115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Jude the Obscene?: Obscenity Laws and Victorian Texts

Jane J. Lee, California State University, Dominguez Hills

This paper examines the ambiguities of Victorian obscenity laws regarding printed materials by reading "morally transgressive" texts as challenges to the definition of obscenity. 


The issue of how to define obscenity was a hotly debated one throughout the nineteenth century, where it was first put to the test as a legal, moral and aesthetic category. The 1857 Obscene Publications Act made the distribution of morally offensive materials such as pornography a statutory offense. However, the Act did not actually define “obscene,” leaving an uncomfortable amount of room for interpretive juggling and the censorship of works that could be categorically labeled obscene for an increasingly vague range of reasons.

Subsequent attempts tried to more concretely define obscenity, but with the unintended result that rather than cementing moral principles, “transgressive” texts revealed the extent to which a universal, black-and-white standard of morality did not exist. The 1868 Hicklin test held that all material tending “to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences” was obscene, regardless of any artistic or literary merit. But when this test was applied to all works without considering their intent or context, even the Bible was subject to censorship—and literary works, whose moral influence was the topic of much cultural controversy, made them particular targets for obscenity laws.

Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (1895), famously dubbed “Jude the Obscene” by one critic, was one such target for literary censure. Its scathing portrayals of religion and frank treatments of sex made it transgressive and immoral for many of its readers. Yet, Jude was not banned until the early twentieth century in part because of the notorious slipperiness of “obscenity,” which simultaneously allowed for both restrictive and liberal applications of the term. Reading Jude in the context of other “obscene” works such as Victorian pornography, I show its complicity with and defiance of obscenity definitions, highlighting its reflection of the equally vexed legal and cultural discourse of obscenity.