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A Theory of Scandal: Victorians, Homosexuality, and the Fall of Oscar Wilde1

University of Texas at Austin

Oscar Wilde is considered to be the iconic victim of 19th‐century English puritanism. Yet the Victorian authorities rarely and only reluctantly enforced homosexuality laws. Moreover, Wilde’s sexual predilections had long been common knowledge in London before his trials without affecting the dramatist's wide popularity. Focusing on the seemingly inconsistent Victorian attitudes toward homosexuality and the dynamics of the Oscar Wilde affair, this article develops a general theory of scandal as the disruptive publicity of transgression. The study of scandal reveals the effects of publicity on norm enforcement and throws into full relief the dramaturgical nature of the public sphere and norm work in society.