Feminism in Wilde’s World: Empowered Women in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’
Throughout history, women were perceived as inferior to men socially, economically, and intellectually. In modern society, the majority of people would call out this statement for its blatant misogyny and inequality. However, such a claim would define gender roles during the Victorian era, especially if the woman was a widow or unmarried. Only married women held merit and even so, they needed to be submissive to their husbands. This was an accepted norm in Victorian society until Oscar Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895, which both challenges and mocks said society through the identity of Ernest. Jack takes on this character to win the affection of Gwendolen, yet he is unaware that Algernon is doing the same for Cecily, resulting in a ridiculous love triangle all for the sake of appearances and marriage. In satirizing marriage, he simultaneously satirizes gender roles, in which marriage was the most paramount aspect of life for a woman in order to wield any power. In the play, Wilde defies gender roles by empowering women, regardless of their marital status, while illustrating men as the weaker of the two.
The most obvious choice for an example of would be Lady Bracknell, since she practically embodies female dominance. Both pompous and contradictory in her dialogue, Lady Bracknell symbolizes the vanity and stupidity of the upper class, yet she is the main figure of female empowerment as well. Though she occasionally grants permissions to Algernon as his aunt, her character is primarily revealed through making all of the decisions for her daughter,Gwendolen. Everything Gwendolen does or intends to do is dictated by her, as examinable through her unvarnished statements such as “Pardon me, you are not engaged to anyone…you, Gwendolen, will wait for me below in the carriage.” (Wilde 12). In a typical Victorian family, the father would constitute these choices, but Lady Bracknell forced her husband into submission from her self-made supremacy. When Algernon declines dining with her, she responds, “Your uncle would have to dine upstairs. Fortunately he is accustomed to that.” (9), revealing not only the lowliness she diminished her husband to, but her awareness of it. Lady Bracknell further executes her dominance through assessing Gwendolyn’s possible suitors, and ultimately organizing her marriage. Her list of eligible young men and the interview she gives them further highlight her dominance through her ambition to arrange the marriage the way she would prefer it. Even the questions skewed towards the power of the wife and the compliance of the husband by setting unrealistic standards for his upbringing, career, and “disapproval of natural ignorance.” (13). From start to finish, Lady Bracknell serves as the dominating force for every character, straining from the Victorian concept of a man being the authority figure of a household.
This prevalent dominance transfers to the other female characters in the play, Gwendolen and Cecily, who oppose the notion of strictly married women wielding power in Victorian society. Miss Prism favors this statement, “by [a woman] persistently remaining single, a man converts himself into a permanent public temptation,”(26) and while this highlights her conformity to Victorian society, the actions that unfold dispute it. Like her mother, Gwendolen is headstrong in asserting matters of taste and morality on a sophisticated level, even though she is unmarried. For instance, when alone with Jack, she immediately disregards his awkward smalltalk and takes charge of his proposal. During the whole conversation, Gwendolen sets the proposal in motion with copious hints. In the beginning, she interprets Jack’s comments about the weather as a premise or his proposal, for he “means something else” (10). As the dialogue closes, Gwendolen addresses the matter directly by asking him to do so as a final push for him to ask for her hand in marriage. Gwendolyn finally forces him to his knees, illustrating a metaphor for the submission she has put him in. Yet when Jack does propose, she is disappointed about commanding him to do so, commenting, “I am afraid you have had very little experience in how to propose.” (11) This proves that even she is surprised at the dominance she has to assert over him, especially as a bachelorette.
While not as pontifical as Gwendolen, Cecily also upholds her own power as an unmarried woman against Algernon. He immediately claims Cecily is the prettiest woman he ever saw, and in response to Miss Prism’s comparison of “good looks” to a “snare,” that Algernon concludes they are a snare “every sensible man would like to be caught in” (25). This quote displays that Algernon becomes captivated by her beauty, not her status, which satirizes the obsession with appearance in the Victorian era. This allows Cecily to direct their marriage; so much to explain the entire history of their engagement and commit to future plans (32-33). Despite their marital status, both women bend their fiancés to their will with the assets of class and beauty.
As a result of the women’s rise to power, the men in the play, Jack and Algernon, are portrayed as the weaker characters. Though they are oblivious to this, the women take note oftheir inability to act as the superior species, such as Cecily’s playful comment, “Men are so cowardly, aren’t they?” (40), which expresses her disenchantment with both of them. The cowardice of Jack and Algernon is exposed through the reveal of Ernest, as their web of liesuntangle and reveal the unfortunate truth. Jack manipulates the identity of his brother Ernest to lead a double life in the city and country, therefore drawing attention to his fear of being accepted in Victorian society, which forces him to be duplicitous. On the other hand, Algernon’s character of Bunbury, a deathly ill man in the hospital, gives him a break from tedious and unexciting social obligations. Like Jack’s fictional brother Ernest, Bunbury allows Algernon to humor himself while upholding the male concept of austerity and duty, yet Jack is ashamed of his lies, while Algernon condones it. Their need to hide their true identity behind Earnest not only shows their lack of stereotypical male bravery, yet also the desperation to earn the affection of their love interests. Their desire for pleasing the women in their lives is rather pathetic, going as far as to need permission for a kiss on the cheek. Just as much as the play allows females to ascend, in turn it consequents in the male descent.
Nevertheless, the characters are both blissfully and ironically unaware of this flip in gender roles. Wilde specifically identifies their ignorance through Gwendolen and Cecily, who are blind to their dominance, as well as of Jack and Algernon, who consequently take pride in their manhood. Gwendolen is shocked at the opposite of the accepted belief, calling equality of the sexes “absurd” and that “where questions of self sacrifice are concerned, men are definitely beyond us” (44), confirming the perceived inferiority of women in the Victorian era. Cecily extends the praise of men over women by complimenting their “physical courage of which we women know absolutely nothing” (44). Obviously, Jack and Algernon agree with these opinions to not only establish their pride, but to affirm the superiority of men that is customary in the time period. Despite Wilde’s commentary, traditional perceptions of gender applies to the characters of the play because it criticizes the flaws, incomprehension, and idiocy of Victorian society.
Throughout The Importance of Being Earnest, the stereotypes of gender are challenged by engaging women, and thus delineating men as the weaker of the two. Wilde chiefly executes the supremacy of women through Lady Bracknell, and continues to authorize them through the influence that Gwendolen and Cecily have over Jack and Algernon. Hence, this lessens the power of the men in the play, and when combined with the rise of the female sex, it strains the traditional gender roles in the Victorian era, especially due to their marital status. Using wit and satire, Wilde disregards marital status and redefines the nature of men and women.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. New York: Dover Publications Inc. 1990. Print.
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