The work under analysis is The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. I have chosen it, because I like his style, and his novel The Picture of Dorian Grey is one of my favorites. I think the principles of Victorian society can be still seen today and it will be interesting to analyze and compare them with contemporary values.
I was trying to find out what aspects of Victorian society Wilde satirized in the work. Since the writer is a real master of irony, it was not very difficult.
The understanding of the work has changed drastically, because I have realized that this comedy, in fact, has a profound underlying message. The analysis helped me understand the life, values and relationships of Victorian era and how they changed over time.
The hardest in the writing process was to reveal what the author meant by the title, and what in his understanding meant to be “earnest”. In order to understand the satire, one should know the historical, political and economic situation in Wilde’s time.
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The essay’s strength is in its authenticity and the author’s effort to immerse into the Victorian society and understand what stands behind people’s masks of snobs.
The essay’s weakness, on the other hand, is in its interference with the author’s subjectivism. Sometimes, it was hard to leave behind my own understanding of the play’s subjects and realize what the author wanted to say.
I would like the instructor to understand that despite the fact that people of the Victorian era and modern people have much in common, their outlooks still greatly differ. Therefore, despite all the efforts, it might be problematic to understand the author’s satire correctly and define what Wilde was trying to say.
Satire in the “Importance of Being Earnest”
In his most famous play The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde satirizes the social values, morality constraints and modes of conduct of the Victorian society. This period was marked by an outstanding snobbism in behavior and values, as well as exaggerated formality which is obvious in this comedy of manners. The author shows the absurd of the values and gets reader to understand the irony of the problems that are the results of socially accepted dogmas. If we have a closer look at the novel we will see author’s attitude towards the followings: nature of marriage, constraints of morality, hypocrisy versus inventiveness, education, mother’s influence, death, double life, food etc.
Since morality is often discussed by the characters, it becomes clear that the public opinion was of unparalleled importance to the people of the period. For this reason, Jack, the protagonist of the story, and his best friend Algernon invented the imaginative characters – Earnest and Bunbury. These people help them escape their social obligations and lead double life. Wilde explains the reason of having double personality: “When one is placed in the position of guardian, one has to adopt a very high moral tone on all subjects. It's one's duty to do so. And as a high moral tone can hardly be said to conduce very much to either one's health or one's happiness, in order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother of the name of Ernest” (Wilde 16). Therefore, when Jack wants to have some fun, he wears a mask of his wicked brother Earnest. In such a way, Wilde satirizes the society’s snobbism and their wish to be highly moral, despite the fact that they do not always want this. In my opinion, Wilde suggests that highly moral life that most people try to lead is often boring and puts too much pressure on a person. However the society stereotypes are so strong that hardly anyone dares to admit being imperfect. The principal object of Wilde’s satire is that the main characters all aspire to earnestness, but in fact they are neither serious nor sincere. Through all the play we can see the consequences of not being earnest. The fictitious characters serve as a reason to escape “a frustrating social routine, regulated by a repressive convention” (Otto, Satiric Strategy in the Importance of Being Earnest 17).
According to Wilde all Victorians, who want to have respect of others, lead double lives, one accepted by the society, other not, neither earnest. The notion of hypocrisy is well defined by Cecily when she first meets Algernon. In her imaginary world, she wants him to be honest and respectable, even though she had heard only bad things about him. She says “I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being good all the time. That would be hypocrisy” (Wilde 46). Wilde depicts Cecily as a very positive and beautiful character and “seems to regard as the most fundamentally moral those who not only freely admit to creating fictions for themselves but who actually take pride in doing so” (SparkNotes Editors, “SparkNote on The Importance of Being Earnest”).
Apart from morality, there is another obvious subject in the play – marriage. It is not only a favorite theme for conversations, but the main motive of the comedy, as well. In general, everyone is arguing whether marriage is a pleasant or unpleasant. When Lane describes a marriage as “a misunderstanding between myself and a young person” (Wilde 8), it raises a question for Algernon, who later concludes that once a marriage proposal is made and accepted, the excitement of being in love comes to an end. However, his attitude changes drastically when he meets Cecily.
From the beginning of the play we can clearly see that marriage is not only the result of love, but also a thoroughly thought business. According to the sources “during the Victorian period, marriage was about protecting your resources and keeping socially unacceptable impulses under control” (Shmoop Editorial Team, "The Importance of Being Earnest"). Wilde with irony presents the scene where Lady Bracknell is questioning Jack to find out whether he will be a legitimate husband for her only daughter. The emotions and the way the conversation is held are intentionally exaggerated to make it funnier for the audience. If the answers of the future groom are “what a really affectionate mother requires” (Wilde 27), his name will be written down on “the list of eligible young men” (Wilde 27). By the questions, we can see the most important values of Victorian society are social position and income. If one of the points was not satisfactory, a young man could not be considered as a potential groom. The author emphasizes that very often a young lady was married to someone, whom her parents had chosen. As it is stated in Lady Bracknell’s words: “an engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be” (Wilde 27).
Furthermore, Wilde makes Victorian mothers an object of satire, too. Lady Bracknell behaves in a very bossy way trying to gain control of the every aspect of her daughter’s life. She is convinced that a young lady should marry the man she chooses for her, and when Jack says he and Gwendolen are engaged, Lady Bracknell states very seriously, “But of course, you clearly understand that all communication between yourself and my daughter must cease immediately from this moment. On this point, as indeed all the points, I am firm” (89).As one can see from her last phrase, the concerned mother is absolutely certain that her ideas are not to be questioned by anyone. Clearly, here Wilde ridicules Victorian mother’s overprotection.
On one hand, one of Lady Bracknell’s main functions is to be an obstacle to Jack’s marriage with Gwendolen, but on the other hand, she is the one who has no illusions about the reality. She entirely believes in the dogmas of society and acts according to them. Using the character Lady Bracknell “Wilde manages to satirize the hypocrisy and stupidity of the British aristocracy” (SparkNotes Editors, “SparkNote on The Importance of Being Earnest”). According to Gwendolen’s words “few parents nowadays pay any regards to what their children say to them” (Wilde 37). She is talking about fast changing respect for the young, which is dying out. Mother’s overprotection resulted in denying her child right to think for herself, which is ridiculous and shows Lady Bracknell’s shallowness.
To sum up, Wilde’s play suggests that the Victorian society was obsessed by the desire to be “earnest”. Making his comedy full of irony and satire, he shows that their false earnestness is actually moralism and hypocrisy. However, if the behavior can be faked, feelings always stay genuine no matter what.