- Ann of Green Gables
- Emily of New Moon
- Sarah Crewe
- Mary Lennox
What do all of these famous orphans have in common? They all bring redemption to the families that bring them into their homes. The trope of orphan as redeemer seems to have been a late Victorian sentiment, and it seems to be specifically attributed to girls. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, in large part because the role of girls in YA and children’s literature has definitely changed. In modern-day YA, the protagonist is often the hero and the love interest, but bringing redemption to a family is no longer one of her roles.
Take a look at the most famous orphan in the world — Anne of Green Gables. Adopted by mistake by Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, she is almost returned to the orphanage but Marilla has a change of heart, and Anne stays. She softens Marilla’s heart and brings shy Matthew out of his shell. She makes a bosom friend of the pragmatic Diana, and over the course of several books she enlivens the small town of Avonlea as it embraces her for her romantic and generous nature and her good sense. Even crusty Mrs. Lynde, who warns Marilla that an orphan will poison the well or set fire to the house, warms so thoroughly to Anne that they become good friends, and Mrs. Lynde becomes one of her staunchest supporters.
Anne is not alone; L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon has a similar arc. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s famous novels, A Little Princess and The Secret Garden, feature Sarah Crewe and Mary Lennox, who save everyone around them. Mary even helps a crippled boy walk. The Secret Garden is interesting in that the character of Dickon is actually quite a redeemer himself. He is almost a magical creature and he helps bring about Mary’s transformation from a spoiled brat to an open, happy child. What? A boy in a helper role? Astounding.
Contrast that with the orphan boy; Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, Oliver Twist, and more recently Harry Potter have adventures but don’t have the same softening effect on the characters around them. Harry Potter saves the world, but he doesn’t redeem it. In Oliver Twist, Fagin remains Fagin, the Artful Dodger remains the Dodger, Bill Sykes will never not kill Nancy, and Nancy herself is sweet and good without Oliver Twist to do anything to bring it out. Even when Oliver Twist finds his family, they are ready made to accept him.
As for Huck, he lights out for the territory, the eternal boy. (Hmmm. I wonder what ever happened to Huck Finn?)
Part of what made me think about the orphan girl is a conversation on Facebook with author Beth Bernobich about Fanny Price of Mansfield Park. Fanny isn’t an orphan, though she has been sent to live with relatives. As was commonly done in Jane Austen’s era, in the event a family had many children and too few resources, a child might be sent to live with wealthier relatives, and even adopted by them, as was the case with Austen’s own brother.
Does Fanny redeem her wealthy relatives? Hardly. She follows that other orphan trope, that of Cinderella (or Cinderjack, in the case of boy orphans). I wonder what would have happened to a Fanny Price in the hands of L.M. Montgomery or Frances Hodgson Burnett? For one thing, she would have been less of a drip and more assertive and positive, surely. But Austen was doing something different with Mansfield Park. I believe that novel is not really about Fanny at all, and more about a sharp-eyed novelist’s look at the hypocrisies of her society.
While this is just a brief overview about the redeemer character, I think it’s very interesting that this particular character doesn’t tend to show up as much in modern YA. It’s always fun to play around with and invert stereotypes; will modern readers accept a boy orphan as redeemer?
Help me out here; can anyone think of other characters in the “orphan girl (or boy) as redeemer” vein?