didn’t major in literature from the 1800s, so my opinion could be skewed: maybe only the most famous works of the time had orphans in them.

But what is the reason for this extraordinarily high parent mortality rate?  It could be the culture of the times.  It could be that orphans typically just have more interesting stories.  Or it could be that the authors just were in a really bad mood and wanted to kill people on the page.  What do you think?

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6 thoughts on “Why Are So Many Protagonists Orphans?

  1. Actually it is also pushed around in the modern times and has been on my mind for a while too. It seems like authors are basing some characteristics on the fact that their protagonist is an orphan. (Harry Potter, wasn’t Frodo also an orphan? That assassin in Maas’ books, whatshername…)

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    • Yes! I’m wondering if it’s just easier to not have parents involved to try to stop people from doing all of the dangerous/illogical things that protagonists tend to do so well. Also, the lack of supportive parents means that it’s easier for them to feel like there is nothing for them to lose/ that they have no other options. It seems like parents tend to either be completely absent (abandoned their children or are dead) or so bad at being parents that the hero would often be better off as an orphan (abusive, manipulative, etc..)

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  2. Well one thing with Edwardian/Victorian (etc) novels is that the father has to be dead in order to the male to inherit the money. So Darcy wouldn’t have been as rich if his father were alive. Same with Rochester. The reason that Elizabeth has a father in Pride and Prejudice is because she would be pretty much destitute if he died since the estate is entailed to her cousin. So I think that is part of it.

    In the case of other orphans, I think the plot device allows for them to be unprotected and unloved in the world hence setting up a major conflict involving danger or abuse (Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, Annie etc). In Gothic novels for example, most of the protagonists lack fathers because the heroines are then unprotected and put into dangerous situations or kidnapped by nefarious men.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like your take on it, and I tend to agree. Life (and novels) are always more interesting when there is a strong possibility of being kidnapped by nefarious men. My only scruple is when the author piles on the external conflicts to a comical extent and then tries to pull it off as completely serious: the mother died, the father died, the twin sister was abducted by the circus, the horse broke all four of his legs while the cow ran off, and the only bandits in the area stole the last of the milk and the half-dead barn-cat.

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  3. Bit random but I met Anthony Horowitz once and he said that in YA parents ruin all the fun, so they have to be gotten rid of as soon as possible- that’s why he killed most of them off. Maybe 19th century authors had the same idea? If the parents are there protecting their children then as a writer you won’t be able to make those children suffer (not for sadistic reasons of course :p )

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  4. Pingback: What I’ve Learned From Reading Historical Fiction | Evelynn Grace

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