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Could you help me pick apart the hypocrisy of Lady Bracknell's condemnation of...

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thelyphron | eNoter

Posted May 16, 2013 at 11:28 AM via web

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Could you help me pick apart the hypocrisy of Lady Bracknell's condemnation of mercenary marriages inThe Importance of Being Earnest? [Act III]

There is of course the fact that the only reason she hasn't departed for the train station is Cecily's fortune. But could I go as far as saying Lady B's own marriage was mercenary?

Dear child, of course you know that Algernon has nothing but his debts to depend upon. But I do not approve of mercenary marriages. When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way. Well, I suppose I must give my consent.

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Michelle Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted May 16, 2013 at 4:33 PM (Answer #1)

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This is an excellent question considering the words spoken by Lady Bracknell:

When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind

Victorian England was an especially interesting time period for marriage due to the impending growth of the middle classes, and due to the financial solidity of England, as a nation. As a result, people would want to move up the social ladder by networking with peers of the same class, or higher.

A typical marriage was a financial arrangement that came complete with a dowry, a financial plan of some sort, and the surety that the groom will be able to maintain or improve the lifestyle that the bride is accustomed to live. This is all under the premise that the bride comes from the genteel or upper classes (Miles, Vincent, 1993)

This being said, there is an issue with Lady Bracknell's words because men of the upper-classes, especially titled men- would have never thought to marry a woman beneath their own class unless the the bride is an aristocrat with no money. This is possible since the growth of the middle classes resulted in the tendency of aristocrats to spend their inheritances dry to appear even more distinguished and rich than they were. This was done in aims to try to catch up with the middle classes which were suddenly surpassing the aristocrats in wealth (Gunn, Bell, 2003).

All this considered, Lady Bracknell could have only married an aristocrat, even when she has no money, under the following possibilities:

  1. Lord Bracknell is a rogue aristocrat that challenged the social order and married for love.
  2. Lady Bracknell is a social climber whose duty was to enthrall aristocrats, serve as a mistress and then making them marry her.
  3. Lady Bracknell pried into the apparent much older age of Lord Bracknell, besotted him, and used his weaknesses to marry her.

According to Lady Bracknell's very own words:

When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way.

This means that the most applicable presumptions are 2 or 3. Lady Bracknell has just declared herself as a social climber who stops at nothing to get where she wants to be.

Moreover, in Act III, Lady Bracknell may have pointed out having deceived Lord Bracknell into marrying her, while letting out her true nature afterwards.

...I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other's character before marriage, which I think is never advisable

Surely we could read into it with a different point of view, but the fact remains that Lady Bracknell was a poor woman when she married, that a marriage beneath a man's means was not a norm in Victorian England, and that she wanted to move up socially and was not going to spare any chances to make it happen.

Under these circumstances, the condemnation of Lady Bracknell is nothing but hypocritical self-importance used to ensure her daughter a husband rich and titled like the one Lady Bracknell secured for herself. She was also NOT part of a mercenary marriage since she had nothing to give in return in the event of an engagement. It is all a combination of snobbery, ambition, deceit, and wise moves.

Sources:

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