Illegitimacy in fiction

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This is a list of fictional stories in which illegitimacy features as an important plot element. Passing mentions are omitted from this article. Many of these stories explore the social pain and exclusion felt by illegitimate "natural children".

Illegitimacy was a common theme in Victorian literature. "Illegitimacy was a popular subject for Victorian writers, not only because of its value as a plot device, but also because of the changing laws affecting illegitimate children and their parents which kept the topic in the public eye."[1]

Written works


  • Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur (1485 prose romance): King Arthur is conceived illegitimately when his father Uther Pendragon utilizes Merlin's magic to seduce Igraine, a noblewoman married to Duke Gorlois. Later, Arthur unwittingly begets a bastard son, Mordred, on his own half-sister Morgause. At Arthur's court, Mordred and his half-brother Agravain incite growing discontent about the Queen’s adulterous relations with Sir Lancelot, and a civil war ensues. While Arthur is preoccupied fighting Lancelot, Mordred spreads word that Arthur has been killed, seizes the crown for himself, and attempts to seduce the queen. She resists, and Arthur quickly returns, attacking and defeating his son’s armies. Mordred dies in combat, and Arthur is fatally wounded and dies shortly thereafter with his kingdom in ruins.
  • William Shakespeare:
    • Richard III (1591 play): Richard, Duke of Gloucester, usurps the English throne, justifying the coup by claiming that the young nephew he deposed, King Edward V, and his younger brother, the Duke of York, are both illegitimate, as their father (Edward IV) was promised in marriage to another woman when he wedded their mother.
    • King John (1595? play): Phillip Falconbridge, bastard son of Richard the Lionheart, helps save England from ruin at the hands of Richard's incompetent younger brother, John of England.
    • Much Ado About Nothing (1598 play): The envious and melancholy villain of the comedy, Don John, is a bastard, and invents schemes to thwart the marriage of his legitimate brother’s close friends.
    • King Lear (1605 play): Edmund, bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, first cheats his legitimate brother Edgar of his lands, then stands by while his father is declared a traitor, blinded, and sent to wander in the wilderness. Edmund finally makes an attempt on the English crown itself by bedding Lear's two daughters Regan and Goneril.
    • The Tempest (1611 play): Caliban, a savage, deformed slave of the play's protagonist, Prospero, is the offspring of a witch and a sea demon.
  • Thomas Middleton, The Revenger's Tragedy (1607 play): In addition to cuckolding his father and plotting against his legitimate brother, the Duke's bastard son, Spurio, also becomes heavily embroiled in the Revenger's plot to undo the Duke and the rest of his family.
  • Benjamin Franklin, "The Speech of Polly Baker" (1747 story): a woman is put on trial for having an illegitimate child. She had been convicted four times in the past for this same crime. Each time, she said, the full blame was placed on her shoulders but not the father's.
  • Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749 novel): Tom, the bastard infant of a country girl, is left in an anonymous bundle to the care of the rich and kind-hearted Mr. Allworthy. Mr. Allworthy raises Tom, who grows up and has a number of adventures over the book's thousand-plus pages.
  • Voltaire, Candide (1759 satirical novella): The hero Candide, in the opening of chapter 1, is "suspected [to be] the son of the Baron's sister by a respectable, honest gentleman of the neighborhood, whom she had refused to marry because he could prove only seventy-one quarterings, the rest of his family tree having been lost in the passage of time."[2]
  • Jane Austen,
    • Emma (1815 novel): Harriet Smith, a young woman who attends a local school, is described as the "natural daughter of somebody" ("natural" in this sense meaning illegitimate). She is befriended by Emma Woodhouse, who imagines that Harriet is the child of a wealthy gentleman and introduces her to the local vicar, Mr. Elton, who she thinks is a good match. Elton, however, sees Harriet as far below him socially, and instead woos the unsuspecting Emma. It is revealed later in the novel that Harriet is the child of a prosperous tradesman.
    • Sense and Sensibility (1811 novel): Colonel Brandon's ward Miss Williams is suspected to be his illegitimate daughter but it is revealed that she in fact the illegitimate daughter of his first love Eliza, who had been forced to marry his brother and was later divorced by her husband for infidelity. She leaves her daughter, also Eliza, to his care. On a visit to Bath, she is seduced by Willoughby who has abandoned her prior to his meeting Marianne. She in turn gives birth to an illegitimate child. When Willoughby's aunt discovers the affair, she disowns him, leading him to forsake Marianne whom he truly loves and marry an heiress for her fortune.


  • Alexander Herzen, Who is to Blame? (1847 novel): Krutsifersky is the tutor of Lyubonka, an illegitimate daughter of the retired general, Negrov. Upon forming an emotional attachment to Lyubonka, Krutsifersky is allowed to marry her. The emphasis given to Lyubonka's illegitimacy was of personal concern to Herzen, who was himself illegitimate.[4]
  • Elizabeth Gaskell, Ruth (1853 social novel): a compassionate portrayal of an orphaned young seamstress, Ruth Hilton, who is seduced, impregnated and abandoned by gentleman Henry Bellingham.
  • Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853 social novel): One of the novel's many secrets is the illegitimacy of heroine Esther Summerson. Illegitimacy is one of the social questions that Dickens addresses in the novel, making Esther its moral heart despite her illegitimacy. Illegitimate sons and daughters also appear in Oliver Twist (Oliver), Barnaby Rudge (Hugh the Ostler), Dombey and Son (Alice Brown). Little Dorrit (Arthur Clennam), and Great Expectations (Estella). (Thus almost half of Dickens' 14 finished novels have a plot thread involving illegitimacy.)
  • Anthony Trollope, Doctor Thorne (1858 novel): two sets of country gentlefolk fallen on hard times are especially proud of their "pure blood", but the well-meaning doctor brings up his illegitimate niece as a lady and then discovers that there is no place for her in their social world.
  • Alexandre Dumas, fils (illegitimate son of Alexandre Dumas, père), in his play The Illegitimate Son (1858), espoused the belief that if a man fathers an illegitimate child, then he has an obligation to legitimize the child and marry the woman.
  • George Eliot.
    • Adam Bede (1859 novel): Hetty is seduced by a young officer who abandons her; she then abandons her baby in a field where it dies, and is tried for its murder.
    • Daniel Deronda (1876 novel): Gwendolen Harleth discovers that her suitor Henleigh Grandcourt has four illegitimate children with an ex-mistress. She initially spurns him but later marries him when her family is ruined. Also, the other protagonist, Daniel, suspects (albeit mistakenly) that he might be the illegitimate son of his guardian Sir Hugo Mallinger.
  • Wilkie Collins. Collins had relationships with two women "For Collins, the theme of illegitimacy was more than just a plot mechanism: through his fiction he continually questioned society's condemnation of the unmarried mother and her child."[5]
    • Hide and Seek (1854), about the parentage of a deaf and dumb girl "Madonna" adopted by an artist and his wife.
    • The Dead Secret (1857 novel), concerns the unexpected discovery of a character's illegitimacy and the resulting moral dilemmas that face the character.
    • The Woman in White (1859), centred on illegitimacy, and the lengths one of the main characters goes to conceal it.
    • No Name (1862). Two sisters are disinherited when their parents' death reveals them to be bastards; one accepts her reduced circumstances, but the other plots revenge.
  • Victor Hugo, Les Miserables (1862 novel): Cosette is the illegitimate daughter of Fantine and Felix Tholomyes. After Tholomyes abandons Fantine and Cosette, Fantine entrusts Cosette to the care of the Thenardiers (who secretly force her to work as a scullery maid) and pays them for Cosette's care. After Fantine dies of tuberculosis, Jean Valjean rears Cosette; when she grows up, she falls in love with Marius Pontmercy, whom Jean Valjean saves when an insurrection is crushed.
  • Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869 novel): one of the principal protagonists, Pierre Bezukhov, is an illegitimate child of a dying father who has many other illegitimate children. Pierre is chosen to inherit his father's fortune and title of Count Bezukhov.
  • Anthony Trollope, Ralph the Heir (1871 novel): The estate of Newton Priory is entailed upon the legitimate heir, nephew of the current Squire; the Squire tries to buy the reversion from the spendthrift, debt-ridden heir so that the Squire can leave it by will to his illegitimate son.
  • Anthony Trollope, Lady Anna (1874 novel): The vicious Earl Lovel has told his wife that their marriage was invalid; during the two decades that she has struggled to prove its validity, their daughter Anna has grown up with her legitimacy in question. He dies intestate, and the disposal of his large fortune depends on her status.
  • Alphonse Daudet, Jack (1876 novel): about an illegitimate child, a martyr to his mother's selfishness.
  • Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877 novel): Anna has an affair with Count Aleksei Vronsky, which leads to an illegitimate daughter, whom she names Annie. This incident drives the rest of the plot towards its tragic conclusion.
  • Ivan Turgenev, Virgin Soil (1877 novel): the main character, Nezhdanov (whose name means "unexpected"), is an illegitimate son of a Russian aristocrat. With a desire to do something in the world, he joins the Narodniki, hoping to find his place by "going to the people". In the end, Nezhdanov's confusion about his divided life causes him to commit suicide.
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (1880 novel): Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov is the father of three sons, and widely rumored to have fathered a fourth, illegitimate son, Pavel Smerdyakov. Although the eldest son, Dmitri, is put on trial for the murder of his father, Pavel later confesses the crime to Ivan, another of Karamazov's sons.
  • Thomas Hardy:
    • Two on a Tower (1882 novel): the heroine, Lady Viviette Constantine, chooses a loveless marriage over the shame of giving birth to an illegitimate baby.
    • Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891 novel): the eponymous heroine is seduced and abandoned by a gentleman; she gives birth but the baby dies.
    • The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886 novel): the protagonist Michael Henchard believes that Elizabeth Jane is the daughter he abandoned, when she returns to him years later along with his wife; but after his wife's death he finds out from her letter that his own daughter died and this Elizabeth Jane is the illegitimate child of Captain Newson, to whom he had 'sold' his wife many years ago. Initially this affects his feelings for Elizabeth, but later he begins to love her as his own child and hides her true parentage from her, which leads to tragedy.
    • Far From the Madding Crowd (1874 novel): Frank Troy and Bathsheba's servant Fanny Robin are lovers before and when they part after Fanny misses their wedding, she is pregnant, unknown to him. Following Troy's marriage to Bathsheba, Fanny returns and encounters Troy again before dying in childbirth along with her child. Gabriel Oak fails to conceal the facts from Bathsheba and she is devastated when Troy tells her that he only loved Fanny. The events lead to tragic consequences.
    • Jude the Obscure (1895): Jude and Sue have two children together and it is later revealed that they are not married, making the children illegitimate. The children are killed by Jude's legitimate son with his ex-wife Arabella, who also hangs himself and the shock sends Sue into premature labour with another child, who dies.
  • Henry James, Portrait of a Lady (1881 novel): the heroine, Isabel Archer, discovers that the daughter of her husband Gilbert Osmond is not his first wife's child but was born to Madam Merle, who had been his lover many years ago.

Twentieth century

  • Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes (1910): the protagonist, Razumov, is the illegitimate son of a Russian prince, by whom he is unacknowledged save to the extent of being supported as a student at the University of St. Petersburg. A fellow-student, Victor Haldin, a revolutionist who has just assassinated a savagely repressive government minister, asks Razumov to help him escape. Razumov, with his father's help, turns him in, and Haldin is hanged. Razumov finds himself admired by university companions as Haldin's associate in killing the detested minister. The authorities send him as a government spy to Geneva, a center of anti-tsarist intrigue. There, he finds, live Haldin's mother and sister, who share Haldin's liberal convictions; Razumov falls in love with the sister and eventually confesses having turned in her brother. He then confesses the same to the assembled revolutionists, who burst his eardrums, making him deaf for life. He staggers away, is knocked down by a streetcar, and finally returns as an obscure cripple to Russia.[6]
  • E. M. Forster, Howard's End (1910): Helen Schlegel has a brief affair with Leonard Bast resulting in pregnancy which she tries to conceal from her family by going abroad. The discovery of this fact and of the identity of her lover causes a rift between Margaret and Henry Wilcox and has tragic consequences for Leonard.
  • David Graham Phillips, Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise (1912), made into a movie starring Clark Gable and Greta Garbo.
  • C. S. Forester, Brown on Resolution (1929 novel): the protagonist, an illegitimate British sailor and the only survivor of his ship, escapes custody aboard an Imperial German raider making repairs off an island in the South Atlantic and delays the ship's departure long enough for a British ship to arrive and destroy it, losing his life on the island in the process. The captain of the ship finds the sailor's body and discovers it is his own illegitimate son whose existence he has denied.
  • Marcel Pagnol, Fanny (1932 play)
  • Marcel Pagnol, César (1936 play)
  • Grace Metalious, Peyton Place (1956 novel): The main plot follows the lives of three women in a small New England town — lonely, repressed Constance MacKenzie, her illegitimate daughter Allison, and her employee Selena Cross.
  • Marguerite Yourcenar, The Abyss (1968 historical novel): centres on a man's quest for meaning in his life, and the consequences of his illegitimate birth on his mother (devastating) and his father (very little). Belgian filmmaker André Delvaux adapted it into a movie in 1988.
  • Melina Marchetta, Looking for Alibrandi (1993 novel): involves a main theme of illegitimacy—of a year-12 student, whose father comes back into her life after having left her mother 18 years earlier. It also involves a massive theme of multiculturalism.
  • George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire (series of novels, 1996–present): Illegitimacy is a central theme throughout the series, and many major characters have illegitimate children. Illegitimacy plays a major role when Ned Stark discovers the Queen Cersei's children are actually bastards.





Manga, anime, comic, game

  • Gakuen Alice - Mikan Sakura, the protagonist, is the illegitimate daughter of Izumi Yukihira and Yuka Azumi.
  • Dragon Ball Z - Trunks is the illegitimate son of Vegeta and Bulma.
  • Blue Exorcist - Rin and Yukio Okumura are the illegitimate half-demons sons of Satan through unknown human woman.
  • Ai Yori Aoshi - Kaoru Hanabishi (Honjo) is the son of parents who never married.
  • Godchild - Cain Hargreaves and his half-brother are illegitimate children of the same father.
  • Bunny Drop - Rin is thought the illegitimate daughter of Daikichi's grandfather.
  • Kodomo no Jikan - Rin Kokonoe was born to an unwed mother.
  • Kaze to Ki no Uta - Gilbert is the product of an affair between his father and his father's sister-in-law.
  • Kare Kano - Soichiro was born of an affair, as his father had been.
  • Ouran High School Host Club - Tamaki Suoh is the illegitimate son of Yuzuru Suoh.
  • Batman - Damian Wayne (the fifth sidekick known as Robin) is the illegitimate son of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul.
  • Tekken - Lars Alexandersson the new protagonist of the series, is the unknown illegitimate son of the series most antagonist Heihachi Mishima.
  • Attack on Titan - Eren's friend, Historia Reiss, is the illegitimate daughter of Rod Reiss and a beautiful servant.

See also


  1. "Representations of illegitimacy in Wilkie Collins's early novels." Philological Quarterly, 22-MAR-04 . [1]
  2. Voltaire, Candide, or Optimism: A Fresh Translation, Backgrounds, Criticism, translated and edited by Robert M. Adams, 2nd ed., New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1991, ISBN 0-393-96058-7, p. 1.
  3. Tad Szulc, Chopin in Paris, p. 161.
  4. Charles A. Moser, The Cambridge History of Russian Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992) pp. 229-230.
  5. "Representations of illegitimacy in Wilkie Collins's early novels." Philological Quarterly, 22-MAR-04 .[2]
  6. J.I.M. Stewart, Joseph Conrad, pp. 185-87.