The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

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Discuss  The Importance of Being Earnest as a critique of Victorian society.

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The Importance of Being Earnestis a criticism of the idiosyncrasies, mannerisms, belief systems, lifestyles, and social expectations. What makes it "criticism" is that Wilde points out in a mocking, exaggerated yet quite accurate manner the ways in which the polite Victorian fashionable society conducted itself. Their behavior was quite appalling. Between the snobbishness, the elitism, the hypocrisy, the holier than thou attitudes, the living above their means, in summary, their entire demeanor towards life was quite comical. Wilde was just able to bring it out with his witticism and awesome style.

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sonjabagby eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Wilde's play is a "comedy of manners." It exaggerates the reliance on the superficial of Victorian society--if we behave well, we ARE good people, no matter what lies underneath. Wilde struggled with living a lie, so several of the characters have something to hide. The denouement of the story reveals the lies or subterfuge, throwing the superficial into disarray and revealing in "earnest" who these people really are.

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cgerold | Student

Victorian writers lived in a time that Oscar Wilde called an “age of surfaces”. Surface appearance and the value associated with it were examined with scrutiny in the Victorian era—a time of strictly refined manners and social obligations. Wilde’s work suggests that such superficial values permeate society and lead to critical issues with Victorian marriage customs, the education system, and religious institutions. He employs farce to illustrate the ridiculousness of his society’s conventions.

This technique produces hilarious effect when Jack and Algernon seriously anger their fiancés, but are instead focused on the decorum of eating muffins during the circumstances. The appearance of buttery cuffs is more important than the fact that Algernon may have just lost the love of his life. Episodes like this suggest that Wilde saw his society as a place of skewed values that overemphasized trifles.

Lady Bracknell’s refusal of Jack jabs at the absurdity of social status trumping love when it comes to Victorian marriages. The ineptitude of Miss Prism and her frequent flirtations with Canon Chusable poke fun at the education system. Chusable’s admission that he tailors the same sermon to every situation rather than working on a new one discredits the church. He obviously has more than enough time to flirt with the local tutor, even though he is meant to be devout and celibate.

Because it has been allowed to permeate the whole society and is so deeply ingrained, the obsession with surfaces takes away from the happiness and healthiness of society as a whole. These critical issues with marriage, education, and religion and their roots in surface-obsession, touched every level of society and created the atmosphere of the era. Such misplaced notions easily added space to the gaps between the social classes that ended up leading to social violence and fractionalization within the country.

robyn-bird96 | Student

The Importance of Being Earnest is a critique on the morals of the British upper class, and it uses comedy to do so. For example, the usage of parody mocks the standards to which the upper class holds themselves.  The aristocracy believed in arranged marriages, unions between families to contain the wealth among the few.  Mothers sought out gentlemen of that specific upper class quality for their delicate daughters.  Wilde derides this practice, through the banter between Lady Bracknell, Gwendolyn's mother, and Jack Worthing, Gwendolyn's suitor.  Lady Bracknell asks a number of questions that she believes are vital for a good husband for her daughter: what is his income, how old is he, where does he live, what are his politics (Act I).  The most important question, however, is who is his family, because the family name is what is important in a lasting marriage among the upper class.  Wilde, however, parodies the situation, as Jack does not have a family (not a sign of misfortune, but of carelessness), but a bag (Act I). Found by the late Mr. Thomas Cardew on the Brighton Line, Jack came from a "somewhat large, black leather handbag, with handles on it," instead of having parents (Act I).  Lady Bracknell tells him to produce a parent, of either sex, because her delicate daughter will not "marry into a cloakroom, and form an alliance with a parcel" (Act I).   Through the parody, Wilde criticizes the process of finding suitable husbands, the parading and careful selection by mother hens for their young.  Cecily, Jack's ward, herself inadvertently mocks the institution of marriage, fancifully creating a fictional storyline based off of the novels of the period.  In her diary, she writes of her engagement to Ernest, after several breakups and her own purchase of a ring for him to give her, because that is expected in a romance (Act II).  Wilde, through Cecily's formulated engagement, critiques the triviality of the upper class, that instead of practicing German or learning about economics, the upper class squanders away their time dreaming.  During this time period, Great Britain was a manufacturing giant, extorting the labor of the poor factory workers. Although unmentioned in the play, the absurdity of Cecily's concoctions sharply contrasts the realities of the period.