On orphans and origins

Marthe Robert says the origin of the novel is the family romance, the Oedipal conflict. Terry Castle says its origin is in orphanhood. Isaacs’ María is an orphan. Orphans are cut off from their origins. Robert says the novel is not about the Foundling but about the Bastard; fairy tales are about foundlings.

If I am going as far back as Marthe Robert, I could use Bersani here too; there are discussions of incest in Astyanax(But note how lackadaisical I am about all of this as I trace literary genealogies; I am riveted when I contextualize this in discussions of race in Latin America. Perhaps this mixture is where the originality in my project will come in.)

In Castle, orphans are the deracinated, and transgressive modern subject. Efraín is orphaned by the end of María, and María is transgressive / comes from elsewhere / is strangely strong and attractive / is from outside the law in some sense, I see darkly. She is also the absence on which Efraín’s identity is built. These tropes are everywhere, it seems.

Orphanhood conceived, that is, in the broadest sense: as a metaphor for modern human experience, as symbol for unhappy consciousness, as emblem of that groundwork — that inaugural experience of metaphysical solitude — that Martin Heidegger deemed necessary for the act of philosophizing. About orphanhood conceived, in other words, as a condition for world-making — as both the sorrow and creative quintessence of life.

And needless to say, these parentless juveniles are usually the heroes or heroines of the books in which they appear. They may be wounded or fey or uncanny (what do we make of the vacant circles that Little Orphan Annie has for eyes?), yet they are also resilient, charismatic, oddly powerful.

Thus the first of two big lit-crit hypotheses I’ll advance here: More than love, sex, courtship, and marriage; more than inheritance, ambition, rivalry, or disgrace; more than hatred, betrayal, revenge, or death, orphanhood—the absence of the parent, the frightening yet galvanizing solitude of the child—may be the defining fixation of the novel as a genre, what one might call its primordial motive or matrix, the conditioning psychic reality out of which the form itself develops.

Now, even though I’ve made a talking point of it, what’s important here is not merely the frequency with which orphaned heroes and heroines appear in fiction since the 18th century. Yes, from Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel onward, the phenomenon has inspired some brilliant commentary. In one of the most profound books on fiction ever written, Adultery in the Novel, Tony Tanner associates the orphan trope with the early novel’s tendency toward diagetic instability—its ambiguous, unsettled “ongoingness” and resistance to closure:

The novel, in its origin, might almost be said to be a transgressive mode, inasmuch as it seemed to break, or mix, or adulterate the existing genre-expectations of the time. It is not for nothing that many of the protagonists of the early English novels are socially displaced or unplaced figures—orphans, prostitutes, adventurers, etc. They thus represent or incarnate a potentially disruptive or socially unstabilized energy that may threaten, directly or implicitly, the organization of society, whether by the indeterminacy of their origin, the uncertainty of the direction in which they will focus their unbonded energy, or their attitude toward the ties that hold society together and that they may choose to slight or break.

Like the Prostitute or Adventurer, the Orphan embodies the new genre’s own picaresque “outlaw” dynamism. Precisely because the 18th-century orphan-hero is usually untried, unprotected, disadvantaged (not to mention misinformed or uninformed about his or her parentage), he or she can function as a sort of textual free radical: as plot-catalyst and story-generator—a mixer-upper of things, whose search for a legitimate identity or place in the world of the fiction at once jump-starts the narrative and tends to shunt it away from didacticism and any predictable or programmatic unfolding of events.

A flagrant example of such jump-starting occurs in Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722). Here it is precisely the eponymous heroine’s putative orphanhood (she knows only that her mother, whom she presumes to be dead, was a thief and gave birth to her in Newgate Prison) that catalyzes, among other scandals, one of the novel’s most titillating (if outlandish) episodes: Moll’s shocking marriage-by-mistake to her own brother. (Only well into their marriage, after she and her brother have several children, will Moll realize that her chatty mother-in-law, his mother, is also her mother—long ago transported to America, but still alive and flourishing.) Defoe purports to moralize in Moll Flandersin his Preface he describes his narrative as free of “Lewd Ideas” and “immodest Turns”—a work “from every part of which something may be learned, and some just and religious inference is drawn.” Yet bizarrely, through some inscrutable narrative magic, the very mystery in which Moll’s birth is shrouded triggers one of the novel’s most perverse and sensational incidents. What on earth are we meant to “learn” from it? Don’t ever get married, in case your spouse is really your long-lost brother or sister?

Freud famously described the “family romance” as the childhood fantasy that one’s parents aren’t, in actuality, one’s real parents—that one was switched in the cradle, left in a basket on the doorstep, found under a cabbage leaf or the like, and that one’s real father and mother are persons of great wealth, beauty, and high station, a king and queen, perhaps, who will someday return to reclaim you and love you in the way you deserve. He thought such fantasies especially likely to develop at the birth of a sibling, when anger at the parents—for introducing a presumably odious rival into the family circle—is at a height. Real parents are disparaged; imagined parents idealized. The scenario in Moll Flanders reads like a sendup of the Freudian romance: almost a spoof on it. It’s not simply that the lost-and-found parent turns out to be disappointingly “trashy.” She’s quite shockingly trashy—sneaky, disingenuous, a terrible old crone with false teeth, sleazier than you even thought possible. But you’re stuck with her, it seems, for life, unless you can find a way to write her back out of your story.

If one wanted to be fancy, one might dub this familial antiromance the “emotional drama of the post-Enlightenment child.” Moll does not cease to be “orphaned” having rediscovered her mother; on the contrary, she abandons her (and the brother-husband), and resumes her solitary adventuring. And while she will re-encounter the brother later—indeed inherit the Virginia plantation he and the mother have established—Moll never sees her mother again. The maternal reappearance alters little or nothing in the heroine’s inner world: Psychologically speaking, Moll is as alone at the end of the fiction as she was when she started. She’s what you might call a self-orphaner, an orphan by default. Evasive, secretive, deeply intransigent—one of life’s permanent orphans.

In the broad, even existential, sense of the term I deploy here, orphanhood is not necessarily reducible to orphanhood in the literal sense. At least metaphorically, virtually any character in the early realist novel might be said to be an orphan—including, paradoxically, many of those heroes and heroines who have a living parent (or two), or end up getting one, as Moll Flanders does. A feeling of intractable loneliness—of absolute moral or spiritual estrangement from the group—may be all that it takes. You don’t need to have been abandoned by a parent in the conventional sense, in other words, to feel psychically bereft.

Indeed, from a certain angle—and thus my second big lit-crit hypothesis—the orphan trope may allegorize a far more disturbing emotional reality in early fiction: a generic insistence on the reactionary (and destructive) nature of parent/child ties. The more one reads, the more one confronts it: Whatever their status in a narrative (alive, dead, absent, present, lost, found), the parental figures in the early English novel are, in toto, so deeply and overwhelmingly flawed—so cruel, lost, ignorant, greedy, compromised, helpless, selfish, morally absent, or tragically oblivious to their children’s needs—one would be better off without them. You might as well be an orphan.

Julia Kristeva remarks somewhere (my wording may not be exact) that “in every bourgeois family group there is one child who has a soul.” And thus we meet them, in novel after novel: not only those who go literally motherless and fatherless, but also the children “with souls” who, for precisely that reason, will be persecuted by their foolish parents or parental stand-ins; ostracized, abused, made to submit to some hellish moral and spiritual reaming-out. Ruthlessly, imperviously, the realistic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries compulsively foreground this “orphaning” of the psyche; shape it into parable, and in so doing (I think) dramatize the painful birth of the modern subject—that radically deracinated being, vital yet alone, who goes undefined by kinship, caste, class, or visible membership in a group.

What to do with the parents who fail us so abysmally? Perhaps the most drastic solution is to imagine a fictional world from which parents have simply been erased—psychically blanked out—absolutely, and long in advance of any narrative unfurling. Charlotte Brontë’s books are a terrifying case in point. They project worlds in which estrangement, loss, and silence about the past seem the precondition for narrative itself. Brontë omits the “back story”—or provides only a fatally impoverished one. Neither of her best-known narrators, Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe, has a living father or mother: Jane’s parents have died of typhus; of Lucy’s we know nothing at all. Both heroines seem to emerge out of, and continually slip back into, an amorphous, staggering, irrevocable loneliness. One senses in their aphasia about the past some suppressed horror. Reading Lucy’s glassy-eyed narrative, in particular, is like listening to someone who’s had a head injury, or suffers from post-traumatic amnesia.

We quickly learn not to expect any answers; some submerged trauma is itself the given, the starting point. Crucial information will never be forthcoming. For these are orphan-tales, drawing us, ineluctably, into a domain of emptiness and pain. Yes, Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe may know their own names—first and last both. (Many fictional orphans don’t.) But, affectively speaking, everything else has gone blank. The system crashed long ago. Not only have they no parent or guardian to point to, they seem to have no idea—emotionally, spiritually—what words like “mother” and “father” might mean.




Filed under Bibliography

2 responses to “On orphans and origins

  1. Z

    Jeg har det, mange tak! Jeg burde maaske skrive et blog post om det!

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