Illustration of Jack Worthing in a top hat and formal attire, and a concerned expression on his face

The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde
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How does Gwendolen show triviality and Victorian sentiment in The Importance of Being Earnest?  

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The Importance of Being Earnest is subtitled "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People," and all the characters frequently show signs of triviality. However, they often do this by parodying Victorian earnestness, as Gwendolen does upon her first appearance. Having been told that she is quite perfect, she primly replies:

Oh! I hope I am not that. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions.

Wilde's characters are so self-conscious in their performances that they always seem to be a moment away from breaking the fourth wall. Just as Gwendolen performs the part of the accomplished young lady, so she seems almost aware of having an audience when she assumes the role of romantic heroine. Her declaration of eternal devotion to Jack is an intricate mixture of real triviality and pretended earnestness:

Ernest, we may never be married. From the expression on mamma’s face I fear we never shall. Few parents nowadays pay any regard to what their children say to them. The old-fashioned respect for the young is fast dying out. Whatever influence I ever had over mamma, I lost at the age of three. But although she may prevent us from becoming man and wife, and I may marry some one else, and marry often, nothing that she can possibly do can alter my eternal devotion to you.

In this passage, Gwendolen's triviality is shown by the inversion that is the hallmark of Wilde's technique. The old, she complains, have no respect for the young. Then there is the ludicrous touch of precision in pinpointing the exact moment in early childhood when she lost her influence over Lady Bracknell. Finally, there is the expectation that she will "marry often." Beside these instances of triviality are Gwendolen's melodramatic protestations that she will never love anyone else. These might have been seriously intended in the work of a more sentimental playwright, but Wilde satirizes the earnestness of the conventional romantic heroine by placing her declarations alongside other comments that are obviously intended to be flippant and trivial.

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