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.