Kurt Neumann

Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

Baker, William, 1944-||Schaeffer, John D.

Degree Name

Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy)

Legacy Department

Department of English


British literature; Irish literature; Rhetoric


This dissertation examines the rhetoric of Oscar Wilde's three trials (one libel trial and two criminal trials) that eventually led to his conviction for gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 and his subsequent imprisonment for two years' hard labor. This study considers Wilde's trials as examples of legal proceedings that through their popularity resonated with a particular public consciousness at the end of the nineteenth-century and whose resonance is still felt today. While book-length studies of the cultural and social history of Wilde's trials have been available for several decades, and shorter studies of the libel trial have been published more recently, no such study of the rhetoric of the three trials has yet appeared. Accordingly, the present study is an attempt to fill in some gaps in the scholarship on Wilde's trials, namely, close readings of the legal arguments made in the trials and descriptive analyses of the rhetoric of those arguments. My purpose is to examine the rhetoric of all three trials, specifically legal rhetoric, addressed to the three primary audiences of the proceedings: the judges, the juries, and the audiences inside the courtroom. My analysis seeks responses to the following questions: Most generally, in what ways can the principles of classical rhetoric (and its contemporary manifestations) be used to understand the formation and maintenance of the law? What can a rhetorical analysis of the trials tell us about the relationship between law and society in the latter third of the nineteenth century? What can a close analysis of the rhetoric of the trials tell us about the nature of the legal discourse in the period, including the ethos of both legal and cultural authority, and the argumentative strategies and rhetorical techniques they valued? What particular crisis moments (kairos) are apparent in and addressed through the rhetorical appeals in the trials? To what extent did the participants (litigants, counsels, judges, and general public) apprehend those crisis moments and tailor their rhetorical strategies to address them? How are those specifically legal moments indicative of a more socially systematic kairos in the 1890s, the working out of which was accomplished through the means of the trials? And what can such an analysis add to our historical characterizations of Oscar Wilde, the prosecution and defense attorneys, the judges, and the witnesses as representative audiences in late-nineteenth-century British society? This approach will not recapitulate general views of the trials---indeed, at times it will critique these views---nor will it address more broadly cultural issues such as "structural oppositions between 'heterosexual' and 'homosexual'" at the end of the century, or why Oscar Wilde embodied something threatening and outrageous to late-Victorian society. Instead, I would like to use some major concepts of classical and contemporary rhetorical analysis to compare differing versions of significant aspects of the trials, such as opening and closing arguments, witness testimony, and witness examination, to elucidate features of legal discourse at the end of the nineteenth century; and to explore in the context of one the most sensationalized trials of the late-nineteenth century the nature and scope of the persuasiveness of popular trials. In so doing this study will argue that the rhetoricity of legal arguments reveals a tension between the purported fixity and certainty of the law, and contingencies (individual trials such as Wilde's) that at once confirm and reinforce the law as well as question and subvert the law. The most significant aspect of this tension, in turn, is that it results in a crucial, productive oscillation between the law as a foundational, normative concept in democratic societies, and rhetoric as the means by which that foundation is established, critiqued, and modified. Put differently, Wilde's trials offer a glimpse into the unsettling awareness that the law is rhetorically constructed and provisional, in contrast to an institution that is presented and venerated as a bedrock of society.


Advisors: William Baker; John Schaeffer.||Committee members: Brian May.||Includes bibliographical references.


158 pages




Northern Illinois University

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