Orphans in the Literary Tradition

by T. Ritchie

Harry is the latest in a long line of literary orphans. The line is so long, in fact, that it has almost become a cliché — all we need to do is look at the most popular fairy tales to see the tradition. Snow White’’s father is strangely absent and her mother is dead; Cinderella is the same; Rapunzel is the ward of a witch. The list goes on and on. While this lack of parents is more obvious with female characters, it is equally true for the boys: consider perhaps the Beast from Beauty and the Beast, who is cursed without the least parental intervention. The Potterverse is extremely well developed and complex, so it’s impossible to map it exactly onto any one fairy tale, but this one element sets Harry firmly among the fairy tale heroes.

So, why all this parental death and absence? Very simply, an orphan has what other children do not — they have autonomy. While they may be directionless or more vulnerable than others, it is their very lack of parental guidance that causes most of their adventures, making them extremely convenient protagonists. Often, our orphans live with step-families or with vicious or vindictive guardians. The wicked stepmother is a perennial. They are under attack. However, this is where the autonomy is important. An ordinary child would run to their parents for support, but the orphan must think and act for himself. More often than not, he acts rashly or without planning and ends up (for example) blowing up his aunt and running away.

At the beginning of Goblet of Fire, Harry awakes with his scar hurting and one of his first instincts is to seek the guidance of a parent. All the help he is used to receiving is from Ron and Hermione and his imaginings of their responses is accurate and entirely useless. For the first three books, the only parental figures are the Dursleys and Dumbledore and, to a lesser extent, McGonagall. Suddenly, in book four, we have Sirius Black, the fairy godfather. It is fully in keeping with tradition for Sirius to come to Harry’’s aid, warning him about Karkaroff, telling Dumbledore about his scar hurting and giving him one half of a set of magic mirrors through which to communicate. Harry might not always heed or like his advice, but he comes to depend upon him for it.

At the end of book five, Harry is again abandoned entirely. There are those he can turn to, but none of them are quite right. This happens just as he finally learns his “quest,” the prophesy about himself and Voldemort. At this point, Harry must shoulder his burden absolutely alone and it is then that his status as an orphan becomes most important. Though he receives input from those around him, he can, if he so chooses, ignore it. There is no absolute power in his life to whom he is ultimately beholden. Like Jack (and the Beanstalk, who has only an ineffectual mother), Harry must make his own decisions and, ultimately, slay the monster and seize his future.

We can see Harry in other orphans from literature. Possibly the most famous pre-Potter orphan was Jane Eyre (Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, published 1847) and she and Harry share some striking similarities. Jane is also skinny and small, is raised by her awful Aunt Reed, the wife of her dead mother’’s brother, in a luxurious but oppressive home, and is bullied by her terrible cousins. She is subject to the sort of vitriol that Harry endures from his Aunt Marge and it is only when she is sent away to school that she can escape. Unlike Hogwarts, Lowood is not a sanctuary but another horrific trial, but it teaches Jane to cope and introduces her to characters who, like Dumbledore, are both wise and concerned for her welfare.

The Harry Potter series, as a whole, can be considered a Bildungsroman, in much the same way as Jane Eyre; our hero goes out into the world and faces many challenges, which they must conquer with their own wits and courage. Like Harry, Jane comes into her true strength when she is called upon to teach and it is through this activity that she is made aware of her equality — even superiority — to those around her. It is this self-awareness and strength that allow her to be her own guide when the story climaxes, just as Harry trusts his own senses (in book five, erroneously) and is able to face any number of challenges. They are both able to make moral decisions, without reference to any higher authority than themselves.

Harry has never had any strong, moral guidance. We can only assume he has learned his values from pitting himself against everything that the Dursleys stand for, or inherited them from his mother’s sacrifice and holds them innately. He idealises his parents, even mistakes himself for his father in Prisoner of Azkaban, and when James and Sirius are shown to be less than this ideal (“Snape’’s Worst Memory”), Harry’’s recklessness reaches a whole new level. It is essential to Harry’’s sense of self, as well as his moral compass, that his parents be good people, rather than the freaks and deviants his aunt and uncle portray them to be.

The reader must not forget that the moral compass might have swung the other way. How realistic is it for us, outside of fiction, to imagine someone growing up in such an abusive environment as Privet Drive and still managing to be a decent young man? Surely it is far more likely that an unwanted orphan would turn out exactly the opposite way, as the series’’ other orphan, Tom Riddle, did? We are reminded frequently of the similarities between Harry and Tom. Therefore, Dumbledore’’s words become the most central and important theme in the entire series:

“It is our choices Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

It is James, far more than Lily, whom Harry seems to yearn for, possibly because he has such a strong maternal figure in Molly Weasley. We see an excellent example of the benefits of Harry’’s orphan status at the beginning of Chamber of Secrets, when Ron receives a severe reprimand for their flying car stunt, while Harry virtually gets away with it. Molly and Sirius fight over their right to care for Harry throughout Order of the Phoenix, and Harry’s impatience with them both shows his reliance on himself and his unwillingness to truly fit into the role of a child. After taking care of himself for 11 years, Harry is reluctant to be coddled, though he is certainly grateful for the acceptance he finds among the Weasleys.

However, we can also see the downside of Harry’’s lack of parental guidance and its effect of making him overly self reliant. Never more painfully than at the end of Order of the Phoenix, when Harry’’s rushed autonomy sends him and his friends directly into Voldemort’s hands. We see this ignorance to the deviousness of others in Snow White, who will take poison from the hands of her stepmother, and in Hansel and Gretel, whose parental neglect leaves them open to the attack of the witch. When left to their own devices, the orphaned child in literature will often make desperately poor decisions. On many occasions — especially the Parseltongue passages in Chamber of Secrets — we can see that things would have been far easier if Harry had simply gone to Dumbledore, spoken up, and received advice.

So, why make Harry an orphan? It’’s clear that the story has benefited both from Harry’s ignorance of wizarding customs and his modesty regarding his fame. The reader is able to relate to him, being a little bewildered and less than perfect and certainly not the best in his year at anything other than Quidditch.

Then why does he make such an ideal hero? Because he charges in: to face Quirrell, the Basilisk, the huge dog (Sirius), Voldemort. In Goblet of Fire, alone, he is forced into positions without his consent, but he rises to the occasion each time. And Harry does this because, unlike his friends, his first reaction is not to consult a book and tell Dumbledore, nor is it to ask his father. The person Harry always turns to first is himself.