ENGL 103 A09: Where the Parents Aren’t

ENGL 103 A09: Where the Parents Aren’t: Orphans and Adoptees in Literature


The theme of orphanhood and adoption has been a recurring motif in literature for centuries. Stories that revolve around orphaned or adopted characters often delve into the complexities of identity belonging, and the search for meaning. course, ENGL 103 A09, explores the representation of orphans and adoptees in literature, examining how these characters navigate their worlds, form relationships, and confront societal expectations. Through the analysis of various texts, we will gain a deeper understanding of the ways in which orphanhood and adoption are used as powerful literary devices to explore themes such as isolation, resilience, and the nature of family.

I. The Concept of Orphanhood in Literature

A. The Orphan as a Symbol

The orphan figure in literature is frequently employed as a symbol for the outsider, the marginalized, or the disenfranchised. Orphans often lack the protective shelter of a family and must navigate the world on their terms. By examining characters like Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” or Oliver Twist in Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” we can see how these characters represent the struggle for identity and independence.

B. Orphans as Heroes

Orphans are often portrayed as heroes in literature. Their journeys mirror the archetypal hero’s journey, with the orphan overcoming adversity and embarking on a quest for self-discovery and justice. Characters such as Harry Potter in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series exemplify this archetype. This section explores how orphans take on the role of heroes and the impact of their journeys on both the character and the reader.

II. Adoption in Literature

A. Adoption as a Theme

Adoption in literature raises complex questions about identity and family bonds. Characters who are adopted, like Scout in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” or Cosette in Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” grapple with issues of belonging and acceptance. By examining these stories, we can analyze how adoption is used as a thematic element to explore the intricacies of family relationships.

B. Nature vs. Nurture

One of the central debates in adoption literature is the concept of nature vs. nurture. Does a person’s genetic heritage or their upbringing have a greater influence on their identity? By exploring this debate in the context of characters who are adopted, we can understand the significance of both nature and nurture in shaping an individual.

III. The Intersection of Orphanhood and Adoption

A. Orphans Who Become Adopted

In some literary works, characters start as orphans but later adopt into a family. This transition can reveal the transformative power of love and support. Characters like Anne Shirley in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables” undergo such a transformation, demonstrating the importance of finding a sense of belonging.

B. The Search for Biological Parents

Many characters who adopt embark on quests to find their biological parents. This search for identity is a recurring motif in literature. Analyzing characters like Pip in Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” we can explore the desire to know one’s origins and how it impacts the character’s self-discovery.

IV. The Impact of Society and Culture

A. The Stigma of Orphanhood

Society often stigmatizes orphans, casting them as disadvantaged or inferior. Literature reflects this stigma and allows us to investigate how societal perceptions of orphans affect their experiences and self-perception. Characters like David Copperfield in Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield” provide insight into the societal attitudes towards orphans.

B. Adoption Across Cultures

Adoption practices and perceptions vary across cultures. Examining international literature, we can explore how adoption is portrayed in different societies. Works like “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini and “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan shed light on the cultural nuances of adoption and its impact on characters.

V. Modern and Diverse Perspectives

A. LGBTQ+ Adoption

Modern literature has expanded the portrayal of adoption to include LGBTQ+ families. Novels like “The Kid” by Dan Savage and “The Best Man” by Richard Peck provide contemporary perspectives on adoption, exploring how it intersects with diverse family structures and relationships.

B. Adoption and Intersectionality

Orphanhood and adoption intersect with various aspects of identity, including race, gender, and class. Exploring works like “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker and “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng, we can analyze how these intersecting identities shape the experiences of adopted characters.


ENGL 103 A09: Where the Parents Aren’t: Orphans and Adoptees in Literature offers a comprehensive exploration of the themes of orphanhood and adoption in literature. By delving into classic and contemporary works, we gain valuable insights into the significance of these themes in shaping characters’ identities, relationships, and quests for meaning. This course highlights the enduring relevance of these literary motifs in addressing complex issues of belonging, family, and societal attitudes towards the marginalized. As we conclude our study, we recognize that orphanhood and adoption continue to be powerful tools for writers to engage readers in thought-provoking explorations of the human experience.

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