Wilde’s Obscenity Effect: Influence and Immorality in The Picture of Dorian Gray
Review of English Studies, vol. 68 (Sept. 2017), 756-72
28 Pages Posted: 4 Jan 2014 Last revised: 23 Mar 2018
Date Written: March 1, 2017
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 remained unavailable in England 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 essay 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 reenactment of his ironic perspective at the narrative level.
Keywords: Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, obscenity law, Hicklin, evidence, narrative irony
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