Adds Nel: “Another function of the orphan story may be to allow the child reader to think about growing up. That is, an orphan is prematurely separated from his or her family, but we all have to leave home eventually. In this sense, perhaps literary orphans offer a sneak preview of the excitement and anxiety of growing up and leaving home.”
Of course, orphan stories generally have the greatest traction during the hardest economic times. That’s why dimpled mop-top Shirley Temple sold so many movie tickets during the Depression-era 1930s. In a new epoch of financial upheaval, we’re likely to go on embracing any number of fresh heart-tuggers about struggling waifs. We’ve come a long way from the comforting image of a cute little girl vanquishing fear by singing about animal crackers in her soup. But in dark days, we’re still yearning for the same essential comfort food: The sight of boys and girls alone in the world, like Harry Potter, finding a way to help themselves while we eat popcorn.
In general, it seems to me that a shift takes place from roughly the 1850s to the 1950s. The most common figures of the orphan on the earlier end of that spectrum are redeemed, virtuous, happy orphans, while on the later end abused, traumatized and wasted orphans dominate. Even though the prototypes for the more dismal orphan stories were definitely around in the nineteenth century, they start to really proliferate in the 20th century–I’d say, because 20th-century Americans had fewer intellectual and narrative resources for imagining how private life might successfully compensate for extreme poverty. What happens after the mid 20th century is the harder question to answer and the one I am trying to answer in my book as a whole.