How does Algernon treat Lane in Act One of The Importance of Being Earnest? How does this reveal the class discrepancies of the time period?

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sangelis84 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Lane is Algernon's butler. His primary role in The Importance of Being Earnest is to protect and support Algernon, who undertakes comic escapades that entail a great deal of risk. His role is much like the role P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves plays to Bertie Wooster.

The relationship between the two men in the context of class is complicated. Algernon, who is wealthy and upper-class, blusters, fumbles, and is often incompetent in pulling off his own schemes. Lane, who is poorer and of a lower class, is by contrast intelligent and capable. Nonetheless, Lane uses his own talents to help Algernon rather than advance personally. While Lane's demeanor and intelligence suggest that he has control in many situations, his obligations to Algernon as his employee complicate the extent to which this is actually true. 

Consider, for instance, the opening of the scene: 

Algernon: Did you hear what I was playing, Lane? 

Lane: I didn't think it polite to listen, sir. 

In his response, Lane lodges an objection to Algernon's performance (which may have been unskilled) with a response that cloaks irony with rectitude—a complicated mix of assertion and deferral. 

As the scene plays on, this dynamic continues. Algernon is grateful to Lane, and expresses his gratitude for helping him escape the ire of his aunt when he eats her cucumber sandwiches. While this gratitude makes Algernon indebted to his butler, he also retains control over Lane as his employer.