How does the following line from Lady Bracknell contribute to the humour of the scene in The Importance of Being Earnest? 'Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon. Only people who can’t...
How does the following line from Lady Bracknell contribute to the humour of the scene in The Importance of Being Earnest?
'Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that.'
Much of the humor in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is created by ironic and/or epigrammatic expressions. Verbal irony is a type of irony that occurs at the sentence level: the speaker says something but means the opposite. An epigram or epigrammatic expression is a short, witty statement that is phrased like it is a truth (or an axiom) but is often ironic.
In Earnest, Wilde's characters value style or substance and often speak in paradoxes or riddles that create humor but may also reveal that the characters are superficial. Lady Bracknell is one such character who is extremely shallow and snobbish. The line spoken in act 3—"Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that."—highlights Lady Bracknell's snobbery; however, the statement is also ironic because Lady Bracknell herself earned her status through marriage. She really did not achieve status through any merit of her own, yet she plays gatekeeper for this "Society" that she now worships. Although there is irony in the statement, it also reveals Lady Bracknell's real priorities.
In this scene, she is asked to approve a marriage between her nephew Algernon and Jack's ward Cecily Cardew. At first, Lady Bracknell is unimpressed, but she quickly changes her mind once hearing about Cecily's sizable inheritance. Suddenly, "there are distinct social possibilities in [Cecily's] profile." This is what makes Algernon reply that he doesn't care about social possibilities, and his aunt to respond by saying that "only people who can't get into" society talk negatively about it. Algernon, as well as others who are part of the British upper class, was born into "Society," so there really is no question of his getting into (or out of) it.
Finally, those who "can't get into" Society are members of the middle or lower classes, who, based on their outside perspective, may be best equipped to critique its flaws. As we have seen throughout the play, which is a satire of the upper class's mannerisms and values, there is plenty to criticize about the upper class. Lady Bracknell's lack of self-awareness and snobbery create humor in this scene.
This scene of The Importance of Being Earnest happens in Act III, after Lady Bracknell has a sudden change of mind when Jack "casually" points out that the net worth of Cecily, whom Lady Bracknell had shut minutes before.
Knowing the amount of money that Cecily owns,
A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds!
Lady Bracknell suddenly finds positive traits in Cecily, and even concedes that Cecily may have a much better potential in society than she had previously told her.
This is the moment when Algernon may have possibly said the first authentic comment regarding his feelings for another human being:
Cecily is the sweetest, dearest, prettiest girl in the whole world. And I don't care twopence about social possibilities.
Notice that Wilde could have used that comment to expand upon the potential good qualities of Algernon; he could have even made this into a truly romantic moment. Yet, true to his commitment to triviality, Wilde interrupts this solemn moment with Lady Bracknell's snobbiest comment made in the play:
Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that!
The connection to Jack Worthing, and particularly to Cecily Cardew's money, has solidified Lady Bracknell's self-importance as far as being a member of the high society.
Hence, asking Algernon to not speak disrespectfully of society is basically saying that those who are less fortunate speak ill of fortunate people out of envy. Since they are not officially very much part of the high society in terms of rank AND money, she has the right to say as much. It is in the way that Wilde juxtaposes her comment in relation with Algernon's first sign of sincerity what brings the humor out of all this.
This line highlights the satirical humor and shallow nature of society. Lady Bracknell admits later in the scene that she had no money when she wed Lord Bracknell. She was from a lower class, a social climber. As well, Cecily has more money than Algernon. Lady Bracknell wants nothing to do with Cecily until she finds out about her money. At that point, she decides that Cecily has a profile with social possibilities. This illustrates how little upper class society expects of a person to be accepted.
In the original text when Lady Bracknell says, "Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that" (Act III, lines 188-189), note that Society is capitalized. Lady Bracknell personifies Society as if it has a mind of its own. And, indeed, Wilde uses her to satirize everything that is wrong with the Victorian upper class. She is not upper class at all, yet she wields her power throughout the play and has "gotten into" society simply through marriage.