Dominican University of California
 

The Orphan as Picaro Character in Victorian Literature

Janet Oelklaus, Dominican University of California

Abstract/Description

This senior thesis project explores the prevalence of the orphan character in the literature of the Victorian age. Clearly, the figure captures the imagination, as foundlings or children of dubious parentage populate the novels of Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Rudyard Kipling. However, when a number of orphan figures converge during a particular era, what meaning does this hold and how is it a reflection of the society from which it arose? As picaro characters, the orphan embodies an immense capacity to adapt and demonstrates a freedom from societal bounds and class restrictions that exemplifies the Victorian ethos during an era of rapid innovation and reform. However, the character can also exemplify the acute anxiety that is induced when these same qualities produce rapid deviations from traditional family, work, and social structures. The orphan, an individual of unknown origin who is the creation of more than one family, exudes this duality and harbors a hidden or double self that can exhibit the romantic idealism of escape or the gritty realism of the workhouse. Orphan characters can encapsulate freedom and exile, free will and determinism, universality and otherness, artifice and reality, and the double consciousness that arises from these binaries. In an age in which doubleness was a thematic preoccupation in the Gothic novel, including Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, this dualism which is inherent in the orphan character, along with its foundations in the picaresque novels that preceded the Victorian age, make it a vehicle through which these themes and binaries can be explored safely by the “alienated” self that is estranged from the world and, thus, safely by Victorian society.

 
Apr 20th, 6:40 PM Apr 20th, 6:55 PM

The Orphan as Picaro Character in Victorian Literature

Guzman 114, Dominican University of California

This senior thesis project explores the prevalence of the orphan character in the literature of the Victorian age. Clearly, the figure captures the imagination, as foundlings or children of dubious parentage populate the novels of Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and Rudyard Kipling. However, when a number of orphan figures converge during a particular era, what meaning does this hold and how is it a reflection of the society from which it arose? As picaro characters, the orphan embodies an immense capacity to adapt and demonstrates a freedom from societal bounds and class restrictions that exemplifies the Victorian ethos during an era of rapid innovation and reform. However, the character can also exemplify the acute anxiety that is induced when these same qualities produce rapid deviations from traditional family, work, and social structures. The orphan, an individual of unknown origin who is the creation of more than one family, exudes this duality and harbors a hidden or double self that can exhibit the romantic idealism of escape or the gritty realism of the workhouse. Orphan characters can encapsulate freedom and exile, free will and determinism, universality and otherness, artifice and reality, and the double consciousness that arises from these binaries. In an age in which doubleness was a thematic preoccupation in the Gothic novel, including Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, this dualism which is inherent in the orphan character, along with its foundations in the picaresque novels that preceded the Victorian age, make it a vehicle through which these themes and binaries can be explored safely by the “alienated” self that is estranged from the world and, thus, safely by Victorian society.