The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde and Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw are both satirical plays meant to criticize Victorian society and war, respectively. While both plays were written by Irish authors familiar with London and both were first performed in London in the 1890s, The Importance of Being Earnest is set in and focused on London and Arms and the Man is focused on Eastern Europe. Oscar Wilde had to hide his homosexuality from the judgment of Victorian society, leading him to mock this society in The Importance of Being Earnest. For his part, George Bernard Shaw lived through many wars and, although he wasn’t a true pacifist, he only believed in truly necessary wars. The deep influence that the authors’ respective life struggles had on their work directly translates into the satire found in both works. This satire is achieved through the actions of the characters, most importantly those of Cecily Cardew in The Importance of Being Earnest and Raina Petkoff in Arms and the Man. The overarching idea that appearances are deceiving is present in both works and advanced through the actions of these two characters. Cecily concerns herself with the deceptive appearance of the man she “loves” while Raina concerns herself with the appearance and imaginative idea she has of war. The satire in both The Importance of Being Earnest and Arms and the Man is directed towards the false appearances associated with Victorian society, namely the false romanticized perception of war and the superficiality of the institution of marriage.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, each of the characters follows all of the stereotypical behaviors of people living in Victorian England. Cecily is especially satirical in regard to these behaviors. Victorian society consisted of a rigid class structure and strict social rules for proper behavior, especially for women. English Victorian society also placed a great emphasis on one’s reputation in society and on what the outward appearance of one’s life and status meant. Cecily, Jack’s ward, believes that he has a brother named Ernest living in the city. She becomes infatuated with him, or rather, with the idea of him. When Cecily finally meets “Ernest,” who is truly Jack’s friend Algernon pretending to be Ernest, they immediately fall in love. Cecily makes it very clear to Algernon that she cannot love a man whose name is not Ernest, an insight into Wilde’s satire of Victorian society. She says, “You must not laugh at me, darling, but it has always been a girlish dream of mine to love someone whose name was Ernest.” Algernon replies, “But seriously Cecily, if my name was Algy, couldn’t you love me?” Cecily then provides a stark example of the satire of appearances in Victorian society by saying, “I might respect you Ernest, I might admire your character, but I fear that I should not be able to give you my undivided attention” (Wilde 33). Essentially, she says that she could not even love the same person if his name were different. This concentration on outward appearances and the somewhat superficial parts of a person was a very prominent element of Victorian society. As Eric Bentley says, “As its title confesses, it is about earnestness, that is, Victorian solemnity, that kind of false seriousness with means priggishness, hypocrisy, and lack of irony. Wilde proclaims that earnestness is less praiseworthy than the ironic attitude to life which is regarded as superficial” (Bentley 173). Appearances were worth more to Victorian-era people than what actually could be found beneath them. This is also seen in Lady Bracknell’s character, especially when the truth about Jack’s past is discovered, as well as when she finds out about Cecily’s assets and changes her mind about the marriage between Cecily and Algernon. Cecily’s desire to only marry an Ernest, despite true love, follows the same trend of superficial importance.
In Arms and the Man, the false appearances and satire are geared in a different direction. The characters are still very much concerned with outward social reputation; for example, the engagement between Sergius, a military leader, and Louka, one of the Petkoff’s servants, was frowned upon during this time period, but the more deceiving appearances show themselves in the discussion of war. A very large emphasis was placed on war, specifically on winning wars, in this play, much as the characters in The Importance of Being Earnest emphasized class structure and social reputation. In Arms and the Man, war is strongly romanticized. To romanticize something means to think about it in an “idealized or unrealistic fashion, or make something seem better or more appealing than it really is.” According to Louis Crompton, “The satire of Arms and the Man, however, is not directed primarily against nationalism, but against the poetic views of love and war. Specifically, the play deals with the disillusionment of Raina and Sergius” (Crompton 17). This sense of revelation is first seen through Raina’s conversation with her mother, Catherine, about what her fiancé Sergius did on the battlefield. Raina says ecstatically, “Tell me. Tell me. How was it! Oh, mother, mother, mother!” Her mother replies, “You can’t guess how splendid it is. A cavalry charge – think of that! He defied our Russian commanders – acted without orders – led a charge on his own responsibility – headed it himself – was the first man to sweep through their guns….” (Shaw 2). First of all, defying one’s commanders is typically viewed negatively. There is such a strong emphasis on following orders in the military that they should not have been excited about Sergius ignoring his commanders. They did not know that Sergius actually led a suicide mission because they were so infatuated with the idea of him being a hero. The two pretentious women have no idea what war is actually like, and they believe that it is a beautiful, easy thing. They live in the comfort of their luxurious home and have only fantasized about the courage and valiance involved in war. Later in the play, without knowing that Raina was engaged to Sergius, Captain Bluntschli candidly describes the same cavalry charge by saying, “And there was Don Quixote flourishing like a drum major, thinking he’d done the cleverest thing ever known, whereas he ought to be court-martialed for it. Of all the fools ever let loose on a field of battle, that man must be the very maddest. He and his regiment simply committed suicide – only the pistol missed fire, that’s all” (Shaw 12). This is the first time that Raina is exposed to a truly educated perspective of war and she has a hard time accepting it. Such an inability to fully accept another point of view is shown immediately after she hears Bluntschli’s account of Sergius’ charge, when she is described as “deeply wounded, but steadfastly loyal to her ideals” (Shaw 10). David Satran sums up the contrast of these two soldiers by saying, “Together the two men offer Raina competing conceptions of what it means to be a soldier, and through them Shaw aims for the play to challenge the audience’s ingrained beliefs” (Satran 15). Her character functions as a satire of the general population at the time, as Shaw can see that the populace is mostly unaware of what war is really like. Satran’s interpretation of Shaw’s intentions for the audience’s views on war ties in with Shaw’s satire – he was trying to make the audience step back and think about more personal views of war. If the audience memebers thought that Raina and her mother were acting ridiculously about war, they could compare it directly to their own beliefs of war and see if they acted the same way that the Petkoff women did. The population at the time had only been exposed to soft propaganda and somewhat falsified news in order to keep support for wars strong and prevent people from asking questions about what was really going on. Raina, as well as the general population in Shaw’s time, believed in these false appearances which led to a distortion of the realities of war.
Aside from serving as a satire of the general population of Victorian England, Cecily’s character mocks true love and the institution of marriage during the time period. She loved a man that she had never met due to the idea of love. When Cecily and “Ernest” (Algernon) meet for the first time, she tells him, “And of course a man who is much talked about is always very attractive. One feels there must be something in him, after all. I daresay it was foolish of me, but I fell in love with you, Ernest” (Wilde 32). Her interest was first sparked through gossip, further exposing the Victorian ideal of reputation and showing how her character focused on the superficial even in regard to something as serious as marriage and “true love”. Marriage and love were more often political or, as mentioned earlier, reputational agreements in Victorian England, as people needed to either stay in their social class or move up. This principle is exhibited when Lady Bracknell discusses the terms of the marriage between Cecily and Algernon. At first, she is strongly against it, as she thinks that Cecily is “not good enough” for Algernon. This does not mean that her character or heart was not good enough, but that her social status was not the kind that was right for Algernon. Lady Bracknell agrees to bless the union after she discovers Cecily’s fortune. Authoritatively, she tells Algernon, “There are distinct social possibilities in Miss Cardew’s profile…. Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that” (Wilde 47). These types of agreements are discussed in the work of Camille Paglia, an expert on sexuality in English literature. She argues, “…[the characters] have no real sexual feelings. The interactions of the play are governed by the formalities of social life, which emerge with dancelike ritualism” (Paglia 29). Usually, when two people want to get married or are fiancés, they have some sort of sexual feelings, feelings which are absent in The Importance of Being Earnest, further supporting the idea that the marriage between these two characters was based on nothing more than what it would mean for their social reputations. This satirical take on marriage could also be related to Oscar Wilde’s personal life, as he was married to a woman but was truly homosexual, a status socially and legally unacceptable at the time. In his play, he makes marriage for reasons other than real love look ridiculous, as it probably did to him as he was not allowed to marry as his heart truly desired. What lay underneath did not matter to the Victorian English as long as everyone else could only see what one wanted them to see.
Going further into the satirical portrayal of romanticized war, which is indeed similar to the satirical portrayal of marriage in The Importance of Being Earnest, Arms and the Man presents a second major superficiality, this time in regard to chocolate. When Raina hears Bluntschli’s stories about the mixed-up cartridges and keeping chocolate on the battlefield, all of her ideas about masculinity in a soldier are challenged. She says, “Come, don’t be disheartened. Oh, you are a very poor soldier—a chocolate cream soldier,” for enjoyment of her idea of his immaturity (Shaw 13). Bluntschli does not live up to her expectations as a soldier and she almost writes him off as a result. As seen earlier in the play when she and her mother are fawning over Sergius’ “heroic” actions in his “splendid” cavalry charge, Raina has ideas about what a soldier should be like that are very different from the reality of soldiers and even of Sergius himself. David Satran describes the use of chocolate in the story by saying, “Shaw expects his audience to distinguish between the cultural meanings of two very distinct forms of chocolate: the brittle, solid chocolate that soldiers had come to consume on the battlefield as part of their daily rations and the fine chocolate creams that had only recently come to be associated with romance…Soldiers like Bluntschli did in fact carry chocolate on the battlefield to provide themselves with ready nourishment, but the chocolate they carried was altogether different from the decadent chocolate creams Raina enjoys in her bedchamber” (Satran 14-15). The creamy, smooth, expensive chocolates that Raina eats are symbolic of her ideas of the beauty and softness of war, while the cheap, brittle, not-so-delicious chocolates that Bluntschli had to eat are the realistic symbolic representation of what war was really like. It is easy to imagine romance as the creamy chocolates and reality as the brittle chocolates, and to understand the difference between them. Raina does not understand this concept or the differences between the two types of chocolate. She continues to hold fast to her belief in the romantic ideals of war rather than understand the reality she is sarcastically being exposed to.
Societal rules, war, love, and marriage are all elements that continue to preoccupy us. For as long as they are imperfect, they will continue to be satirized. The satire in The Importance of Being Earnest and Arms and the Man is directed towards the false perceptions associated with Victorian society. Appearances being deceiving is an idea that permeates both plays. It allows the reader an insight into the time period in which the works were written as well as into the problems of that time period. The satire in both works also gives insight into the personal lives of the authors, as each play criticizes some element of the society that each author despised. Strict class structure in Victorian society and romanticism in war are two examples of false appearances that have changed somewhat since this time period, but false appearances are still very prominent in our world today. Being able to see through illusions and being able to understand the satire of our current world’s problems are two skills that can be enhanced by learning about past examples and situations, like those in The Importance of Being Earnest and Arms and the Man.