LITERATURE AND THE STIGMA AND STEREOTYPES OF ILLEGITIMACY
B.A., University of Colorado at Denver, 1979
M.A., University of Denver, 1984
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
This thesis for the Master of Arts
has been approved
McCaslin, Nikki (M.A. English)
Literature and the Stigma and Stereotypes of Illegitimacy
Thesis directed by Professor Rex Burns
This study examines some of the origins and characteristics
of the early villain, fool and picaro conventions associated with
illegitimacy and the role of literature in its stigma and
stereotypes. The bastard characters of Shakespeare are discussed
first: Edmund of King Lear, Philip of King John. Aaron the Moor's
and Tamara's son in Titus Andronicus, Caliban in The Tempest,
Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, and Perdita in A Winter's Tale.
Some gender differences within the stereotype can be found in
three later female illegitimates: Defoe's Moll Flanders, as a
criminal and picaro form, Austen's Harriet Smith, from her novel
Emma, as a picaro and transitional figure, and Dickens' Esther
Summerson from Bleak House, as a Victorian heroine and the
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidate's
thesis. I recommend its publication,,__________
To ray fellow misbegotten, with love especially to Jim Lucero,
Pekitta Tynes, Rich Uhrlaub, Ron Grosswiler and John Marshall.
I would like to thank Marilyn Grotzky, Dr. Rex Bums,
Dr. Christine Alfano and Dr. Brad Mudge for their knowledge, help
2. HISTORY OF THE ILLEGITIMACY STIGMA
Family Separation and "Parens Patriae":
The State as Parent...........................7
3. SHAKESPEAREAN BASTARD CHARACTERS
Edmund and Philip............................18
The Bastard as Fool: Caliban and Thersites...30
Summary of the Traditional Bastard Literary
4. MOLL FLANDERS...................................39
5. HARRIET SMITH...................................52
6. ESTHER SUMMERSON................................57
Literary Illegitimates, Orphans, and
1.1 Hogarth Drawing of the London Foundling Hospital.. .12
2.2 Carla Swan Department Toddlers, Colorado State
Childrens' Home, 1953..............................13
Literary authors have not merely acted as chroniclers of
historical attitudes towards persons bom outside of accepted family
boundaries, but they have undoubtedly helped to create and sustain
the stereotypes associated with the stigma of illegitimacy. Rare
positive portrayals, on the other hand, particularly those of Charles
Dickens, have helped to soften public censure and bring about
concrete changes in the severe social policies and practices
affecting these children.
The stigma of illegitimacy has very ancient moral, cultural,
and economic roots. Biblical censure of premarital and extramarital
sexual relations was especially influential in the European and
American stigmas. Since virtually all of the qualities of the
illegitimacy stereotypes are present in Shakespeare's memorable
bastards and because his writings had such an important and
widespread impact, I will use his characters first to delineate and
discuss the main features of these complex literary stereotypes.
I expected to discover gender differences within the
stereotypes, and, for this reason, selected three English female
illegitimate characters from different periods to conclude this
study: Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722) as representing the conventional
criminal stereotype and the picaro, Austen's Harriet Smith from Emma
(1814) as a transitional and picaro form, and Dickens' Esther
Summerson from Bleak House (1853) as the stereotype's antithesis.
Some gender differences did emerge, although the personal
characteristics of illegitimate characters were unexpectedly similar.
The differences mainly related to womens' limited options for work
and marriage. Women characters also had to be concerned about the
effect of aging or the loss of their beauty on their ability to
survive. Defoe and Dickens especially related female destitution
with immorality and crime. Women illegitimates often gave birth, in
turn, to illegitimate children for which they could not provide, and
so they were portrayed as perpetrators of the vicious cycle of
poverty and crime. Methods of limited legitimation also varied
between the sexes.
HISTORY OF THE ILLEGITIMACY STIGMA
The word "bastard" is to this day one of the English language's
harshest invectives, as is the phrase "son of a bitch," the modern
version of the Middle English "whoreson." Jenny Teichman, in her
study Illegitimacy, explains that the stigma of bastardy dates back
probably as far as the concept of marriage:
...the word 'bastard' is a term of abuse, almost a swear word.
The word is used insultingly and metaphorically much more often
than it is used literally. This can only be explained by
reference to beliefs once widely held about illegitimate
people. Such beliefs are presumably as old as the institution
of marriage itself. Be that as it may, hostile feelings about
bastards and the belief that they are generally very bad people
find expression in very ancient archetypes. (Teichman 126)
Although nearly every culture and age had sanctions and prejudices
against illegitimate children and their parents, the Bible is
probably one of the strongest influences on the Western European
Biblical references to bastards clearly differentiated them
from the orphan. Orphans enjoyed the special protection of God: "You
shall not afflict any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and
they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry; and my wrath will
burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become
widows and your children fatherless" (Exodus 23:22). Illegitimates,
however, and even their subsequent offspring, were outcast: "No
bastard shall enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth
generation none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the
Lord" (Deuteronomy 23:2). Sexual violation in the Old Testament
sometimes symbolized sin in general, as the following admonition to
the "offspring of the adulterer and the harlot" illustrates:
"Are you not children of transgression, the offspring of deceit, you
who bum with lust among the oaks, under every green tree; slaying
the children in the valleys, under the .clefts of the rocks?" (Isaiah
57:3). Like the literary "bastard villain", biblical bastards
carried automatic associations with other sins or crimes, such as
lying, sorcery, rape and murder.
Indeed, the word "sinister" itself, which originally simply
meant "left," evolved into its modem meaning
of "evil, ominous and threatening"
through association with the baton,
bendlet or bend sinisterthe
heraldic device denoting an Bendlet
Power, land and wealth were passed on to legitimate first-bom male
heirs, through the practice known as primogeniture. Bastards,
especially adulterine ones, like Shakespeare's Philip, represented a
serious threat to this economic system.
Biblical censure of illegitimates was especially regarded by
the later Puritans and formed the philosophical basis of the harsh
English and American laws affecting illegitimate children. Lawmakers
were both concerned with the affront to public morality an
illegitimate child would represent and its potential cost to the
community. The English Poor Law Act of 1576 is such an example:
...firste, concerning Bastards begotten and borne out of lawful
Matrimony (an Offence againste Gods lawe and Mans Lawe) the
said Bastards being now lefte to bee kepte at the chardge of
the Parishe and in defrauding of the Reliefs of the impotente
and aged true Poore of the same Parishe, and to the evill
Example and Encouradgement of lewde Lyef: It ys ordeyned and
enacted...(quoted in Kadushin 414)
The widespread idea of homeless children or destitute mothers and
their children defrauding public funds is illustrated by Dickens in
Oliver Twist, when he sarcastically calls the young parish orphans
"juvenile offenders against the poor-laws" (48).
Recent U.S. government language is attempting to soften the
stigma associated with welfare expenditure by calling it such things
as "entitlement funds," or by using acronyms such as "AFDC" (Aid to
Families with Dependent Children). Modern media debates and public
discussions on welfare reform, however, will still give a listener
many examples of the ages-old charity stigma. Illegitimates are
often grammatically placed in the agent, or subject, position in
documents ranging from public laws (old and new), to religious texts
and course textbooks, making it sound like they themselves decided to
become illegitimate; that it was a conscious choice. A sentence from
a recent social science textbook called Child Welfare Services gives
such an example: "The illegitimately conceived child, like the
deformed child, runs a high risk of being unwanted and constitutes a
higher than normal potential need for child welfare services"
Historically, poorer-class parents could sell or indenture
their surplus children. Illegitimate sons of noblemen were often
sent to their fathers to receive whatever upbringing and educations
they would care to provide for them. Their inability to inherit any
property or carry on the family blood lines is reflected in the terms
"illegitimate" (illicit, illegal), "spurious" (invalid or
unauthorized), "nameless" and "filius/a nullus" (nobody's child).
Early euphemisms for illegitimates also reflect the chance or
accidental natures of their births: "chance child," "pledge of
fortune," or "by-blow" (a fencing term meaning "side shot").
Some of the kinder modern-day euphemisms for nonmarital children
include "woods colt" (colts bom to mares who have run off with a
wild stallion) and "love child," the latter term supposedly a result
of portrayals of the enchanting children of doomed true-lovers in the
novels of Dickens, Hugo, and Hawthorne (Teichman 131). The idea,
however, probably goes back further to the Renaissance, when people
believed that "natural" children were the special favorites of Mother
Nature herself and would inherit their parents' presumed sexual
vitality, beauty, charm, (sneaky) cleverness, and nature's best
powers of survival. This idea does a cohplete turn-around with the
advent of eugenics in the 1870's, whose advocates saw in
illegitimates only an inferior and criminal stock, whose "survival
should not be encouraged" (Rose 170).
Until very recently, illegitimate people were prohibited from
entering certain occupations such as civil service jobs (through the
1950's) or the clergy (restrictions still exist in Catholicism,
Judaism, Islam and other faiths). Birth certificates, which job-
hunters in most U.S. states would be required to show, were either
marked or stamped for illegitimates, or were a different color.
Since women legally took their husbands' names until this became a
matter of personal preference in the 1960's, just having one's
mother's maiden name, or the "matronym," was sufficient to mark a
person as illegitimate.
Family Separation and "Parens Patriae"; The State as Parent
Prior to the establishment of public facilities, infanticide
was probably the most common fate for early illegitimate children, as
Alison Findlay discusses:
The public reaction to illegitimacy was to persecute
children bom out of wedlock and to stress their disadvantaged
state. The title character in Sir William Alexander's play
Croeus (1604) outlines the image which such persecution aimed
to promote (sic): 'A wretch exposed to want, to scome or
paines/The bastard childe of Fortune, barr'd from blisse/ Whom
heavens do hate and all the world disdanes' (2.1.371).
The most immediate form of persecution was the murder of
the bastard baby. A sense of shame and a fear of punishment,
combined with the financial problems a bastard baby raised, led
many unmarried women to terminate their pregnancies or murder
their offspring. A Renaissance obstetrician, Percival
Willoughby, associated the crime of infanticide with 'the
looser sort' of women (by which he meant bastard-bearers) and
research shows that illegitimates were its main victims
(Writson 1975: 11:12). In Essex between 1558 and 1603, twenty-
seven of thirty recorded cases involved bastards. The forms of
murder included drowning in wells and ponds; suffocation by
pillow, in a haystack, in an oven, in a chest; the cutting of
the babies' throats, strangulation, beating to death with a
bedpost; live burial, abandonment in ditches and open places
exposed to the elements (Emison 1970: 157). The extent of
infanticides was such that, ironically, an Act had to be passed
in 1624 to (sic) 'prevent the murthering of Bastard
children'...Public condemnation of murder (even before 1624)
encouraged parents to find more subtle ways of disposing of
bastard babies. Infanticidal nursing was one such method,
where the child was delivered to the 'care' of a woman who
would kill it with neglect. (Findlay 28-29)
Bastardy was, at first, a private family problem and infanticide or
"infanticidal nursing" the common solution, especially for children
of the lower classes. Eventually, this changed into a public issue
and illegitimate children began to be included in their community's
The English Poor Law Act of 1601 could be considered the
beginning of the social welfare system, both English and American.
Women at that time were still publicly disgraced and sometimes
whipped or imprisoned for giving birth to an illegitimate child, but
the authorities began to require whomever they named as the child's
father, or "affiliated the child upon," to be responsible for its
support and education. Often the putative father would simply leave,
as illustrated in "Blarney's Rambles," one of the period's "Wild
Rover" type ballads (Shutt 11): "So for fear of a fray, I took my
body away, And she saddled her brat on the parish."
If fortunate, a deserted mother and child could live at their
home and obtain public funds, called "outdoor relief"the precursor
to Aid to Families with Dependent Children. The less fortunate
mothers would be forced to abandon their children in what was termed
"indoor relief"the Almshouse, Poorhouse, or Workhouse. As these
institutions usually provided the only resource for any and all
social pathologies, illegitimate children would be housed together
with the insane, aged poor, disabled, and ill. The idea of a parish,
state or government acting as a parent, or "parens patriae" gave us
such terms as "filius/a populi" (child of the people) and the modem
"wards of the state."
Thomas Malthus, the population economist, heavily influenced
the authors of the English Poor Law of 1834 when he argued that
"bastardy could be checked by shifting the responsibility on to the
mother, and denying her the support of the Poor Law" (Rose 27). The
theory didn't work in practice, as between 40,000 to 44,000
illegitimate babies continued to be bom each year in Britain from
the passage of the law until the rate lowered slightly after 1890.
We can compare this to 878,477 nonmarital live births in the U.S. in
1986. Figures show that nearly one third of all births in the U.S.
in 1992 (30.1%) were nonmarital.
The 1834 changes in the Poor law resulted in perhaps the
harshest of all environments for the illegitimate child. This
specific law was the target of Dickens's criticism when he wrote his
second novel, Oliver Twist, in 1837. Unwed mothers were no longer
able to obtain or even ask for any support from their children's
fathers or "outdoor relief," and all funds for 'indoor relief'
assistance were cut to the very bone. Orphan Asylums, often with a
religious affiliation, would only admit bereaved children from
respectable married families, as it was the prevailing belief that
bastard children were tainted morally and mentally, and were destined
to become criminals or "bom to be hung," as a board member remarked
about Oliver Twist (58). Indeed, the highest values of Victorian
society seem to have been wealth, morality, and marriage, and what
could be in more direct conflict with those values than illegitimate
pauper children? Mothers would place such children in "baby farms,"
because they were unable to support the children or face the stigma
to themselves. As discussed in the Report to the Select Committee on
the Protection of Infant Life partially cited below, the mortality
rate in Victorian baby farms was extremely high60% to 93%, as
compared to an 11% infant mortality rate among the "well-to-do", and
a 35% rate among the urban working class (Rose 7):
In Victorian England, unwed mothers were practically forced to
give up their babies, who were then sent to baby-farming houses
where they were fed 'a mixture of laudanum, lime, cornflour,
water, milk and washing powder...with rare exceptions they all
of them die in a very short time.' (Adamec xix)
The Victorian baby farms were a continuation of the type of
infanticidal nursing Defoe describes in Moll Flanders in the previous
Illegitimate children who became abandoned, or "dropped
babies," were known as "foundlings." Foundling hospitals or "rescue
missions for fallen women" were early forms of "homes for unwed
mothers," where women could go to give birth to and relinquish their
infants in secret. These earlier institutions were selective in
their own waythey would only take women on the "first fall." A
1918 "criminal science monograph," called the Unmarried Mother by
Percy Kammerer, coined the term "case study," when he interviewed
numerous women from such an institution, trying to collect data on
what factors correlated with the high crime rate then associated with
In the early twentieth century/ "natural," "out-of wedlock"
(both present-day legal terms) or "nonmarital children" (the newest
preferred term of social workers) began to be admitted into, and soon
became the majority population of, orphaned children's institutions.
Local communities would sometimes categorically censure orphanage
residents and want them separated from their own children: "...there
was a felt need for institutions where the abandoned and the orphaned
could be housed together. (Was this, one wonders where the stigma
attached to the one began to be transferred to the other?" [Simpson
Children's Homes tended to, and were expected to, emphasize
vocational education. This seems to have even been the case back in
1742, as the Hogarth drawing of the London Foundling Hospital on the
next page shows (Figure 1.1). Although a boy and a girl in the
drawing each hold symbols for reading and writing, the other children
hold tools for the envisioned occupations the rescued foundlings will
be expected to enterthe boys to be farmers, soldiers, and sailors,
and the girls to be domestic servants and weavers.
Headpiece to a power of attorney, appointing persons to colled alms for the Foundling
Hospital in 1742, specially drawn by II. Hogarth. C.aptain C.oram carries the Charter
Language has always played a crucial role in creating and
sustaining the stigma of illegitimacy: "Texts exploring women's
potential to produce illegitimate children expose patrilinear
genealogy as a fragile cultural construct. If legitimacy was
something created through language, then so was bastardy" (Findlay
18). Many of the institutions providing for children without parents
took on a milieu and a language almost resembling that of a prison
Language shifted in most places dramatically around the 1960's
to a collegiate lexicon and reflected a change from the institutional
to a more relaxed and individualistic environment. Children who were
formerly called "inmates" on official reports are now called
Bessie Robertson, Cook, and Carla Swan Department Toddlers,
Colorado State Children's Home, 1953.
According to two alumni (Lucero and Grosswiler), the
resemblance of the boys' overalls to prison uniforms was not
coincidental. The overalls had been made in the state prison with
the same fabric as was used for convict uniforms.
(Courtesy of Jim Lucero, fourth child from the left)
formerly called "inmates" on official reports are now called
"alumni," "matrons" became "houseparents," "wards" (with sometimes up
to forty beds) became "dormitories" (often four, or even two, beds to
a room). "Departments" became "cottages," and the orphanage
"installation" became known as "campus." "Lock-up," a sometimes
several-day solitary confinement especially used for children who ran
away, disappeared as a punishment around the same time, as did
institutional child labor. This humanizing of language reflected a
lifting of the illegitimacy stigma brought about by such broad social
movements as the "sexual revolution", the civil rights movement and
feminism. These have done much to soften the moral taint of
illegitimacy by helping to change society's ideas. The "sexual
revolution" changed the way many persons, from all classes, regarded
and conducted intimate relationships. What was formerly called
"living in sin" or "illegal cohabitation" became a legal and
(largely) socially acceptable relationship choice. As soon as the
definitions and boundaries of relationships expanded and altered,
having children outside of those bounds became acceptable in due
course, and the moral aspect of the stigma lifted for mothers and
their children. The civil rights movement emphasized the value of
every individual and sensitized the population to existing prejudices
against people based on conditions beyond their control, which would
include a person's birth status. Feminism helped women make changes
in their work roles. Greater earnings and better education for women
began to make it possible for single mothers to keep and provide for
their offspring. Some women today, in fact, choose to become single
mothers deliberately, and many nonmarital children are now kept and
raised by their mothers, with and without support and visitation
arrangements with their birthfathers.
Unfortunately, some of the stigma long associated with children
in public custody is still in strong effect. Most children in public
care are from what one article referred to as "family fragments":
"In lieu of 'family,' some scholars in the field prefer the term
'family fragments' to designate the mother-child groupings that are
forever moving in and out of combination with boyfriends, aunts,
cousins, and grandmothers" (MacDonald 4). Orphanages were disbanded
in the early 1970's when the federally-sponsored foster care system
took over. At that time, some of the former facilities, calling
themselves "residential treatment centers," changed their missions
and populations and began to serve troubled youth, adding to the
public's association of homeless young people with delinquent or
mentally and emotionally ill youth. Although the automatic moral
taint of illegitimacy is for the most part gone, there are still
cruel and unjust prejudices and stereotypes associated with the
nearly 500,000 children in foster care group hones (Kools 263).
These children face a very similar stigma to the one that plagued
centuries of illegitimate persons, even though most became separated
from their original family environments not because of anything they
had done, but because they were victims of abuse, neglect or severe
parental problems, especially drug-related ones: "I am so determined
to get the hell out of here! Here, they see me as a depressed,
unreasonable girl. Of course I'm depressed! Of course I'm
unreasonable! Who wouldn't be the way they treat youlike a
criminal!" (Kools 266). Runaways or children kicked-out of foster
homes are called "throwaway youth," "street youth," "push-outs" and
"system youth" (multiple-foster-home children). These harsh terms
portend problems within our current system, and most especially
indicate that it is stretched to its capacity and beyond.
In the mid-1990's the idea of orphanages resurfaced as one
possible solution to the problems of our over-extended foster care
system. Once again, the literary images of Charles Dickens entered
the political and social arena with a powerful effect, as the
following article points out:
...the orphanage's sudden appearance required
participants to construct and make sense of the orphanage
as they argued for or against its implementation. The
orphanage was not a stable signifier whose meaning and
significance could be discerned easily. In situations
like this one, where the object of debate is as much in
doubt as the issues under contention, how do people
deliberate public issues? The answer is that we
construct the objects of our deliberations through our
discourse...Certain camps likened orphanages to the
institutions depicted in such literary works and films as
Oliver Twist and Annie. Orphanages were construed as
dreary and desolate places. The term suggested austere
brick buildings with chimneys continually bellowing
plumes of smoke. The daily lives of the orphanage's
inhabitants were characterized as highly regimented.
Children were thought to be crowded into sterile living
conditions coupled with inadequate diets. Their
overworked keepers treated them as anonymous units. The
association with manufacturing plants and penal
institutions was not coincidental...(Asen 295-297)
The political influence of Dickens was remarkable even in his own
time. Oliver Twist was only his second novel, and yet it affected
public opinion enough to bring about concrete reforms to the targeted
1834 English Poor Law. What is even more remarkable, however, is the
novel's lingering influence on American child welfare in the present
SHAKESPEAREAN BASTARD CHARACTERS
By the Elizabethan period, definite literary conventions could
be distinguished regarding the portrayal of bastard characters.
Early stereotypes are especially distinguishable in the works of
Shakespeare. Shakespeare developed five bastard characters for his
plays which we may look to for clarification of the stereotype:
Edmund of King Lear, the quintessential "bastard usurper"; Philip of
King John, a rare heroic portrayal; Aaron the Moor's and Tamara's son
in Titus Andronicus. a biracial newborn; Caliban in The Tempest, a
"demon spawn" type; and Thersites in Troilus and Cressida. one of
Shakespeare's many fool figures. Perdita, the infant princess in A
Winter's Tale, seems to have been Shakespeare's only treatment of a
female illegitimate. Perdita was not in truth illegitimate, but her
father, in a fit of jealously, believed her to be another man's child
and ordered her to be abandoned in a foreign wilderness.
Edmund and Philip
Edmund and Philip are the most fully developed of Shakespeare's
bastard characters; they have central villain and protagonist roles
in their respective dramas, and most of the convention's features can
can be seen in them. They both begin their plays in a state of
conflict with their half-brothers over inheritance. The law of
primogeniture, of course, prevented Elizabethan illegitimates from
inheriting land or power, even when they were the male firstborn, and
so the initial trait of the stereotype is that of one dispossessed
from, in conflict with, and often, but not always, cast out of his
biological family. Philip, an adulterine bastard, is different from
Edmund from the outset because his mother was the wife of an absentee
husband at the time of his birth, while Edmund's mother was
unmarried. This is the main reason that Philip's suit is adjudicated
in his favor. In an action uncharacteristic of a bastard usurper
(but not a picaroa future bastard stereotype), he surrenders his
newly-won land to his half-brother, shrugs off his losses and goes
off to make his own fortune as a soldier.
Edmund, unlike Philip, lays plots to snare his half-brother's
inheritance, by any means necessary: "Let me, if not by birth, have
lands by wit: All with me's meet that I can fashion fit" (Lr.
1.3.180). When growing up, Edmund did not have to face the
destitution and mortal danger common to lower class children, but
instead was educated and provided for by his aristocratic
birthfather. Thus envy, ambition, and greed, undoubtedly even
hatred, rather than need, motivate Edmond's treason against his
family and the state. The bastard usurper stereotype, then, is
traditionally seditious, greedy, materialistic, and "behaves
unnaturally towards siblings as well as parents, usually in the
pursuit of their ambitions" (Findlay 92).
Most literary illegitimates have some type of contact with or
knowledge of biological family members, although these are almost
always depicted as disturbing and problematic relationships.
Philip's warm and friendly relationships with his birth relatives are
very unusual. It is clear that Philip experienced some censure in
the household of his mother's husband, Sir Robert Faulconbridge, and
half-brother, Robert, from one of his remarks: "Zounds! I was never
so bethump'd with words Since I first call'd my brother's father dad"
(Jn. 2.1.466). This censure does not seem to have caused him to
brood and fester, however, like Edmund does over his slights. Philip
becomes completely accepted and welcomed by his paternal and royal
uncle and grandmother, and is given his birthfather's name: "I like
thee well...I am thy grandam, Richard, call me so" (Jn. 1.1.148ff).
Edmund, on the other hand, has been poorly treated by his
father. Gloucester had "blush'd to acknowledge" Edmund and refers to
him in court as "knave" and "whoreson" (Lr. 1.1.21ff). He had also
apparently sent him away in the course of his upbringing, and was
planning to again: "He hath been out nine years, and away he shall
again" (Lr. 1.1.31). Gloucester instills jealousy in Edmund when he
speaks of his other son, Edgar, in terms of a "true or real" child:
"But I have a son, Sir, by order of law, some year elder than
this..." (Lr. 1.1.18). There is also a difference in the way the two
mens' mothers were treated. Lady Faulconbridge is received with
courtesy by Philip, and is, in fact, presented to the King's court as
the mother of Coeur-de-Lion's "reputed son": "Madam, I would not wish
a better father. Same sins do bear their privilege on earth, And so
doth yours: your fault was not your folly" (Jn. 1.1.260ff). In
contrast, Edmund's mother, of unspecified social rank, is called, in
front of Edmund, a "whore" by Edmund's father (Lr. 1.1.22) and "the
dark and vicious place where thee he got" by his brother (Lr.
5.3.169). Shakespeare is not implicitly condemning the common
treatment of bastards by his characterizations and contrasts. He
was, rather, a major creator of the stereotype. Philip, although a
heroic bastard portrayal, by understanding his powerless "place" in
the world order, serves to parallel and vilify King John, who had
overstepped his own authority and, in doing so, harmed the country.
In addition to the social and economic outcast status of
"filius nullus," bastards were outcasts of religion. The Elizabethan
idea of bastardy implied that the children were, in their
conceptions, the product of sin, stained or branded "with a certein
prive mark in their souls" (Neill 276), and were cut off from God.
Both Philip and Edmund are religious "irregulars." Philip says:
"Since kings break faith upon commodity, Gain, be my lord, for I will
worship thee!" (Jn. 2.2.597). Philip is sometimes described as an
anti-Catholic spokesperson, which he often is, but rather, at least
in his early scenes, religion doesn't seem to be important to him, in
general. When John asks him to plunder the Catholic abbeys, he
replies: "Bell, book and candle shall not drive me back When gold
and silver becks me to come on: I leave your highness. Grandam, I
will prayIf ever I remember to be holyFor your fair safety" (Jn.
3.3.22ff). There are even two underworld references made to Philip
during the play, the first spoken by Philip to Salisbury, the second
from Salisbury about Philip: "Or I'll so maul you. ..that you shall
think the divel is come from hell" (4.3.99) and "That misbegotten
divel, Faulconbridge, In spite of spite, alone upholds the day" (Jn.
5.4.4). The underworld references point out a common affiliation of
bastard characters to hell, demonic and devil imagery. Philip's
moral and religious character develops positively in the course of
the play, however. He changes from the "madcap" who outlandishly
advises the Kings of France and England to level Angiers to the
ground and afterward fight over who shall be king, into a sound
military leader and moderate peacekeeper: "whate'er you think, good
words, I think were best...therefore 'twere reason you had manners
now" (Jn. 4.3.28ff) and again"Keep the peace, I say" (Jn
4.3.94). Philip's true moral test comes at John's death, and, unlike
John, Philip makes a selfless decision and relinquishes the English
...the Bastard is exactly in the same position upon John's
death as John was upon Richard's death: both wield the power
over the kingdom de facto and both have a younger nephew whose
rights to the crown are more legitimate than their own...By
putting right above might the Bastard, on the contrary, paves
the way for national unity and strength. (Bonjour 175)
Although Philip started the play as anti-religious, or at least as an
anti-Catholic, he must have created a much more religiously
acceptable impression with his audience by the play's end with his
prayer "Withhold thine indignation, mighty heaven, And tempt us not
to bear above our power!" (Jn. 5.6.37).
Probably the most enduring and multi-faceted trait coming down
through the centuries has been the illegitimate's primal association
with nature, and especially nature in a dangerous or fallen form.
Even linguistically to this day, "natural" is the word employed in
legal documents to denote a person bom out of wedlock. Edmund, as a
"natural" son, literally consecrates himself to nature: "Thou,
Nature, art my goddess; to thy law My services are bound" (Lr.
1.2.1). His natural traits would be tenacity, cunning, and the
"alpha male" ambition of the animal world (2.1.77,82ff). Edmund's
practices first succeed in getting his brother Edgar bastardized and
dispossessed ("I never got him"). He then takes his brother's place
("and of my land, Loyal and natural boy, I'll work the means to make
thee capable") and, finally, follows nature's law "survival of the
fittest" when he replaces his father as Duke of Gloucester: "That
which my father loses; no less than all: The younger rises when the
old doth fall" (Lr. 3.4.24). Edmund makes an unsuccessful attempt,
after he is mortally wounded, to redeem himself "Despite of mine own
nature" (Lr. 5.3.242), by contrition, confession and amends. But he
is too late to save those he has had murdered, namely Cordelia, and,
subsequently, the King. In this sense, therefore, the word "natural"
means savage, dangerous, and uncivilized; an outlaw: "The adjective
'natural' denotes a bastard's metaphorical exclusion from culture,
from divine spirit and human law" (Findlay 129).
A superstition about bastards being physically favored by
nature is said to have come from the practice of abandoning
illegitimate children in wilderness areas, where nature theoretically
took them as her own and imparted her gifts: "It draws on a common
belief that bastards, rejected by society, were therefore specially
favoured by nature...the type's superior intelligence was accompanied
by physical strengths and a natural vigour...The physical conception
of a bastard was usually viewed as a stealthy and passionate union of
strong loves, thereby wit, passion, and liveliness was imparted to
the offspring" (Findlay 130-131). Both Philip and Edmund voice these
superstitions below, and clearly find themselves more attractive and
interesting than their legitimate half-brothers:
Philip: But whe'r I be as true begot or no, That still I lay upon
my mother's head; but that I am as well begot, my
liege...An were our father, and this son like him, 0 old
Sir Robert, father, on my knee I give heaven thanks I was
not like to thee! (Jn. 1.1.75ff)
Edmund: Why brand they us with base? with baseness? bastardy?
base, base? Who in the lusty stealth of nature take More
composition and fierce quality Than doth, within a dull,
stale, tired bed, Go to th'creating a whole tribe of
fops, Got 'tween asleep and wake? (Lr. 2.1.10ff)
Nearly universal characteristics of bastard characters are
their self-definitions and their curiously shifting, and often
anonymous, identities. No other literary type can be so easily and
instantly reborn again and again as someone completely new. To begin
with, the exclusion from family and society forces the bastard to
constantly shape and define himself, usually in response to his
environment. Both Philip and Edmund make "I am me" statements at the
beginning of each of the plays: Philip tells his grandmother: "Near
or far off, well won is still well shot, And I am I, howe'er I was
begot" (Jn. 1.1.169ff). Edmund speaks his sarcastic, but funny,
credo: "Fut! I should have been that I am had the maidenliest star
in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing" (Lr. 1.2.128ff).
Edmund never gets beyond his own ego or a definition of himself in
completely materialistic terms. His ambition is the only thing that
grows, and that grows considerably, from his brother's inheritance to
the crown itself. Philip, however, by understanding "his place" and
by refusing the power his abilities earned him, is depicted as moving
beyond the interest of self to what is best for the community,
although he begins the play with the same self-seeking motives as
An important psychological difference between Philip and Edmund
was that Philip, technically legitimate, voluntarily chose his
bastardy and that choice involved both the truth of his identity and
affiliation with his heroic birthfather and his father's royal
relatives. To settle the play's initial conflict between Philip and
his half-brother, Robert, King John declared Philip legitimate after
the manner of "the proverbe, my cow, my calfe: the bull is not
regarded" (Clerke 41): "Sirrah, your brother is legitimate; Your
father's wife did after wedlock bear him" (Jn. 1.1.116). When he is
given the choice of legitimacy and land as a Faulconbridge or to be
the "reputed son of Coeur-de-Lion, Lord of thy presence and no land
beside" (Jn. 1.1.134ff)/ Philip is delighted to dispossess himself as
a Faulconbridge and became the son of Richard I, taking his natural
father's name. Philip creates his positive identity by choosing to
emulate his birthfather's legendary qualities of courage, leadership
and honor. His identity shifts and grows from "eldest son, As I
suppose, to Robert Faulconbridge" (Jn. 1.1.50ff) to "Philip, good
old Sir Robert's wive's eldest son" (Jn. 1.1.12) to "Sir Richard, and
Plantagenet" (Jn. 1.1.12). Eventually, when Philip acts as
spokesperson for John, the irony is that the words could apply to
himself: "Now hear our English king, For thus his royalty doth speak
in me" (Jn. 5.2.128). In his last speech "Nought shall make us rue If
England to itself do rest but true!" (Jn. 5.7.117) the change from
the earlier "I am I", to the national "we" can be seen. In contrast,
Edmund, who defined himself only by jealousy, ambition, greed and
destructive ethics, becomes in death "a trifle" (Lr. 5.3.294).
Bastard characters who do not know their original identities,
unlike Edmund and Philip, are probably more the norm, especially in
later works. It was (and still is) an especially common feature for
illegitimates to have an unknown father. Findlay cites a 1545 work
which defined the bastard as one having "an uncertayne father and a
naughty mother." She goes on to say that "the relative anonymity of
bastards marks them off as essentially 'other' rather than socially
integrated" (Findlay 21).
A classic problem of anonymity was the potential for incest.
Oedipus and Moll Flanders would be two examples of foundlings who
unknowingly marry and have children with their next of kin. In
addition to accidental incest, the stereotyped bastard is often
involved in deliberate incest, such as Edmund, who seduces two
married queens who are sisters to each other, and Moll Flanders, who
simultaneously has sexual relations with two men who are brothers to
each other. It is another device for depicting the bastard's
uncontrollability, his destructiveness to the family and his inborn
and "complete disregard for conventional morality" (Findlay 20).
Probably one of the more interesting roles for an illegitimate
character is that of commentator or narrator. Most illegitimates
hold unique positions as being both blood relatives and insiders and
simultaneously being, literally or emotionally, outcasts, and
outsiders. Their relationships to audiences and readers are usually
characterized by insight, candor, and humor, especially humor of a
bawdy and/or self-mocking type. Philip and Edmund both make direct
addresses to the audience and act as commentators or chorus.
Although Edmund's relationship to the audience would not be likely to
arouse sympathy, being conspiratorial and evil, Philip's "country
manners" (Jn. 1.1.156) and humorous remarks are a different matter:
"True to type, he stands outside the inner framework of this play,
mainly as a commentator. Whether or not he is the chorus, as many
have thought, his irrepressible candour, which dovetails with the
functions of a chorus, makes him immensely likeable. (Jn. Intro,
Aaron the Moor, the black arch-villain of Titus Andronicus.
fathered a biracial child on Tamara, the white empress, and conquered
queen, married to Rome's white emperor. The newborn is sent to its
father to be killed, as the following dialogue discloses, but Aaron
decides to keep and protect his son and kills the nurse instead:
Aaron: What dost thou wrap and fumble in thine arms?
Nurse. Oh, that which I would hide from Heaven's eye Our Empress' shame and stately Rome's disgrace! She is delivered, lords, she is delivered.
Aaron: To whom?
Nurse: I mean she is brought abed.
Aaron: Well, God give her good rest! What hath he sent her?
Nurse: A devil.
Aaron: Why, then she is the devil's damA joyful issue.
Nurse: A joyless, dismal, black and sorrowful issue. Here is the babe, as loathsome as a toad amongst the fairest breeders of our clime. The Empress sends it thee, thy stamp, thy seal and bids thee christen it with thy dagger's point. (Tit. 4.2.58ff)
Aaron's character does not improve with fatherhood. He remains a
totally evil figure until his death, reveling in the mischief and
grief he causes. His defense of the baby is a type of self-
preservation, as he regards the infant as ''this myself, the vigor and
picture of my youth" (4.3.107). He does appear to love the child and
refers to it as his treasure and that which he prefers before all the
world (4.3.109), but it is because he sees the baby as both himself
and as a symbol of evil. Aaron's son is a good example of how the
illegitimate child, historically and to the present day, has been
regarded not as a fresh individual, but as indistinguishable from
irresponsible or criminal parents or their acts. Illegitimates are
viewed as ones who will even surpass their parents' faults and are
seen as living embodiments of sin, predestined for villainy.
In such a sense, Aaron clearly takes delight in his child
because it is proof of his adultery with the empress. Aaron is proud
of his evil nature and, at the point of his execution, rather than
repent the horrible deeds he has done, he only wishes he had done
more of them: "If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it
from my very soul" (5.3.185ff). Aaron has no respect for innocent
life, in fact he makes a brag of routinely "accusing some innocent"
(5.1.130), and murders at least several innocent people in the play
with his own hands (the midwife and the nurse), and so his defense of
the baby is not humanitarian. He refers to his new son as villain,
calf, and slave, and plans to raise him as a warrior and commander.
Aaron regards the baby as the incarnation of his own evil.
The baby's father is a traitor, foreign, black, adulterous, and
what an Elizabethan Christian would consider a religious "infidel,"
whether Islamic (a Moor) or Jewish (Aaron?), or some combination.
The bastard, therefore, is the symbol of infiltration of the alien,
and sometimes enemy, "Other" into closed and xenophobic social
structures. Unlike Aaron's baby, historically children of racially,
culturally, and religiously mixed unions were most commonly abandoned
by their relatives in both cultures. In this characterization, then,
the bastard fleshes out into a symbol of transgression of all types
of boundaries: moral, legal, racial, social, and religious. Aaron's
baby is seen as an extension of Aaron, a devil figure, a newborn
embodiment of evil. This type of portrayal, the "demon spawn" type,
can perhaps be better seen in Caliban.
The Bastard as Fool: Caliban and Thersites
The Tempest's Caliban may be regarded as the definitive "demon
spawn" type of bastard portrayal, being the offspring of not merely
wicked parents, like the son of Aaron and Tamara, but was "got by the
Devil himself Upon [a] wicked dam," the witch, Sycorax, (1.2.320ff).
Prospero, the magician shipwrecked on Caliban's island, initially
fostered him, and later enslaved him after he tried to rape Miranda,
Caliban: This island's mine, by Sycorax my mother, Which thou
takest from me. When thou earnest first, Thou strokest
me, and madest much of me...And then I loved thee, and
showed thee all the qualities o' th' isle, The fresh
springs, brine pits, barren place and fertile. Cursed be
that I did so! All the charms of Sycorax, toads, beetles,
bats, light on you! For I am all the subjects that you
have, Which first was mine own king. And here you sty me
In this hard rock whiles you so keep from me The rest o'
Prospero: Thou most lying slave, Whom stripes may move, not
kindness! I have used thee, Filth as thou art, with human
care, and lodged thee in mine own cell till thou didst
seek to violate The honor of my child.
Caliban: Oh ho, oh ho! Would 't had been done! Thou didst
prevent me. I had peopled else This isle with Calibans.
Both Caliban's uncontrollable sexuality and his striking
understanding of all of the natural "qualities" of his island are
common traits of the bastard stereotype.
Thersites, like Caliban, is a slave, serving the Greek heroes
of the Trojan War in Troilus and Cressida. Because he is referred to
at one point as "Mistress Thersites" (2.1.39) and because of his
affiliation with the Greek camp, he is most often staged as
homosexual. His function in the play is that of fool, cynic and
mocking observer, as his commentary about the Trojan War
Thersites: The cuckhold and the cuckold-maker are at it. Now, bull!
Now, dog! 'Loo, Paris, 'loo! Now, my double-henned
sparrow! 'Loo, Paris, 'loo! The bull has the game.
'Ware horns, ho!
(Exit Paris and Menelaus. Enter Margarelon.)
Margarelon: Turn, slave, and fight.
Thersites: What art thou?
Margarelon: A bastard son of Priam's.
Thersites: I'm a bastard too, I love bastards. I am a bastard
begot, bastard instructed, bastard in mind, bastard in
valor, in everything illegitimate. One bear will not
bite another, and wherefore should one bastard? Take
heed, if the son of a whore fight for a whore, he tempts
judgement. Farewell, bastard. (Tro. 5.8.9ff)
Thersites is a participant in the war, and yet he stands apart from
the action, demonstrating the bastard's ideal position as a
commentator. His license, seen, for example, in his references to
Helen of Troy as a "whore" and Menelaus as a "cuckhold", is a trait
shared by both the bastard and the fool. Sometimes the combination
of license, insight and commentary can create a type of "wise fool,"
even with buffoon types like Thersites and Caliban. Such fool
figures can often get away with remarks which would have been
censored in other characters (and their authors).
In Caliban and Thersites we have good examples of the bastard
in his role as fool. Early jesters or buffoons probably feigned or
imitated madness to earn their livings by entertaining at courts and
rich households. It is yet another usage and association of the word
"natural" with the bastard, this time meaning an idiot or a lunatic.
Fools were often portrayed as fertility spirits and symbolized the
life force of nature and "the 'disorderly1 life of the body through
which alone the race can go on" (Broder 35). Like the bastard in the
Christian morality plays, the fool was associated with the devil
(Broder 15) and the "Lord of Misrule," opponent of celestial order.
In her work, Positive Folly. Broder calls the fool figure "that
spirit of life, freedom, rebellion and play" (43). She delineates
two paramount features of the fool: "we will recognize the fool by
his rejection of, or disrespect for, reason, and by the fact that he
is allowed to speak out without punishment against reason and the
society it rules" and "he symbolizes the dark, unconscious side of
man...the irrational and invincible life force...a great affirmation
of life in the face of death...joy in the face of tragedy" (5-8).
The fool and the bastard share qualities of license and rebellion,
and they both act as symbols of the lifeforce in its uncontrollable
Most bastard portrayals, even sinister or pathetic ones,
contain an element of humor, the existence of the bastard himself
often being the punchline. Self-deprecation is especially common, as
the following exchange shows:
Hector: Art thou of blood and honor?
Thersites: No, no, I am a rascal, a scurvy railing knave, a very
filthy rogue. (Tro. 5.4.29ff)
Bastards were favorite laughingstocks for those wanting to "bethump
with words," to borrow Philip's phrase. Some of Shakespeare's most
inspired insults are levelled at his bastard characters. Ajax calls
Thersites: "Dog," "bitch wolf's son," "vinewed'st (mildewed)
leaven," "Toadstool," "porpentine" (porcupine), "whoreson cur,"
"stool (privy) for a witch," "cur," and "fool" (Tro. 2.1. 8ff). A
drunken Trinculo refers to Caliban in rapid succession as a "strange
fish," "beast," "monster" (also monster with the preceding
adjectives: shallow-, weak-, credulous-, perfidious-, puppy-headed-,
scurvy-, poor-, ridiculous-, howling-, drunken- and brave-), "devil,"
and "mooncalf" (a misshapen monster, a freak) (Tmp. 2.2.25ff).
The most common descriptors for Elizabethan bastards are sub-
human and especially involve livestock, dog, and feral imagery,
garbage and filth, devils, beasts, monsters, and witches, or
worthless and counterfeit money, as the following lines, written in
1617, show: What title shall I set to this base coin? He has no
name." (John Webster's The Devil's Law Case 4.2.127 [Findlay 21])
It is no wonder that with such a verbal tradition behind us, our
language's most sincere insults still refer to people whose parents
weren't married (at least to one another).
A Winter's Tale is one of Shakespeare's last plays and
contains his sole female treatment of bastardy. He borrowed the
plot, and the female ("so-called") bastard, freely from a popular
work by Robert Greene called Pandosto: The Triumph of Time.
published in 1588. A Winter's Tale is almost a fairy-tale, in which
the jealous king of Sicilia, Leontes, suspects his wife, Hermione, of
infidelity with his friend, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. Leontes
declares Hermione's newborn daughter, Perdita, a bastard and sends
her into the wilderness to be exposed:
Shall I live on to see this bastard kneel and call me father?
Better burn it now than curse it then...We enjoin thee, as thou
art liegeman to us, that thou carry This female bastard hence,
and that thou bear it To some remote and desert place quite out
Of our dominions, and that there thou leave it, Without more
mercy, to its own protection And favor of the climate. As by
strange fortune It came to us, I do in justice charge thee, On
thy soul's peril and thy body's torture, That thou commend it
strangely to some place Where chance may nurse or end it. Take
it up. (WT. 2.3.155ff)
The baby, whose name comes from the latin "perdo" and means "she who
was lost," is taken to Bohemia and left in a wilderness area, where
her conveyor is immediately chased off and killed by a bear. Perdita
is soon found and adopted by a shepherd and, after the passing of
years, is seen as a beautiful young woman presiding over the
sheepshearing festival as its queen, doling out gifts of flowers and
herbs to her country guests. She has been courted by a young man,
the incognito Prince of Bohemia, Polixenes1 son. After his identity
is revealed and his father forbids the marriage, the couple elope and
run away to Sicilia, Perdita's original homeland. Perdita's true
identity is discovered, the honor of her mother and herself are
restored, her family is reunited, and her marriage blessed,
fulfilling an Oracle of Apollo's prophecy:
Hermione is chaste: Polixenes blameless: Camillo a true
subject: Leontes a jealous tyrant: his innocent babe truly
begotten: and the King shall live without an heir if that
which is lost be not found (WT. 3.2.133ff).
The description of the baby's exposure and her pastoral role as
shepherdess underscore the traditional bastard's connection with
nature and also with chance or fortune. Perdita, against all odds,
unknowingly fulfills her expected destiny as a royal princess by
forming a beneficial marriage alliance with a neighboring prince.
Ironically, if Leontes was right and Perdita were a bastard and the
child of Polixenes, as she was condemned for being, she would have
eloped with her half-brother, touching on the incest theme again.
Shakespeare's play was not performed until after Queen
Elizabeth's death in 1603; however, Greene's work Pandosto was
written at the height of her reign and there may have been an implied
connection between Perdita, (or "Fawnia" in Greene's version) and
Elizabeth herself. The story of a princess being cruelly bastardized
and sent away by her father was Elizabeth's own. Henry VIII had
Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, beheaded for infidelity when
Elizabeth was two years old and their daughter was declared
She was formally bastardised by the savagely worded Act of
Succession of July 1536 and deprived of the title of Princess.
The Act said Anne Boleyn had confessed to impediments in her
marriage to 'the most reverend father in God, Thomas Archbishop
of Canterbury'. It barred Elizabeth from the succession,
making it treason to refer to either Mary or Elizabeth as
legitimate. (Perry 20)
Elizabeth was again automatically bastardized when her half-sister,
Mary, became queen and upheld the validity of Henry's first marriage
to her own mother, Katherine of Aragon. Mary disputed her right to
the throne by saying that Elizabeth was the child of Mark Smeaton,
Anne Boleyn's lute player and alleged lover, whom Elizabeth was said
to resemble, or the child of others:
There was a brief period in the summer of 1536 when it was said
openly that Elizabeth was not the King's child. After the
sensational charges against Anne, who was accused of adultery
with six men, one of them her own brother, the Court was a
hotbed of gossip. (Perry 17)
Elizabeth may have been the inspiration for Perdita/Fawnia, the
falsely accused but fully vindicated princess, who returns and
restores hope and happiness to her country.
Summary of the Traditional Bastard Literary Convention
Literary bastards in Shakespeare's works seem to arrange
themselves into two general categories. Those with royal parents,
like Edmund, Philip, Aaron's son, and Perdita, represented a threat
or potential threat to proper patrilinear succession of power. They
were seen as having a seditious relationship to the state, the state
being the same thing as or closely connected to their royal families.
Even as newborns, these have the role of traitor, usurper or alien
intruder. The second type, such as Caliban or Thersites, were fool
figures, and especially served as living symbols of vice after the
morality play tradition.
Because of their circumstances, many common qualities can be
delineated in bastard characters. Some are distinctive and seem to
have followed them down through the centuries, such as their
association with nature and with sin, their lost or shifting
identities, their vulnerability, loneliness, and self-definition.
Although most illegitimates are indistinguishable from orphans,
many have, or will have, some type of contact with or knowledge of
biological family members, although these will almost always be
depicted as disturbing and problematic relationships. It is
especially the norm for illegitimates to have unknown fathers. Often
the quest for or revelation of identity comprises one of the plots or
subplots of a work. They are usually dispossessed and often in
conflict with their biological families. Many, especially those from
the middle and lower classes, were abandoned or sent away and are
destitute and/or are in some type of mortal danger. Illegitimates
are, by necessity, self-defined, and nearly always have changing, and
often anonymous, identities.
Virtually all illegitimate characters have strong associations
with nature in numerous usages of the word: their affiliation with
nature in its savage aspect is seen as imparting to them a powerful
sense of survival; they are usually depicted as being physically
favored by nature and they use these gifts to seduce and manipulate
others; they are negative symbols of fertility and represent the
lifeforce in its uncontrollable form; finally, they share the same
associations with nature as the fool figure, and bring with them a
frequent comic element. Satire and humor, especially of a bawdy and
self-deprecating kind, is very common with illegitimate characters.
The "bastard usurper" stereotype is traditionally seditious,
envious, greedy, sneaky, and dangerously clever. The "demon spawn"
type is seditious, envious, greedy, sneaky, and stupid.
Illegitimates are viewed as the living embodiments of sin and are
thought to be predestined for evil. They symbolize the transgression
of all types of boundaries: moral, legal, racial, social, and
religious. Sexually, they are depicted as being completely and
inherently without morals and are frequently characterized by sexual
incontinence, adultery, rape, homosexuality, and incest.
Authors often utilize bastard characters to enable criticism
without fear of censorship. Because of their unique positions as
both insiders and outsiders, they make effective commentators and
narrators and are especially good for social satire. Because of
their candor, humor, underdog status, and tenacity, many illegitimate
literary characters are quite likable, even in their villain roles.
The next literary convention populated by bastard characters,
the picaro. became one of its most prevalent forms and utilized well
the special qualities of illegitimates. The picaro is a stock
literary figure, thought to have originated in Spain around 1525,
although it has had revivals in nearly every century and was
especially popular in 18th century Europe. The Spanish picaro was a
specific tradition, thought to have roots back to the rogue tales of
ancient Latin fables. The Spanish picaresque told the life story of
a low-born boy, always an orphan and almost always a bastard, who
goes on a series of adventures, usually in search of his father. He
encounters one grotesque male authority figure after the next until,
through initiations by pain and humiliation, he reaches manhood and
autonomy, such as it is, and defines himself as his own father.
According to critic Frank Kearful, the earthy and naturalistic picaro
was meant to be a specific repudiation of Neo-Platonism, a dominant
literary form of the Renaissance, and was especially designed as an
attack on the "ladder of love," or the courtly love tradition, which
deified women as heavenly ideals who guide and inspire men (378). In
the picaresque, women are usually whores, witches, "or at best,
plunderable daughters of well-to-do families" (378). The picaro,
like the traditional bastard villain stereotype, is especially known
for his powers to seduce and victimize the opposite sex.
The picaro learns to cheat, trick, and deceive others in order
to survive, as Lazarillo, an early picaro, explains after
experiencing the first brutal trick of his new master: "At that
moment I felt as if I had woken up and my eyes were opened. I said to
myself: 'What he says is true; I must keep awake because I'm on my
own and I've got to look out for myself'" (Kearful 380).
Like all other bastard stereotypes, the picaro is also
indistinguishable from the mistakes and character flaws of his
parents, as the following example from another early Spanish picaro
illustrates. A boy named Pablo, the illegitimate son of a prostitute
mother, is dressed-up as Carnival king and then promptly pelted by
the village women:
And by the way I must confess that when they began to
throw the aubergines at me, I thought that as I was
wearing feathers in my hat, they had taken me for my
tarred and feathered mother and were throwing things at
her as they had so many other times. I was just a silly
boy and I began to say: "I know I'm wearing feathers,
girls, but I'm not Aldonza Saturno de Rebollo, my
mother," as if they didn't know. (Kearful 383)
The Spanish picaro convention acquired more qualities,
specifically the element of social satire and a broader definition,
when it immigrated to other countries. Holman's A Handbook to
Literature (1972) lists seven chief qualities that the picaresque now
includes (392): 1. it chronicles the life of a rogue and is usually
told in first person narrative, 2. its hero is a figure from a low
social level and of loose characteroften a bastard, 3. it is
episodic, 4. progress of the hero's internal character does not take
place, that is, the picaro manifests the same aptitudes and qualities
throughout, 5. its method is realistic and detailed and shows a
plainness and freedom of language, 6. satire is the prominent
element, and 7. the picaro stops just short of being an actual
criminal. Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders, published in 1722, is both a
picaresque novel and a precursor of the type of criminal
autobiography which became very popular in England after 1773, when
the Newgate Calendar first began publication of its notorious
Moll begins her narrative by explaining that she cannot give
out her real name. True to the bastard stereotype, she has many
identity shifts and disguises in the course of her story, including
even the persona of a male robber called Gabriel Spencer. She was
given the name Moll Flanders by Newgate inmates:
I grew the greatest artist of my time, and worked myself out of
every danger with such dexterity that when several more of my
comrades run themselves into Newgate...
I always got off...These were they that gave me the name of
Moll Flanders; for it was no more of affinity with my real name
or with any of the names I had ever gone by than black is of
kin to white, except that once, as before, I called myself Mrs.
Flanders when I sheltered myself in the Mint; but that these
rogues never knew, nor could I ever learn how they came to give
me the name or what the occasion of it was (189).
Moll reveals her true identity only to her birthmother, a transported
felon whom she meets in Virginia, after she realizes that she has
accidentally married and had three children with her own half-
brother, the woman's son:
Then I told her my own story and my name, and assured her by
such other tokens as she could not deny that I was no other, no
more or less, than her daughter, born of her body in Newgate;
the same that had saved her from the gallows by being in her
belly and that she left in such-and-such hands when she was
Defoe never mentions Moll's father in the work, but he introduces
Moll as "the offspring of debauchery and vice" (v).
As a little girl, Moll first wandered with Gipsys, then ran
away in Colchester, Essex, and finally was placed there by the parish
with a sober, pious, mannerly and clean woman, "her tutoress," until
she was eight: "I naturally abhorred dirt and rags; I had been bred
up tight and cleanly, and could be no other, whatever condition I was
in" (224). Moll's childhood ambition was to become "a gentlewoman,"
which "By this and some other of my talk, my old tutoress began to
understand what I meant by being a gentlewoman, and that it was no
more than to be able to get my bread by my own work" (17). Her
aspiration became known and the amused Mayor's wife brought her home
as a companion for her daughters, thereby sparing Moll her imminent
fate of entering early domestic service, and facilitating her middle-
Like the traditional bastard stereotype, Moll is physically
favored by nature: "and in some things I had the advantage of my
ladies though they were my superiors, viz., that mine were all the
gifts of nature and which all their fortunes could not furnish" (21).
Moll's gifts soon come to the attention of both sons of the house,
and Moll falls in love with the oldest. Moll loses her innocence
right away, for she has the bastard's completely missing sense of
morality, but her lover doesn't realize that at first:
It is true I had my head full of pride, but knowing nothing of
the wickedness of the times, I had not one thought of my virtue
about me; and had my young master offered it at first sight, he
might have taken any liberty he thought fit with me; but he did
not see his advantage, which was my happiness for that time
Moll is seduced by the older brother, but is offered marriage by the
younger. At first she refuses, but the elder brother, who had no
intention of carrying out his promises to marry Moll, talks her into
marriage with his brother, "in a word, I may say, he reasoned me out
of my reason" (53), and so she enters her first marriage as a state
of adultery and deliberate incest. Following her husband's death,
her episodes and adventures involve subsequent marriages and
relationships, both up and down the social ladder. After her initial
lover's betrayal, Moll learns to use her sexuality to advance and
protect herself, and the picaro trait of victimizing the opposite sex
is clearly seen in her.
Moll has some additional connections to nature, beyond her
beauty and sexuality, an interesting one being her understanding of
agriculture. it is Moll who takes over the operations of her last
plantation, when she and her highwayman husband are transported, but
she had even earlier tried to persuade him into American immigration:
Then I gave him a full and distinct account of the nature of
planting...1 let him into the nature of the product of the
earth, how the ground was cured and prepared, and what the
usual increase of it was, and demonstrated to him that in a
very few years, with such a beginning, we should be as certain
of being rich as we were now certain of being poor. (140)
Finally, nature imparts to Moll her courage, tenacity, and her game
sense of survival, clearly Molls most characteristic and endearing
features: "I, that was to be discouraged with nothing..."(290) and
"in the sixty-first year of my age, I launched out into a new world"
While the traditional picaro stops at being a mere rascal, Moll
goes on to become a hardened criminal, and one of the best, "the
greatest artist" of her time, as she says earlier. Moll does have
limits as to what she will do, although one wonders how long she
would stay within those limits, if pressed. She will not be a
"coiner," that is a counterfeiter, because she fears the punishment
of death by burning at the stake, and she does not commit treason or
murder, although she allows her "governess" to persuade her into
abandoning one of her own inconvenient children to what she realizes
is the type of infanticidal nursing discussed in the history section
of this study (pages 7-8):
But it touched my heart so forcibly to think of parting
entirely with the child and, for aught I knew, of having it
murdered or starved by neglect and ill usage, which was much
the same, that I could not think of it without horror. I wish
all women who consent to the disposing their children out of
the way, as it is called for decency sake, would consider that
'tis only a contrived method for murder, that is to say,
killing their children with safety____"Now we know, Mother",
says I, "that those are poor people, and their gain consists in
being quit of the charge as soon as they can; how can I doubt
but that as it is best for them to have the child die, they are
not over-solicitous about its life?" (155)
Moll is also not a horse thief, tut she once tried. In a very funny
episode, Moll steals a horse and takes it home to her "governess,"
the shadowy midwife, procuress and receiver of stolen goods Moll
calls "Mother Midnight" (144) and describes as "one of the
faithfullest friends in the world...considering she was a woman of no
principles" (275). Moll and Mother Midnight have no idea what to do
with the horse, so Moll must sneak it back to its owner and thus ends
her career as horse-thief: "never was poor thief more at a loss to
know what to do with anything that was stolen" (225). Moll's comic
qualities, in that they are candid, bawdy, and self-effacing, are
typical of all bastard traditions.
Moll is finally caught stealing and is taken to Newgate, where
she is tried and sentenced to death:
I was carried to Newgate, that horrid place! My very blood
chills at the mention of its name; the place where my mother
suffered so deeply, where I was brought into the world and from
whence I expected no redemption but by an infamous deathto
conclude, the place that had so long expected me, and which
with so much art and success I had so long avoided. (242)
Her sentence is commuted to felony transportation, completing
Moll's repetition of her birthmother's life and fate. Moll becomes a
religious penitent during her stay in prison, like her mother
supposedly does at the end of her life, and she convinces even
herself that she has honestly repented and changed, but, true to the
picaro quality of no moral improvement, Moll's conversion is suspect.
A minister attends Moll in prison and appears to be making spiritual
headway, but she has the bastard's traditional alienation from
religion, noted in several places: "Two or three times I fell upon my
knees, praying to God, as well as I could, for deliverance; but I
cannot but say my prayers had no hope in them" (171) and "I neither
had a heart to ask God's mercy or indeed to think of it" (247). Moll
has had fleeting attacks of conscience before:
I confess the inhumanity of this action moved me very much and
made me relent exceedingly, and tears stood in my eyes upon
that subject; but with all my sense of its being cruel and
inhuman, I could never find in my heart to make any
restitution. The reflection wore off, and I quickly forgot the
circumstances that attended it (183).
Moll, post-conversion, finances her new life with stolen goods. She
also continues to deceive and prevaricate, even to her confessor.
Her survival skills and her money serve her well during
transportation, and she buys her way out of indentured servitude and
soon establishes a thriving plantation for herself and her ex-
highwayman husband. She goes in search of her promised American
inheritance from her now-deceased birthmother and finds it, along
with her long-lost son, who is also her nephew. She becomes an
adored and sentimental mother to him, giving him a stolen "heirloom"
watch in her characteristic way (297).
Moll, as a female version of the picaro, encountered problems
that male picaros do not. One of her biggest difficulties was the
lack of options she had for realizing her childhood goal "to be able
to get my bread by my own work." As an honest woman, she would have
had three choices: domestic service, plying her needle, or marriage.
It is in these limitations that one critic sees important gender
differences for the female picaro:
Moll and Roxana are inevitably different from those male
adventurers. As women they are forced to stay at home and to
move strictly within the defining institutions of female
destiny, sex, marriage and the family. They can only cane to
their sense of themselves and establish their particular
identities in relation to those institutions, that is to say by
disrupting them. Throughout their narratives both of them
practice and sometimes clearly articulate a feminist
individualism that subverts or at least qualifies the validity
or binding finality of marriage and the family (Richetti 23).
In order to marry well, women needed both money and a virtuous
reputation, things which Moll does not hesitate to invent for herself
several times: "my advantage, and all the character he had of me was
that I was a woman of fortune and that I was a very modest, sober
body; which, whether true or not in the main, yet you may see how
necessary it is for all women who expect anything in the world to
preserve the character of their virtue, even when perhaps they may
have sacrificed the thing itself" (123). Moll's ploys work and she
marries five times.
Another feminine problem for Moll was her fertility. Moll
gives birth to ten children during the novel, most of which live, but
she never keeps or stays with any of them. One pregnancy is
particularly problematic for Moll and Mother Midnight offers her an
abortion option, but she rejects the idea:
The only thing I found in all her conversation on these
subjects that gave me any distaste was that one time in
discoursing about my being so far gone with child, she said
something that looked as if she could help me off with my
burthen sooner if I was willing; or, in English, that she could
give me something to make me miscarry if I had a desire to put
and end to my troubles that way; and to do her justice, she put
if off so cleverly that I could not say she really intended it
or whether she only mentioned the practice as a horrible thing
This particular pregnancy is the only one in which the father does
not keep, or at least provide for, the child. Although this is the
baby of Moll's highwayman husband, he knows nothing of the pregnancy
and has since abandoned her. This particular infant is given to the
type of nurse which Moll fears will profit only by its death.
Moll's security and welfare are dependent on her various
husbands' financial conditions. In spite of her many character
flaws, she does not turn criminal until her last husband goes
bankrupt and dies, leaving her in poverty once again. Moll feels
that she is too old, being past fifty, to attract a new husband or
lover and she cannot find work, so she turns to her old "governess",
Mother Midnight, for help.
Mother Midnight is another once destitute woman "past her
prime," who has learned to make a living through both fair and foul
means. In addition to jobs as midwife, baby-farm broker,
abortionist, and procuress, she trained thieves and received stolen
goods, very much like an early and feminine Fagin: "she had not done
anything for many years other than receiving what I and others had
stolen and encouraging us to steal it" (250-251). In addition to
her criminal role, Mother Midnight also has witch connotations (155),
including her nickname.
Moll is a vivid example of the bastard's traditional and
picaresque qualities of being a "socially outside" observer and a
satirist. Moll narrates her story as a seventy-year-old penitent,
although she's not reliable as either a narrator or a penitent. She
lies and she especially conceals: "for, let them say what they please
of our sex not being able to keep a secret, my life is a plain
conviction to me of the contrary" (286) and "I told him so much of my
story as I thought convenient" (263).
Moll's descriptions are incredibly detailed, fulfilling the
picaresque definition of realistic detail, and they are noticeably
full of precise monetary references, probably how a prostitute would
indeed orient her worldview and her language, everything having a
price. Kenneth Rexroth, in the novel's Afterword (310), drew a
connection with Moll and the period's emerging middle class: "Defoe
was not stupid. He was perfectly conscious of the parallel he was
drawing between the morality of the complete whore and that of the
new middle class, which was rising around him." The upper class is
lanpooned, as well, when Moll, forced to take all the initiative to
provide for herself and her husband during and after transportation,
explains that her ex-highwayman husband "was bred a gentleman, and
was not only unacquainted [with work] but indolent" (288).
Marriage based solely on financial profit is one of the main
institutions of the period that Defoe criticizes in this novel. At
one point, Moll and her highwayman husband each think they have
married each other for their fortunes, and they promptly split-up
when both discover the other was pretending. When Moll hesitates to
marry again, [Mother Midnight] "fell a-laughing at my scruples about
marrying and told me the other was no marriage but a cheat on both
Poverty is certainly a social ill that concerns Defoe in Moll
Flanders. Moll illuminates the vicious circle of poverty and crime
when she precisely follows her birthmother1 s pattern of thievery,
prostitution, arrest, and transportation. Moll, in turn, abandons
children, who either die or must engage themselves in crime to
survive. Moll remains in her criminal career because of greed, but
she began it out of desperation: "I must say that if such a prospect
of work had presented itself at first, when I began to feel the
approach of my miserable circumstancesI say, had such a prospect of
getting bread by working presented itself then, I had never fallen
into this wicked trade or into such a wicked gang as I was now
embarked with" (179). In spite of her poverty, Moll never gives up
her middle-class values, and it is the conflict between these values
and what she must do to survive which is an important satiric element
in the novel.
Moll Flanders perfectly fits all the definitions of a picaro,
but one. The exception is that Moll becomes a genuine criminal and
as such, displays many of the traditional qualities of the bastard
villain stereotype. Moll is very often categorized as being the
definitive female picaro. Some apparent differences from the male
picaro involve her limited work options, her dependency on her
husbands' decisions and financial status, her need to marry in order
to advance, her pregnancies, and the effect of her aging and loss of
beauty on her survival and prospects. In other words, Moll's early
beauty seemed to be one of the few commodities her society valued in
Austen uses and adapts many of the traditional qualities of a
picaro with her secondary character, Harriet Smith, in the novel
Emma. Harriet is not a true picaro, because she is not the narrator,
nor the central character. Nevertheless, she is interesting in some
of the ways she both upholds and begins to deviate from the picaro
and other traditional bastard stereotypes and so may be studied as a
transitional, or non-traditional bastard character.
Harriet, like most picaros, is an illegitimate orphaned
character. Although she has a residence (boarding-house/school) and
a generous allowance, her parentage remains a complete mystery until
the novel's end. Harriet, as described by Mr. Knightly, is the
natural daughter of nobody knows whom, with probably no settled
provision at all, and certainly no respectable relations" (38).
It was especially difficult for illegitimate women, who could become
legitimatized to some extent only through marriage, to make a good
match, as Mr. Knightly points out: "Men of family would not be very
fond of connecting themselves with a girl of such obscurityand most
prudent men would be afraid of the inconvenience and disgrace they
might be involved in, when the mystery of her parentage came to be
revealed" (40). In Emma. Harriet is adopted as a protegee,
"authored" in a sense, by the novel's protagonist, Emma Wbodhouse.
Emma expends all her imagination and wit to find a fortunate marriage
match for Harriet, until the time when her plots backfire and Harriet
becomes Emma's rival. Emma, who loves riddles, manufactures a
heritage for Harriet:
As to the circumstances of her birth, though in a legal sense
she may be called Nobody, it will not hold in common sense.
She is not to pay for the offence of others, by being held
below the level of those with whom she is brought upThere can
scarcely be a doubt that her father is a gentlemanand a
gentleman of fortune (39).
Given the generalized belief that illegitimates were the
outcasts of religion, it was especially ironic for Emma to target a
minister, Mr. Elton, as the most likely bridegroom for Harriet.
Elton is angered by the very idea: "I wish her extremely well: and no
doubt, there are men who might not object to----Everybody has their
level" (85). Austen seems to punish Elton's arrogance and snobbery
through his subsequent marriage to one of the novel's most unpleasant
characters, while Harriet ends the novel in conjugal bliss, although
both characters marry within their "places" in society.
Both Harriet's appearance and character differs from the
traditional picaro or bastard stereotypes in that she is neither
beautiful, nor is she a schemer. Harriet is "only pretty and good-
natured" (40). She is loyal, pliable and grateful, but sadly lacking
in wit: "The charm of an object to occupy the many vacancies of
Harriet's mind was not to be talked away" (117). In a rare moment of
introspection, Emma comes to see Harriet, "tempted by everything and
swayed by half a word" (149), as a worthy rival because of the
qualities of her heart:
There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart, said she
afterwards to herself. ..."Harriet is my superior in all the
charm and all the felicity it gives. Dear Harriet! I would not
change you for the clearest-headed, longest-sighted, best
judging female breathing (172).
Some of these changes may be attributed to the influence of Sentiment
in the latter half of the 18th century. Works which esteemed human
goodness and the emotions became popular at this time.
Traditional picaros only come close to, but manage to avoid,
actual crime and they are especially known for their sexual
adventures and powers of seduction. Nothing could be further from
Harriet, although there were one or two whispers concerning Harriet's
precipitous love-life: "... and it was too much to hope even of
Harriet, that she could be in love with more than three men in one
year" (291), [She was] "not likely to be very, very determined
against any young man who told her he loved her" (306), and finally,
"I could suppose she might in timebut can she already?" (306).
The picaro usually becomes intimate with persons of higher
classes and exposes or illustrates their frailties, thus acting as an
instrument of class or social satire. It is interesting that, like
the eighteenth-century orphan archetype, Harriet also comes from the
rising, wealthy merchant class and represents a threat for the
gentry, who supposedly created her:
The eighteenth-century orphan literally makes himself; he is
his own Frankenstein. He has no social origins to give him
shape, and... there is no God to give him soul...The orphan
becomes a tarnished but exemplary figure for a class on the way
up (Auerbach 66).
Perhaps Austen's strongest criticism of the class rigidity and
snobbery of her own time comes when Harriet's and Emma's close
girlhood relationship "must sink" when Harriet's class becomes known,
and her illegitimacy, which was romantic and acceptable for the
gentry, becomes intolerable in someone from the middle classes:
Harriet's parentage became known. She proved to be the
daughter of a tradesman, rich enough to afford her the
comfortable maintenance which had ever been her's [sic], and
decent enough for concealment.Such was the blood of gentility
which Emma had formerly been so ready to vouch for!...The stain
of illegitimacy, unbleached by nobility or wealth, would have
been a stain indeed (312).
The traditional picaro ends the novel the same as he begins
moral progress of his character does not take place. Similarly, in
spite of what Emma regards as Harriet's presumptions and growing
vanity, she also ends the novel at the same place as she began. Even
when Emma suddenly breaks off her relationship with Harriet, "Harriet
submitted, and approved, and was grateful" (269). Because they have
fallen in love with each other, it is the attitudes and circumstances
of the two main characters that have matured, altered or been
completely reversed, not Harriet's. At the end of the novel, a
mature and chastened Emma holds Mr. Knightly's initial viewpoint,
once antagonistic to her own:
Oh! Had she never brought Harriet forward! Had she left her
where she ought, and where he told her she ought!Had she not
with a folly which no tongue could express, prevented her
marrying the unexceptionable young man who would have made her
happy and respectable in the line of life to which she ought to
Mr. Knightly, on the other hand, relaxes his former censure:
"And I am changed also; for I am now very willing to grant you all
Harriet's good qualities" (307), which he attributes to Emma's
influence, and "[h]e praised her [Harriet] for being without art or
affectation, for having simple, honest, generous, feelings" (264).
Harriet's proper "line of life" at the novel's end is almost
exactly where she began it: "The fact was, as Emma could now
acknowledge, that Harriet had always liked Robert Martin; and that
his continuing to love her had been irresistible" (311). Harriet's
rightful place is, and always has been, in the country, where so many
picaros and other "natural" persons find lasting happiness, among the
fertile and biological, if vulgar, life forces.
Harriet represents several transitions in traditional bastard
stereotypes. First, she seems to be one of the earliest characters
from the emerging merchant class. Earlier illegitimates were either
from royal or pauper birthfamilies. Secondly, she maintains the
picaro's comic and satirical role, but she differs from the
traditional form in that she is simple, loyal and good-natured.
Harriet also does not use her sexuality to survive or to advance
In direct opposition to the prevailing attitudes of his
century, Charles Dickens created some of the most touching, noble,
and spiritually positive portrayals of illegitimate characters in all
of fiction. One reason for his rebellion towards the stereotype
seems to have originated simply out of his sense of compassion.
Dickens believed that illegitimates, or "orphans of the living," as
he called them, suffered most cruelly of all: "not an orphan in the
wide world can be so deserted as the child who is an outcast from a
living parent's love" (Shutt 39). Dickens both creates illegitimate
characters who engage public sympathies and he effectively vilifies
and punishes any of his other characters who hate, threaten or harm
Dickens seems to have created the earliest virtuous
illegitimate main characters with Oliver Twist in 1837 and Esther
Summerson in 1853, while most of his contemporaries plodded away in
the well-worn "bastards are bad blood" tradition. Douglas Jerrold,
for example, described his foundling, St. Giles, as a "born outcast
and baby felon" (Colby 111) in The History of St. Giles and St.
James, published serially 1845-1847. However, other British writers,
such as Wilkie Collins and George Eliot would soon follow the example
of Dickens. Collins and Eliot may have had personal interests in
working for a kinder view of bastardy: both lived in non-traditional
relationships; Collins cohabitated with two women and Eliot with a
married man. Collins himself was the father of several illegitimate
children. Mid-nineteenth century authors in America and France,
notably Hawthorne and Hugo, also depicted illegitimate heroines who
grow up, marry respectably, and become ladies like Esther. Two
examples are Pearl in The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Cosette in Les
Miserables (1862). The Romantic movement influenced the treatment of
illegitimacy in several ways. First, it placed a value on children
and on individuals. The Romantics also changed the way nature was
regarded. Nature became idealized as pure, wholesome and a healing
force, in opposition to its earlier "fallen" and evil status. This
helped to soften the view of "natural" children, as well.
Esther Summerson is the illegitimate child of the beautiful and
proud woman "who had not even family" (57), Honoria, who subsequently
marries society's "mightiest" (57) and most respectable baronet, Sir
Leicester Dedlock. Esther's father is Captain Hawdon, a legal
copiest who dies of opium poisoning. Captain Hawdon went by the name
Nemo, which means "nobody," so Esther is indeed "nobody's child" from
Dickens' pun on the legal designation for an illegitimate, "filius
Esther's personality is shaped by her early bitter life with
her godmother and aunt, Miss Barbary. She is a member of "one of
those Puritanical families whom Dickens so roundly detests"
(Jolly 39). Miss Barbary, who took it upon herself to tell Esther's
mother that her child was stillborn and then raise the infant herself
in cold and cruel charity, teaches her that she is "set apart" and is
innately unworthy of love: "It would have been far better, little
Esther, that you had no birthday; that you had never been born!...For
yourself, unfortunate girl, orphaned and degraded from the first of
these evil anniversaries, pray daily that the sins of others be not
visited upon your head, according to what is written" (64-65).
Esther survives her early traumas by confiding in her doll, her
only friend. Out of these talks comes Esther's important
resolutions, which form the consistent purpose of her life:
Imperfect as my understanding of my sorrow was, I knew
that I had brought no joy, at any time, to anybody's heart, and
that I was to no one upon earth what Dolly was to me.
Dear, dear, to think how much time we passed alone
together afterwards, and how often I repeated to the doll the
story of my birthday, and confided to her that I would try as
hard as ever I could, to repair the fault I had been bom with
(of which I confessedly felt guilty and yet innocent), and
would strive as I grew up to be industrious, contented, and
kind-hearted, and to do some good to some one, and win some
love to myself if I could (65).
Like illegitimates in the older traditions, Esther acts within her
novel as the symbol and embodiment of her parents' sin. She,
however, remains chaste and uncorrupted, very much unlike earlier
characters with the traditional bastardy stigma. Chastity was an
emphasized virtue in Victorian England, and an essential quality for
the Victorian heroine.
One of the first antithetical devices Dickens uses to
characterize Esther is her name. Dickens names her for the beloved
biblical heroine, Esther, an orphan girl who was devoted to her
guardian, Mordecai. The biblical Esther became the beautiful and
favored wife of a Persian king and, after first concealing her
origins, made them known to her husband in an act which saved her
Hebrew countrymen from a planned genocide. Dickens is clearly making
a parallel with the courageous, self-sacrificing and virtuous heroine
and his character. Esther Summerson never strays from her childhood
determination to be of service to others and her sense of spiritual
connectedness and direction is pronounced. One could never imagine
Esther in the position of Oliver Twist's orphaned prostitutes Nancy
or Bet, for example. Esther would simply have turned pale and
perished at the thought. True to bastard form, however, Esther is
given additional names, including "Dame Trot," "Mother Hubbard,"
"Little Old Woman," "Cobweb," and "Dame Durden," which her friends
use to tease her, no doubt as references to Esther's over-developed
sense of responsibility.
One critic, Diane Jolly, sees Esther's relationship to nature
as especially symbolic in this novel: "But there is even more to
Esther than beauty and goodness: as a "natural child," she has a
uniquely close relationship with nature. By virtue of her
illegitimacy, she becomes Dickens's symbol of humanity before the
Fall...through her illegitimacy, Esther is outside the law, through
her worth, she is above it" (36). In her article, Jolly takes a
careful look at the nature imagery connected with Esther, especially
summer and sunshine (Summerson), and with the frozen and wintery
imagery associated with her mother (Dedlock). Here the illegitimate
person is still connected with nature, but by the Victorian period,
it is the public's attitude towards nature that has completely
changed. For Dickens, nature is a positive connection, rather than a
fallen one, a living and healing counterforce to the corruption,
greed and degradation of the industrialized city. The real villain
in Bleak House is the law and its ruinous effects on humans. Esther
is a "Fitzjarndyce," an illegitimate bom outside of the law and, as
such, becomes one of those rare human beings who cannot become crazed
and destroyed by the lawsuit's evil touch.
In Bleak House. Dickens no longer treats his illegitimates or
foundlings with the type of humor long associated with the
stereotype. They also do not have the traditional bastard's powers
of survival. There are no irrepressible Artful Dodgers in this work,
for example, only heartbreaking accounts of the suffering and deaths
of children in poverty, alone amid a persecuting, or at best, an
indifferent populace. The comedy has turned to pathos.
Esther accepts, loves, and even tries to rescue her distraught
birthmother, although she had once deliberately avoided learning the
truth about her identity from her guardian: "I am quite sure that if
there were anything I ought to know, or had any need to know, I
should not have to ask you to tell it to me...1 have nothing to ask
you; nothing in the world...From that hour I felt quite easy with
him, quite unreserved, quite content to know no more, quite
happy" (149). Her striking resemblance to her beautiful mother is
broken when Esther is disfigured by a disease, presumably smallpox,
which is carried to her when she tries to nurse the sick foundling,
Jo, She is actually grateful for the disfigurement, as she thinks
it will keep her from shaming her mother by the former physical
resemblance between them. This is a very different approach from
Moll Flanders, whose loss of beauty led her, presumably out of
necessity, into a criminal career.
Victorian society was completely unforgiving towards unmarried
parents. An actual article called "Anybody's Child", written by
Douglas Jerrold (author of The History of St. Giles and St. James)
and published in Household Words in 1854, is very representative of
the society's view which placed blame directly on the mother:
Anybody's child is undoubtedly Somebody's child. To discover
this Somebody, who basely deserts it, should be the duty of the
State; and the law's heaviest hand would we lay upon this
Somebody...And as it can, in most cases, find out Somebody when
he or she has done a murder on the body, so let it find out
Somebody guilty of the worse murder of this child's soul, and
punish that heaviest of all offenders, in pocket and
person...Anybody's child cannot too soon become the adopted of
us all; and the Somebody who gave it birth cannot too soon or
too relentlessly be made to pay the charges of the adoption, or
be punished in default (552).
Dickens is not such a fool as to buck these public forces. Although
Esther herself eventually prospers, her father commits suicide and
her mother dies of exposure on his grave.
Esther must either marry or take one of the limited occupations
available to her, these being companion, governess, seamstress,
domestic servant, or factory worker, and her illegitimacy is a
problem for her, especially with regards to marriage. Jarndyce acts
as a legitimating force for his ward: he offers her marriage and he
also defends her lack of pedigree to her future mother-in-law, Mrs.
Woodcourt. Especially in this defense, do we clearly see Dickens's
own belief that personal virtues supersede advantages of birth:
"Dickens purposely develops in the character of Esther a legitimacy
based on goodness, kindness, service and unselfishness, those
individual strengths and sympathies that Dickens counts on to
regenerate a blighted society (Ware 5-6)." Esther's virtues are her
direct kindnesses and service to others, as contrasted with the
"telescopic philanthropy" and selfishness of many of the novel's
Esther is the bastard stereotype's antithesis in numerous ways.
Her biblical namesake and her pronounced spirituality counter the
stereotype's religious alienation. She is chaste and self-
sacrificing, in contrast to the traditional bastard's seductiveness
and instinctive self-preservation. Unlike Moll, Esther regards her
loss of beauty as a benefit, not only because she feels it will help
her birthmother, but it also permits her to avoid unwanted suitors.
She has a redeeming role for her society and her birthfamily, in
direct contrast to the destructive and seditious early stereotype.
Many of the Dickensian bastards grow ill and die young, unlike the
irrepressible earlier types, and he treats them with pathos, rather
than humor, especially in his later works.
The only connections to early bastard conventions which are
preserved with Esther are her role as narrator, her various
nicknames, her function as the embodiment of her parents' sin, and
her connection to nature. In this last correlation, especially
through the influence of the Romantics, the affiliation with nature
has changed from a negative symbol into a beneficial and wholesome
Including illegitimate characters in a work provided authors
with many distinctive and useful technical features. Sometimes an
illegitimate's anonymity was used for suspense value and the quest
for or discovery of a foundling's true identity became a central or a
side plot. The presence of a bastard is always convenient proof that
illicit sex has taken place. Especially during periods which
discouraged explicit mention of sexual behavior, such as the
Victorian era, illegitimate characters could be used to represent
that which couldn't be spoken. Authors often utilized bastard
characters to criticize without fear of restriction or censorship.
The bastard can represent other "alienated groups...Often the bastard
gives voice to ideas which present a challenge to the traditional
order" (Findlay 128). Social satire was an especially rich medium
for the illegitimate.
Although I found that old villain, fool and picaro stereotypes
significantly changed from the Renaissance to the Victorian periods,
almost exclusively from the initial influence of Charles Dickens, to
my surprise, I found remarkably little difference between portrayed
male and female internal character traits. Female versions of the
stereotype, such as Defoe's Moll Flanders and, later, Thackery's
orphan adventuress, Becky Sharp, are every bit as manipulative,
aggressive, materialistic, ambitious and dangerous as their male
counterparts. Likewise, Dickensian male illegitimate characters,
Oliver Twist and Bleak House's foundling Jo, for example, are given
the same personal qualities associated with Victorian heroines such
as innocence, vulnerability, passivity, and virtue.
Some important gender differences I did discover concerned
women's limited work and marriage options, and in destitute females
this pointedly led to immorality and crime. Women illegitimates were
also portrayed as becoming easily (inevitably, rather) themselves in
the same position as their birthmothers, giving birth to children
they were unable to provide for, and so perpetuating the same
conditions they themselves had suffered from. Methods of
legitimation also varied between the sexes. It was sometimes
possible for males to become legitimized through extraordinary
ability or achievment, especially military conquests (Philip the
Bastard), or through adoption (Oliver Twist), although adoption never
completely removed the stigma of illegitimacy. Females could usually
only acquire a limited legitimization through a respectable and
Literary Illegitimates. Orphans and Foundlings
England, Early, Medieval and Renaissance:
PHILIP THE BASTARD, illegitimate son of Richard the
EDMUND OF GLOUCHESTER, illegitimate villain
Measure for Measure
CALIBAN, illegitimate "demon spawn" type, son of the witch
Sycorax and a devil
AARON'S SON, illegitimate black baby bom to Tamara, white
empress married to a white emperor, and Aaron the Moor
Troilus and Cressida
THERSITES, illegitimate fool figure, usually staged as
The Winter's Tale
PERDITA, unjustly declared illegitimate by her father, King
Leontes of Sicilia, and exiled as an infant.
England, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century:
Moll Flanders (1723)
MOLL FLANDERS, illegitimate, bom in prison, her mother was
then transported, Moll is an adventuress type
Tom Jones: The History of a Foundling (1749)
TOM JONES, illegitimate, a picaro type
Ainsworth, William Harrison
Tower of London (1840)
Sense and Sensibility
BETH (illegitimate, daughter of Eliza)
Borrow, George (Henry)
Lavengro also appears in The Romany Rye (1857)
LAVENGRO, orphan (older)
Jane Eyre (1847)
JANE EYRE, orphan, home alumna (Lowood Institution)
ADELE VARENS, illegitimate child, "ward" of Mr. Rochester,
Jane Eyre is hired as her governess
The Professor (1857)
Wutherinq Heights (1847
Bullen, Frank Thomas
The Cruise of the Cachalot (1898)
FRANK BULLEN, orphan (an autobiography?)
Eugene Aram (1832)
WALTER LESTER, mother died, father abandoned, raised by uncle
VIOLA PISANI, orphan
No Name (1868)
MAGDALAN VANSTONE, illegitimate
NORAH VANSTONE, illegitimate
Woman in White (1860)
LAURA FAIRLIE, orphan
MARIAN HALCOMBE, orphan heroine
ANNE CATHERICK (the "woman in white"), illegitimate heroine,
slightly retarded person, escaped from wrongful
imprisonment in an insane asylum).
SIR PERCIVAL GLYDE, illegitimate villain
Conan-Doyle, Sir Arthur
JAMES WILDER, illegitimate villain
Study in Scarlet (1887)
LUCY, orphan, victim of murder
Almayer's Folly (1895)
MRS. ALMAYER, Malayan adopted daughter of Lingrad
EMMA HAREDALE, orphan.
Cross, Mary Ann Evans (see George Eliot)
Bamaby Rudge (1841)
MAYPOLE HUGH, orphan
Bleak House (1853)
ESTHER SUMMERSON, illegitimate heroine
ADA CLARE, orphan, ward of Jarndice
RICHARD CARSTONE, orphan, ward of Jarndice
JO, foundling, street kid
David Copperfield (1849/50)
DAVID COPPERFIELD, orphan
Hard Times (1854)
SISSY JUPE, orphan heroine
Little Dorrit (1857)
ARTHUR CLENNAM, orphan
Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-1844)
MARY GRAHAM, orphan
Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870)
EDWIN DROOD, orphan
ROSA BUD, orphan
Nicholas Nicklebv (1838-1839)
SMIKE, orphan, disabled person
Old Curiosity Shop (1840-1841)
NELLY TRENT, orphaned daughter of an orphan
Oliver Twist (1837)
OLIVER TWIST, illegitimate orphan, home alumnus (Mrs. Mann's
baby farm, and the parish workhouse)
LITTLE DICK, orphan, Homer (parish workhouse)
All of Fagin's boys and onetime wards, notably:
ARTFUL DODGER (Jack Dawkins)
Life in London
CORINTHIAN TOM, orphan
Eliot, George (Mary Ann Evans Cross)
Adam Bede (1859)
(Illegitimacy main theme, Hetty's infant is abandoned to die)
Daniel Deronda (1876)
DANIEL DERONDA, orphan
Felix Holt, The Radical (1866)
HAROLD TRANSOM, illegitimate
DOROTHEA BROOKE, orphan
CELIA BROOKE, orphan
Silas Mamer (1860)
EPPIE (CASS) MARNER, foundling, adopted
Jude the Obscure (1896)
JUDE, orphan, he is also the father of three illegitimate
children by Sue Bridehead.
Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891)
(Illegitimacy main theme, Tess has an illegitimate baby that
Hudson, William Henry
The Purple Land (1885)
ANITA, orphan, secondary character
Westward Ho (1855)
Portrait of a Ladv
MARY CORBY, orphan
Jungle Books (1894-1895)
MOWGLI, orphan "feral" type, adopted
Lever, Charles James
Tom Burke of Ours (1844)
Lytton, Edward see Bulwer-Lytton
Diana of the Crossways (1885)
DIANA, orphan, she accepted the proposal of Augustus Warwick as
"a refuge from unwelcome attentions to which her own
position as an orphan had exposed her".
Esther Waters (1894)
JACKIE WATERS, Esther's illegitimate son
Mulock, Dinah Maria
Agatha's Husband (1853)
AGATHA BOWEN, orphan and heiress
John Halifax. Gentleman (1857)
JOHN HALIFAX, orphan, "one of nature's gentleman"
Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803)
THADDEUS SOBIESKI, illegitimate
Scott, Sir Walter
The Antiquary (1816)
LOVEL, illegitimate son of unknown parents
Guy Mannerina (1815)
LUCY BERTRAM, orphan
HARRY BERTRAM, orphan, kidnapped
Heart of Midlothian (1818)
EFFIE DEENS, illegitimate
LADY ROWENA, orphan
CEDRIC OF IVANHOE, disinherited
St. Ronan's Well (1824)
EARL OF ETHERINGTON, illegitimate half-brother to the
Stevenson, Robert Louis
The Black Arrow (1888)
JOANNA SEDLEY, orphan
DICK SHELTON, orphan
This story explores the criminal business of stealing
Thackeray, William Makepeace
Henry Esmond (1852)
HENRY ESMOND, orphan
LAURA BELL, orphan, adopted
Vanity Fair (1847/48)
BECKY SHARP, orphan, an "adventuress"
Doctor Thome (1858)
MARY THORNE, illegitimate, adopted
The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
JACK (aka JOHN WORTHING, ERNEST "), foundling
Zangwill, Israel (1892)
BENJAMON ANSELL, home alumnus, put in an orphanage when his
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