How does the work that literature does change over the course of the ages? Consider George Etherege's The Man of Mode, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. How do these works exemplify that change?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Man of Mode, Pride and Prejudice, and The Importance of Being Earnest all fall under the genre of comedy of manners, a genre whose focus is the foibles of society, which are mirrored by the people portrayed in the works. Each of these works satirizes society, so the work that they do involves eliciting laughter. Juvenalian, or biting satire—such as Etheredge uses—is intended to mock hypocrisy and ridicule members of society. Harriet seems to be the only figure in The Man of Mode who does not fall into routine hypocrisy. Dorimant, perhaps modeled after John Wilmont, Earl of Rochester, represents the most scandalous of Restoration rakes, using others to satisfy his pleasure. The surface wit and daring offer ephemeral delight but no substance. The play may "hold the mirror up to nature," to quote Hamlet, but this play, like so many of the Restoration era, also offers courtly delight with a dark underside. This is especially evident in characters such as Dorimant. The play ends in a sense of hilarity, but not exactly joy, and perhaps the audience is meant to revel in a certain smugness due to the dramatic irony.

Jane Austen offers plenty of satire as well, with a mix of Juvenalian and Horatian satire. Horace suggested satire should be curative, allowing others to learn from their mistaken judgment. Certainly, Pride and Prejudice offers a gentle satire on Elizabeth and a few other characters of whom the author seems fond. Harsher critique is levied at characters such as Wickham, Lydia, Mr. Collins, Caroline Bingley, and Lady Catherine. Austen's novel encourages, then, a gentle admonition of intellectual errors such as pride and prejudice when their intention is not to harm anyone. It also sanctions harsher judgment of those who use their power—deserved or not—in selfish ways that prove harmful to others. Austen also seems to critique broad patterns of social practice, such as limitations on women in social realms, the influence of money on decisions relating to happiness, and the class structure that constrains even those individuals whose effort at self-improvement amends their natural state. The novel seems to achieve its purpose when the reader realizes his or her own tendency toward pre-judging characters (especially Darcy) and toward placing pride in false qualities. Volume 3 requires readers, in the same manner Elizabeth does, to take stock of prior assumptions and the prejudices on which they were based. In doing so, the novel offers a corrective that generally rewards the reader with a pleasing comic catharsis.

Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, far more genial than some of his others, indulges foibles without seeming to enforce any significant thought or change among audience members. While one might find in this play elements that seem familiar from Restoration comedy—mistaken identity, chicanery, indulgence in seeming vice—very little seems to be at stake here, whether implied or enacted. Certainly, the upper class, social Darwinism, and Victorian social customs are lampooned, but not with any great seriousness of purpose. The play is essentially a romantic comedy depending on mistaken identity. Satire here tends toward the lightest of touches, and the play seems to succeed in its purpose when it elicits shared laughter.

The work of literature, very broadly speaking and based on only these three titles, may be said to move from caustic scolding to bemused mockery to gentle indulgence of caricatured social stereotypes. The audience or reader of these texts engages in a series of differentiations among social roles. By the time one reaches Wilde, however, confidence in the ability of a work of literature to "correct" behavior seems less potent, and the impulse to indulge in sentimental romanticism stronger.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team