I began summer 1999 as I did most vacations: I went to the public library and checked out an armload of books. I remember one of those books well, not because it felt relevant to my life as a ten-year-old girl experiencing literal growing pains, but because its world was so unlike my own. It was a world I, and millions of other readers, never wanted to leave. I had become engrossed in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone , which turns twenty years old this month.
I’m not sure why I chose to read Sorcerer’s Stone— the first in Rowling’s seven-book series—that summer. Potter fever hadn’t struck my Long Island hometown yet, even though Sorcerer’s Stone had been released in the US a year earlier. I didn’t usually read stories with male protagonists or fantasy elements—I was more of a Judy Blume girl (see: growing pains).
Still, when I sat down at the picnic table in my backyard to read, I fell headlong into Harry’s magical coming-of-age tale, in which he learns that his deceased parents were wizards and grows into his new identity at Hogwarts. I must have stopped reading to eat—my parents wouldn’t have let me miss family dinner. But I remember finishing the book after dark, reading by the floodlight on the side of our house, which felt a world away from Hogwarts, where Harry, Ron, and Hermione were racing to find the Sorcerer’s Stone.
It hardly registered to me that Harry was an orphan, though the first fifty or so pages of Sorcerer’s Stone are devoted to hashing out his backstory. I was more interested in details of the wizarding world, like Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. When I reread the book recently, though, I was most concerned with that backstory: One-year-old Harry miraculously survives when his parents, Lily and James, are murdered by Voldemort. Albus Dumbledore, Hogwarts headmaster, has baby Harry deposited at the doorstep of 4 Privet Drive, where Petunia and Vernon Dursley, the Potters’ in-laws, live. The Dursleys care for Harry begrudgingly. While their son, Dudley, is showered with thirty-nine gifts on his eleventh birthday, Harry doesn’t hope much for presents—when he turned ten, he received “a coat hanger and a pair of Uncle Vernon’s old socks.” Dudley has two bedrooms—one to sleep in, and one for his broken toys—but Harry sleeps in a spider-infested cupboard under the stairs. This mistreatment is born of resentment: The Dursleys consider themselves “perfectly normal, thank you very much,” and Harry is a reminder that Petunia’s sister Lily and her husband James were anything but.
This backstory sets the series into motion, endowing Harry with a reputation to live up to and a tragedy to avenge. It also makes Harry one in a long line of orphans in literature, ranging from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. For twenty years, Harry Potter has been one of our best-known orphan characters. The tale of his life before Hogwarts—though perhaps the least memorable part of Sorcerer’s Stone —echoes with the origin stories of other literary orphans.
Those echoes are why Harry’s orphan status didn’t seem strange to me when I first read the book; though I was only ten, I knew the trope well. I first encountered it in Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach — an (exaggerated) primer for orphan stories.
Step one: While child is still too young to form distinct memories of them, parents die in an untimely fashion. James is orphaned at age four when his parents are “eaten up” by “an enormous angry rhinoceros.”
Step two: Orphan acquires caretakers who amplify the world’s cruelty. After his parents die, James lives with Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, who beat him “for almost no reason at all.”
Step three: Orphan escapes and goes on an adventure, encountering the world’s vast possibilities. James’s freedom comes when a once-barren peach tree produces a giant peach; he crawls inside the peach, joining magical insects. The peach rolls over his aunts’ house and down to the sea, where his adventure begins.
Once you become aware of the orphan’s story arc, it’s hard not to recognize it and its variations. Sometimes, the parents aren’t dead—instead, the child has been abandoned, making them a foundling. We see this possibility in Heathcliff, the “dirty, ragged, black-haired child” of unknown origins from Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Sometimes, only one parent is missing, as in Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn —Huck’s father, the town drunk, is still alive. Sometimes, getting away from cruel caretakers comes at a price: In Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre , Jane is set free from her aunt, who sees her as a burden and treats her like a servant, only to face starvation and deprivation at Lowood Institution.
I’m interested in the trope of the orphan—and how Harry Potter perpetuates it—because a few years after I began Rowling’s series, I became an orphan myself . When I was twelve, my mother died of lung cancer. Two years after that, my father died of prostate cancer. When I lost my parents, my greatest concerns were not about being seen as a burden or an outsider. Though I did worry about those things, such worries were overwhelmed by the reason why they existed: My parents were gone. I didn’t just miss parental love and my comfortable place in the family; I missed my specific parents.
Unlike most popular orphan characters, I wasn’t too young to remember my parents. I knew their physical realities well. I knew my mother’s cigarette-rasped voice, the bleach-stained stirrup pants she liked lounging in, her long, tanned fingers flipping the pages of a Redbook . I knew my father’s predilection for short-sleeved shirts with breast pockets for his pens, his freckled arms cradling an acoustic guitar, his hair growing baby-fine as he underwent radiation treatment. I desperately missed these signs of their lives—of them being alive—and I missed how they cared for me, raised me. My brother and I were fortunate to have parents who were Girl Scout troop leaders and little league coaches, who helped with homework and fostered our love of reading with weekly trips to the library. And then, they were gone.
I didn’t feel a connection between myself and Harry Potter, nor did I feel akin to less magical characters like Jane Eyre. My family didn’t abuse or shun me: My grandmothers both lived with and took care of my older brother and me, and my father’s sisters drove in every weekend when my parents were sick. I never wondered what would become of me when my parents died. While most literary orphans are begrudged their care by distant family members—or sent to an orphanage—I moved in with one of my aunts, and while our relationship was sometimes strained, I didn’t sleep in a cupboard under the stairs. I had my own bedroom, decorated as much like a PBteen catalog page as possible.
Of course, I felt no kinship with these characters because my situation differed dramatically from theirs. Their stories papered over the center of my experience of being an orphan: losing my parents, and the grief that caused. Why did these books—which have come to dominate the way we view orphanhood—elide grief? Answering that question requires thinking about why orphan characters are so often deployed.
The story arc I couldn’t stop seeing is influenced by the many orphan tales of the Victorian era. As critic Laura Peters describes in her book Orphan Texts: Victorian Orphans, Culture and Empire, the prevalence of orphans in works by the likes of Charles Dickens and the Brontë sisters was not just a product of real orphans’ abundance during this era, though that’s part of it. (Given that a major cause of death was childbirth, and life expectancy stayed below forty-eight until 1901, many a child was orphaned during Victorian times.) Peters argues that the trope flourished because “the family and all it came to represent—legitimacy, race, and national belonging—was in crisis . . . In order to reaffirm itself the family needed a scapegoat. It found one in the orphan figure.” As Peters explains, Victorians valued the family “as a site of morality, snug domesticity”; the orphan was a threat that lurked within.
Peters’s theories help explain why orphans were often represented as uncivilized others to be colonized, like Heathcliff, whom Emily Brontë paints as a “vicious cur” who speaks “gibberish.” Peters also clears up why orphans are often criminalized, emphasizing their threatening nature, as in Dickens’s Oliver Twist, when Oliver unwittingly joins the Artful Dodger’s gang of pickpockets. Finally, through Peters, we better understand why orphans’ familial caretakers are so cruel—they live with a reminder of the family unit’s instability: “In the heart of the family there is a latent living secret which might reappear at any moment thus making the family untrustworthy and unstable.”
Rowling utilizes the orphan as a “latent living secret” in Sorcerer’s Stone , nearly one hundred years after the end of the Victorian period. In the opening pages, we learn that the Dursleys “had a secret, and their greatest fear was that somebody would discover it. They didn’t think they could bear it if anyone found out about the Potters.” That fear provides their motive for keeping Harry’s heritage under wraps. They tell Harry his parents died in a car crash, and hide out in a hut amid a stormy sea to get away from the Hogwarts admission letters that threaten to blow their cover.
While the Brontës’ and Dickens’s books rang true to the lived experience of orphans back then, the reliance on Victorian-era orphan tropes in contemporary stories—like Sorcerer’s Stone— makes them unrepresentative of orphan lives now. And orphans aren’t nearly as prevalent now: There are proportionally more orphans in Western literature than there are in Western life. It’s difficult to nail down numbers on how many orphans live in the US, for example, because no government agency keeps count of children whose parents die. But according to 2016 Census data, 2,837 children under eighteen (only 3.8 percent of children) live in households without their parents.
Orphan characters enjoy continued popularity because they’re expedient for writers to employ. The orphan stands in for displacement and vulnerability—a figure outside of society’s norms, alone and unprotected. Orphan characters come with built-in conflict, and the intrigue of an orphan’s story compels the reader to keep turning the pages. These stories are not meant to represent real orphanhood, because they’re most concerned with the orphan as a symbol. But I was—and am—not a symbol: I am a real person whose parents are dead.
While I didn’t recognize myself in literary orphans, I understood that others might imagine my situation to be akin to Harry Potter’s before Hogwarts admission letters started pummeling the Dursleys’ door. This first clicked for me when I was sixteen. I had spent the summer in a journalism program at Northwestern University, which culminated in a celebration for students’ families. A few of my classmates’ parents didn’t come. I was standing outside of the dining hall with two of my aunts when these classmates began joking about how they were “orphans,” begging like Oliver Twist. They didn’t know that I was a literal orphan. Their jokes weren’t meant to be malicious, but they tore through me.
Not only was this a painful reminder of my loss, but it made me sharply realize how most of us imagine orphans. After all, this is how I thought of orphans before I became one: I pictured Oliver Twist pleading for more gruel, I saw Harry Potter wearing Dudley’s too-big hand-me-downs. Our perspectives are colored by the cultural baggage of literary orphanhood. Literature can allow us to step into lives that aren’t our own, but the way orphans are typically represented in books doesn’t help us understand what it means—and how it feels—to lose your parents. I only saw myself reflected in the trope of the orphan to the extent that these stories unconsciously governed the way others treated me.
Looking back, I realize that I felt like a literary orphan not long after my father’s death, when my mother’s sister, who lived close by, chafed at having to drive me to dance class. She complained about how she couldn’t take my cousin—then a senior in high school—to go see Disney on Ice for the tenth time because she had to drive me. She wanted me to know how disappointed my cousin was, she said; what I heard is that she wanted me to know that I was a burden.
I felt like a literary orphan when I was at a bank shortly after I turned eighteen, dealing with an account that the courts had deposited my inheritance into. The woman who was helping me was greedy for details about my parents’ demise, about what happened to me after they died, about how I had been damaged. She wanted to drink my story like it was a Harry Potter book.
Upon reflection, part of why I hesitated to tell others that my parents were dead was because I knew the cultural image of the orphan was not how I wished to be seen. I didn’t want to be vulnerable, an outsider, pitiful. I wanted to blend in with other teenagers, who could focus all of their attention on “normal” issues, like unrequited crushes.
My orphan experience has been one of unending grief, and in rereading Sorcerer’s Stone as an adult, I am struck by how it holds at a remove the grief that accompanies parental loss. Harry thinks of his parents very little. Like Jane Eyre, who doesn’t find out the truth about who her parents were (her father, a poor clergyman; her mother, cut off from her family “without a shilling” for marrying down) and how they died (typhus fever) until age ten, Harry doesn’t linger over the revelation that his parents were wizards who were murdered. For most of the book, he’s less interested in discovering who his parents really were than in proving himself worthy of his reputation in the wizarding world. It’s not until the last third of Sorcerer’s Stone that Rowling even mentions his longing for his parents.
What Rowling does include is poignant. One night while Harry is sneaking around Hogwarts using his father’s old invisibility cloak, he stumbles upon the Mirror of Erised. When he peers into the mirror, he sees himself surrounded by his family, including his mom and dad. He recognizes himself in them: “She had dark red hair and her eyes— her eyes are just like mine, Harry thought . . . The tall, thin, black-haired man standing next to her put his arm around her. He wore glasses, and his hair was very untidy.” Once Harry sees his parents, he aches for them: “He stared hungrily back at them, his hands pressed flat against the glass as though he was hoping to fall right through it and reach them.”
Harry returns twice more to the mirror; on his third visit, Dumbledore catches him. Dumbledore explains that the mirror displays “the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.” The Mirror of Erised stands in for the danger of getting mired in longing for what we cannot have; Dumbledore warns: “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
Here, we see a hint of why grief doesn’t make it into our most popular orphan tales: It holds characters back, doesn’t let them live. I get this. If Dumbledore didn’t give Harry this gentle slap on the wrist—if Harry kept pining for the irretrievable—the series would not be nearly as adventure-packed.
Still, I see the value in letting myself linger at my own Mirror of Erised, imagining my parents waving back at me. Grief isn’t a magic mirror to avoid—it’s part of remembering to live.