The Importance of Being Earnest
The Influence of Oscar Wilde’s Sexuality | English Literature Dissertation
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was a writer whose homoerotic texts pushed the social boundaries of the Victorian era. Born to a family of unabashed Irish agnostics, the self-proclaimed “dandy” valued art, fashion, and all things physically beautiful. After receiving a comprehensive education from Oxford, Wilde made a name for himself in London first as a novelist, penning the now famous The Picture of Dorian Gray.
A string of successful plays followed, among them “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “An Ideal Husband”. Wilde also published a variety of short stories and essays, but is acclaimed by historians for his pioneering influence over the aesthetic movement, aprogression that opposed the accepted Victorian take on art in everyway, shape, and form. Wilde postulated that art existed solely foritself, only for the sake of being art. His play “The Decay of Lying”exemplified this tenet best, personifying his distaste for society’s proclivities through a conversation between two people in a park.Though he fathered two sons, Wilde’s marriage fizzled as his personallife continuously hinted at homosexuality. Wilde’s inability to keephis private life secret proved to be his downfall; a love affair with aprominent nobleman resulted in Wilde’s imprisonment and expulsion from British social circles. Victorian Britain became increasingly morally rigid, its period marking a time when Britain was experiencing a growthin imperialism and conservative thought. While serving his term for homosexual acts, Wilde wrote the deeply spiritual De Profund is, inwhich he discussed his aspirations of individuality and freedom from the proprietary values that bound late Victorian society.
An avant-garde writer and raconteur, Wilde’s sexuality had a profound effect on his works, influencing imagery and the nature of his characters in both The Picture of Dorian Gray and “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Wilde’s sexuality and effeminate nature shaped his relations to aestheticism, which in turn manifested itself in his works’ moral implications. Wilde frequently employed thinly disguised doubles, representing himself in his work in order to juxtapose anaesthete and a traditionally Victorian society. Wilde’s aesthetics arestrangely connected to his obsession with Jesus Christ. It is peculiarthat such an unorthodox figure such as Wilde would find so much solaceand inspiration from such a religious source. In De Profundis, Wilde’s admiration for and comparison with Jesus takes on many levels. Helikens his persecution to Jesus’ crucifixion, a notion that evokeshubris, especially given Wilde’s naturally flamboyant disposition.Though not entirely humble, Wilde’s comparisons are based more on parallels drawn between Wilde’s persecution and the events leading to Jesus’ martyrdom. Many speculate Wilde’s eventual baptism and acceptance of Catholicism was a manifestation of imminent death’s madness as the famed author was too radical to accept religion withinthe boundaries of sanity. However, there are critics who contend that Wilde “was very much in the mainstream of the intellectual currents of his time, a man clearly aware of what he was trying to achieve in terms of his life and art”; in the end, he was willing to accept his newfoundstatus as a pariah, provided he could still create plays and prose.
Considered by many to be “the most outrageous trial of the century”, Wilde’s fall from grace was so indicative of his progression and the significance of his unique works set in a time “between the Victorianera and the modern age” (Hoare 4). Wilde’s persecution reflected aclash of morals and ideals not unlike those faced by the protagonists of his novels. Wilde’s trial mimicked his imaginative fiction:
“…it was a clash of opposites: of good versus evil, of heterosexualand homosexual, of masculine and feminine, of the safe and thedangerous, of what was seen as morally right or morally wrong” (Hoare4).
Homosexuality’s Influence in The Picture of Dorian Gray and “The Importance of Being Earnest”
Wilde’s homosexuality had a profound influence over his work. His own experiences and relationships are projected into The Picture of Dorian Gray, and it is widely speculated that the characters Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian are different aspects of Wilde himself. Wilde wrotethat “Basil is how I see myself, Lord Henry how the world sees me, and Dorian how I would like to be” (Ericksen 101). The controversy behind The Picture of Dorian Gray was based in the extreme homoeroticism ofthe characters’ interaction; it is easy to see how Wilde’s writing elicited such a reaction. The male relationships are surely suggestiveenough to stir even the most open-minded in the Victorian era. Wilde’ssexuality affected the structure of the relationships as well, opening the book with the making of a homosexual love triangle involving Basil,Dorian, and Lord Henry. Basil’s painting is intimately connected with his adulation of Dorian’s physical beauty. Dorian, in turn, adores LordHenry, a man of stature who introduces him into a new coterie. LordHenry, in turn, adores Dorian’s physical beauty but also his relativeinnocence and the opportunity to mold him into the type of Victoriansocialite everyone will adore.
The novel opens with Basil’s overstated obsession with Dorian’s goodlooks. Basil’s sentiments, however, are undeniably romantic. As he paints his masterpiece, Basil is described as looking wistfully at the canvas, “a smile of pleasure” passing across his face as he lingersover the image he created (Wilde 1962, 20). In the case Basil’s day dreaming was too speculative a conclusion to make, Wilde provided his readers with interaction between Basil and Lord Henry sufficient enough to establish a romantic attraction for Dorian inside Basil. WhenLord Henry walks into Basil’s studio, Basil plans on keeping hissubject’s identity a secret out of jealousy. Basil “immensely likes”Dorian, and has “grown to love secrecy” as it ensures that he will nothave to share Dorian with Lord Henry (Wilde 1962, 22). Though it islater discovered that Basil is concerned that Lord Henry will corruptDorian with his cynicism and overdeveloped penchant for amorality, Basil is extremely protective of a man who he has befriended solely onthe basis of his physical appearance. He describes to Lord Henry how upon seeing Dorian for the first time his “face grew pale”, knowing hemet someone “whose mere personality was so fascinating that [it could]absorb” him if he allowed it (Wilde 1962, 24).
Wilde’s homosexuality is significantly influential not just over thecourse of the plot, but also in the development of characterrelationships. Lord Henry’s attraction to Dorian Gray is multi-tiered. Half the attraction to Dorian is on account of his youth, a possiblereflection of Wilde’s relationship with younger men. The other half o fLord Henry’s attraction to Dorian is his ability to mold Dorian into alike-minded socialite, a member of his “New Hedonist” group. However,Lord Henry’s attraction, like Basil’s is undeniably romantic in nature.Though Lord Henry finds Dorian attractive, Dorian’s hold over LordHenry does not fully take root until after Basil rambles on and onabout his “curious idolatry” he has developed, and how he “couldn’t behappy” if he “didn’t see Dorian everyday”; Lord Henry takes seriousnotice of Dorian after Basil confides that he finds the young man to be”absolutely necessary” to Basil’s life (Wilde 1962, 27). Wilde developsLord Henry in this way to stress his association with society at large;most people are not loved by everyone unless they are first loved by afew. Society, Wilde argues, will love whom it is deemed fashionable tolove. Following Basil’s affirmations and affections, Lord Henryobserves the “young Adonis [made out of] ivory” as “wonderfullyhandsome, with his finely curved, scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes,his crisp gold hair”; it comes to no wonder why “Basil worshipped him”(Wilde 1962, 33). The love triangle develops past Basil’s death; evenDorian finds himself attracted to Lord Henry. A peculiar observation isDorian’s loss of composure after observing Lord Henry’s “romantic,olive-colored face and warm expression”; Wilde writes that Dorian is indisbelief at his trepidation upon meeting Lord Henry (Wilde 1962, 38).After all, Dorian is “not a schoolboy or a girl” (Wilde 1962, 39).
As Wilde’s homosexuality became more apparent, he began leading doublelives. One of his lives was socially acceptable, as society perceived him as a married man with two sons. His other life was one spent amongmale prostitutes, renting houses outside London in which he would haveextramarital, homosexual affairs. The incredible restriction Wildefaced was more because of his homosexuality than his maritalinfidelity. In leading his double lives, Wilde designed four charactersin “The Importance of Being Earnest” to exude differing degrees ofduality. The multiple personas were a reflection of the masks Wildeused as a “means of personal adjustment,” a prevailing theme among thefour characters (Ericksen 151). The first character is Jack Worthing, aresponsible man typical of the Victorian era. The legal guardian of ayoung woman, Jack finds it to be increasingly difficult to enjoyhimself through the minor indiscretions that provide the average youngman with such entertainment. As a result of his guarded nature, Jackcreates his double, an alter ego he claims as his younger brother, whomhe names Ernest. When Jack leaves the country and his responsibilities,he becomes Ernest, a mischievous character in contrast to the composed,model citizen Jack. The second character is Algernon Moncrieff, friendto Jack Worthing and first cousin to the woman Jack intends to wed. Algernon also leads a double life, though his double life involves an”imaginary friend” of sort, a man whom he names Bunbury. The thirdcharacter Wilde incorporates is Gwendolen Fairfax, the object of Jack’saffection. Though she accedes to her mother’s will in public, Gwendolenrebels in private, pursuing “Ernest” without her mother’s consent.After Jack plans to wed Gwendolen, she mentions she cannot marry a manwhose name is not Ernest; this creates quite the dilemma for Jack, ashe had originally planned to “kill” Ernest with another fabrication.The final character, Cecily Cardew, is a ward under her guardian, JackWorthing. Tutored in the country, Cecily longs for a life outside hercountry estate, falling in love with the deviant Algernon.
The doubles are a forward testament to Wilde’s life as a homosexual inVictorian London. As a “Jack” among his peers and “Ernest” among hislovers, Wilde is best personified in Algernon, though is present inboth Jack and Algernon as they are “constructed on similar principlesand ideas” (Ericksen 151). Both Jack and Algernon lead double lives,hence the similar principles and ideas. However, where Jack andAlgernon differ is the nature of their double lives. Jack’s alter ego,Ernest, is someone whom he actually becomes upon entering town.Algernon, on the other hand, claims to be visiting Bunbury, hisimaginary ego. Algernon remains the same; the only thing that changesis his behavior. While “both Algernon and Jack are sophisticated men ofthe world,” only Jack finds the need to change his identity and life ashe shifts social circles (Ericksen 152).
Like the socially accepted individuals in Victorian society, Jack isrigid, morally sound, and never deviant. Initially known to Algernon asErnest, Jack’s transformation is almost instant as Algernon reveals hisknowledge of Ernest/Jack’s deviance with names. Ernest is wistful andmadly in love with Gwendolen until his true ego, Jack, is revealed. Assoon as Algernon shows Jack/Ernest the cigarette case, Jack showshimself, pointing out how “ungentlemanly [a thing it is] to read aprivate cigarette case” (Wilde 2005, 12). Algernon, now Jack’s foilfollowing Ernest’s departure, retorts with an epigram truly reminiscentof a dandy, stating the “[absurdity in] having hard and fast rules”(Wilde 2005, 12). The two characters play off each other from the verybeginning, revealing their intentions. Algernon remains the deviant,bored with his surroundings and endless cucumber sandwiches (Wilde2005, 4). Jack leaves to indulge in the sort of behavior from which heis restricted as he is responsible for Cecily. Like Wilde, who has afamily of his own, Jack cannot overindulge without risking social harmto his family. Ernest, then, is a double play on words; in indulgingone’s “earnest,” or true self, one escapes the constrictive Victoriansociety of moral and social obligations. Wilde’s aim here is to escapethe Victorian moral code, returning to the Hellenistic antiquity ofmale relationships.
Strangely, most everyone except Jack longs to see or meet Ernest.Algernon himself assumes the identity of Earnest in his quest to meetCecily. Much to Jack’s chagrin, Algernon decides to assume the identityof Algernon simply out of curiosity. Algernon has no ulterior motives;he wants to be Ernest just to be Ernest, a reflection of Wilde’spredisposition toward universal simplicity. Cecily also longs to meetErnest, as she has heard of his antics and looks forward to a relativeseveral degrees less rigid than her estranged guardian. Gwendolen ismadly in love with Ernest partly due to her empathy for Jack’supbringing, and partly because of her obsession with his name. ThroughErnest, Wilde reveals his wishes of acceptance; he wants people todesire his homosexual identity and accept him not in spite of it, butbecause of it.
Victorian values were imposed on every part of culture. Because of thegreat successes and advances felt by the 1860s, it was assumed that thethrone had arrived at something new and worth keeping. An increasinglyprudish era, the Victorian, puritanical movement required that all arthave purpose. Whether to emulate a person, place, or event, art neededa reason to exist. It could be veneration of the object, veneration ofthe genre, or even veneration of the artist, but all art, including thewritten word, was subject to the Victorian standard if it was to beaccepted by the general public. Like so many other movements, theVictorians were faced with the concept that art existed for art, thatits sole end is itself and nothing more.
While many mistakenly attribute this movement to Wilde, he in fact didnot create aestheticism, “he was merely its vehicle” (Gaunt 119). As anIrishman, it was only natural that Wilde would be the catalyst for sucha movement. Ireland was still relatively free of the imperialistexpansion, allowing for a medium of trade most of England could notmatch. Wilde, after all, was not from the industrial wastelands ofLiverpool, Manchester, or London. He was from “the dingy magnificence”of Dublin (Gaunt 119).
Wilde’s aesthetics are rooted in his education, primarily hispreoccupation with Hellenistic Greece and the old texts involving malerelationships. When searching for the concept of beauty, he might have”gotten his ideas from the great 6th century Hellas”, where Wildeperceived “the triumph of Greece and great civilization was itscreation and representation of a supreme form of beauty” (Gaunt 120).The ancient Greeks may have appealed most to Wilde because of the highpremium they put on male-male relationships. Viewed as the most pure ofall loves, homosexual male love was venerated by great leaders as wellas scholars. The king of the gods and Mount Olympus, Zeus, was known tohave a male lover, a young shepherd by the name of Ganymede.
Contrary to the Victorians, “who had inherited a set of religiousbeliefs based on faith rather than reason,” Wilde had no concretereligious beliefs at all (Ericksen 19). The “Aesthetic Movement, ofwhich Wilde was soon to become the representative figure, wasessentially a reaction against the ascendance of “Philistinism in artand life” (Ericksen 19). Wilde was determined to “cultivate his ownindividual impressions of the world (Ericksen 19). Though he quicklybecame the most prominent aesthete, Wilde’s views were not unique. Hehad previously traveled to France, where he met with names such as deGoncourt, Flaubert, and Huysman, who showed him the depth of sufferingas beauty. After Wilde settled in London in the 80s, he began toshowcase his aestheticism, sporting garb such as “plum-coloredvelveteen knickerbockers with perhaps a soft loose shirt and a wideturned-down collar” (Ericksen 21).
Wilde advocated art as having intrinsic, immeasurable value. Unlike theVictorian stance, art did not have to feature a moral code, teach alesson, or exist as a monument to an ideal supporting morals. Art isart, and exists only to exist for itself. For example, paintings of theLast Supper, though beautiful, existed to be a testament to Jesus orChristianity. Wilde’s Aestheticism would interpret the Last Supper toexist solely for the purpose of being a beautiful painting. The colors,shapes, and figures would be the central focus as they would representbeauty; the connotation behind twelve disciples sitting around asolitary figure would be dismissible. Wilde’s sexuality ties indirectlyto the concept of art; one of the reasons Wilde advocated theaforementioned moral system was his relation of the system toantiquity. Homosexual union was not a defiled perversion; Wilde arguedthat it was a sign of progress, like aestheticism. Aestheticism andhomosexuality would be placed in the same context as other time periodssuch as Hellenistic Greece, Classical Italy (Michelangelo), andShakespearean England. The aforementioned periods involve theperfection of the male form; Wilde believed himself to be in line withthe traditions of old because of his Oxford rearing. Hellenisticaesthetic coincided with Wilde’s sexuality and his aesthetic movementin the shared view that the male form was the most beautiful.Homosexual relationships were therefore considered an act of beauty,the most revered form of affection possible.
Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” is a multi-page testament to his belief inart’s greater purpose as having no such purpose. Essentially anextended metaphor for the ill consequences of turning art into amathematical measure, “The Decay of Lying” describes lying “and poetryas arts” (Wilde 1997, 7). The metaphor continues, equating art with anexaggeration of reality. True art, Wilde argues through theprotagonists Cyril and Vivian, is so abstract that the real “becomesunreadable” (Wilde 1997, 13). The nature of art and beauty is soabstract that nature and life are meant to imitate it.
The dangers of regarding art as a moral calculus are detailed in ThePicture of Dorian Gray. The strange stasis in which Dorian findshimself—the state where his self-portrait shows his aging and thenegative effects of his actions—is a wonderful example of Wilde’saesthetics in motion. The story unfolds as Dorian is sitting in frontof Basil; Basil is seen pondering the sheer physical beauty of thescene in front of him. The true aesthetic, Basil seeks out thebeautiful solely because it is beautiful. He becomes enamored withDorian only because of his beauty. On the other hand, Lord Henry findsDorian irresistible because of the potential socialite he sees in amind that has yet to be molded. Basil the aesthete warns Lord Henry,imploring him not to make a cynic out of something beautiful; in thiscase, Basil is ultimately requesting Lord Henry to take caution in hisapproach to Dorian. Basil wants to preserve Dorian the way he isbecause he finds him beautiful, where Lord Henry wants access toDorian’s private time so he can mold something new and different.Dorian becomes a work of art, manipulated by Lord Henry, killing Basil,the aesthete.
Later in the novel, Lord Henry gives Dorian a yellow book, one with notitle that is presumably about art and philosophy (Ericksen 115).Dorian becomes obsessed, using it as a Bible with which he leads hiswhole life. In the end, Dorian dies, having gone mad. This is anunequivocal warning from Wilde to those who would pervert the course ofart (Victorians). Wilde shows the reader what happens when art is takenout of context and into a completely inappropriate light. Moreover, itshows how damaging the Victorian approach is; Dorian is unable tochange his ways. Shortly after his inhuman treatment of Sibyl, heattempts to reform, only to find the painting smirking back at him.This is a reflection of the unyielding nature of Victorian society; itis a reflection of Wilde’s suffocation and inability to move freely,creatively, or inspirationally in the context of British society at theclose of the 19th century. Just like Dorian, Wilde cannot expresshimself freely; though he had a chance in the beginning of the novel,Dorian did not follow the poor artist Basil. He instead opted toconform to the higher-ranking Lord Henry, whose coterie led Dorian tohis death. Once in the clutches of Lord Henry, Dorian was fullysupplicated to the mercy of his manipulator. Lord Henry almostimmediately changes in his affections for Dorian, the extremedifferences being Dorian’s perception as an “Adonis” in the beginningand as an unrecognizable, withered, man who is unidentifiable untilthey “check his rings”.
Wilde’s third play, “An Ideal Husband” makes use of the witty banterknown as “epigrams” to reveal the darker side of Victorian values in a”tongue-and-cheek” fashion. The whole play is an epigram of sorts,exemplifying the imperfections of the Victorian bourgeois by mockinglyportraying the inefficacy of their incorporation into Wilde’s idealsociety. The traditional Victorian values Wilde mocks in “An IdealHusband” are devotion, forgiveness, sacrifice, loyalty, moralintegrity, and a composed disposition, all traits that Wilde subvertsin his character portrayals. Though Sir Robert, the “ideal husband”,finds himself at the disadvantageous end of blackmail, his past doesnot warrant Wilde to present him as vile or duplicitous, as Lord Goringpostulates to Lady Chiltern that every man of “every nature [has]elements of weakness” (Wilde 2004, 27). The play, however, becomes”centered around a conflict caused by [Lady Chiltern’s] unyieldingmoral rigidity” (Ericksen 142). Sir Robert faces a moral dilemma in hiscoping with Mrs. Cheveley’s blackmail. Wilde makes a useful point inthe Sir Robert’s circumstances; on one hand, Sir Robert is faced withmaking public his dark and relatively shameful past, thereineffectively nullifying Mrs. Cheveley’s threats. On the other, he mustdeal with a Puritanical wife “who cannot forgive anyone who has done awicked or shameful deed,” including Sir Robert’s possible complicity(Ericksen 141). Would an ideal husband accede to the blackmail, thereindenying his wife’s request to challenge Mrs. Cheveley? In either event,Sir Robert’s relationship is put in jeopardy. He can either lie to hiswife, giving in to Mrs. Cheveley and compromising his marriage, or hecan make his past public domain, marring the perfect public image hiswife so treasures. Ironically, the couple’s social coterie perceivesSir Robert as the ideal mate, a man who, until his blackmail, was knownfor his impeccable reputation. Even his private life with Lady Chilternwas blissfully free of blemishes. Sir Robert’s reputation andrelationship with his wife, however, could have been saved by a simplelie. Had he never revealed the truth to his wife and given in to Mrs.Cheveley, giving in to her will, Lady Chiltern wouldn’t have been oneto know the better. An ideal husband in this case would therefore lie;for Wilde, the Victorian moral impetus lies not with adhering to thetraditional values, but rather in maintaining the facade of keepingvalues in general. Ironically, Lady Chiltern “learns of her husband’spast” all the same, “[castigating] him and [rejecting] his please forforgiveness” (Ericksen 141). No amount of marital maneuvering can spareSir Robert. In the end, it is Lord Goring who confronts Mrs. Cheveleyabout Sir Robert’s blackmail; he is the only empowered character as hespeaks and acts under no false pretenses. While he is far from perfect,chastised by his father for “dancing until four o’clock in themorning”, Lord Goring is Wilde’s idealist—he is an art lover, whosewitty repartee is surpassed only by his willingness to fight Mrs.Cheveley.
One of Wilde’s most effective comic devices is his employment ofepigrams, and more comical still is his utilization of Vicomte deNanjac’s malapropisms. The French Attaché in London, Nanjac representsWilde’s interpretation of those not fortunate enough to be born elite;Nanjac is easily recognized by his adoration of society and “hisAnglomania” (Wilde 2004, 4). His malapropisms are a reflection of thesad attempts of many to engage in epigramic banter, the object of LordGoring’s successful use of epigram. A ridiculing character, Wilde’sNanjac is one whose blind aspiration to join a society hampers hisvision and taste, therein earning him the scorn of the more capableLord Goring.
Wilde’s assault on the Victorian bourgeois is personified best by theduality of his characters. Sir Robert, for example, “presents a publicmask of absolute personal integrity but has actually built his fortuneand career upon a deception” (Ericksen 144). An almost hero, Sir Robertis a manifestation of Wilde’s implications regarding a relativelyinnocent man’s subjugation under society. Lord Arnheim, Sir Robert’sformer co-conspirator, first seduces Sir Robert with his “doctrine ofwealth”, elucidating his view that controlling others is life’sgreatest attribute (Ericksen 142). Mrs. Cheveley displays this best as”Lord Arnheim’s theoretical protégée”; the two are almost Machiavellianin their manipulation (Ericksen 145). Where Lord Arnheim seduced SirRobert by playing to the discrepancy between his noble birth and modestfinancial holdings, Mrs. Cheveley is absolutely ruthless in herwillingness to wreak havoc on all aspects of Sir Robert’s married lifein order to secure her investments. In his surrender to the wills ofthe two manipulators, Sir Robert becomes an ideal human, one whoseproclivity to err alienates him from society. By succumbing to the twoprominent materialists, Sir Robert embodies Wilde’s disdain for thefinancial drive of Victorian social coteries; contrary to theart-collecting Sir Robert, the female villain has no pleasures outsidecontrol and exploitation.
Wilde addresses the lack of humanity in Victorian society, personifiedby the promulgation of perfection among the social elite. In the firstAct, Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon discuss their unfortunate maritalsituation. Lord Goring notes they are married to “the most admirablehusbands in London”, to which Mrs. Marchmont responds that theirhusbands’ perfection “is exactly what [they can’t stand]”; “there isnot the smallest element of excitement in knowing [them]” (Wilde 2004,10). In this sense, the true Sir Robert, the one susceptible tosuggestion and whose past compromises his future, becomes the idealhusband. Wilde suggests all Victorians wear masks, alternate identitiesthat shield them from being human and enjoying existence. The idealmarriage is manifested best by the speculative union of Mabel Chilternand Lord Goring, who at the play’s close reject the common Victorianroles and morals previously discussed.
Wilde’s Victorian surroundings were instrumental in his development ofaesthetics, but were unfortunately not tolerant of his private life. Acontroversial figure, Wilde was homosexual, and had an ongoing affairwith a younger nobleman by the name of Lord Alfred Douglas. LordDouglas’ father, enraged at his son’s homosexual relationship withWilde, accused Wilde of being a sodomite, a grave offense in GreatBritain at the time. Though acquitted in his first of two trials, Wildewas later sentenced to serve two years’ hard labor on theaforementioned charges. First imprisoned in London’s Wandsworth prison,Wilde was denied pen and paper until his transfer to Reading Gaol,where he eventually wrote De Profundis. While “Wilde revealed hisfascination with the figure of Christ [throughout] his literary career,only in De Profundis did he actually make [Christ] a part of hisaesthetic system” (Ericksen 156). A dramatic monologue on spiritualityand society, De Profundis features several metaphors likening Wilde toChrist. Wilde felt his unjust imprisonment made him a martyr; uponinitial circulation of rumors regarding his sexuality, Wilde could haveleft London for France, therein spared persecution. Unlike “Hamlet, whobecame a spectator to his own tragedy”, Wilde the Christ-figureactively sought out what he perceived as his end (Wilde 2003, 28).Where Christ accepted his fate for the benefit of mankind, Wilde was aself-convinced saint and martyr for art and what he perceived to be thethreatened aesthetic movement. Having “passed through every mode ofsuffering,” Wilde was convinced that his redemption would be realizedthrough his incarceration and subsequent release, upon which his newfound humility would help him “rise again” (Wilde 2003, 4). Just asmankind would redeem itself through the trial and crucifixion of Jesus,Wilde felt society would be redeemed through his incarceration. Hecontinued, developing his incarceration to salvation, likeninggreatness to requisite sorrow. Wilde admired Jesus for having realizedhis calling as being “completed,” reaching “fulfillment” upon its end(Wilde 2003, 19). Marveling at his situation, Wilde mused on theincredulity of “a young Galilean peasant imagining that he could bearon his shoulders the weight of the world,” including all the world’spast sins as well as what “had yet to be done and suffered” (Wilde2003, 13). Jesus’ death and resurrection was that toward which Wildeaspired, conceding that imprisonment was most likely an act ofretribution for the fanciful and carefree life he led previously.Incarceration, then, was Wilde’s means of atoning for the errant lifehe might possibly have led upon his release. He hoped his relationshipwith Lord Douglas would be forgiven, and longed for society’sacceptance. Wilde could “claim on [his] side that if [he realized] what[he had] suffered, society should realize what it [had]” in turninflicted; with a mutual cognizance shared between Wilde and society,he hoped there would be “no bitterness or hate on either side” (Wilde2003, 7). Just as Jesus attempted to win over his captors andaggressors through his death and resurrection, Wilde hoped to pacifysociety’s enmity by paying his social dues in prison. Wilde evenlikened the course of his life’s events to those leading up to Jesus’martyrdom. For example, Jesus was given direction by God the Father andcondemned by Man. Wilde, in turn, ascribes “the two great turningpoints in [his] life” as when his “father sent [him] to Oxford, andwhen society sent [him] to jail” (Wilde 2003, 6). Wilde’s foreknowledgeof an impending criminal proceeding did not dissuade him, just as thedisciples could not sway Jesus’ acceptance and willingness to die onthe cross. Neither Wilde nor Jesus could ignore their calling, nomatter the grisly end. As a sinner, Wilde conceded that he had toaccept the fact that martyrs were equally persecuted “for the good aswell as for the evil” committed (Wilde 2003, 7).
However similar to Jesus Wilde would assert himself to be, there weredefinite discrepancies in De Profundis that could testify to Wilde asan admirer of Jesus rather than his attempted emulator. Wildepostulated that Jesus saw Man in the same fashion as the aestheticmovement saw art; Man existed simply to exist. Wilde wrote that Christ”regarded sin and suffering as being [beautiful]” in and of themselves,that such a notion was the “dangerous idea” that led Christ to hisdemise (Ericksen 157). Just like Christ, Wilde’s own “dangerous idea”that ran against the Victorian grain was what led to his downfall.Wilde also saw his imprisonment as a period of transition. Hisindictment of the Greek gods as deities emulating humans indicatedhislife prior to imprisonment; Wilde labeled the Olympian gods as ableto “reach greater heights” (Wilde 2003, 17). Each Olympian representeddifferent aspects of humanity that, when indulged by Wilde, resulted inincarceration. In his simile, Wilde indirectly likens himself to eachgod’s moral flaws. He lauds Zeus for not being able to “resist mortalman’s daughters” and Hera for her pride and “peacocks”, a catharticevaluation of the Victorian bourgeois who imprisoned him (Wilde 2003,17). Wilde also attributes his former peers to Apollo and Athena, eachof whom failed to forgive. Apollo slaughtered the mortal Niobe’s sons,”leaving Niobe childless” for her hubris in claiming her childrenrivaled the offspring of Leto (the mother of Apollo and Artemis);Athena turned Arachne into a spider for having claimed to be moreskilled with the loom than the goddess of wisdom and crafts (Wilde2003, 17). In describing the society that bore him, Wilde becomesimperfect, as his reformation requires penance as a medium of change.By attributing himself and his society to the Greek gods, Wildedifferentiates himself from Jesus. Jesus never required crucifixion toattain perfection—he was born perfect and lived without sin. Wilde, onthe other hand, is punished not on behalf of another (though it can besurmised that his imprisonment kept the young, impressionable LordDouglas out of jail), but for his own social transgressions. Wilde alsoheld great contempt for Lord Douglas, as De Profundis was more ascathing letter from a jilted lover than a philosophical testament toWilde’s self-improvement. Wilde often lamented his situation, spitefulthat “for him, the beautiful world of color and motion [had] been takenaway, while Bosie (Lord Douglas) walked free among the flowers”(Gardiner 145). De Profundis becomes conciliatory towards its end,however, as Wilde follows through with his original assessment that”terrible was what the world did to [him],” but worse still was “what[he] did to [himself]” (Wilde 2003, 3). Unlike Jesus, Wilde is somewhatself-hating, embittered by his social persecution despite his greatcontributions in the aesthetic movement. His imprisonment wasultimately brought on by his own charges; following his falling outwith the Marquess of Queensbury (Lord Douglas’ father), Wilde pressedlibel charges and lost, opening himself up to legal scrutiny. In theend, it was his own defense that cost him his freedom, unlike Jesus wholived to die, fully cognizant of an inescapable fate. Though heexperienced a form of martyrdom, Wilde’s self-comparisons to Jesus arelimited, and he shifts from indirectly likening his life and its recentevents to those of Jesus to aspiring to become Jesus-like (in essence,more Christian). Rather than claim to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, Wildepurports that he has suffered just as Jesus suffered, and in doing sobecame a better man just as Jesus did. Wilde claims “to have become adeeper man is the privilege of those who have suffered” (Wilde 2003,21). Despite Wilde’s De Profundis presentation of himself as Jesus,there are a great number of instances that involve his own supplicationbefore and admiration of Jesus as opposed to his presumption ofequality with Jesus. Wilde admires Christ for his refusal to stone MaryMagdalene, bringing shame on her persecutorsin his statement suggesting that those without sin cast the stones tocondemn her. In his tirade against the Victorian bourgeois, Wilde alsovenerates Christ for advocating the poor; Wilde described prison as”something that earns sympathy” from the poor and earns the rich thestatus of “pariah” (Wilde 2003, 2). The poor, Wilde argued, were asimpler people who were closer to perfection. Jesus, after all, was notborn rich, but the son of a poor carpenter. In the waning years of hisimprisonment, Wilde began to consider his incarcerated state as areturn to simplicity, and in simplicity becoming closer to perfection.
Wilde’s comparison to Christ was perhaps overtaken by the method inwhich he transformed Christ, reinterpreting him as an “artisticpersonality” (Ericksen 156). It is odd that Wilde would place Jesus onsuch a pedestal, as he remained an avowed agnostic until the twilightof his life. In fact, Wilde goes out of his way to denigrate theChristian faithful to a degree, describing his faith as somethingsuperior because it is tangible, that his “gods dwell in temples madewith hands”; Wilde asserts that only “within [actual] experience is[his] life complete” (Wilde 2003, 5). Wilde’s adulation could also beconstrued as a comparison of himself with Christ as a purely literaryfigure; his assertions were not hubris, but merely the lamentations ofa writer recognizing a universally acclaimed protagonist in the world’smost renowned tragedy. By placing Jesus in the context of a literaryfigure rather than reading Wilde’s comparisons from a religiousperspective, the reader is further able to understand the context inwhich Wilde worked. Wilde never deified himself, though he did perceivehimself as “a defiant artist intensely conscious of his cultural roleas an innovator of art” (Erickson 13). De Profundis waivers between theveneration of Christ and the open advocating of agnostics, with Wildeoften professing that agnosticism “has its martyrs and should reap itssaints” just as Christianity has (Wilde 2003, 5). In this respect,Wilde transcends the figure of Jesus in his simplicity; Jesus’ deathand the events of his life were a leap of faith, whereas Wilde’s beliefsystem and his life, cultural contributions, scandals, and downfallwere historically documented. His “actual experiences” previouslydiscussed were in themselves defined as real in their sorrow. For a manwhose “fop” and “dandy” were all encompassing, Wilde’s redemption wouldnot be nearly as invigorating as that of Christ (Gardiner 15). WhereChrist was promised a seat at the right hand of God Himself, Wilde’sfuture upon release was one of almost guaranteed estrangement.
Wilde’s homoerotic imagery and context are unique; they served as aneffective device in the establishment of Dorian as both an evilcharacter and one manipulated by another. The homoeroticism, forexample, first serves to establish Dorian in a protective love affairwith Basil, where Dorian is portrayed as innocent, his face bright withthe naïveté that can only be attributed to youth. That Dorian is drawnto Lord Henry in a sexual manner makes his fall from grace all the moredecadent, giving the reader the impression that Dorian was “stolen”away from the clutches of youthful exuberance. Without the homoeroticsubtext, there would be no logical explanation for Lord Henry’sattraction to Dorian, or Dorian’s willingness to follow Lord Henry.Though Dorian could be portrayed as having left Basil behind so as toaspire to greater social heights, the manner in which Wilde useshomosexual tensions prompts the reader to make different conclusions,ones that are steeped in suspicion and communicated in whispers. Thetaboo of same-sex relationships is cast aside with the introduction ofSybil, but it remains in the back of the reader’s mind, solidified byseveral characters’ effeminate preoccupation with physical beauty.Wilde’s own sexuality manifests itself in three stages among the threemale characters; first, the image of Basil, the affirmed homosexual wholives a detached life. Second is the image of Lord Henry, the privatehomosexual who is an irrevocable face in the local coterie. Third isthe image of Dorian, who begins innocently, but upon realization of hishomosexuality and his attempt to become assimilated into societyperishes against his own will. Wilde’s sexuality is thereforeinstrumental in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is a reflection of Wilde’s duality;contrary to Dorian, who cannot exist detached from or assimilated intosociety, Jack is an amalgamation of Basil and Lord Henry. His dual lifeis revealed, but only by another who also wishes to take part in socialduplicity. In “The Importance of Being Earnest”, Wilde communicates theimpetus of self-truth as a panacea for unhappiness. Both Algernon andJack are happiest as Ernest as they are free to act as they wish.Unhampered by the Victorian society that constricts them, the twoerstwhile-Ernests move, speak, and do as they please. The elaboratelengths to which Jack resorts is a reflection of the life Wilde musthave led behind his family’s back; when Jack assumes the role ofErnest, he risks crossing his stories, getting his two livesintertwined in the form of Cecily and Gwendolen meeting. Here, Wilde’ssexuality affects both Algernon, the representation of the dandy andfop, and Jack, whose secret life is a metaphor for homosexualityrepressed. Both are hampered by Victorian restrictions; Algernon facedthe shirking of his familial duties, whereas Jack had to remain a modelindividual for his supposedly sheltered ward to follow. Only Jack is inperil of being discovered, however; Wilde attempts to communicate theimportance of being true to one’s self, as Jack is the only characterof the two men to assume an entirely new identity. As Algernon uses hisfabricated person as an excuse to leave his surroundings, he is neverput into the same dilemmas as Jack. In the case of “The Importance of Being Earnest”, Wilde’s sexual constraint was an important factor inanalyzing the play.
Wilde’s aestheticism was highly influenced by his sexuality. Heapproached aestheticism the same way he approached his male relations,perceiving art simply to observe beauty. Beauty to Wilde is exactlywhat Dorian was to Basil; beauty was a necessity, something Wilde couldnot do without. In his attempts to articulate aesthetics, Wilde mayhave gotten lost in his purpose. Victorian thought was the standardagainst which to rebel, begging the question of Wilde’s motives. Washis aesthetic perspective a manifestation of a new dimension of hisanti-Victorian sentiment? Wilde often satirized other aesthetics,claiming that he would only “attack the unmanly oddities whichmasquerade in its likeness” (Gardiner 43). The irony behind Wilde’ssatirizing contention is that determining those who are “unmanlyoddities” requires the same logical selection process as mandated byVictorian interpretation. For example, a Victorian observing art wouldemploy criterion to evaluate the piece as a decent work of art.Similarly, Wilde’s decision as to what constitutes aesthetic thoughtwould require criterion to evaluate the thought or work purported to bepart of the aesthetic movement. While Wilde’s sexuality was onlyeffectively used to correlate Hellenistic antiquity, it still wasuseful in understanding the shift in perception. Whether or not Wildecame to the conclusion that the Victorian system was inferior,subsequently adopting aestheticism is a different instance than Wildeadopting aestheticism solely to oppose the Victorian system.
Moral implications are much more concrete than art interpretation; in”An Ideal Husband”, Wilde does not attempt to spoon-feed his audiencehomoerotic suggestion. Instead, Wilde focuses on Victorian society as awhole, portraying it in the superficial light he felt appropriate. ThePuritanical attitudes relayed by Lady Chiltern are portrayed asimpossible standards. The “ideal husband” is then the imperfect,unpredictable man who concedes to his own weaknesses. This is bestevidenced by Wilde’s warmer tone toward Lady Basildon and Mrs.Marchmont, an almost sympathetic tone to their plight of drab husbandsand “perfect” marriages. Wilde’s sexuality does not traditionally comeinto play. However, when perceiving homosexuality as an imperfectionPuritan society shuns, Wilde’s sexuality fits well but lacks thecreative outlet to fully present itself as a viable factor. Thoughsexuality was an important part of Wilde’s works, it was notinstrumental in the proprietary “An Ideal Husband”. However, Wilde didsuccessfully present himself in the form of Lord Goring, the dandy ofthe play. Moral implications in “An Ideal Husband” had little do withsexuality, but had everything to do with Wilde’s disdain of theVictorian bourgeois social circles.
Wilde as a Christ figure is a notion that draws several conclusions.First, it is not Wilde’s sexuality that likens him to Jesus. Wilde’ssexuality comes into play only as the factor of his persona that earnedhim persecution and eventual prison time. Simultaneously, Wilde as aChrist figure was a feasible notion only in his martyrdom for art;where Christ was nailed to a cross, died, and was reborn, Wilde wasimprisoned, was released, and reborn. Wilde’s speculation on his newlifestyle post prison-release was one of humility, much in the samemanner as Jesus’ humility throughout the history of his encounters withhis disciples. A somewhat wanton display of hubris, Wilde’s Christcomparisons are a bit lofty and overly ambitious. Wilde perceivesChrist from an agnostic point of view, evidenced by his relativeflexibility in putting himself in the same contact as the Son of God.However, both Jesus and Wilde shared parallels, such as the eventsleading up to their incarcerations.
Oscar Wilde’s homoerotic texts, aesthetics, Christ comparisons andmoral implications were largely the result of his sexuality, though itcan be argued equally as effectively that Wilde’s writing was affectedby anti-Victorian sentiment. Had he been alive now, in an age wherehomosexuality is often as accepted as racial differences, it isunlikely that he would have gained the notoriety that he did while inprison and following his release. Though he died a pauper, Wilde’sworks were revolutionary in their latent content, the dandy style, andthe fact that they addressed issues such as homosexuality in a timewhere society was becoming steadily more conservative. As with anyauthor, Wilde’s works are best understood when taking intoconsideration his biography and history, including his sexuality.
Ericksen, Donald H. Oscar Wilde. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1977.
Gardiner, Juliet. Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters, Writings, and Wit. Collins & Brown, Ltd., 1995.
Gaunt, William. The Aesthetic Adventure. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1945.
Hoare, Philip. Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and theMost Outrageous Trial of the Century. New York, Arcade Publishing,Inc., 1997.
Wilde, Oscar. “An Ideal Husband.” Champaign: Project Gutenberg Press,2004. Wilde, Oscar. “De Profundis.” Champaign: Project Gutenberg Press,2003.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying.” [online] Available at:www.ucc.ie/celt/published/E800003-009/text002.html Cork: Corpus ofElectronic Texts, 1997.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Champaign: Project Gutenberg Press, 2005.
Wilde’s Purpose In Writing
Wilde’s purpose in writing this play about Victorian society was to expose the foolishness of the society and show readers that the posh people and their social values were ridiculous. During that time, Victorian society cared mostly about wealth, social status, bloodlines and other irrelevant qualities of a person. Wilde displays these concepts as foolish.
We can sense his attitude towards this during the part in the story when Lady Bracknell is questioning Jack to see if he would be a good husband for her daughter, Gwendolen. When Jack tells her that he doesn’t have any parents and that he was found in a handbag, she says, “Lady Bracknell. Mr. Worthing, I confess I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me…
To be born or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.” (Wilde, 994). This quote shows that Victorian society doesn’t care about true love, but in terms of marriage, they care about the wealth and bloodlines of the person.
I feel that Wilde finds his characters funny because he overexaggerates their personalities and makes them seem uptight, posh and snobby. He uses this over exaggeration in his satire to portray the Victorian society as silly. This is ironic because Wilde uses comedy to expose the seriousness of the society and their social values. Wilde finds the characters funny because of their stupidity. For example, when Gwendolen likes Jack because of his pretend name, which is Ernest, Jack says to Gwendolen, “Jack. Gwendolen, I must get christened at once—I mean we must get married at once. There is no time to be lost.” (Wilde, 990).
Wilde displays this scene in a humorous manner since Gwendolen loves Jack because of his fake name, Ernest. When Jack realizes that Gwendolen thinks ‘Jack’ is a plain name, he wants to get christened at once/change his name, so she will continue to love him and marry him. Although Wilde believes that the Victorian society was full of useless social values, in this satire, he uses funny traits in the characters to expose the foolishness of their beliefs.
Through the subtle hints in the text, Wilde reveals that he views the characters as silly people who only care about the irrelevant qualities of a person. Wilde believes that the mindsets of Victorian society are stupid and that the characters’ behaviour is foolish. For example, when Lady Bracknell asks about where Jack lives, the satire quotes, “Lady Bracknell. …What number in Belgrave Square? Jack. 149. Lady Bracknell: (shaking her head) The unfashionable side. I thought there was something. However, that could easily be altered. Jack. Do you mean the fashion or the side?
Lady Bracknell. (Sternly) Both, if necessary, I presume.” (Wilde 993). From this quote, Wilde shows that the behaviour of Lady Bracknell is ridiculous. He adds actions in the text to overexaggerate her spoken words. After hearing where Jack lives, Lady Bracknell shows her disapproval by shaking her head. She talks harshly about Jack’s unfashionable home and her stern actions express her seriousness. Where someone lives is not important, which is why Wilde includes hints in the text to ridicule the behaviour of the society. Through these subtle hints, Wilde emphasizes the dramaticism of Victorian society and how he views their reactions towards useless social values as foolish.
Alford’s point of view makes him less sympathetic to the other actors he satirizes. I think this because Alford wrote this satire to expose the foolishness of the overdramatic acting of extras, and even though he is included in that group of people, this satire confirms that he doesn’t approve of this overdramatic acting. For example, “…A tall, fiftysomething woman who appeared to be a recent graduate of the Lucille Ball School of Clown Makeup made such a spectacle of repeatedly dropping and then retrieving her umbrella that an assistant director was forced to take the umbrella away from her; the woman divested of her gimmick, then devoted her energies to shrieking.” (Alford, 1000).
From this quote, Alford brings out the negative aspects of the overdramatic acting of the extras, and his critical point of view does not make him sympathetic towards them. Alford shows contempt for the extras as he does not agree or encourage the people that overact. Instead, he dislikes it, and in his writing, Alford expresses that he wants the other extras to stop making fools of themselves.
Alford’s inner thoughts add humor to the satire. Since he doesn’t say these thoughts out loud, he is able to be more critical towards the other actors he satirizes. He keeps these thoughts to himself because they’re rude or very sarcastic. Even though his inner thoughts may be considered offensively critical towards some people, these assumptions and ideas are also true.
For example, “Seldom, I have seen such a preponderance of scenery-chewing: my colleagues’ every utterance and movement seemed to offer ready proof that vaudeville is not dead.” (Alford, 1000). This thought is offensive towards his colleagues and other people, but by including these words in his inner thoughts, the story becomes more entertaining as his thoughts add even more criticism to ridicule the overdramatic acting of the extras. These thoughts display his perspective on the over-acting of the extras who were trying to get attention. Even though he keeps the thoughts to himself, his humorous criticism makes it interesting for the readers.
Throughout the satire, we can find subtle hints in the text to identify Alford’s level of seriousness about his topic. From my analysis, Alford may seem like he is not serious about the overdramatic acting of the extras, because in some parts of the satire, Alford makes half-hearted jokes. However, Alford is serious about this topic because this topic is important enough for him to write a satire so he can expose the over-dramatic acting of the extras. Within the satire, he includes unsympathetic criticism, showing the sterness of his ideas. For example, “By the late afternoon punchy, I was shrieking…‘Zilla monster ate me baby!’, causing the self-appointed expert to glare at me and say, ‘Lets keep it real, huh?’. This statement might have chastened were it not for the other extras.” (Alford, 1000). Alford expresses that his over-dramatic acting was stupid, but many other extras made themselves look more foolish. In this quote, Alford uses a funny and sarcastic tone, but Alford is serious about this topic and would like the extras to stop making fools of themselves. In some parts of the satire, when he is not using harsh criticism, he expresses the sincerity of his opinion by using a humorous tone.
In my opinion, the satire “The Importance of Being Earnest” is more successful. In this satire, Wilde mocks the foolishness of Victorian society, which is a significant topic targeted at a larger audience. Even without directly conveying his own view, the readers are able to understand the purpose of Wilde’s satire through the hints in the text. Derived from the characters, Wilde portrays idiotic beliefs and personality traits to prove how thoughtless the society was. For example, when Lady Bracknell suddenly became interested in Jack because of Jack’s high income, Wilde quotes “Lady Bracknell.…What is your income? Jack. Between seven and eight thousand a year. Lady Bracknell. (makes a note in her book) In land, or in investments? Jack. In investments chiefly. Lady Bracknell. That is satisfactory.” (Wilde, 992). This quote shows the absurdity of the posh Victorian society where social values were imprudent and people became obsessed with the unimportant aspects of life. Directing this at the Victorian society, Wilde successfully combines ironic humor and informed criticism to create an implicit argument for reformation of the society and their values.
Satire in the Importance of Being Earnest
- 1 Satire in the Importance of Being Earnest
- 2 Works Cited
Satire in the Importance of Being Earnest
The surface overview of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest paints the image of an amusing comedy merely for entertainment purpose. Evidently, Wilde employs numerous techniques such as trickery, sarcasm, and jokes which are central to humor studies. Although a majority of the readers, critics, and reviewers agree that The Importance of Being Earnest is pretty funny, it justly castes a satirical limelight on the Victorian era (Wilde also wrote during the Victorian era).
Victorian era was mainly characterized by improved political stability, increased wealth, and stringent cultural norms. In particular, the cultural norms involved some rules of conduct that highly influenced an individual’s social standing. Additionally, the rules of conduct in the Victorian era guided people on how to behave in a socially accepted manner especially in the public. These are the very ideals that Wilde satirizes in his play. As such, this paper’s primary objective is to discuss why Wilde satirizes the viewers whom he expects to buy the tickets to watch the play and the reaction he might be aiming to evoke in his audience.
Majority of the literary works are an illumination of the events that take place in a society and The Importance of Being Earnest is not an exception. Therefore, in as much as Wilde is popularly known for the use of satire in the majority of his writings, The Importance of Being Earnest sheds some light on the happenings that blanketed the Victorian era. It is for this reason that Wilde chooses to satirize his viewers who in this case are his audience. The Victorian era was commonly known for the strict moral codes that guided how people behaved in the public (Phegley 3).
In other words, people were expected to demonstrate proper behaviors approved by the society. Nevertheless, Wilde is satirical of this Victorian ideal especially when he exposes the hypocrisy behind behaving properly in the public. Thus, Wield through his all-rounded characters shows that while it is right to exhibit acceptable behavior while in the public, the same people tend to deviate from the moral codes when not in public. Jack and Algernon portray less than ideal manners when they both fake their identities as Earnest so as to attract the attention of the city girls who are obsessed by the name. Jack, for instance, disguises as Earnest while in town and as Jack while in the country (Wilde 9).
Additionally, Wilde satirizes the audience who highly aspired to live earnest lives but on the other and practiced double morality. The concept of earnestness in the Victorian era was of great importance (Valentinov Krastev, 3). Indeed, it was a prestigious concept used to refer to the people perceived as having a purpose in life, those that adhered to the moral codes of the Victorian age, and for those who strived to achieve certain goals in life (Valentinov Krastev, 9). In general, earnestness was a worthy title for the individuals who demonstrated self-control, self-respectability, and self-denial. The cult of earnestness, thus, is one of the aspects that led the majority of the Victorian people to lead lives of double morality. On one hand, the people lived a double life to maintain the respect of the conventional Victorian society while on the other hand, they choose to live frivolously to satisfy their desires. Algy and Jack survive by lying and living as Earnest imposters all because they want to gain moral freedom.
Similarly, Cecily leads a double life where she imagines that she is already married to Earnest. Cecily maintains that a diary usually chronicles the things that have never happened, and couldn’t possibly have happened (Wilde 32). Arguably, it is palpable that people had no right in leading personal lives dictated by no stringent moral standards.
Wilde mocks Victorian people who have no better ways of breaking away from the cocoon of the slim social ties and ideals than living deceptive/double/duals lives. Gwendolen is also aware of the ideals that have found their way in the monthly expensive magazines and pulpits (Wilde 16). It is the desire to untie from the social fa?§ade and immersing in secret pleasures that Jack and Algernon frame imaginary characters. Jack Worthington is, for instance, a very respectable judge of peace in the province but cheats that he has a younger brother, Earnest. Thus, Jack justifies his reasons for frequent visits to the town to rescue his mischievous brother from one problem or the other (Wilde 11).
In the same way, Algernon prefers going to the country bunburying to avoid the dinner engagements with the aunt. Dinner parties exhibited an ideal of family life and were taken seriously. It is also deducible from Algy’s words to Jack You are one of the most advanced Bunburyists I know (Wilde 11) that it is not only Jack and Algy who secretly deviate from the ideals. Algy’s sentiment is an indication that the majority of the Victorian people were so bound by the social ties but behaved differently while on their own.
One defining style used by Wilde is the manner in which he makes fun of the audience while amusing them through his characters. He is critical about the marriage of convenience which also intrinsically related to the concept of earnestness. Love and marriage were important aspects of the Victorian era (Phegley 5 ). Moreover, the families of the time were not only patriarchal but also authoritarian whereby the choice of a spouse was partly a responsibility of one’s parents (Phegley 5).
Of the importance to note, in this instance, is that the decision to arrive at a marriage agreement was also determined by the mutual benefits of economic and social exchange. The companionate marriage was also a Victorian ideal and love was a crucial component of such a marriage. In this view, Wilde indirectly mocks the audience for remaining blindfolded by the pursuit for earnestness. Instead of falling in love for love, the Victorian people instead contradicted the marriage ideal and fall in love with merely the name Earnest as well as gaining material possession. Gwendolen confesses to Jack that she was destined to love him from the moment Algernon mentioned that he has a friend by the name Earnest (Wilde 17). According to Gwendolen, ” my ideal has always been to love someone of the name Earnest” (Wilde 17). Cecily is also a victim in pursuit of earnestness and psychologically engages Earnest Worthing long before his proposal.
Undoubtedly, the Victorian era was known for the classification of people into different social classes. As a result of the prominence of the social classes, people’s daily lives were determined by the social class to which one belonged (Khan 515). Lady Blacknell, a middle-class person, makes the decision of who marries Gwendolen. At first, Gwendolen accepts Jack’s proposal mainly because he bears the name Earnest. Blacknell, on the other hand, is opposed to the proposal because Jack exhibits unacceptable behavior such as smoking and lacks a good profession and a title to his name (Wilde 20).
In short, Jack fails to meet the qualifications for a middle-class suitor. Blacknell opens to Jack that you are not down on my list of eligible young men (Wilde 20). Similarly, when Blacknell learns about Cecily’s engagement to Algernon, she opposes their union by arguing that the latter does not belong to Cecily’s social class. It is nonetheless ironical how Blacknell suddenly changes her stand when she learns about Cecily’s fortune of about 130,000 pounds. The lady appreciates that there were some social possibilities for Algernon’s proposal to Cecily (Wilde 73). Later in the play, Blacknell consents to Jack’s proposal to Gwendolen when it is revealed that Jack is Algernon’s elder brother. These instances unveil the hypocrisy of Victorian ideals, particularly in love, courtship, and marriage.
The name Earnest as used in the play goes beyond the surface meaning. The use of Earnest in the play denotes the qualities of an ideal man in the Victorian era and which include a man who is passionate, loving, sincere, trustworthy, and honorable. However, the reader knows that possessing the name does not guarantee the individual of such qualities. Further, a reader understands that the It is a divine name. It has a music of its own (Wilde 17). In this case, therefore, Wilde seeks to evoke the reaction that the audience should search for their true character which is not merely represented by their names. Furthermore, Wilde’s play acts as an eye opener to the audience about the insincerity of the Victorian ideals and how they had been duped into living the ideals. For instance, the adherence to the Victorian ideals led the people to live dual lives whereby they tried to exhibit the socially acceptable behaviors in public but at the same time breaking the social norms to meet their desires like Jack and Algernon.
In summary, Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a satire of the ideals of the Victorian era. Notably, the era was characterized by very high moral standards among other factors such as growing wealth and political stability. The concept of earnestness arguably one of the defining features of the Victorian era. However, one question that Wilde appears to raise and to which he calls upon his audience to ponder about is whether there is an inherent relationship between a mere name and the actual character of the individual. Therefore, the Victorian understanding of earnestness is the root cause of the moral fa?§ade, hypocrisy, and dual morality. It carried the meaning of an ideal Victorian man/husband who was supposed to be loving, caring, honest, and trustworthy. Thus, to demystify this falsehood, Wilde creates Jack and Algy who pretend to be Earnest all in the name of winning the love of the young women, Cecilia and Gwendolen. Hence, Wilde wants to evoke the emotions of his viewers by challenging them to face the truth and find the actual character in one’s personality other than the name.
- Khan Amin T. Social Classes in Victorian Era. International Journal of Advance Engineering
and Research Development, 4(7) 515-520. Print.
- Phegley, Jennifer. Courtship and Marriage in Victorian England. Abc-Clio, 2012. Print.
- Wilde, Oscar. The importance of being earnest. Broadview Press, 2009. Print.
- Valentinov Krastev, Stilian. “Double Morality and the Temperance Issue in Victorian
Literature.” (2017). Print.
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest takes place in the Victorian Era and follows Jack Worthing, a man who creates a fake identity named Earnest in order to escape his home life and win the heart of Gwendolyn Fairfax, an aristocrat from London. It also follows Jack’s friend Algernon Moncrieff, who later also pretends to be named Earnest in order to marry Jack’s ward Cecily Cardew. Both Gwendolen and Cecily have a silly belief that they are destined to marry a man named Earnest.
Lady Bracknell, the play’s antagonist, tries to control their relationships by pointing out that an aristocrat in society must uphold their position in society through marriage. Wilde deliberately makes the characters and the conversations between them humorous and entertaining to appeal to the audience.
In the Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde consistently uses humor to highlight the Victorian society’s notions on the institution of marriage. Wilde helps the audience better understand Victorian values by hilariously painting an unflattering picture of the aristocracy’s ridiculous views on marriage.
Lady Bracknell is perhaps Wilde’s most outrageous character in the play, as she tries to take control over each engagement that takes place. When Lady Bracknell is informed of Cecily’s engagement to Algernon, her response towards her is cold. She immediately begins asking probing questions such as “Mr. Worthing, is Miss Cardew at all connected with any of the larger railway stations in London?” Lady Bracknell is gravely concerned about the impact that Algernon’s marriage to a woman of lower status could do to her family’s reputation. The conversation becomes amusing when Jack informs her of Cecily’s family’s wealth and status. Lady Bracknell comically responds, “A moment, Mr. Worthing. A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the funds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her” (Wilde, 1894).
Lady Bracknell’s dramatic change in tone towards Cecily and Algernon’s engagement is comedic. In a matter of a few seconds, she went from disproving of Cecily to agreeing happily to the engagement purely because of her greed. She is suddenly supportive of the marriage only when she learns that Cecily comes from a respectable family with an inheritance in her name. Marriage, a typically serious topic, is discussed lightly by Lady Bracknell, who discusses several selfish reasons for marriage besides the love between two people. Wilde creates this hilarious contrast in Lady Bracknell’s attitude to reveal the Victorian era’s warped priorities regarding marriage. He creates a character with such eccentric opinions to highlight the absurdities in the mindset of aristocrats. Through Lady Bracknell’s humorous responses, she reveals her true opinions on marriage, which is marriage for wealth and social status.
Gwendolen’s standards for marriage are absurd in a way that is much different than Lady Bracknell’s. She is less concerned with wealth and status, but instead infatuated with the name Earnest. Gwendolen says to Jack, “The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.” In this line, Gwendolen tells him that just his name was enough for her to fall in love with him. Their conversation becomes even more humorous when Jack asks her what she thinks of the name Jack. She responds, “Jack? . . . No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill.
It produces absolutely no vibrations . . . I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain” (Wilde, 1894). The pure irony of her saying she never wants to marry a man named Jack, when she is in love with a man whose real name is Jack, is Wilde’s way of poking fun at the silly nature behind her thoughts. The utter ridiculousness of what Gwendolen says emphasizes Victorian society’s skewed views on marriage. Her concept of love and marriage revolves around a name, instead of their actual personality and compatibility together. The way she speaks about always wanting to marry a man named Earnest is comical and humorous because there’s no logic behind her reasoning. Someone’s name itself shouldn’t matter for a commitment as important as Marriage. Wilde uses this ironic and funny interaction to point out how skewed Victorian society’s requirements for marriage are.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde presents a very humorous approach to commenting on the ideals of marriage in Victorian society. The title of the play itself is satire, as the two people who go by the name of Earnest are far from being Earnest until the end of the play. Wilde creates the most preposterous characters, such as Lady Bracknell, to exaggerate the importance of money and reputation to aristocrats in Victorian society. The conversations between the characters are ironic, and point out their skewed requirements for love and marriage. Through Wilde’s use of comedy in the play, he was able to comment on Victorian society’s beliefs about marriage in a light and entertaining manner, ridiculing them for prioritizing names, wealth, and reputation before love.
A Revolutionary Outrage
The importance of being earnest is a trivial comedy by Irish and poet Oscar Wilde. Jeremy Lalonde’s article A Revolutionary outrage: The importance of being earnest as social criticism discusses the main argument about the homosexuality and marriage in this play. Realizing personality in the importance of being earnest by Sarah Balkin is talking about one’s personality that is relating with all art and mode of acting. Third article by W.Craven Mackie Bunbury pure and simple is a letter which outline the first scenario of the play The importance of being earnest by Oscar Wilde.
A revolutionary outrage, describes the topics of distinction between upper and lower classes and sexuality. Lalonde’s thesis is defined two readings, one assumes the role of narrator of The portrait of Mr.W.H. (Wilde) or that of Lady Bracknell. In this, Sinfield claims about sexuality and Eve Sedgewick give his view on the feminism throughout the eighteenth century. Individuals characterized by their social background in the play.
Poet also defines the Shakespeare’s sonnet to represent the masculinities which is surrounding around the context of Earnest. Other topics such as Bun burying, Effeminacy and feminist are rising topics in the article. It is argued that Earnest’ is a homosexual person and Bunbury’ is a man interested in social Legislation employing by Algernon (Wilde 76). It describes the relationship between two characters in the play-Algernon (Algy) and Earnest Worthing (Jack) as a homosexual. According to play Class’ is a category which attach with the topic of sexuality and lady Bracknell is mostly concern about society or social class.
Realizing personality in the importance of being earnest figures the personality of living humans. It is highlighting the personality of each character in the victorian era, stage performances in the play and their culture. Talking about the social relations between characters, every person related to each other. Their voice, actions, tone and dialogues are best description of their personalities. Sarah Balkin arguing on three plays and the importance of being is different as it realise personality through embodied and spoken practice as well as it shows Wilde’s journey from early staging practices to visual reality of plays.
Earnest and Bunbury are examples of imaginary persons and both relates with domestic life. Author claims that the realising personality in the play is not emphasize private or historical life. Throughout the play, lot of symbols points toward their personality as they are, for example, Cecily’s bangles, Gwendolen’s dairy, Algy’s eating habits and Lady Bracknell’s hat on her head.
In Bunbury pure and simple, author is describing the early history of the play and the name Bunbury. First, he is suggest other names such as Gwendolen and Earnest and thinked about their personalities according to their names. After picking name Bunbury for an unknown personality many scholars arguing about that name. Author establish three bunbury in the article. After lot of research, he perfectly become success in creating the name and meaning of Bunbury. The meaning of Bunbury is always ill in the article as well as in the play.
To conclude, the conception of a personality and identity in the Victorian era can experience characters. The themes of socialism and social discontent is exploited for comedic effects. Bunbury and Earnest is a common topic in the above three articles that depict the sexuality and hidden figures in the play and other characters or personalities shows class and society.
Lalonde, Jeremy. A Revolutionary Outrage’: The Importance of Being Earnest as Social Criticism. Modern Drama, vol. 48, no. 4, 2005, pp. 65976.
Balkin, Sarah. Realizing Personality in The Importance of Being Earnest. Modern Drama, vol. 59, no. 1, 2016, pp. 2648.
Mackie, W.Craven. Bunbury Pure and Simple. Modern Drama, vol. 41, no. 2, 1998, pp. 32730.
Wilde, Oscar.The Importance of being earnest and other plays.
The Women Announce
In Act III of The Importance of Being Earnest, the play picks back up in the country home where Gwendolyn and Cecily are waiting to hear what Algernon and John have to say for themselves. In the previous act, Algernon and John were both caught lying about being Earnest by the women. The men enter into the room and both women immediately demand explanations for their actions.
Algernon and John explain the situation and why they did what they did, the women choose to forgive them, then they immediately change their minds They change their minds because at first they were satisfied by the men’s argument and then they come to realization they they still were lied to all this time.
The women announce at the same time that they can not marry them men because their names are not Earnest. Algernon and John immediately think that telling the women that they are due to christening later that afternoon will help ease the situation. After telling the women about their christening, the women are impressed by what they just heard. They are mainly impressed because they see this action as an act of braveness and sacrifice, they then fall into the arms of their men.
A few moments after, Lady Bracknell joins everyone in the country-home to separate the couples apart. She was told Gwendolyn’s location from the maid in whom she bribed. She then demands for John to lose all of his communication with her daughter but John announces to Lady Bracknell that him and Gwendolyn are getting married. She then changes the subject by asking Algernon about his friend Bunbury; he states that Bunbury was pronounced dead that afternoon. John tries to introduce Cecily to Lady Bracknell, and Algernon announces that he is engaged to her.
Lady Bracknell repeatedly disrespects the background of Cecily which increases the frustration of John. When she is acknowledged that Cecily is rich, Lady Bracknell has sudden approval and finds her beautiful. She gives their engagement her blessing, then tells Cecily to call her aunt, and proposes that they get married as soon as possible. Cecily and Algernon celebrate by expressing their happiness. John, nonetheless, does not give his blessing of Cecily and Algernon getting married and he refuses to unless Lady Bracknell grants him and Gwendolyn permission to wed, in which she denies to do. She then just says that Cecily should wait until she comes of age, but John informs her that she will not be of age until she is 35. The situation seems hopeless and Lady Bracknell is planning to take Gwendolyn back to London with her.
The final section of the play brings the entire play together as a whole. The third scene starts off with Dr. Chasuble entering, ready to baptize Algernon and Jack. Lady Bracknell then announces her bitterness towards the entire situation. The priest is surprised to hear this and offers to return to the church with Miss Prism whom is waiting for him. Lady Bracknell is surprised to hear the name Miss Prism and questions Dr. Chasuble about Miss Prism. She is very sure that she knows this women and sends for the priest to bring her. Miss Prism arrives and Lady Bracknell starts to question her and investigate her.
She then asks, “Prism! Where is that baby?” Bracknell explains that 28 years ago, Miss Prism left her home pushing a baby carriage that carried a baby boy. She never came back with the carriage and later on the police located the bay carriage but with no baby. Miss Prism denies knowing anything but admits at the time she accidentally swapped the baby for the document that was in the handbag. She then says that she left the bag and the baby in the closet at the train station. John overhears the conversation and excuses himself upstairs
John comes back downstairs with an old handbag which Miss Prism immediately recognizes as the bag she left that night. John then tries to embrace her as his mother but she denies it and directs him to Lady Bracknell. She then tells John that he is her sister’s son and Algernon’s older brother. They all started to celebrate the new family relation when John asks his birth name. Lady Bracknell states that she does not remember but she does know he was named after his father.
Algernon did not know his father’s name because he passed away when Algernon was only an infant. His father was in the military so they decided to check his military records. They figured out that John’s father’s name was Earnest. Gwendolyn starts to repeat her fondness for the name Earnest and John asks her for forgiveness for lying about his real identity earlier in the play. Each couple settles their differences and John announces his highly famous saying: “I’ve now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.”
Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Masking Unpleasant Emotions Through Food
In Oscar Wilde’s, The Importance of Being Earnest, satire is used to emphasize the triviality and absurdity of certain conventions within Victorian society. The play’s main characters epitomize Victorian high society; thus, the criticism that arises from Wilde’s exaggeration extends further than the play itself. Specifically, Wilde exaggerates the consumption of food, a seemingly normal non-event. However, Wilde presents such a typically mundane event as an emotionally moving experience. Each time food is introduced into a scene, a character is also feeling an emotion that is unconventional for the time.
During the 19th century, it was considered impolite for members of the upper levels of society to reveal conflicting and personal feelings. In public, any kind of overbearing emotion needed to be suppressed in order to maintain proper decorum. Responding to these societal rules, Wilde uses the Victorians’ exaggeration of their food intake to represent the emotions that they are unable to show. By using food to mask and stifle unpleasant sentiments like lust, aggression, and stress, Wilde conveys the Victorian Era’s aversion towards public displays of such emotions.
Discussing one’s feelings of lust and sexual desire defied the doctrinal rules of polite conversation which were of utmost importance to Victorian society; Wilde represents these emotions and their repression by disguising them with a large appetite. In the play, there are many barriers between the men and the women they love. Jack, in particular, is madly in love with Gwendolyn and plans to marry her. However, issues such as Gwendolyn’s domineering mother and Jack’s alternate identity stand in the way of the couple’s union. Without an official marriage, the two are unable to consummate their love, ultimately leaving Jack riddled with sexual desire. Prior to his proposal to Gwendolyn, Jack confesses his plan to Algernon; one can only imagine the lust Jack is feeling towards his possible wife. At this point, Jack’s relationship with Gwendolyn has not surpassed flirting, leaving him sexually frustrated. As a member of high society, Jack cannot out rightly tell Algernon of his desires, as they would be perceived as less than respectable. Instead, Jack directs his frustration towards the provided food and seeks to sustain his appetite. After being denied the cucumber sandwiches, Algernon suggests that Jack eat some of “the bread and butter [that] is for Gwendolyn” (3). Jack then proceeds to eat in a ravenous manner that causes Algernon to comment, “you need not eat as if you were going to eat it all” (3). Algernon claims that Jack is “behav[ing] as if [he] were married to [Gwendolyn] already”, ultimately implying that Jack’s eager consumption of the bread mirrors a husband’s willingness to pursue sexual relations with a wife (3). Thus, Jack’s appetite to eat the bread and butter is a manifestation of his sexual desire for Gwendolyn; the rapidness of its consumption correlates with the lustful feelings that arise from the conversation.
Wilde further mocks the Victorian convention that prohibits individuals of the upper class from openly discussing lust by applying this frustration to the simple act of eating. During this time, members the upper class were expected to maintain in public a kind disposition, despite any angry sentiments an individual may be feeling. To accurately reflect the era’s conventions, Wilde stifles the characters’ aggression through redirecting it towards food. In Act II, Gwendolyn’s arrival at Jack’s country house creates conflicts that incite aggression. Upon introduction, Gwendolyn takes a fondness to Cecily, causing her to even say, “we are going to be great friends” (32). However, after a misunderstanding that causes Gwendolyn and Cecily to believe that “Earnest” had proposed to them both, the two quickly develop antipathy towards one another. Earlier in the play, each girl had claimed to be deeply in love with her own “Earnest”; therefore, the thought of someone threatening that love understandably incites some aggression. Despite their anger, they are unable to openly express their feelings, as doing so was not acceptable in society. Instead, the two sit down for tea and subtly direct their anger towards one another’s food. Cecily, compelled as a hostess, offers Gwendolyn sugar for her tea and a choice of cake or bread and butter. Gwendolyn, unable to directly criticize her hostess as a person, resorts to insulting Cecily’s preference, stating that, “sugar is not fashionable anymore [… and] cake is rarely seen at the best houses” (38). In retaliation, Cecily puts four sugar lumps into Gwendolyn’s tea and cuts her a slice of cake; society does not permit a direct reply from Cecily, so she resorts to directing her anger towards the food.
Wilde further emphasizes the consumption of food to illustrate the feelings of stress that members of high society were required to subdue. The play’s elaborate plot provides many conflicts, causing each character to undergo a large amount of stress. The end of Act II is particularly stressful, as deceit is discovered and relationships are damaged. After Gwendolyn and Cecily discover Jack and Algernon’s true identities, they storm back to the house. Jack and Algernon are left dejected by their true loves, and uncertain if there will be an opportunity to amend the situation. Though Jack is initially outwardly conflicted about the circumstances, he soon becomes distracted by Algernon’s ingestion of muffins. Algernon rejects the sentiment of stress by claiming that he “can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner”: though this is said humorously, it illustrates his tendency to deemphasize important sentiments such as stress and emphasize trivial acts like eating. Because society discourages them from expressing feelings of stress, Algernon resorts to “eating [,as it] is the only thing that consoles [him]” (41). Wilde then dedicates a large portion of dialogue between the two to emphasizing greediness in regards to food. Rather than discussing the situation at hand and their mutual stress, they focus their attention upon the distribution of food. They refer to each other’s intake as “greedy” and seek to convince the other to eat teacake instead (41). Both men desire the muffins and want them as their own, calling to mind their feelings toward the name Earnest. However, the barriers of society prevent them from directly discussing the more prevalent, but stressful issue; thus, the two are left redirecting their stress onto the muffins instead.
By covering the characters’ emotions with exaggerated attention to and interaction with food, Wilde illustrates the farcical extent that the upper class went to in order to preserve a pleasant image. Members of high society were obsessed with maintaining an image of perfection according to which one only practiced proper behavior in public. Any sentiments able to cause tension were deemed unpleasant and unrespectable. However unpleasant these feelings may be, it is human nature to regard them as serious, as every person has experienced them. Due to the serious nature of these feelings, applying them towards food and eating, rather trivial matters relative to an individual’s emotional well-being, appears quite comical to the reader. Wilde illuminates the ridiculousness in relating the expression of one’s emotions to being improper and mocks the practice; by doing so, he conveys his disapproval of the importance placed on maintaining a pleasant front. Wilde’s use of food as a mask illustrates how confining and stifling it was to be among the upper class in the Victorian era.
An Age of Surfaces: Oscar Wilde’s Society Above and Below the Surface
“We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces” (2257). So the character of Lady Bracknell observes at the conclusion of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The play as a whole is one firmly preoccupied with the idea of surfaces and their importance in Victorian society, where it must have often seemed (especially to someone as flamboyant as Wilde) that appearance mattered more than anything else. Wilde uses this play to unveil some of the flaws of a superficial society—by first exaggerating frivolity’s influence, then making it absurd, and lastly unfolding some of its logic to make it both more understandable and more reprehensible. In so doing he exposes the unnaturalness, even the danger, of a world where exteriors have completely replaced interiors and the surface is all that remains—which is as much a menace today as it was during Wilde’s own time. Lady Bracknell’s inquisition of Jack, her daughter’s suitor, in Act I serves as a telling prototype. Having already questioned Jack about his income, knowledge, and personal habits, Lady Bracknell now turns to “minor matters”: his background (2232). Her first of many reproaches on this score is a fine example of the baseless social appraisal that Wilde critiques so cleverly throughout the play. When Jack informs Lady Bracknell that he has “lost” both of his parents, her reaction is not one of sympathy or even curiosity, but instead of consternation. “Both?” she says. “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune—to lose both looks like carelessness” (2232). Lady Bracknell is unabashedly blaming Jack not for being a smoker, or having no politics, or knowing nothing, as her interrogation just prior to this passage has revealed, but for losing his parents—a shortcoming that, unlike all the others, has arisen entirely by chance and through no fault of Jack’s. It is significant that Lady Bracknell uses the word “look” to say that having no parents “looks like carelessness” (in some editions the word is “seems”), because it brings the focus quite literally to the idea of superficial appearances. The Victorian tendency to judge a person’s worth by their lineage may have ostensibly been based on a vague idea of inner worth as hereditary, but Wilde here exposes this convention as one based on outer presentation alone. For as Lady Bracknell’s command for Jack to produce some parents—or rather, she implies, any parents–later shows, she is interested only in someone who looks worthwhile, based on arbitrary standards that can be satisfied while entirely overlooking a person’s real character. She wants Jack to be someone like her nephew Algernon—who, as she says later in the play, “has nothing, but he looks everything. What more can one desire?” (2258). If this much seems ridiculous, Lady Bracknell’s next accusation is even more so. Ernest reveals that he is not only a foundling, but was found inside of a handbag—to which Lady Bracknell replies that “to be born, or at any rate, bred in a handbag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution” (2233). Obviously her blaming Jack for being “bred” in a handbag is completely ridiculous, in some ways even more than her disdain for his having lost his parents. For while before we initially knew only that Jack had lost contact with his parents, at whatever age and for whatever reason, here we know immediately that in this instance of alleged culpability, Jack was actually an infant. Perhaps the only way to make Lady Bracknell’s annoyance more absurd at this point is to direct it towards a newborn child—one who is blamed for, of all things, being placed in a handbag. The faintly-traceable syllogism of her logic is still present here, in the sense that there is some rhetorical connection at least between an “ordinary handbag,” as Jack calls it, and the ordinary people behind such upheavals as the French Revolution (2233). And the sheer bizarreness of being found in a handbag is in some ways in opposition to “the ordinary decencies of family life” (2233). It is interesting that we see this word “ordinary” come up again, here in a positive context as opposed to the negative one used just before. [“In what locality did this Mr. James, or Thomas, Cardew come across this ordinary handbag?” asks Lady Bracknell just before (2233).] Lady Bracknell’s hypocritical refashioning of the word is just one of many subtle hints Wilde sends to the reader about the consistency, or rather inconsistency, of her logic. Yet Wilde is not so simplistic as to suggest that she has no logic at all, which is one of the reasons this passage—and the play as a whole—is so compelling. Lady Bracknell is extremely logical in some of the details she dismisses in this case—such as the line of the cloak room in which the bag was found or whether or not the bag had handles. The language she uses to brush off such absurdly random details is often uncommon in its directness; “The line is immaterial,” for instance, is just about as simple and as short as her usually orotund sentences get (2233). In this way Wilde is able to present these moments as instances of plain, direct common sense—which is probably how Lady Bracknell looks at them herself. This makes them all the more confounding and hilarious for the pure improbability of these phrases’ actual content. Nothing could be less relevant to Jack’s character than the line of the handbag’s cloakroom, or the presence or absence of handles; points like these are in fact so wide of the mark that no coherent person would ever bother to point out how trivial they are. The fact that Lady Bracknell admits that these things don’t matter, but others that are equally inane somehow do [i.e. the fact that Jack was found in a handbag, or the fact that the handbag was in a cloak room that “might serve to conceal a social indiscretion” (2233)] cause her to appear simultaneously more and less ridiculous, an impressive feat. On the one hand it is encouraging to see that she has some sound judgment at least, but on the other it is disturbing to find that an apparently rational person can follow this judgment to such a misdirected conclusion. Lady Bracknell’s use of the word “seems” to describe her impressions [“seems to me to display a contempt” (2233)] like her previous choice of the word “look”, ultimately ties this deconstruction of logic back in with the idea of surface and appearances. The reasoning Lady Bracknell uses here is completely arbitrary; there is no earthly reason why the fact of a handbag should be any more or less important than whether or not it has handles. By highlighting the ridiculousness of such gradations, Wilde suggests that any focus on mere appearance alone is in fact equally arbitrary—that a person shouldn’t be blamed for their family any more than an infant should be blamed for a handbag, and exteriors are only significant if they are clearly distinguished from interiors. In exactly this spirit, The Importance of Being Earnest strives not to create a realistic representation of an outer reality, but an artistic summation of an inner one. In the context of aestheticism Wilde compiles the most ridiculous parts of human nature and places them on stage–so that even today when his spectators laugh, they do so with the dim sentience that in a play seemingly all about surfaces, he’s deriding the innermost part of themselves.
The Institution of Marriage in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” and Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles”
Oscar Wilde vigorously attacks the institution of heterosexual marriage in his play “The Importance of Being Earnest” by employing light comedy in order to portray characters that are shallow, immature, and oblivious about the commitment into which they are about to enter. Marriage is also harshly critiqued in Susan Glaspell’s play “Trifles,” a play that explores the hardships that women must face within the institution of marriage and the tragedy that befalls one woman pushed past her breaking point. Both plays are harshly critical of the institution of marriage, one through light satirical comedy and the other through a tragic story about a failed marriage. However, the somber impact of the more realistic story within “Trifles” provides a more harsh understanding of the institution of marriage than does the comedy, which its audience can easily laugh off. In Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” the characters treat marriage as something frivolous. What they do treat as important are esoteric social norms, connotations of names, and trivial details. Cecily and Gwendolyn only want to marry Algernon and Jack because they believe that their names are Ernest. As Gwendolyn says to Jack early in the play, “…My ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you” (10). In another part of the play, Cecily meets Algernon for the first time and believes he is Jack’s brother Ernest. She confesses her love for him and tells him all about how they’ve been engaged; she bought a ring for herself in his name, and wrote herself love letters pretending they were from him (32). The women base their love entirely on the belief that the men are named Ernest, which reveals their naivety regarding marriage. The frivolity with which these women fall in love suggests that relationships, too, are frivolous.Jack and Algernon diminish the institution of marriage in another way. During an early conversation about marriage proposals, Algernon says: “I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If I ever get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact” (3). This dialogue indicates that Algernon believes commitment is something that ruins romance and perhaps, by extension, love – hardly a resounding endorsement of marriage.Lady Bracknell’s idea of marriage is equally cynical. When Gwendolyn and Jack tell her they are engaged, Lady Bracknell tells Gwendolyn that “An engagement should come to a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she should be allowed to arrange for herself…” (12). She then interrogates Jack about his upbringing, property, and family to learn whether he is suitable for her daughter and society. Lady Bracknell does not see love in marriage; rather, marriage is an institution that must sustain wealth and social class. Although Wilde’s play offers a very negative view of the institution of marriage, it does so in a lighthearted way. The characters are laughably extreme in their behaviors, and so Wilde’s criticism of marriage can be laughed off. Susan Glaspell’s play “Trifles” takes the opposite approach. Although it is not primarily about marriage, it does deal with the negative effects of marriage on women. The play is a tragic story about how Mrs. Wright may have murdered her husband. The emotional impact of the play forces its audience to take its subject matter seriously. Unlike “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Trifles” isn’t directly about marriage – the topic of marriage is subtly hinted at by devices in the dialogue and setting rather than overtly flaunted by the characters’ mannerisms. The audience learns about Mrs. Wright as they see Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale going through her house, recognize the symbolism of Mrs. Wright’s things, and hear the comments the men make to the women in the play. When the party first arrives at the house, the pans under the sink are unwashed, there’s a loaf of bread sitting out, and things around the house are unfinished. The disorder of Mrs. Wright’s housework seems to indicate disorder in her life. When Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are looking at her quilt Mrs. Hale observes, “Here, this is the one she was working on, and look at the sewing! All the rest of it has been so nice and even. And look at this! It’s all over the place! Why, it looks as if she didn’t know what she was on about!”(1679). Mrs. Hale starts to pull it out and re-stitch it and then she asks, “What do you suppose she was so nervous about?” The implication there is that something was happening in that moment when her stitching faltered – maybe that her husband was being verbally abusive or aggressive at that time. Also, the women find a broken birdcage and Mrs. Wright’s dead bird in her sewing basket. The bird’s neck had been wrung, and Mrs. Hale believes that Mr. Wright did it. The bird was beloved by Mrs. Wright – Mrs. Hale deduces that she was going to bury it in the “pretty box” they found it in (1681). If Mr. Wright did indeed wring the bird’s neck, it could be an indication of abuse. The bird can be considered a symbol of Mrs. Wright herself; indeed, Mrs. Hale refers to her as a “songbird” early in the play. Mr. Wright’s murder of the bird thus suggests suffocation of Mrs. Wright socially and mentally as well. The bird’s murder motivates Mrs. Wright to kill her husband and confirms that their marriage was a failed one. The dialogue between the women also helps us paint a portrait of the kind of marriage Mr. and Mrs. Wright had, and also of their own understandings of the difficulties of marriage for women in that place and time. Mrs. Hale describes Mr. Wright as having been a “hard man” (1680) – she tells the court attorney that she hasn’t been over Mrs. Wright’s house in a year because it “never seemed a very cheerful place” and that “…I don’t think a place’d be any cheerfuller for John Wright’s being in it” (1676). She also expresses guilt for not coming over to see Mrs. Wright because it was so un-cheerful in the house. She expresses her empathy for the way Mrs. Wright must have felt: “I might have known she needed help! I know how things can be – for women. I tell you, it’s queer, Mrs. Peters. We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things – it’s all just a different kind of the same thing” (1682). Mrs. Peters expresses similar sentiments when they discover Mrs. Wright’s dead bird. She talks about when her first baby died, and how she “knows what stillness is” (1682). Through this dialogue, we learn of the serious trials of marriage that women had to endure – the problems are true to life and utterly believable, and the dialogue has a heavy emotional impact. Its somber tone, realistic subject matter, heavy symbolism and believable characters make “Trifles” a more scathing indictment of marriage than “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The heavy emotional impact left by the former is more likely to leave an audience thinking about the problems in marriage than will a light-hearted comedy about a group of young, petty people who have very naïve ideas about what marriage should be. “Trifles” is harsher for another reason – it deals with blunt reality of married life rather than just making fun of the kind of people who get married. Wilde’s frivolous characters might cause one to laugh at marriage, but Glaspell’s force an audience to really consider the institution and its potential costs.
Structural Stereotypes of the Characters in The Importance of Being Earnest
Names play a pivotal role in Oscar Wilde’s drama “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The naming of the characters is deliberate and well thought-out. Their name alludes to the pigeonhole for each of their characters. A name is a typecast and in Victorian times, when this play was written, a name would have determined whether you were to become a prince or a pauper. It is ironic that a child is at the mercy of its parents for its name just like the characters in this play were predetermined by Wilde. An expectation for the way in which society is run is also a label and Oscar Wilde sets out to prove the triviality of these brands through his characters use of wit, irony, and humor. The stereotypes of the five main characters in this play help to reveal societal masks through comedic timing.The comic creation of Lady Bracknell is a marvelous outlet for the actions of the plot and to obtain a glimpse into the ideals of the Victorian Era2E Lady Bracknell is the quintessential matronly elite who stresses good breeding above all else. Some of Wilde’s funniest lines are played out through her character. Also, it is Lady Bracknell that introduces Wilde’s views on marriage and how it falls short of the romantic ideal. When Lady Bracknell is interviewing Jack to be a candidate for marrying her daughter, Gwendolyn, her physical and linguistic actions illustrate that she is disturbed by Jack’s disreputable background. For Instance, when Jack tells her he was found in a handbag at the train station in the Brighton line, she states that, “The Line is immaterial.” (Act I p.1439). This shows how greatly Jacks lack of a material background distresses her. Lady Bracknell is a stereotype for the importance in Victorian culture of a good upbringing and family name.Gwendolyn is Lady Bracknell’s daughter and is the reason for Lady Bracknell’s snobbery towards Jack. Gwendolyn is in love with Jack whom she knows as Ernest. Her frivolity is stereotypical of the time period in regards to thoughts about marriage. For example, she says she was destined to love Ernest because of his name (Act I p.1435). This displays her obsession with her fantasy for the ideal romance. But, many of the epigrams in the play denote the ironic fact that Wilde felt there was a cruel reality to marriage.Much like Gwendolyn is Cecily, in as much as they are both set on their romantic fantasies about marriage. She even holds the same opinion about the name Ernest being the essence of perfection. Cecily has even gone as far as to write love letters to herself and to imagine a proposal from Algernon (Ernest) before she has even met him (Act III p.1452-3). It is amusing that she would not trust her fianc to write them on his own which is a hint at the fact he would never be able to write something on his own that would fulfill all of her expectations. Cecily is also the one to unequivocally assert the theme of the play when she says, “I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.” (Act III p.1445). Both Cecily and Gwendolyn are obviously aroused by the dangerousness of a man’s character. Wilde has reversed his intent in a comedic manner because what he was alluding to is the people who pretend to be moral all the time but in reality live corruptly. He is commenting on the fact that society compels people to wear a mask.Algernon is a symbol of the upper crust British bachelor. Wilde even leads into the play by illustrating that Algernon enjoys the finer things in life, (dining, artistic culture, and music) through his conversation with Lane about his piano playing (Act I p.1427). Algernon is also depicted as over-indulgent through the visually comical expression of always eating. His opinions about love and marriage are hilariously contradictory. This is exemplified in the line, “If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.” (Act I p.1429). It would be completely improbable that someone would forget that they are married. Algernon is a typical pseudo-intellectual, creating witty phrases about life that have little value.Jack, or Ernest, is similar to Algernon because they both live the life of Victorian over-indulgent Victorian bachelors. They live their lives like works of art, in as much as they are playing grounds that they can manipulate to their pleasing. This is part of Jack’s comedic charm. He is the vessel for the entire play because it is his lying that creates the humorous conflict of morals. It is also his name that creates the pun for the drama. Jack treats solemn events with casual abandon and yet he becomes stressed over trifles. For Instance, when Cecily comes outside to tell Jack that Ernest is in the living room, after just having told, Miss Prism and Chasuble that he was dead, he just rolls with the punches and acts completely unaffected yet; he bothers Scotland Yard over the loss of his cigarette case (Act III p.1449 and Act I p.1429).The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy of manners that ridicules social stereotypes and breaks down societal masks. The five main characters help to highlight the differences between men and women and to poke fun at their beliefs about love and marriage. Through Wilde’s comedy and wit it becomes apparent that this drama is as much a microcosm of our ideals in the present as in his time. The message through the humor of Lady Bracknell, Algernon, Jack, Gwendolyn, and Cecily is to appreciate the beauty in life and to let go of the confused sense of values and stereotypes that society imposes.