UofT Law faculty authors: 

Simon Stern, "Wilde’s Obscenity Effect: Influence and Immorality in The Picture of Dorian Gray," Review of English Studies 68 (2017), DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/res/hgx035

Abstract: 

Wilde’s three trials in 1895 served, in effect, as an obscenity prosecution of The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890/91). Though the novel was not formally charged with obscenity, Dorian Gray’s first reviewers suggested that it was obscene, and the book was not reprinted in Britain for nearly two decades after Wilde’s trials. The novel’s relation to Wilde’s trials thus raises a number of questions about the use of fiction as legal evidence and about the ways in which a criminal prosecution might be taken to reveal the meaning of the defendant’s writings. This article discusses the late Victorian campaign against obscene literature and the victims of that campaign; the reviews of the original version of Dorian Gray (in Lippincott’s Magazine, 1890); the oblique manner in which the innuendo about its obscenity functioned during Wilde’s three trials (1895); Wilde’s own ironic engagement, at several key points in the novel, with the conception of influence at work in the legal test governing the evaluation of obscenity (R. v. Hicklin, 1868); the relation of the painting itself, and of the notorious French novel that Dorian borrows from Lord Henry, to that conception of influence; and Wilde’s re-enactment of his ironic perspective at the narrative level.

Focus area: