The Importance of Being Frugal: Oscar Wilde’s Condemnation of Upper Class Society
Honesty is an important trait that is conveyed throughout society. It is the foundation for a long-lasting and meaningful relationship, and it is expected to be practiced in almost every social interaction. Much like today, the Victorian Era valued honestly and upheld the idea of being earnest. Oscar Wilde’s novel The Importance of Being Earnest, is set in London, England, during the Victorian Era. During this period, Wilde found hypocrisy of the morals that were so greatly valued by the upper class and decided to write a commentary on the prejudiced class based society. To do so, Wilde utilizes epigrams, satire, and irony to highlight and ridicule the cultural norms of aristocratic society and marriage during the Victorian Era.
Wilde employs epigrams to to satirize upper Victorian society. The epigrams he used were for comic relief and to ridicule ideas on marriage and morality. In act one, Jack responds to a negative claim made on marriage from Algy by saying “[t]he Divorce Court was specially invented for people whose memories are so curiously constituted” (Wilde 9). Wilde is commenting on his belief that all marriages are doomed for failure. He is also acknowledging the ridiculous wedding laws that were set in place during that era. Wilde experienced these laws and marriage failures first hand as he was arrested for having an affair with a man and was placed in jail for two years. This experience led him to be more satirical to relationships and weddings in upper class society. Another example of this is in act four when Gwendolen states, “If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all of my life” (Wilde 87). This highlights her hypocritical and paradoxical nature as she promises to keep waiting for a life time as long as she does not have to wait too long. Wilde strongly believed that the upper class, although they were supposed to be setting an example for the lower class by upholding high morals, were incredibly backhanded and did not truly follow what they believed in. Gwendolen represents the very embodiment of this as she appears as insincere. Oscar Wilde utilizes these epigrams to further explore this hypocrisy he found in Victorian ideals.
In addition to epigrams, Wilde relies heavily on satire to expose the flawed views of the Victorian community. He uses this to mock social conventions such as marriage, courtship, and class division. In act one, Algy states, “As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life” (Wilde 7). During the Victorian era, pianos were powerful objects in social gatherings. If one could play the piano, it would immediately gain them respect and high social standing. In this pun, Algy trivializes pianos, an important icon in the eyes of many during this period. Wilde is using this quote to make a statement on how anything that has value placed upon it by a typical upper class Victorian must not have any real sentiment, and it is therefore ridiculous and unnecessary. The character Dr. Chasuble is used to further satirize the morals and important values set by the upper class. Dr. Chasuble is supposed to be a holy and and righteous man that the upper class can look up to; however, he does not seem to hold any real religious qualities. He is not intelligent, is often absent minded, and has concealed passions.
As a priest, he is supposed to be opposed to marriage; however, he courts and flirts with Miss Prism with the intention of marrying her. All of these things lead him to not be an appropriate religious role model. Wilde uses Dr. Chasuble to mock the dishonesty he found throughout clergyman and other religious leaders as well as the society that looked up to them. Dr. Chasuble is supposed to prompt respect, as all clergyman during that time, but instead he holds a materialistic attitude towards life and is very hypocritical. This is how Wilde viewed religious leaders in real life. Wilde uses the character Lady Bracknell to satirize and represent all rich upper class women. She has a domineering personality, is outright snobbish, and is clearly motivated by money. These traits can be seen when she is interviewing Jack to determine if he is eligible to marry Gwendolen. She develops a self righteous temperament and claims that Jack is ineligible to marry do to his family background even though he has money. Out of all things to disqualify Jack as an ineligible bachelor, she chooses something he has no control over. When it comes to Cecily’s eligibility to marry Algy, she is immediately very accepting because Cecily comes from a decent background and will have a large dowry. Through Lady Bracknell’s obsession for money, Wilde is able to mock the upper class’s ridiculous need for materialistic possessions. Wilde tends to satirize the whole idea of money, righteousness, and social class, not to discuss what is moral but to show the absurdity of the whole ideal.
Wilde creates situational irony throughout the novel to highlight the facile relationships created within upper class society. At the end of the play, both Cecily and Algy, as well as Jack and Gwendolen, become engaged. All of the characters’s problems seem to immediately disappear and everyone appears to have a happy ending; however, in real life this does not happen. Wilde creates this ending to show the shallowness and superficial relationships that were formed during the Victorian Era. Another example of this is when Jack discovers his Christian name is actually Ernest. All throughout the play, he pretends that his real name is Ernest, however he never truly believes that it is. Once his actual name is discovered, Gwendolen exclaims, “Ernest! My own Ernest! I felt from the first that you could have no other name!” (Wilde 93). After that, she immediately forgives him and agrees to marriage. Gwendolen’s love for Jack is only on a superficial level. She admires the aesthetic of loving the name Ernest, but she does not actually love Jack for his personality or qualities. As Jack proves throughout the play, he does not uphold his Christian name because he is not an honest or earnest man. This further propels the idea that the relationships formed throughout the play are trivial and are not based off of any real emotions. Wilde utilizes situation irony to make fun of the Victorian relationships and values formed.
As well as situational irony, Wilde constructs dramatic irony to comment on the absurdity of Victorian relationships and to help highlight the satire throughout the play. The most obvious form of this is Algernon and Jack’s false personas they create to aid them in their lies and excuses. Algy often uses “bunburying” as a way to escape from the city and to visit the country side. Jack goes by Ernest in the city, but in the country side he is known as Jack. Both men have constructed imaginary characters that they claim to be visiting whenever they leave their family members and friends. Jack and Algernon are extremely deceitful, and the majority of their bonds formed with other characters are based off of lies. Even after the rest of the characters discover Jack and Algy’s deception, they instantly forgive them and continue to maintain relations with them. Wilde uses this to once again expose the ridiculous nature of a typical upper class Victorian. He believed that all friendships and marriages that were formed were only created from social ranking and not from any real attributes. Another situation emphasizing this ideal is when Gwendolen and Cecily fight over who is actually engaged to Ernest. It is ironic because the audience knows that neither of the girls are actually engaged to a man named Ernest. This goes back to the idea that both women are only interested in the men because their names are Ernest. Cecily even claims in act three that if Ernest’s, aka Algy, real name was Algernon she would not be able to love him. She says, “I might respect you, Ernest, I might admire your character, but I fear I should not be able to give you my undivided attention” (Wilde 62). Their love is not formed for the men themselves but instead for the name. Wilde creates these ludicrous relationships and scenarios to represent the relationships he saw formed in upper class society.
Oscar Wilde employed literary devices such as epigrams, situational and dramatic irony, satire, and puns to create a comic play, that mocks the upper class of Victorian communities. Although the typical high society Victorian did often hold hypocritical morals as well as superficial relationships, Wilde specifically chooses to satirize marriage and relationships since he experienced prejudiced in that area first hand. After he was caught cheating on his wife with another man and was thrown into jail, his perceptions on marriage and wedding laws took a scornful view. From that point on, Wilde held a sadistic view on all upper class society writing works of literature to mock and expose the hypocritical morals and relationships of the Victorian era.
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