how do I Analyze the use and function of social conventions in "The Importance of Being Earnest."

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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In the play The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde's primary goal is to break with the social conventions of Victorian society and expose them for what they really are: Trivial, superficial, and rife with double standards.

The social conventions that are mostly shown in the play are:  a) Marriage and family life,  b) courtship and relationships,  c) social ranking and class, d) traditions and expectations and, e) virtuosity and respectability.

In Victorian society these topics are heavy hitters and, in order to be considered someone worthy of social acceptance, all these conventions have to be met.

In the play we see how these conventions are only partially met due to the quirky and eccentric nature of the characters. While Lady Bracknell goes head-on trying to find a suitable husband for Gwendolen, she also cares nothing about Gwendolen's wishes. In the same line, Gwendolen breaks with every rule of courtship by openly leaving her home to visit Jack in the country, and by consistently testing her mother as far as being close to Jack during his visit.

Ever-present is the topic of rank and social standing. Lady Bracknell is specific in that Gwendolen should marry "well" and, even though Jack has enough money and properties, he still lacks the most important thing in Lady Bracknell's list: A respectable and fashionable family name.

Meanwhile, we see how Algernon lives the life of a dandy based on his social standing, rather than his finances. In a shallow society like the Victorian, money means nothing if it is not attached to rank. Hence, Algernon continues to eat and dress on credit and above his means while caring less about paying his debt.

Moreover, the ladies in the play show the same amount of triviality in terms of their hopes for a husband: Both base their entire future on a name: Ernest. That is all it takes to make Gwendolen and Cecily "fall in love".

In all, social conventions are corrupted in their entirety in the play by mocking them directly and exposing their silliness. If Wilde had taken any of them seriously then the play would have been far from a comedy of matters. It is simply his way of demonstrating his disapproval of the hypocrisy and ridiculous nature of it all.


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