“Give your hero family problems!” demanded my screenwriting tutor. “For the film to have depth and meaning, the outward storyline needs to reflect the hero’s inward journey to grow up, overcome his faults, find true love and lasting happiness. The hero must suffer from an inner wound,” he continued, “and his quest to find healing accomplishes three aims: it drives the hero forward, gives the story heart, and captures the compassion of the audience. No type of hero does this better than an orphan.”
He then went through the list of screen heroes who are orphans. They’re everywhere. The orphan populates the great stories, and his quest invariably revolves around the search for his father and the long journey home. Two classic novels of the nineteenth century tell the story of an orphan boy in remarkably similar ways. Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations set in Victorian England, and Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, from America’s frontier, tell the tales of two ordinary orphans who embark on extraordinary adventures.
Both stories are forged from the authors’ own experiences. Dickens’ father was an impoverished clerk who ended up in debtor’s prison with his family. At the age of twelve, Charles was thrown onto his own resources, working ten hours a day in a Victorian sweatshop pasting labels on bottles of boot blacking. Twain was eleven when his father died. He had to quit school and get a job as a printer’s apprentice. Both boys worked their way up through the printing and journalism professions, honing their writing skills for popular papers before finally trading up into the popular fiction that brought them fame and fortune.
Both Pip and Huck are faced with similar difficulties. Pip is apprenticed to a blacksmith and dominated by his harpy of a sister, while Huck is trapped in the stifling atmosphere of Widow Douglas’ and the sinister spinster, Miss Watson. Both boys seek their fortune by trying to escape. Pip uses the money from a mysterious benefactor to run upriver to London, where he affects being a gentleman, while Huck flees downriver away from both Widow Douglas and his abusive father. Faced with the pressures of impending adulthood, the adolescent orphan runs away into a grandiose dream or takes flight from reality and responsibility to enjoy what promises to be one long, lazy float down the river.
Great rivers run through the lives of both Dickens and Twain. Dickens’ boyhood was spent in Chatham, Kent near the mouth of the Thames, and Twain, who grew up on the river in Hannibal, Missouri, was actually a riverboat pilot for a time. The rivers serve as potent symbols of life’s journey. Huck’s trek down the Mississippi is echoed in Pip’s life by the constant presence of the River Thames. The low life of London and the marshlands of the Thames estuary smell much the same as Huck’s Mississippi on which the flotsam and jetsam of humanity—criminals, conmen, gamblers and crooks—travel. Both Pip and Huck reside and ride on the river and follow their fate and decide their destiny in the river’s flow.
As Pip and Huck are caught up in the deep, dark flow of “Ole Man River”—the Mississippi—and “Old Father Thames,” they are both haunted by their shadow fathers—the shadow side of themselves. The convict Magwitch, and Huck’s natural father, who is a violent drunkard, reveal the dark side of their destiny, which both boys rightly view with horror. Magwitch’s crimes of fraud and violence indicate where Pip’s fraudulent attempt at being a gentleman might take him, while old Finn’s decadent and dissolute lifestyle echoes Huck’s own tendency to laziness, lying and self-indulgence. That Magwitch and old Finn both end up dead not only brings justice, but opens the way for both boys to die to their faults and find a mature and realistic future.
To get them to that point the most important character for both orphans is a mentor and surrogate father. Huck is adopted by the runaway slave, Jim, and Pip is mentored by the simple blacksmith, Joe. Both Twain and Dickens are not ashamed to use heartfelt language to describe the natural and innocent love that Jim and Joe have for Huck and Pip. Jim calls Huck “Honey” and dotes on the boy, while faithful Joe is “ever best of friends” with Pip. It is no co-incidence that both Jim and Joe are from the humblest of social castes. Jim is a superstitious slave and Joe an illiterate and uncouth blacksmith. By casting Jim and Joe as the father figures, both Twain and Dickens produce a portrait of the archetypal father: a man who is strong, simple, principled, faithful and true. They are humble enough to be honest, and tough enough to be tender-hearted.
Dickens’ and Twain’s tales are timeless because they are universal. The story of the orphan in search of the father is the story of each orphaned human soul alienated from the Heavenly Father. Huck’s and Pip’s lonely quest is our own voyage downriver to the endless sea of eternity. Their confusion and fear mirror our own. Their humiliations, mistakes, and mishaps are our own, as each one of us launch out on our own adventures with great expectations that all too often fall flat.
In the end, the tales of two orphans offer readers a choice: reality and responsibility or another adventure. For the Englishman Pip, the end of the quest is an acceptance of respectable reality. Like the prodigal, he returns home first to Joe, then to a humble and fitting job, and finally to a possible future with Estella, his one true love.
American Huck, on the other hand, resists such a return. “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and civilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.