Wandering in an unfamiliar building, we’ve likely all encountered the words “Do Not Open” or “Restricted Access.” Much like locked doors, many want banned books to stay closed. But our first instinct is often exactly the opposite— locked doors promise hidden treasures, and banned books yearn to be read. Throughout history, stories have often been banned because of offensive or inappropriate content. This tendency to remove offensive texts reveals a lot about how our society approaches controversial topics.
Why were these books considered controversial?
Before social media and other ways of receiving instant news, books were a primary medium for sharing ideas and information. Some of these ideas were deemed harmful because of their commentary on politics, religion, or sexuality. Thus, many became prime candidates for censorship.
What does that mean for us today?
By examining the following stories, we can learn the history behind many current classics and their journeys from burn-bin to canonization. Let’s look at why they were controversial and why they remain important today.
1.) Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House
Ibsen’s work subverted the traditional social structure at the time. Though he denied having any particular agenda, he acknowledged that his work portrayed social imbalances. In A Doll’s House, Nora Helmer challenges and questions her role as wife and mother, a role limited in scope because of social expectations. In the 1870s, women were expected to remain in the domestic sphere, whereas men had access to the professional and social spheres. Throughout the story, Nora forms her own opinions and makes a monumental decision to leave her husband and family—a decision many considered too threatening to social norms. Though it was very controversial at the time, it was texts like this one that allowed women the freedom to imagine themselves, and eventually fight for their place, outside the domestic sphere. As the fight for equal opportunity and representation continues, we look back to texts like A Doll’s House to remember the progress we’ve made and the power we have to make change.
2.) Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
The content of Flaubert’s novel was considered so obscenely sexual that both he and his publisher were put on trial for allegedly promoting immorality. With overtones of adultery and female empowerment, this work was particularly offensive to 19th century readers. Emma Bovary’s free spirit and engagement with other men was meant to represent the female struggle in unfulfilling romantic relationships; yet, it was interpreted by many critics as promoting adultery. Like Edna in The Awakening, Emma dies by suicide, as she sees no other escape from the situation she finds herself in. This text, and the censorship it faced, shows us the extreme lack of control women at the time had in their own romantic and sexual engagements. Though women today have much more autonomy in general, echoes of the entrapment and despair Emma Bovary experienced can be heard in the voices of women in the #MeToo movement, and in unhappy marriages everywhere.
3.) Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
The Awakening was censored for having a protagonist who actively defied traditional gender roles. Edna Pontellier’s multiple extramarital affairs challenge the 19th-century idea of a married woman. Edna eventually finds herself unable to break free from the oppressive bonds of societal expectations, driving her to death by suicide. The book “so disturbed critics and the public that it was banished for decades afterward.” In fact, Chopin never wrote another book after this due to the overwhelmingly negative reception of The Awakening. Like Madame Bovary and A Doll’s House, this book reminds us of the limited opportunities women had in the past, and the stifling oppression many women felt as a result, especially if they were trapped in an unhappy marriage. While affairs can still cause a scandal, we have progressed as a society in that women no longer need to rely on a husband for financial support, and women can find fulfillment in a multitude of occupations.
4.) Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray
Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray struggled after initial publication as critics called it a corruptive influence. For example, Lord Henry implies that both a husband and wife will find disappointment in marriage, and Dorian Gray advocates yielding to earthly pleasure and temptation as the only way to happiness. Based on these scandalous assertations, and the doting, nearly romantic relationship between Dorian and Basil Hallward, critics argued that it advocated for homosexuality. This book was even used as evidence in the trial against Oscar Wilde, which sentenced him to two years in prison for his sexuality. This book has sparked many heated debates since, including one in 2005 when an Alabama congressman not only tried to ban this book but also all books containing elements of homosexuality. While LGBTQ+ individuals have significantly more rights in today’s society than in Oscar Wilde’s, the fact that this book and many like it are still being banned and challenged proves that there is much progress to be made.
5.) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Shelley’s 1818 novel earned itself a time-out in 1955 for its depiction of a man, Doctor Frankenstein, capable of playing God, by creating a person through unnatural means. Frankenstein’s creation overstepped the boundaries of human capabilities. Despite Shelley’s novel concluding that only death and destruction can come from imitating God, society found fault with the introduction of the idea in the first place. Following this logic, it’s easy to see how Harry Potter took a seat alongside Frankenstein on the banned list. There have been petitions to ban Harry Potter for the threat it poses against Christian ideals by allegedly promoting witchcraft, showing that religious tension is nearly as prevalent today as it was in Mary Shelley’s time.
Although the rationale behind banning these books may seem absurd now, this history illustrates how far society has come in some areas, as well as which issues we still struggle with. Anything that subverted traditional social structure, such as elevating the status of women and challenging the patriarchy, was viewed as degenerative to society. Challenging the status quo was not accepted, especially through topics like homosexuality, advanced technology, or magic. These were threatening to the Judeo-Christian ideals in Western culture.
The fact that many of these banned books have become today’s classics is encouraging. It demonstrates a shift in attitude over the years and a desire to move away from discriminatory and oppressive practices.
(Oh, and by the way, for anyone who risked reading these titles when they were first banned, your punishment could have included death, imprisonment, torture, and other not-so-fun activities.)