Orphanhood is not a topic that is discussed often. Why? Is it because it’s easy to overlook a subject with no family? Possibly; however, the sense of no family, being a parentless child often is a struggle for a number of characters in literature. William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies,’ echoes this point; although the boys on the island have families they are disconnected from them, detaching them from their roots therefore making them independent. They become characters that must deal with their own accountability, they are no longer children. Albert Camus begins his classic title ‘The Stranger’ by delving into the death of Meursault’s mother, which leaves him stolid, no ability or at least no desire to show emotion towards the demise of his parent. This impression of abandonment sets the tone for the rest of the work; Meursault is severed from his origins, making him his own man, making him a stranger to the world. In more recent novels such as ‘American Rust,’ by Philipp Meyer, the character Isaac English is forced to deal with his mother’s suicide, leaving him to take care of his wheelchair ridden father, creating this feel of lack of parenthood. Feeling like a parentless child is a recurrent theme with literary characters; however, in works such as ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ by Jonathan Lethem and ‘Hard Rain Falling’ by Don Carpenter, the protagonists are actual orphans, though each writer handles their situations differently.
In ‘Motherless Brooklyn,’ Lethem emphasizes the isolation that comes with orphanhood. The title of the work itself contains the word motherless, therefore highlighting the emptiness that is given when parentless. In the text, Lionel Essrog is seen as a freak for having Tourette’s, casting him out even further within the orphanage. Unlike Jack Levitt of ‘Hard Rain Falling,’ Lionel pines for a family, a community to belong to since a young age. This is evident when Lionel looks up other Essrogs in the phonebook, and calls each one of them, just to know they exist, just to wonder if any of them might be one of his own flesh and blood. Lionel’s longing for family is also clear when he finds Frank Minna, or rather Frank Minna finds him, and he accepts this stranger as a father figure. Minna, unlike everyone else, makes use of Lionel’s condition and he sees beyond that, to Lionel’s true potential.
In Carpenter’s work, Jack Levitt is portrayed more as an experiment of human nature. Levitt is born an orphan, as a man with no identity, as a man with no fear of turning into his parents because he has none. This is dissimilar to Lethem’s narrative because although Lionel is born parentless, he has Tourette’s and this condition in a way gives him an unavoidable identity. On the other hand, Levitt seems to be born without the ability to feel or love. He simply lives for the fun of it; Carpenter begins Jack’s story by writing, “There were worse things than being broke, but for the moment Jack Levitt could not think of any” (19). Carpenter starts his tale by stressing Levitt’s superficiality, but ends his chronicle with Jack trying to construct himself as a true human being. Jack is showed how to love by a prison mate and lover who died for him, and then he finds a woman who he loves as much as his prison mate loved him. He attempts to channel this love and create a family but he fails, similar to ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ when Lionel falls for a quirky woman named Kimmery; however, their relationship fails as well because she is in love with someone else.
Though there is only a rare few of literary characters that are actual orphans, the essence of being a child with no home or family is a regular motif within many novels. Carpenter and Lethem take on the challenge of defining true orphanhood. Although Carpenter may have a harsher stance on what it means to be parentless, both writers come to the same conclusion: to be without the foundation of a family is to have the ability to create your own identity, almost completely free from influence.