The Institution of Marriage in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” and Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles”

July 15, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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