In The Importance of Being Earnest, how does Oscar Wilde portray food both as a weapon and means of demonstrating one's power?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Oscar Wilde, a well-known gourmand himself, said once

The man who can dominate a London dinner-table can dominate the world.

These words greatly apply to The Importance of Being Earnest, and the character of Algernon attests to that much. This is because Algy not only uses food as a substitute for his obvious hunger for life, money, and adventure, but also as his conduit for enforcing his power over others. Although Wilde does not directly employ food as a theme of dominance, it is in its subtle use that the reader can discover its clever treatment.

Food is used as a way to demonstrate power in several occasions. First, in Act I, Algernon eats the cucumber sandwiches that he orders for his aunt, Lady Bracknell, prior to her arrival. Similarly, he invites Jack (Earnest) to partake from the bread and butter that would be have been offered to his cousin Gwendolen. This action from Algy foreshadows his nature: he is careless, selfish, and quite proud of it. It equally shows that Jack (Earnest) is really no different.

Lady Bracknell also uses food for social dominance.  Her main social duty consists on planning dinners where she can show off her "tastes" for music and arts. In reality, these dinners are typical upper class Victorian gatherings used by well-to-do ladies to find husbands for their daughters. Here, too, food means power.

Similarly, the famous "tea showdown" scene between Gwendolen and Cecily in Act III shows food as a social identifier of power. This is evident when, as country girl Cecily kindly offers city girl Gwendolen cake and sugar at tea, the latter shuns the offer saying that these items are "seldom seen" in fashionable homes. Cecily's dumping lumps of sugar on Gwendolen's tea and then serving her a huge slice of cake is the ultimate declaration of war between the two women.

Food also seems to be an important issue for Jack's alter ego, Earnest, who presumably goes all over London running up huge restaurant bills that he, although able to, is not willing to pay. This is an indication of how food is used as a power tool that helps to differentiate one person's standing from the other. It also shows how Jack's alter ego of Earnest loves to be bad and disruptive.

One final use of food occurs towards the middle of Act III, after the "tea showdown scene" between the women. When they find out that neither Algernon or Jack are the "Earnest" that they are both engaged to marry, the girls quickly enter back into the manor in hopes of being dramatically followed by the men who lied to them.

Instead, Algeron and Jack stay behind eating the food that Cecily had first laid out for her tea. In Algernon's own words, his reason is quite simple:

When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me... I refuse everything except food and drink. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy. Besides, I am particularly fond of muffins

Therefore, food is a tool of power in several instances: it allows Earnest to "be bad" by his superb consumption of it and his defiance to not pay it. It allows Algernon to offer it and then take it away at will, denoting his inherent selfishness. It identifies social class between Gwendolen and Cecily, and it also serves as a social medium to network among the upper classes such as in the case of Lady Bracknell. Moreover, food is the ultimate pleasure because it is available at all times. Algernon surely seems to enjoy it and Jack, as his equal, is no different either.

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The Importance of Being Earnest

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