What is Wilde saying about the importance of reputation in the Victorian society?What scenes in the play really show that Wilde is trying to emphasize the importance of repuation?

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

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In Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, the concept of reputation comes from different sources: Respectability of the family name, a fashionable social standing, and an ongoing source of financial income.

One of the scenes in which this is more evident is during Lady Bracknell's interview with Jack in Act I, where she questions everything about his life, from whether he smokes or not, to how much money he makes. When Jack is unable to provide the names of his parents, given that he is adopted, Lady Bracknell makes a huge deal about it,citing that she would not "marry off her daughter to a parcel" (since Jack was found inside of a handbag when he was a baby). So little does Lady Bracknell care about humanity, that she even demands that Jack "produces a father and a mother (a family name, which is what she means), "before the end of the London season." Therefore, it is more important to have a family name in place than your parents alive. 

The line is immaterial. 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, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that remind one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to? As for the particular locality in which the hand-bag was found, a cloak-room at a railway station might serve to conceal a social indiscretion–has probably, indeed, been used for that purpose before now–but it could hardly be regarded as an assured basis for a recognized position in good society.

With these callous and cold words Lady Bracknell completely disregards everything Jack has said and places tremendous importance on the need for a good name and status. Of course, this is just Wilde's way of insulting the Victorian mentality of always wanting to appear more than what you really are, but it is an effective characterization of a social class who is just as superficial as their intellect.


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