Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Urban Fantasy and the Orphan

I am curious as to what can be said about the necessity to remove familial ties from protagonists within the novels we have read thus far. Is the "orphan" a trope that extends back to Victorian writing in which we see a literature interested in the future as it relates to the development of the Child?

The following passage is an excerpt from an article I am working on at the moment. The article relates to George Orwell's 1984 which I see as reaffirming the place of the Child in literature and society (a reaction to the isolation and familial death that is common to Modernist fiction).

Much of Victorian fiction relies on the introduction and development of the orphan—this statement is not meant to over stereotype or diminish the scope of Victorian fiction, but rather, it reflects on a common plot theme and choice of protagonist—Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Great Expectations and George Eliot’s Middlemarch are examples of this tradition. The opening to Dickens’ Great Expectations sets the stage for the further development of the novel around the Child: “I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister—Mrs Joey Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them . . . my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones” (Dickens 35). Through this passage Dickens establishes the scenario whereby the development of the novel and, by extension, the development of society and the nation depends on the rearing of Pip. Dickens first connects Pip to his parents through naming and imaginary exploration. Pip is then provided a home, care and a benefactor, Magwitch, who calls himself “[his] second father” (337), which will allow him to grow and develop.

In this manner, Dickens establishes a template for English society. Pip is simultaneously no one’s child and every child. His childish mispronunciation of his last name is both an effort to stake claim to a familial line as it is a means of forging an individual identity. Dickens’ use of Pip as a main protagonist serves as a means to evoke sympathy in his audience such that his social advice is more easily accepted. Pip’s story becomes an affirmation of what a responsible society can do to ensure the future of the nation state, for Britain was plagued by “thousands of orphans and other unparented children [who] existed on the fringes of society, where they were at once more pathetic and more of a threat to social stability than children in even the poorest of families” (Banerjee). Great Expectations, borrowing from Banerjee’s formulation, functions as a conservative political piece, in which “guiding them [the Child] safely into the social fold was a brilliant way to reaffirm Christian, family and national values.” Thus the implicit value system of Dickens’ novel reaffirms the responsibility and duty inherent in a society with designs toward the future. The future is placed in the hands of the Child. Those that attempt to thwart the Child—Miss Havisham’s desire to separate Pip from Estella and therefore the biological implications of their union—threaten the stability of future meaning. Dickens craftily demonstrates what should become of those that interfere with the Child when Miss Havisham sorrowfully atones for her actions, and in doing so he cautiously warns others who choose to similarly interfere.


The orphan theme in urban fantasy appears to both follow, extend, and subvert the aesthetic that pervades Victorian and Orwellian fiction. We see Richard interested in destroying signification by reentering London Below; both Rachel and Pete possess a desire to forge an identity that is simultaneously drawn through a social lens that compares these figures to their fathers. Should we read urban fantasy as hodge-podge, willing to cull from literary archetypes all the while bending these types to make statements about the nature of identity and futurity? Are the removal of parents and society from working as a parent conditions that are in turn desirable within the scope of these works? Or are these works, in showing what happens to the orphan, expressing a more conservative value system?

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