Discuss how Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest attempts to undermine Victorian social conventions. 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?
Oscar Wilde’s script for The Importance of Being Earnest was intended to satirize the Victorian social mores that dominated upper-scale England during the 19th Century. Individuals and families for whom the upper class was a right of birth tended to value class distinctions above other considerations, including fealty to the basic values more commonly associated with the Ten Commandments, for instance, the prohibition against coveting thy neighbor’s wife. As long as one’s mannerisms were consistent with expectations of the well-to-do, much that occurred behind closed doors was received with feigned disinterest. The consequence of this adherence to a certain level of social mannerisms was an inordinate degree of hypocrisy and, occasionally, idiocy. Wilde, in other words, was tilling very fertile soil in his depiction of upper scale English society. Indeed, the choice of the name “Ernest” was hardly accidental; “earnest” is defined as a serious and deep conviction, and the character Jack’s use of that word as an alias suggests his intention at manipulating and undermining the Victorian values that “Jack” would have to hold dear lest his position in society be deemed unworthy. Such is the confusion Jack’s game causes that, in one early exchange with his close friend Algeron, it becomes apparent that Jack’s deception has indeed run wide and deep:
Algeron: Besides, your name isn’t Jack at all; it is Ernest.
Jack: It isn’t Ernest; it’s Jack.
Algeron: You have always told me it was Ernest. I have introduced you to every one as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life.”
Jack’s rationale for adopting another identity is provided later during this conversation in Act I:
Jack: My dear Algy, I don’t know whether you will be able to understand my real motives. . .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 Ernest, who lives in the Albany, gets into the most dreadful scrapes.”
So, Jack assumes a separate identity so that he can more openly and completely enjoy life rather than suffer through the hypocrisies associated with the façade of respectability that permeated Victorian society. Perhaps no better example of the superficial nature of these social mannerisms in Wilde’s play is the conversation between Gwendolen and Cecily in Act II when the two women conceal their mutual antipathy under a thinly-veiled layer of Victorian mannerisms. In the following exchange, the two women fire gentle but direct barbs at each other, including over the question of whether proper people live in the country or in the city:
Cecily: I suppose that is why you live in town?
Gwendolen bits her lip, and beats her foot nervously with her parasol.
Gwendolen (looking around): Quite a well-kept garden this is, Miss Cardew.
Cecily: So glad you like it, Miss Fairfax.
Gwendolen: I had no idea there were any flowers in the country.
Cecily: Oh, flowers are as common here, Miss Fairfax, as people are in London.
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: May I offer you some tea, Miss Fairfax?
Gwendolen (with elaborate politeness): Thank you. (Aside) Detestable girl! But I require tea!
And so the conversation continues, with Gwendolen taking every opportunity to criticize Cecily through snide remarks lovingly delivered, as when, after Cecily offers her a choice of either cake or bread and butter. Gwendolen’s response leaves no doubt as to her feelings of cultural superiority:
Cecily (severely): Cake or bread and butter?
Gwendolen (in a bored manner): Bread and butter please. Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays.
With this protracted exchange between two women who detest each other, Wilde is illuminating the absurdity of Victorian social mores. By presenting the interactions between individuals from different families, all of whom represent the British aristocracy, in a confrontational setting, and by having as his protagonist a man who adopts multiple identities for the purpose of engaging in more unconventional behavior, Wilde is undermining the Victorian sensibilities that dominated British society. The Importance of Being Earnest is an end-to-end skewering of those sensibilities, and would presciently provide his greatest act of vengeance against those who would destroy his life because of his outward appearance and demeanor.