The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Elisabeth Ladenson

Under “novel,” Gustave Flaubert's Dictionary of Accepted Ideas claims novels “Corrupt the masses” (1913, trans. J. Barzun). Flaubert knew what he was talking about, since the trial of Madame Bovary in France in 1857 is perhaps the most notorious literary censorship trial of all. Novels have always been viewed by censors and would-be censors as a particularly dangerous literary form, given their potential appeal to a broad readership, and especially a female readership, as in the case of Madame Bovary. The particular aspects of fictional narrative that have been perceived as dangerous, and the measures undertaken to meet that danger, have changed over the course of time.

Forms of Censorship

The word censorship derives from the Roman office of censor, charged with taking the census of citizens but eventually including the oversight of moral behavior. Censorship refers to the suppression of spoken or written expression. In literary terms this has taken different forms at different times, and the category has been used for a variety of phenomena.

From the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century roughly through the eighteenth century in Europe, prior censorship was the norm (see PAPER AND PRINT). Government and ecclesiastic bodies vetted works prior to publication and accorded an early form of copyright in exchange for approval of content. This did not prevent the printing and dissemination of works outside the bounds of official censorship. Writers, publishers, and booksellers have always found ways to make illicit works available to a public eager to read them (see PUBLISHING). Prepublication censorship was the most effective form; it remained the norm until the nineteenth century and has returned at times under repressive political regimes. Iran, for instance, has never ceased to operate under this system.

During the nineteenth century and throughout much of the twentieth pre-publication vetting was replaced in Europe by a subtler form of control. Authors were free to publish anything they liked as long as they could find a publisher willing to publish it, the latter could find a printer willing to print it, and booksellers were willing to sell it. Until the late twentieth century, governments in most countries exercised the right to post-publication suppression following legal proceedings; as a result, the publishing industry exercised its own form of control on publications. Since authors and publishers, and often printers and booksellers, were subject to fines and even jail sentences if the work was found culpable under this system, all concerned had a considerable stake in avoiding legal proceedings.

Another less visible form of censorship often deployed against novels is expurgation. Offending passages are simply removed or modified. This practice is known as bowdlerization, after the Rev. Thomas Bowdler, who published expurgated versions of William Shakespeare (1554—1616) and of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776—88), rendering them suitable for reading aloud to mixed-sex audiences. Bowdlerization has been widespread from ancient régime France, in which special editions of works were produced for the use of the dauphin, the eldest son of the king, through more recent times. In the 1960s Hugh Lofting's Story of Doctor Doolittle (1920) was “cleaned up” to remove the impolite terms Polynesia the parrot uses to refer to black people.

The last major literary censorship trials in England, the U.S., and France took place in the 1960s. Since that time, the various forms of censorship outlined above have continued to be exercised in other parts of the world. In the West, censorship has not gone away, but it has taken different forms, emanating less from centralized government forces than from the citizenry itself, often in the form of local pressure groups. The subjects of perceived danger have also changed.

Danger Zones

The broad categories of perceived offensiveness in the novel are sexual, political, and religious. Since sex, politics, and religion have always been intimately connected, it is not easy to distinguish these rubrics. Adultery, for instance, is a standard plot for novels and a favorite target of censorship efforts. Many works, such as the novels of the Marquis de Sade, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), as well as a number of recent novels banned in Islamic countries, have managed to offend on all three counts. Whether Christian or Islamic, theocratic regimes tend to conflate these categories and feature capacious censorship criteria as a result. The Catholic Church published its first Index Librorum Prohibitorum (Index of Prohibited Books) in 1559 and did not stop issuing lists of proscribed books until 1966. The Index consistently included novels suspect on sexual and political as well as religious grounds. The 1989 fatwa pronounced on Salman Rushdie by the Iranian authorities following publication of his Satanic Verses (1988) was a religious decree on grounds of blasphemy, but in such contexts the religious is a political category that necessarily extends to representations of social and sexual concerns.

In addition to these, two further subcategories have received attention. In the early twentieth century the use of “dirty words” became an issue in such works as James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1934), all of which were published in France or Italy and banned for some years in English-speaking countries. By the end of the century the inclusion of words such as fuck and shit, used either as verbs, substantives, or expletives in novels was commonplace, a byproduct of the realistic depiction of everyday life. However at the same time, racial denigration became a source of concern (see RACE). In France, the category of “incitement to racial hatred” is one of the few grounds on which government censorship can be invoked. In the U.S. the word nigger has occasioned many attempts to ban novels from school libraries and required reading lists, notably Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1885).

Protected Groups

Before the nineteenth century, illiteracy provided a built-in constraint on access to novels and other written material. In the eighteenth century, philosophical novels by Voltaire, Denis Diderot, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, many of which circulated in France in clandestine form, were instrumental in bringing about the French Revolution. Their target audience was educated men and, to a lesser extent, educated women.

By the mid-nineteenth century exponentially increasing literacy rates combined with the development of cheap paper-making and printing techniques to produce a lucrative market for fiction among women and the working classes, two groups seen as lacking the discernment of educated men and therefore in need of protection (see CLASS, GENDER). In 1836 Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers and Honoré de Balzac's La Vieille Fille (The Old Maid) were published in newspapers in serial form. serialization was an immensely popular format, but it was also viewed as potentially dangerous. Multi-volume novels were also sold by subscription. Eugène Sue's blockbuster series Les Mystères de Paris (1842—43, The Mysteries of Paris) and its ilk were retrospectively seen as one of the causes of the Revolutions of 1848. A later novel by Sue was banned in France in 1857, some six months after Flaubert's trial. As a result, post-publication censorship was heightened during the Second Empire (1852—70). Novels were seen as a considerable threat to the sexual as well as the political status quo. The public prosecutor in the Madame Bovary trial emphasized the fact that the novel's audience would consist largely of girls and women who, like its heroine, were unable to distinguish between fiction and reality and would be corrupted by her example. In England and the U.S., French novels were viewed as posing a particular danger on political and sexual grounds. In addition to the political and sexual perils represented by the newly literate sections of the population, during the nineteenth century “the young person” began to be a central focus of censorial attention. This attitude was immortalized in Dickens's Our Mutual Friend (1864—65) in the character of Mr. Podsnap. His incessant worries about what was appropriate for “the young person” (i.e., his daughter) yielded the term “podsnappery.” For some time the young person generally meant a girl, since boys were seen as being better able to fend for their own moral rectitude, but over the course of the twentieth century the protection of censors and would-be censors extended to children and adolescents in general.

Censorship of Pornographic Novels

Especially in France, the eighteenth century produced a rich harvest of classic clandestine pornographic novels, along with much of what is now regarded as the Enlightenment canon, including philosophical works. Among these works were a number of novels that fall into a hybrid category of philosophical pornography, and indeed the word philosophie referred to philosophical tracts, erotic narrative, and everything in between. Examples of more or less philosophically tinged pornographic novels written and banned in France during the pre-Revolutionary period are Diderot's Bijoux indiscrets (1748, Indiscreet Jewels), an Orientalist work featuring talking vaginas; Claude-Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon fils's Le Sopha (1742, The Sofa), which recounts the memoirs of a couch; and Jean-Baptiste de Boyer d'Argens's Thérèse philosophe (1748, The Philosophical Theresa). Written toward the end of the eighteenth century, the novels of the Marquis de Sade represent the most extravagantly violent vein of this tradition. His complete works were not published openly until after WWII, occasioning a well-publicized trial in France.

The term pornography gained currency in the late eighteenth century. Its literal meaning is prostitute-writing, but it was initially used for proto-sociological descriptions of the conditions in which prostitutes lived and plied their trade. The most often censored novel in English, John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or Fanny Hill (1748—49), was written in a successful attempt to get its author out of debtor's prison, but it quickly landed him back in jail on grounds of offending the King's subjects. Fanny Hill is pornography in every sense of the word since it not only features sex on every page but also takes the form of the autobiography of a prostitute. A variety of sex acts are portrayed throughout, but parts of the body are referred to exclusively through metaphor. Famously, it contains no vernacular “dirty words.” It holds the distinction of being the first book on record as being banned in the U.S. (Massachusetts, 1821) as well as one of the last: it was not allowed free circulation in that country until a Supreme Court case in 1966. Like the works of the Marquis de Sade, Fanny Hill is now widely available in various paperback “classic” editions.

Censored Classics

A number of canonical novels have been the objects of censorship or censorship attempts. These include perennially problematic works such as Petronius's Satyricon (first century CE), Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron (1349—53), Marguerite de Navarre's Heptameron (1558—59), and the works of François Rabelais, especially the notorious Gargantua (1532) and Pantagruel (1534?), all of which have repeatedly been banned in various contexts and countries on grounds of obscenity, that is to say, the presence of sexual content, blasphemy, and vulgar language.

Many of these works were still being banned or expurgated in English-speaking countries in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an era busy producing its own censorable literature. The modernist novel (see MODERNISM), with its emphatic critique of modern society, had left itself open to censorship from its prehistory with the Madame Bovary trial. Toward the end of the nineteenth century the Naturalist movement in France attracted a great deal of opprobrium and a number of censorship cases, although the novels of Émile Zola, founder of the movement, were banned only in England (see NATURALISM). In the late 1880s publisher Henry Vizetelly was twice prosecuted and briefly jailed for selling French novels in translation, notably Zola's La Terre (1887, The Earth).

Joyce's Ulysses was the first notorious case of censorship of a now-canonical modernist novel. It was first published between 1918 and 1920 in Margaret Anderson's Little Review in New York in serial form. Despite having been expurgated by Ezra Pound in order to avoid censorship and because he objected to the novel's scatological theme, publication was halted by order of the court following the “Nausicaa” episode in which Leopold Bloom masturbates on the beach in full sight of the compliant Gerty McDowell. While Anderson's attorney emphasized the obscurity of the work, the presiding judge found this scene excessively comprehensible. The novel was then brought out in unexpurgated form by Sylvia Beach under the imprint of her Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Co. in 1922. It was not allowed into the U.S. until New York Supreme Court Justice John M. Woolsey's famous decision in December 1933, the same week Prohibition (1920—33) was repealed, that the book was a work of art. Moreover, its sexual content was “emetic” rather than “aphrodisiac,” and it could therefore safely be enjoyed by the American public. Publication in the U.K. soon followed.

In 1928 Radclyffe Hall, at the time a prominent English author who had won several important prizes, brought out The Well of Loneliness, the first mainstream novel in English centrally concerned with same-sex love. Although the book received uniformly positive reviews in the literary press, its implicit plea for tolerance of homosexuality attracted the ire of James Douglas, the editorialist of the Sunday Express, who wrote a scathing article deploring the moral turpitude it promoted and famously declared that he would “rather give a child a phial of prussic acid” than this book because “poison destroys the body, but moral poison destroys the soul.” The Home Office responded by dragging Hall's publisher, Jonathan Cape, into court under the Obscene Publications Act of 1857. Literary London turned out to support Hall and her publisher and attest to the work's literary merit, despite the feeling among many of her supporters, including Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster, that The Well was far from being a masterpiece. The presiding magistrate refused to allow defense testimony as to artistic merit. Merit was claimed as an exacerbating factor by the prosecution and the case was lost, but in the U.S. a similar verdict was overturned on appeal. In England the novel was banned for some twenty years. It was a long time before anyone attempted anything of the sort again (see QUEER).

Some fifteen years before the Well of Loneliness trial, Forster had written Maurice, a novel featuring a protagonist normal to the point of mediocrity in all respects other than his sexual preference. Forster dedicated this work “to a happier year,” a time when such books would not be subject to censorship and did not attempt to publish it during his lifetime. The novel first appeared in 1971 after the author's death, according to a proviso in his will. Unlike The Well of Loneliness, which, as its title suggests, does not end on a cheerful note, Maurice features a relatively happy ending which Forster knew would make the novel entirely unpublishable. Unhappy endings which provide a dose of moral retribution to unruly characters had long been used by authors wishing to take on problematic themes (e.g., adultery) while avoiding censorship. This technique was never foolproof. It did not prevent Flaubert from getting dragged into court over Madame Bovary, although it contributed to his acquittal, and it failed Hall in The Well of Loneliness. The first novel with both a homosexual theme and an optimistic ending in the U.K. seems to have been Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt, Carol (1951), initially published under the pseud. Claire Morgan.

The same year The Well of Loneliness was published and banned, Lawrence, who had already encountered censorship over The Rainbow (1915), published Lady Chatterley's Lover in Italy. He did not attempt to find a publisher in England. Not only does the book feature a relatively happy ending for its adulterous couple, it is filled with highly explicit sex scenes, a rich vocabulary of four-letter words, and a scathing indictment of postwar society. Lawrence died in 1930, but Chatterley lived on through numerous bootleg editions, some expurgated. Following notorious censorship trials in England, the U.S., and Japan it was freely published in English-speaking countries and for many heralded the advent of the sexual revolution. Philip Larkin (1922—85) paid ironic tribute to this milestone in his poem “Annus Mirabilis” (1974):

Sexual intercourse began In nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me) Between the end of the Chatterley ban And the Beatles' first LP.

Censorship Activism

By the early twentieth century, control over the dissemination of books in most Western countries operated not only through obscenity trials in the courts but also through government agencies such as the postal system and the Customs office. In Britain in the late 1920s the Conservative government's Home Secretary, William Joynson-Hicks (1902—83), popularly known as “Jix,” was particularly keen on cracking down on obscenity and indecency in all possible forms. In 1930, just after the Conservative government had been voted out of office, Evelyn Waugh satirized this phenomenon in his novel Vile Bodies. Its protagonist watches helplessly as overzealous Customs agents, citing the fact that the Home Secretary is “particularly against books,” declare, “if we can't stamp out literature in the country, we can at least stop its being brought in from outside.” They take out their list of banned titles and seize Dante Alighieri's Purgatorio (1308—21) and the typescript of his unpublished autobiography from his luggage.

In the U.S., a country which has never had a coherent federal censorship law, much of the work of policing literature was undertaken at the local level by private organizations accorded semi-official functions who worked with the Post Office and Customs Bureau. The most prominent of these was the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, founded by Anthony Comstock (b. 1844) in 1873 and headed by him until his death in 1915, when it was taken over by the equally zealous but less flamboyant John Sumner. Comstock received a Commission to act as Special Agent of the U.S. Post Office. He became a famous figure and gave rise to both a noun, “Comstockery,” a more proactive form of “Podsnappery,” and a law, the Comstock Act of 1873, under which many books, including Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (1387—1400), Boccaccio's Decameron, Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722), and various editions of the Arabian Nights were seized well into the twentieth-century. The New York Vice Society, as it was known, was soon joined by other regional organizations such as the New England Watch and Ward Society, the group responsible for the notorious wave of books “banned in Boston” into the 1930s.

A part of the same “purity” movement that had called for Prohibition, the “Clean Books Crusade” spearheaded by these organizations reached its apogee in the 1920s. Among the novels deemed obscene and suppressed then in the U.S. and England were Leo Tolstoy's novella The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) (also banned as indecent in Russia upon publication), Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure (1895), Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (1925), Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises (1926), and Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry (1927).

The Vice Society movement began to fade in the 1930s for a number of reasons. The Depression brought the Roaring Twenties to an abrupt end, and the insistent focus on sex in literature gave way to economic concerns on the part of both writers and publishers. The rise of Fascism in Europe, and especially the Nazi book-burnings in May 1933, in which novels by AndImagee Gide, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, Zola, H. G. Wells, Erich Maria Remarque, Arthur Schnitzler, Hemingway, and Jack London were consigned to the flames, dampened censorship ardor in other countries. In the U.S. this event was referred to in cautionary terms in literary trials around this time, e.g., that of Ulysses in December 1933.

In the 1960s a number of prominent censorship trials led to the effective end of government literary censorship in most European countries. Novels containing explicit depictions of previously taboo themes appeared. The pseudonymous Pauline Réage's Story of O (1954), William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch (France, 1959; U.S. 1962, and promptly banned in Boston), John Rechy's City of Night (1963), and Hubert Selby, Jr.'s Last Exit to Brooklyn (U.S. 1964, and banned in Britain 1966—68) included homosexual and sadomasochistic sex. These titles appeared under the imprint of Grove Press in the U.S. and circulated with relative freedom by the late 1960s.

By the end of the century, the Vice Society movement had been replaced in the U.S. by evangelical organizations, including the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family. With the advent of new media such as video games and the internet, novels had come to seem largely anodyne, with an important exception: children and youth still potentially needed protection from the novels assigned to them in school and available to them in libraries. As a result, censorship battles in the U.S. toward the end of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century are most often waged by individuals or groups against school boards and libraries. The most important difference between these efforts and the methods of vice societies is that the latter sought to ban works entirely from the public at large, whereas the focus in more recent times has been on preventing individual children rather than children as a general category from reading works viewed as offensive or dangerous.

For the most part, the subjects perceived as harmful have not changed a great deal. “Sexually explicit material” still heads the list of offending factors cited in challenges to the presence of books on school curricula or in municipal or school libraries, according to the American Library Association (ALA). Other grounds have included offensive language, occult themes or Satanism, violence, promotion of homosexuality, racism, “sex education,” and “anti-family.” The list of works among the ALA's Most Frequently Challenged Books in the early twenty-first century include many Young Adult novels by Judy Blume, Roald Dahl, S. E. Hinton, Paul Zindel, and others, as well as novels by Margaret Atwood, Aldous Huxley, Stephen King, Toni Morrison, J. D. Salinger, John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and Alice Walker.

Recent Controversies

In recent years, and for very different reasons, Huckleberry Finn and J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series (1997—2007) are exemplary among the books receiving attention from groups and individuals wishing to protect young readers from nefarious influences.

Huckleberry Finn has occasioned controversy, suppression, and bowdlerization because of its purportedly ambiguous depiction of racial relations in America. The first school edition of Twain's novel omitting the word nigger was published in 1931. In 1957 a New York City court case involved the uncapitalized substitution of negro for the offending word in an edition destined for use in schools. More recently, parents have petitioned schools simply to remove the work from required reading lists, and such cases have been heard in a variety of municipal and state judicial systems.

The Harry Potter novels have received phenomenal worldwide popularity among adults as well as children and adolescents since the inaugural volume in 1997, but they have also inspired bitter opposition on the grounds that they promote witchcraft and Satanism. There have been countless attempts to have them removed from school reading groups and libraries. In 2002 a pastor in New Mexico conducted a public burning of the series, denouncing it as “a masterpiece of satanic deception.” His action was in turn deplored by hundreds of protestors, who turned up to shout “stop burning books.”

Arguments for and against Censorship

The basic outlines of all debates around censorship can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. The former, through the discourse of Socrates in the Republic, famously banished poets, the practitioners of mimetic literary art, from his ideal society on the grounds that such representations are dangerous because they stir the emotions, and people tend to imitate what they see and hear. Aristotle, despite having been Plato's student and despite never addressing the subject per se, nonetheless paved the way for all subsequent arguments against censorship through his influential theory of catharsis. According to Aristotle the audience of a tragedy will tend to purge their own negative emotions through identification.

Almost all arguments for censorship follow the general lines of Plato's pronouncements in assuming that an audience's behavior will be influenced by the stories it is exposed to. Novels, like theater and film, have caused particular concern because all these forms have at various times been highly popular, and narrative art is seldom predicated on good behavior. Anti-censorship efforts have generally been based on the idea that audiences can think for themselves, and that the representation of dangerous or antisocial acts can act as a cathartic imaginative release, rather than an incitement.

The novel form has long internalized these debates. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra's Don Quixote (1605, 1615), Madame Bovary, and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (1955), for instance, foreground characters whose problematic behavior is explicitly linked to their reading habits; perhaps unsurprisingly, such works have themselves been the targets of censorship efforts.

SEE ALSO: Decadent Novel, Novel Theory (19th Century), Philosophy, Realism, Reviewing, Sexuality.


1. Boyer, P. (2002), Purity in Print, 2nd. ed.

2. de Grazia, E. (1992), Girls Lean Back Everywhere.

3. Ladenson, E. (2007), Dirt for Art's Sake.

4. Perrin, N. (1969), Dr. Bowdler's Legacy.

5. Rembar, C. (1986), End of Obscenity.

6. Sutherland, J. (1982), Offensive Literature.

7. Travis, A. (2000), Bound and Gagged.