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First staged in 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest is Oscar Wilde's most successful play. Out of a total of four comedies of manners staged within a period of 3 years, Ernest stands out of the rest in terms of dialogue, particularly in the many epigrams and paradoxes contained in it. Algernon Moncrief is one of the most active voices in the play, speaking out against the so-called Victorian virtues, thus serving as Wilde's mouthpiece.
Let's look at the historical context of the play to best understand the purpose of Algernon as a mouthpiece. Wilde's London was quite divided at the time that Wilde became popular...and notorious. While Wilde was a chum of the upper and aristocratic classes, precisely because of his eccentric behavior and unique views of life, the middle-class Victorians classified him as immoral, "dangerous" (due to his underlying homosexuality), and wanted to make of him a social pariah, succeeding at the end by bringing Wilde to justice for acts of "gross indecency". Since Wilde would come under attack for his views, why not use Algernon to speak on his behalf, as an aristocrat looking down on the middle-class prudes?
The best examples of Wilde's speaking through Algy against Victorian middle-class society come in the conversations between Algernon and his valet. Lane, a middle-class man, must have undergone every prudish rite of his class. Algy, as an upperclassman, will do his best to look down upon everything that resembles middle-class honor, or integrity.
ALGERNON: Why is it that at a bachelor's establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne? I ask merely for information.
LANE: I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.
ALGERNON: Good Heavens! Is marriage so demoralizing as that?
Marriage as an institution was one of the major events in Victorian life. A marriage symbolized then the virtuous communion of man and wife under the mandates of the Bible. For Algernon to call it "demoralizing" is to take away the virtue from it. This is precisely what Wilde wanted; to, colloquially speaking, "shove" the idea of marriage and social virtue back to the middle classes.
This previous example is a clear jab at the institution of marriage; notice the implications of Algy's words: a) nobody who is "somebody" cares about it, b) it is not pleasant, c) comes as a result of misunderstandings, and, in not so many words, d) it is a ridiculous thing to do. To add further insult, notice how Algy speaks in disgust against husbands and wives.
Wilde speaks against other values as well through Algernon. Everything that Algy embraces are things that Wilde embraces himself, clearly going against the ideals of a moderate, "proper" lifestyle. Some of these things include:
- the abuse of alcohol and food
- escaping family duties
- openly lying without remorse for the sake of getting what you want.
- not feeling guilty at having "your relatives abused".
Therefore, although we could write hundreds of pages stating instances where Algy serves as Wilde's mouthpiece, it is best to focus on Algy's attacks at the institution of marriage, and at the idea of the Victorian family unit. Undoubtedly, they do represent Wilde's own views on the matter, and he cleverly hides behind Algy. After all, Algy's charm and demeanor is so humorous and clever that even the middle classes may have laughed quite hard at themselves.
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