Great Expectations

Two Different Portrayals of Orphans in Dickens

Victorian literature is over-populated with orphans. The Bronte sisters, Trollope, George Elliot, Thackeray and Gaskell all positioned orphans as leading characters in their novels. This trend continued into the Edwardian period, as Frances Hodgson Burnett created the orphaned protagonists Colin, Mary, and Sara. While it can be argued that the use of orphans reflects the enormous number of orphaned children and a different definition of "orphan" than is commonly used today (a Victorian "orphan" could have one parent), the number of orphans in nineteenth century English literature remains disproportionately high – and nowhere is it higher than in the works of Charles Dickens. Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and David Copperfield all include a plethora of orphans. Dickens’ treatment of these individual characters, however, varies widely. For example, while both protagonists of Great Expectations and David Copperfield are missing mother and father, their paths in life differ markedly. Whereas David Copperfield is portrayed as the stereotypical plucky orphan who charts his own way in the world, Pip remains trapped in situations in which he has little agency. Despite David’s “...

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