What Banned Books Lists Reveal About Today's Society

— Emily, Owl Eyes Staff on

We’ve likely all encountered the words “Do not open.”

Much like locked doors, banned books were meant to be left closed. However, our first instinct is to do exactly the opposite; after all, books are meant to be read. Throughout history, stories have often been banned from the public because of offensive or inappropriate content. This “do not open” idea, when coupled with classic literature, reveals a lot about how society approaches controversial topics.

Why were these books considered controversial?

Before social media and other ways of receiving instant news, books were the primary medium for sharing ideas and information. Some of these ideas were deemed harmful because of their commentary on politics, religion, or sexuality. Thus, they all became prime candidates for censorship.

What does that mean for us today?

By examining the following stories, we can learn the history behind many of today’s beloved tales and the journey they took in becoming important today. Let’s look at why they were controversial and why they remain important today.

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House

Ibsen’s work subverted the traditional social structure at the time. Though he claimed to not be advancing any particular agenda, he acknowledged his work’s role in portraying imbalances in culture. In A Doll’s House, Nora Helmer challenges and questions her role as wife and mother, a role limited in scope because of societal expectations. In the 1870s, women were expected to remain in the domestic sphere, whereas men had access to the professional and social spheres. As Nora discovers herself, she forms her own opinions and makes a monumental decision to leave her husband and family—a decision many considered too threatening. While women-oriented stories are not uncommon now, they’re still largely outnumbered by stories written by, for, and about men.

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. Coupled 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.

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

The Awakening was never technically banned, but it was censored for focusing on a protagonist who actively defied traditional gender norms. Edna Pontellier’s multiple extramarital affairs reject the Victorian ideal of how a married woman ought to behave. Robert, one of her lovers, leaves her for fear of shaming her marriage—again taking power away from Edna to make her own decisions. As a result, she 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.

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray struggled after initial publication for being, according to critics, a corruptive influence. For example, Lord Henry implies that both a husband and wife will find disappointment in marriage, and Dorian Gray advocates that yielding to earthly pleasure and temptation is the only way to happiness. Based on this, critics argued that it advocated for homosexuality; this led to many heated debates, including one in which an Alabama congressional representative not only tried to ban this book but also all books containing elements of homosexuality (and that was as recent as 2005!).

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Shelley’s 1818 novel landed a time-out in 1955 for depicting a man capable of playing God, as Doctor Frankenstein’s creation contradicted what men were meant to be capable of. Despite Shelley’s novel ending with the conclusion that only death and destruction can come from imitating God, as seen by the demise of Clerval and Elizabeth, society still found fault with the introduction of the idea in the first place. In following the logic that humans are meant to be limited, we would likely see how Harry Potter take a seat alongside Frankenstein on the banned list. There have been petitions to ban Harry Potter today due to the threat it poses against Christian ideals for promoting the idea that children can fly on broomsticks and ignite fire with their minds.

Although the rationale behind banning these books, or any books, may seem absurd now, looking at this history illustrates how far society has come in accepting certain topics, as well as which topics we still struggle with. What we can see is that 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 in terms of topics like homosexuality, advanced technology, or magic. These were harmful to the pervasive Judeo-Christian ideals in Western culture.

However, the fact that many of these banned books have become today’s “classics” is encouraging. This demonstrates a shift in attitude over the years, as well as a desire to move away from such outdated mentalities.

(Oh, and by the way, for those of you who would have read these titles when they were first banned, your punishment could have included death, imprisonment, torture, and other not-so-fun activities.)