Orphans in Victorian Literature

While reading the first several chapters of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, I noticed a handful of connections to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, but the one I’m most interested in so far is between the characters Pip of Great Expectations and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights.

The two of them seem similar so far as they were both orphans, although Pip gets to live with his sister and Heathcliff was taken in by Mr. Earnshaw who as far as we are aware, is unrelated to him. We also see how they are both pressed by social class. Heathcliff was constantly ridiculed because of his skin color, hair color and treated as a member of the lower class while Pip and his family are also members of the lower class.

In both novels, the reader sees how aware these characters are of their standing and how they make an effort to change this. In Wuthering Heights after Heathcliff overhears Catherine say that it would degrade her if she married him, he runs away and is gone for three years. During this time he underwent change and returns almost as a different person as Nelly doesn’t even recognize him when he returns. It is never explained where Heathcliff was, what he was doing, how he made money, etc. However with Great Expectations, so far we are seeing the beginning of what seems to be Pip’s efforts toward rising in his social standing. In the later chapters of today’s assigned reading we see Pip’s awareness to his social class after his meeting with Miss Havisham and Estella. When he returns from his time there, he confesses to Joe that he wished he was not common. He also lists things he wished he did not have to face such as “I wish you hadn’t taught me to call Knaves at cards, Jacks; and I wish my boots weren’t thick nor my hands so coarse”. In Chapter 10 we then see Pip begin his efforts toward becoming uncommon by seeking the help of Biddy to teach him things.

I’m interested in seeing how Pip and Heathcliff compare as we continue reading Great Expectations.

Also, I’m beginning to wonder about the usage of orphans in Victorian literature. In high school I remember reading Silas Marner and A Tale of Two Cities and there were orphans in those novels. Although I haven’t read them yet, I believe Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist are also both about orphans? I wonder why this was such a popular thing to write about at the time and what this says about Victorian England historically.

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