You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

My sisters and I are now orphans. We have been fortunate: not many live as long as we have with a parent still vital and active. But the end has finally come.

Except for those who die before their parents, all of us are fated to left orphaned as a result of parental death or abandonment. This, I suspect, is the single most profound emotional, psychological and existential experience that any of us will ever undergo. Regardless of our age, the loss of parents leaves an indelible, ineffaceable imprint on our identity, worldview and emotional landscape.

Psychologically, the loss of our parents, the fracture of our primary attachment bonds, leads inevitably to feelings of abandonment, insecurity and profound grief. This loss can also provoke deep philosophical and existential questions about life, death, meaning and one’s purpose in the absence of familial bonds that provide context and structure to our existence. Emotionally, becoming an orphan is often marked by intense grief and loneliness, as a child, irrespective of age, confronts the absence of parental love, support and guidance.

Many of the great novels of 19th and early 20th century literature—including Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre as well as Anne of Green Gables, Tom Sawyer and The Secret Garden—feature orphans as central characters, exploring themes of orphanhood both literally and metaphorically. Although a small number of earlier works, like Moll Flanders and Tom Jones, featured orphans or abandoned children, it was the emergence of the Romantic ideal of the physically bonded, emotionally intense, inward-turning nuclear family that sparked a heightened interest in orphanhood. This motif was used to examine a wide range of human experiences, including loss, identity, resilience and the search for belonging.

The prevalence of orphans in literature (and in 20th-century Hollywood’s children’s films) can be attributed to several factors, both thematic and pragmatic, that resonate deeply with readers and writers alike. One theme that runs through these works is independence and self-discovery. Precisely because orphans must navigate the world alone, orphanhood provides a powerful narrative framework for exploring themes of independence, self-reliance and the journey toward self-discovery. Characters such as Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë’s novel or Pip in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations embark on quests to define themselves and find their place in the world, unencumbered by parental guidance or support.

Another key theme involves fragility and resilience. Orphanhood inherently involves vulnerability, loss and often trauma. Literature explores how characters cope with these challenges, showcasing their resilience in the face of adversity. Oliver Twist exemplifies the resilience of an orphan struggling against exploitation and hardship.

Social critique and empathy are other key themes that run through these novels. Orphan characters allow authors to criticize societal norms, particularly concerning class, social mobility and the treatment of the vulnerable. The struggles of orphans can elicit readers’ empathy, drawing attention to issues of social justice. Dickens, in particular, used orphaned characters to highlight the plight of the poor and Victorian society’s flaws.

Then, too, orphanhood allows novelists to explore and expound upon the concepts of freedom and adventure. Untethered by familial duties or expectations, orphans in literature possess a unique freedom to embark on adventures. This freedom allows novelists to explore such themes as destiny, fate and the pursuit of one’s personal goals while questioning societal norms.

There are many reasons for the prevalence of orphans, especially in the 19th-century English-language novel. Orphan characters provide writers with a high degree of narrative flexibility. Freed from the constraints of a family setting, these characters can be placed in a wide variety of situations.

Orphanhood also touches on the human experience of loss and the search for identity and belonging. The absence of parents forces orphan characters to rely on themselves and others outside traditional family structures, offering rich opportunities for character development and dynamic relationships with other characters.

Perhaps most importantly, orphanhood serves as a powerful metaphor for alienation, loneliness and the quest for meaning in a seemingly indifferent world. It allows for the exploration of key philosophical and existential themes, including the essence of being, the search for meaning and the construction of identity.

Orphans in literature frequently grapple with questions of who they are and where they fit in. This search for identity is the quintessential existential quest, reflecting broader human concerns about the nature of the self and how identity is shaped by circumstances, relationships and personal choices.

The experience of being an orphan also embodies the existential theme of isolation, highlighting the individual’s fundamental aloneness in the universe. But orphans can, in addition, symbolize freedom, unconstrained by family. This freedom, however, comes with the responsibility of self-definition and making choices in a callous, heartless and unfeeling world. The narrative arcs of the novels of orphanhood frequently center the tension between freedom and solitude and the desire for connection and belonging.

Then, there’s the existential theme of resilience amid harsh and arbitrary circumstances. An orphan’s resilience in the face of absurdity can prompt readers to reflect on how individuals find meaning and continue to strive in a world that seems random and uncaring.

I might add that orphans in literature frequently face moral and ethical dilemmas that force them to develop their own sense of right and wrong, independent of societal norms. This theme reflects the idea that individuals must create their own values and meanings in a world without inherent moral precepts or fixed ethical frameworks.

Then, too, the journey of orphans often involves the search for happiness, fulfillment and purpose in the face of adversity in a cold, unresponsive world. A great challenge facing these characters is to overcome feelings of disorientation, confusion and even despair and lead a life of passion and purpose despite the lack of external support.

Many of these literary works also reflect on the role of suffering and struggle in personal growth and the existential importance of relationships in defining oneself and finding meaning in life. In addition, these literary works often delve into the tension between existential freedom—the idea that individuals are free to make their own choices—and determinism, the concept that their paths are shaped by external factors and past events.

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is not about orphanhood in the literal sense of a child losing or being abandoned by a parent. But metaphorically it speaks to the theme of orphanhood and how individuals navigate a world that is as unforgiving and inscrutable as the sea that surrounds them.

The novel’s very first phrase, “Call me Ishmael,” suggests the protagonist’s orphan-like status. In the Old Testament, you’ll perhaps recall, Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, Abraham’s concubine, are banished into the desert after Sarah, the wife of Abraham, the first Hebrew patriarch, conceives a son of her own, Isaac. In the Jewish and Christian traditions (but not their Islamic counterpart), Ishmael symbolizes exclusion and rejection in a vast, indifferent universe.

Ishmael’s voyage on the Pequod—the whaling ship named for the Indigenous people who were nearly exterminated by New Englanders and their allies in the 1630s—can be seen as an attempt to find belonging or purpose in a world from which he feels disconnected and estranged. His philosophical musings throughout the novel often touch on themes of alienation, the quest for connection and the potentially catastrophic results of humanity’s quest to dominate and exploit the natural world.

The Pequod’s crew, a microcosm of society consisting of men from diverse national, racial and cultural backgrounds, can also be seen as a collection of orphans. Their shared mission provides a temporary family and purpose, albeit one driven by Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal quest for revenge against the white whale that maimed him. In the Talmudic tradition, Ahab, Israel’s seventh king, symbolizes greed, injustice, wickedness and moral failure. He is infamous for his idolatry, his promotion of the worship of the Canaanite deity Baal, violating the First Commandment, persecuting and murdering biblical prophets, rejecting the covenant with God, and leading the Israelites astray.

Ahab’s obsession with Moby-Dick can be interpreted as pursuing a form of existential revenge against the universe that has, in his view, orphaned him and left him suffering, isolated and alone. The novel’s climax and tragic end highlight the futility of Ahab’s quest and, by extension, the human struggle against an indifferent nature. It underscores humanity’s existential orphanhood, adrift in a universe where meaning is elusive and connections are fragile.

In Moby-Dick orphanhood is thus more than the loss of parents; it’s a metaphor for the human condition—our isolation, our search for meaning and connection and our desire to find or create a place in the world. Melville uses the narrative of Ahab’s revenge against Moby-Dick to explore deeper philosophical questions about humanity’s place in the universe and the ways in which we cope with the fundamental orphanhood of existence.

The novel’s epilogue underscores this theme. Tossed into the sea, Ishmael is drawn toward “the closing vortex” but succeeds in grabbing hold of a coffin. Its buoyancy keeps him afloat for two days before a sail draws nearer and he is rescued. The book concludes, “It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children,” her own lost sailors, “only found another orphan.”

Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus reportedly told his disciples (in John 14:18), “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” As he prepares his disciples for his death, resurrection and ascension to heaven, he offers words of comfort, assuring them that they will not be left alone or helpless. He pledges them his ongoing spiritual presence, love, guidance and care.

For those who aren’t Christian, without the assurance of a continuing presence and reunion in an afterlife, memory offers the only way to preserve a parent’s presence. We must, then, follow the example of those 19th-century literary orphans. As you and I, too, are left orphaned, it is essential that we seek out human connection, identity, understanding and purpose in the face of that vast, unknowable sea that is life.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational and Equitable Experience.

Next Story

Written By

More from Higher Ed Gamma