Sunday, 6 December 2015

Orphanhood Explored in Dickens

With death touching everyone in some way or another, no one is immune to the fragilities of life. With war zones spreading throughout the world, it’s almost every day we hear of more lives lost and children left behind, and not forgetting that there are plenty of orphans around the world because of other sad circumstances. The thing is, I didn’t know that you were traditionally also classed as an orphan if one of your parents had died and not just if both had. This discovery only came about through finding the definition on the OED and it also adds that ‘in extended use: [it’s used to describe] an abandoned or neglected child’ too. This surprised me, because when you think of the term, you immediately seem to recall an image of a child left alone, without a family unit and not single-parent families. Looking at this through modern eyes it’s startling to think of how many children would be considered as orphans today.


However, if talking about orphans of war the news mostly focuses upon the tragedy of the deaths and doesn’t follow up with the children’s lives afterwards, literature, and the arts can, through the dramatisation of orphaned characters, give a necessary view into the condition of these children and how they grow up. Thinking of period of literature with plenty of upheaval, the Victorian era springs to mind in regards to orphans too. It was a time full of contradictions as it was ‘characterised as the domestic age par excellence, [and] was epitomised by Queen Victoria, who came to represent a kind of femininity that was centred on the family, motherhood and respectability’ , but it also had homeless children littered on the streets of London for example. The Victorian era had a very large group of people that were not going to fit into those centred ideals easily- these people were part of the prevailing feature of the society, as much as the upper-class families were.


Charles Dickens, an author who is well established in the field of novels that focus on social criticism, wrote numerous novels with orphaned characters within, such as in Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Great Expectations to name a few. In Great Expectations there are two orphans. By having the protagonist as an orphan, Dickens almost forces the readers in an indirect way to sympathise and in having an orphan as the main character. The reader is taken on a journey, no matter how short of their life, as they grow and process their lives. It might be possible to add here, a question as to how many novels are concerned with orphans, especially those with an orphaned protagonist are bildungsroman novels? Are they both always inextricably linked in literature?


Pip Pirrip, the protagonist, is introduced to the reader in a graveyard at the headstone of his father, mother and five infant siblings. Here, it’s easy for the reader to feel sympathetic towards orphanhood. Pip has no idea what the physicalities of his family and in particular his parents were, instead he assumes things about their physical features based on the rigidity of the letters of the names engraved. This shows how unfortunate some children were, and a childlike innocence in death and a somber shadow of the orphan’s life ahead. The words and how they’re written hold meaning, not necessarily the intent behind the words are taken into account by a young Pip, as he cannot remember his parents at all, instead fabricates images based on words. This is the extract, notice how naive Pip sounds and how he distances himself from his feelings whilst trying to recall his parents from his imagination:


                        ‘As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones.


                        ‘The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square stout, dark man, with curly black hair.’ p2, chapter 1


                        ‘From the character and turn of the inscription “Also, Georgiana Wife of the Above”, I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly.’ p2, chapter 1.




                                     Figure 1:Thirteen children's gravestones at St.James' Church, Cooling, supposed inspiration for the opening scene of Great Expectations.

Could this type of inferring of character be ever used in another part of life and seen as having less/or a bit more credibility?

                                     Figure 2: David Lean's 1946 version of Great Expectations  

In Victorian society there was also a conflict over whether orphans could be ‘saved’, as they supposedly had not the same moral compass as those with parents, arguably. This conflict could be seen as appearing in Great Expectations through the character of Miss Havisham, who upon being jilted at the altar and entering a state of mourning and loathing, adopts Estella, an orphaned two year old child (her parents are later to be found out to be Molly and Magwitch). Miss Havisham states to Pip that she at first wanted her to ‘save her from misery like her own’ p802. This misery appears to come from a maternal place at first, but ends up being twisted as Havisham uses Estella to break men’s hearts. This is perhaps showing how orphans might be easier to manipulate due to a lack of love and therefore they would do anything to achieve it. This is also used by Dickens in his other novels where children are manipulated into crime, e.g. Oliver Twist.

Figure 3: Miss Havisham Interrogates Pip and coldly foreshadows
                                      the fate of Estella and Pip.

During the Victorian era orphans were being seen more as needing help outside of fiction, too. Reverend Andrew Reed decided to fund and set up an ‘London Asylum’ in 1813 and others were set to come after. It was created to:


            ‘relieve destitute and orphan children, to afford them clothing and maintenance, to fix habits of industry and frugality, to inculcate the principles of religion and virtue, and to place them out in situations where their morals should not be endangered, and where a prospect of honest livelihood should be secured.’ (Higginbotham, 2013).


Donations were not handed to the Asylum readily at first, but then Queen Victoria’s father, the Duke, saw the work and wanted to become a patron. Instead of being blamed for the ills of society due to being an orphan, and being a kind of nomad and perhaps without morals, they were going to be taught and looked after like they were human and understood. To have the term ‘Asylum’ in the title of these kinds of charities now could have connotations of insanity, which is deemed as negative. Is it fair to have a child put in a kind of place that could connote such images? We would not call the equivalent of a children’s home these days an ‘asylum’, would we? On the other hand, the other definition of an ‘asylum’ is when someone takes refuge in another state that looks after them and protects them from conflict and persecution. Is it fair to apply both of these definitions to an ‘Orphan Asylum’? Is it fair to ‘oppress’ a child based on lack of his/her’s parent(s)?



Reading the struggles of orphanhood as not just separate to the rest of the world, but a culmination  of many different feelings, emotions, thoughts and struggles of life, brings together a new understanding of what it is to be human and to empathise with a part of life that could be foreign to a lot of people. According to Baruch Hochman in his introduction to Dickens: The Orphan Condition, Dickens has ‘both the energy and the figuration [that] his assault upon the evils of his society spring largely from his capacity for not only empathising with the orphan condition, but also for transforming it into an image of the human condition.’ p12. I would say it’s arguable that instead of seeing characters and people as ‘orphans’, instead we see them as ‘human’ with the same complex desires as others.

Works Cited:


"orphan, n. and adj." OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 5 December 2015.

Abrams, Lynn. "Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain." BBC News. BBC, 9 Aug. 2001. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.



Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. IBooks Edition ed. 1867. Print.

Figure 3: BBC. Miss Havisham Interrogates Pip - Great Expectations - BBC One. Youtube, 21 Dec 2011. Web. December 2015.


Higginbotham, Peter. "London Orphan Asylum, East London / Watford, Hertfordshire." The Children's Homes Website -. Web. 6 Dec. 2015.


Hochman, Baruch, and Ilja Wachs. "Introduction." Dickens: The Orphan Condition. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP ;, 1999. Print.


Images cited:

Figure 1: Mckernan, Luke. “The thirteen childrens gravestones at St Jameschurch, Cooling, inspiration for the opening scene of Great Expectations.” June 9, 2013. Web.

Figure 2: Brophy, Gregory. “Pip at gravestone, from David Leans 1946 film adaptation of Great Expectations.” July 2, 2012. Web.




  1. Hi Jodi,

    You made some interesting facts about orphans,I didn't know that many of us today would be classed as an orphan.
    I enjoyed reading you blog.

  2. Heya,

    Just to say that you've really opened my eyes to such a tragic subject matter. Similar to what I've researched about the social injustices in this era, it's horrifying to see what happened to children that have no control in such a world.