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Oscar Wildes Impacts To Crime And Punishment English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1986 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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With his witty charm and consistent plays Oscar Wilde has inspired some of the most intelligent minds of our generation. The attitudes of society towards homosexuality have altered significantly since the sentence of Oscar Wilde in 1895. But to suggest his trial for sodomy had a minimal short term impact on crime and punishment is a gross understatement, it rocked the laws on sodomy and the harsh prison system to their core. As Oscar Wilde would say “I made the 20th century able to look itself in the face.”

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Male homosexuality was made a capital offence in England under the Buggery Act of 1533 and the first man to be convicted was playwright Nicholas Udall in 1541, who was imprisoned for a year. The law became eternal in 1563 until replaced by the Offences Against the People Act of 1828. The death penalty was the sentence until 1861 though it was only exacted on a few occasions. Thereafter punishment became imprisonment being from ten years up to life. However the law became stricter: the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act made any homosexual act illegal and amid the prosecutions was of course, Oscar Wilde. Underneath the Criminal Law Amendment Act, the maximum penalty for gross indecency was two years incarceration, which was reduced from life in prison, which had itself been condensed from hanging. But what appears to be a softer approach towards homosexuality is really just an elusive disguise, since the prejudice towards homosexuality had been at an increase towards the late 19th century and considered to be a “monstrous vice.”

But how did Wilde end up in jail? On 18th February the Marques of Queensberry left his calling card decorated “for Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite.” Wilde, (influenced by his lover and Queensberry’s son Lord Alfred Douglas) initiated a trial against Queensberry which ultimately back-fired. The trial in fact led to details of Wilde’s homosexuality and overwhelming evidence led to ‘The Crown VS Wilde’ trial and on 25th May 1895 Wilde was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labour.


With the law passed in 1895 that made any act of ‘gross indecency’ a crime and the celebrity of Oscar Wilde, same sex relationships that might once have been seen as innocent now became suspect. The Wilde trials caused social attitudes toward crime and punishment for homosexuals to become harsher and less tolerant.  Whereas prior to the trials there was a certain compassion for those who engaged in same-sex passion, after the trials homosexuals were seen more as a hazard.  The Wilde trials also had other effects.  They caused the public to begin to connect art and homosexuality and to analyse effeminacy as a signal for homosexuality.  Many same sex relationships seen as guiltless before the Wilde trials became suspect after them. People with same sex relationships grew anxious about doing something that might suggest indecency.

Wilde was jailed in Pentonville Prison originally; however he was then transported too Wandsworth prison in London. The regime at the time was tough; “hard labour, hard fare and a hard bed” was the guiding philosophy. Wilde was required to work on a treadwheel during his time in prison and I would suggest that the banning of the treadwheel was credit to Oscar Wilde’s acquaintanceship with it. Wilde in fact became very ill from the hard labour of the treadwheel which later contributed towards his early death. I do not think it was mere coincidence that the banning of the treadwheel happened so soon after Wilde’s release and I believe it is one of the greatest short term impacts Wilde had on crime and punishment.

Oscar Wilde’s trial engrossed the nation, the subject matter a cause of intense rumour and speculation. But how did this have the effect of changing social attitudes towards the crime and punishment of homosexuals? The status of Wilde had a great deal to do with the magnanimity that the trials grew to. The factors that made him different in the eyes of the public, particularly his nature, transformed him into a model threat. At this time, the fear and threat of homosexuality was growing, and Wilde’s trial took part in that expansion. However I would not agree that Wilde’s case alone dramatically changed the attitudes of the public, but rather that it was one of several other incidents during the span of two decades that caused a more aggressive fear of homosexuals. For example the Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889 fuelled the attitude that homosexuality was a tool to destroy male youths. The Cleveland Street Scandal in essence was when a homosexual brothel in Cleveland Street, London, was found by police. Therefore, this, toppled with the new Criminal Law Amendment Act enacted in the late 1800s, was what truly impacted attitudes in England.

Analysing the Jury is pivotal to understanding how the Wilde trial impacted public attitudes to crime and punishment for homosexuals and the divisions amongst the jury reflected current public opinion very well. At first the public couldn’t cry “crucify him” loud enough, but afterwards the figures increased of those who hoped Wilde would be acquitted, in view of the meagre quality of the prosecution witnesses, even if he had done what he was accused of. One clergyman, the Reverend Selwyn Image, even found the nerve to describe the entire law under which Wilde is charged, as “pernicious.”The judge even called the Wilde trial as “the worst case he had ever tried” and proclaimed that the maximum sentence of two years was in fact lenient. I wrap up that the reaction from the judge during the trial’s sentencing statement is enough evidence to confirm the horrific views of the public towards crime and punishment for homosexuality.

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Not only his trial but Wilde’s imprisonment and exile changed public attitudes on the prison system. He drew from his experience to produce The Ballad of Reading Gaol and several articles against the poor conditions in British prisons, one of which contributed to the passing of a law to prevent the imprisonment of children. During Wilde’s imprisonment, a hanging took place. Charles Thomas Wooldridge had been a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards. He was convicted of cutting the throat of his wife, Laura Ellen, earlier that year. This had a profound effect on Wilde, inspiring the line “Yet each man kills the thing he loves.” The ballad had some influence on public perception as well as it described what life in gaol was like. Although it could be argued that he didn’t have a long term impact on hanging in prisons as it was banned in 1969, I strongly believe Wilde had an impact on attitudes toward capital punishment in the short term as it must be remembered that ‘The ballad of Reading Gaol’ was published and was rather popular.

Such was the sphere of influence on the trial of Oscar Wilde that it had a negative impact on how crime and punishment for homosexuality was perceived across the Atlantic. American Newspaper ‘New York Times’ stressed a need for a law on ‘gross indecency’ which being the distinguished newspaper it is, quite obviously impacted public attitude towards sodomy. After Wilde’s arrest, the April 6 New York Times discussed Wilde’s case as a query of “immorality” and would not specifically address homosexuality, discussing the men “some as young as 18” that were brought up in the witness box. The treatment of the Wilde case in American newspapers reflects the American attitude towards the subject in the 1890s; although in discussion, homosexuality could not be named.

Furthermore England’s national newspapers also had a negative impact on short term attitudes towards homosexuality as the news about the trial was biased and faulty at best. It is no secret that newspapers are in business to make money so analysing newspaper articles is vital to understanding public attitude that the Oscar Wilde trials brought, after all, they are a sounding board for current attitudes. They caused Oscar Wilde’s trial as well as his conviction to be an extremely exposed event, strongly influencing the way the public interpreted homosexuality and the crime of sodomy. The articles of the Evening Standard and the Morning among others portrayed Wilde as having a particular ‘tendency’ toward committing sexual acts with other men. The newspapers also most effectively described Wilde as “a languorous, long-haired lover of sunflowers.” I would therefore analyse that newspapers transformed homosexual acts into a homosexual identity. Despite the substance of homosexual categories in medical books by 1869, Victorian journalism created a new homosexual parable that the Oscar Wilde trials can lay claim to producing the category of the homosexual. National newspapers were overall a vice for what public attitude was for crime and punishment for homosexuals 1895.

One could argue that in the short term, Wilde influenced the origins of many pressure groups. For example in 1895 Earl Lind created Cercle Hermaphroditos which was the 1st group to announce a political agenda to clash against the discrimination of homosexuals. As well as this, in 1897 George Cecil Ives structured the first homosexual rights group in England, the Order of Chaeronea. These pressure groups in my opinion clearly give a positive indication that the Oscar Wilde trial increased public awareness and influenced attitudes of political persecution of homosexuals. But how could the formation of two small pressure groups suggest that the Wilde trial impacted attitudes in the short term? Pressure groups have played and continue to play an important part in the development of political and social systems and it must not be forgot that pressure groups influenced the government’s decision to allow homosexual acts in 1967.

Douglas O. Linder, author of “Famous Trials” summed up the Oscar Wilde scandal quite appropriately when he stated “Celebrity, sex, witty dialogue, political intrigue, surprising twists, and important issues of art and morality–is it any surprise that the trials of Oscar Wilde continue to fascinate one hundred years after the death of one of the world’s greatest authors and playwrights.” He has no idea how right he is as after his 1895 trial for gross indecency, Oscar Wilde’s name became a byword for immorality. But in the 20th century, gay men embraced Wilde as an icon of gay history and changes were made to the law in 1967, when same-sex acts were finally decriminalised. This proves that Wilde irrelevantly did have a long term impact on attitudes to crime and punishment for homosexuals which proved to be positive. Despite some positive impacts Wilde’s trial produced such as influences on hanging and the abolition of the infamous treadwheel, there is no denying that the Oscar Wilde trial most definitely had a negative impact on attitudes to crime and punishment for homosexuals in the short term. The trials brought media attention on them and public attitudes turned from ignorance to hatred. Even the Church could no longer pacify homosexuality as something unspoken, conceivable to the modern day ‘don’t ask don’t tell policy’ historically used by the US army in relation to homosexuals until being abolished under President Obama. By the time of his conviction, not only had Wilde been established as the main sexual deviant of the nineteenth century, but he had become the model for an emerging public definition of a new type of menace, the homosexual.


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