[(essay date 2014) In the following essay, Elbert analyzes Pollyanna’s positive effect on her community in the context of her affinity for and engagement with the natural world.]
There is a tradition in children’s literature of connecting orphan girls to redemptive and healing qualities to effect positive social change. Johanna Spyri’s Heidi as the progenitor of such a character is often ignored, perhaps because of the privileging of Anglo-American girls’ texts in the canon of children’s literature.1 But there is a tradition spanning Western literature, from the Swiss Heidi (1880) forward, including, in addition to the American Pollyanna (1913) by Eleanor H. Porter, such famous orphan heroines in the girls’ classics as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) by American author Kate Douglas Wiggin, Anne of Green Gables (1908) by the Canadian author Lucy Maud Montgomery, and Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden (1911) by British author Frances Hodgson Burnett. I think it telling that there is a preponderance of these redemptive orphan girl figures in the period following 1880 and, most noteworthy, an entire cluster between 1903 and 1913 when all the horrors of modern consumer life, the angst of working-class alienation, and fears of corporate bureaucracy were emerging.
Clearly, these orphan girls seek a surrogate mother in various aunt-like figures, whether they are actual aunts or servant figures acting as such, even if they prove unsatisfactory. When a substitute mother is found in a male figure, such as Grandfather in chapter 2 of Heidi (tellingly titled “At Home with Grandfather”), or such as stodgy old Pendleton in chapter 18 (“Prisms”) of Pollyanna, that Edenic moment is fleeting.2 Ultimately, the orphan girls must find or create their own sense of home, and unlike the heroines of sentimental novels of the mid-nineteenth century, where the orphan’s goodness leads her to the arms of a wealthy suitor, late-nineteenth-century novels allow the girl orphan to grow into womanhood with a sense of independence learned in nature (and often a calling to nurture, or to teach, even informally).3 The vestige of the sentimental novel is, of course, the desire to find a home—but often that home is made in nontraditional ways or through the formation of nontraditional families. What is most significant to my study is that the missing link to a bygone sense of motherhood is found in nature, a quest which, in itself, is a vestige of the Romantic period, where nature was seen as a panacea to the world’s evils.4
The orphans’ quests culminate in alternate ways of perceiving the family within different non-oppressive and cooperative structures, but always in harmony with nature, so that a true ecofeminist perspective emerges. Using an ecofeminist lens, one sees that Heidi and Pollyanna are not redemptive because they are female children but rather because they are unspoiled, female, orphan children, still innocent until their rude awakening and confrontation with the evil of the material realm—seen in the wealth of urban centers (like Frankfurt) or embodied in that emblem of Modernist angst, the automobile. That...