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Always Uncertain: The Presumption of Legitimacy in Two fins de siècle

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)65-85
Number of pages21
JournalLaw and Literature
Issue number1
Early online date1 May 2014
E-pub ahead of print1 May 2014
Published1 May 2014

King's Authors


This article considers the legal and cultural attitudes towards the family revealed in two “narratives” of disputed paternity: Guy de Maupassant's short story Monsieur Parent (1885) and the US Supreme Court case Michael H. v. Gerald D. (1989). Though separated by a century, these texts both relate to the presumption of legitimacy, that legal principle that has made fathers of husbands since the Roman era; both, moreover, suggest that the principle is unfair. Yet while Maupassant's tale reflects and adapts common 19th-century anxieties surrounding the (near-absolute) uncertainty of paternity, anxieties according to which the worst thing that might befall a husband was to be legally burdened with another man's child, Michael H. v. Gerald D. involved an opposite claim: that the presumption unconstitutionally deprived biological fathers of a legal relationship with their offspring. The Supreme Court's rationale in rejecting this claim appealed to “tradition” and “history,” yet this article suggests that consideration of historical understandings of the presumption reveals instead that entirely incommensurable assumptions, values and purposes have underpinned it in different historical eras. Yet despite these differences, I argue, Monsieur Parent already reveals the cultural shift upon which Michael H. v. Gerald D. would depend: the evolution of a familialist ideology that identifies family life as the only real source of human happiness, and that necessitates the ruthless exclusion, through a rhetoric of abjection and perversity, of all unwelcome outsiders.

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