Discuss how Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest attempts to undermine Victorian social conventions.
Play close attention to the use of wordplay, paradox, and satire as you are reading the play. Your response should clearly outline a Victorian social convention and provide several examples from the text of how Wilde undermines the convention in his play. (Be sure to explain how these examples work to undermine the convention.What observations did you think were particularly profound? What insights surprised you? Do you have anything to add?)
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Although Oscar Wilde in his Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray concluded that "All art is useless," his comedy of manners, The Importance of Being Earnest, with its farcical devices effectively exposes the shallowness and insincerity of the English aristocracy in the late nineteenth century as well as the flaws in Utilitarianism embraced in this era. Through the use of wordplay and style over substance, earnestness over true feeling, Wilde lays bare the triviality and pretentiousness of high society.
Here are some of the Victorian social conventions that Wilde undermines.
- The morality of society
In Act I, the upper class Algernon remarks that Lane's views on marriage are "somewhat lax"; further, he comments that if the
ALGERNON...lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.
Of course, the irony is that the servant Lane has actually been married, and he tells Algernon that it is "a very pleasant state...." Moreover, it is the responsibility in Victorian society for the ruling class to set standards of moral conduct, not the lower classes. Algernon and Jack fail to see that unbridled self-interest is incompatible with reason and morality. In Act I, Algernon criticizes Jack for the same conduct that he exhibits. He asks Jack, "Why are you Ernest in town and Jack in the country?" and Jack replies that if one is a guardian, he must adopt a "very high moral tone on all subjects" as it is "one's duty." However, he adds,
JACK 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....
So inverted are the young gentlemen's ideas on love and matrimony that they comment that women "who flirt with their own husbands [are] perfectly scandalous."
The farcical end to the young men's deceptions and Jack's pretenses at being a man named "Ernest" is that, in fact, Jack is discovered to be the lost brother of Algernon, named Ernest. As he embraces his former absent-minded governess who put him as an infant into a bag meant for a manuscript and took the bag to Victoria Station where Jack/Ernest was later adopted, Lady Bracknell criticizes him for being trivial; however, he replies in double entendre [Ernest is his name and he can now marry Gwendolen/ He realizes he should be sincere in his behavior. Earnestness is the Victorian mindset]:
"On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I've now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Ernest."
John Stewart Mill promulgated the concept of the rightness of actions that followed the precept of the greater good. That is, if people in general are benefited from something, the suffering of a few people is allowed because it serves progress and advancement. Such thinkers were also called "earnest" men. But, Jack's and Algernons lives as "dandies," their lack of professions, and their general purposeless behavior contribute to the critique of the "earnest" nature of Utilitariian activities that at times were frivolous. In Act 2, for instance, Cecily and Gwendolyn converse in a reference to the "earnestness of reform" in agriculture that has left many homeless and forced to come to the cities and factories because of industrialization and because of adverse economic conditions for some farmers who had their wheat fields converted to pastures for cattle:
GWENDOLEN Personally, I cannot understand how anybody manages to exist in the country, if anybody who is anybody does. The country always bores me to death.
CECILY Ah! This is what the newspapers call agricultural depression, is it not? I believe the aristocracy are suffering very much from it just at present.
- The frivolousness of the upper class
Just after Cecily speaks of the suffering of the aristocracy, she asks Gwendolyn if she cares for any sugar in her tea.
GWENDOLYN No, thank you. Sugar is not fashionable any more.
When she discovers that on her plate there is cake rather than bread and butter, Gwendolyn becomes angry:
GWENDOLYN You have filled my tea with lumps of sugar, and though asked most distinctly for bread and butter, You have given me cake....I warn you, Miss Cardew, you may go too far.
- Prudish Victorians
The figure of Dr. Chausible, a religious fanatic, and Miss Prism are objects of Wilde's satire. Miss Prism is fond of reciting from Galatians 6:7 whether it is relevant or not: "As a man sows so shall he reap" whether it is relevant or not. Also, she has written a novel in which "The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily." Here Wilde satirizes the erotic works that Victoria women secretly read. And, although Dr. Chausible is a tightly religious man, he finds the suggestive Miss Prism attractive; this characterization satirizes the religious fanaticism that is suspect as well as obtuseness in situations as he inanely comments during others' conversations. For example, in Act 2, when he speaks to Jack about his baptism, Dr. Chausible asks him if he would like to be sprinkled or immersed,
CHAUSIBLE Sprinkling is all that is necessary, or indeed I think advisable. Our weather is so changeable. At what hour would you wish the ceremony performed?
JACK Oh, I might trot round about five if that would suit you.
Certainly, in his farce, Oscar Wilde uses much satire and wit; moreover, he creates a great pun between a person being named Earnest and a person being earnest, the Victorian mindset.
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