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The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde

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In The Importance of Being Earnest, socialism and the manner in which ungenerous and unimaginative judgment and stricture destroy and demean the individual in his/her spiritual self-realization contribute to social discord and misery.  How can I explain Wilde’s concept of individualism and discuss the manner in which he attempts to advance the cause of individualism?

Wilde is not anti-socialist, but rather pro-socialist. His characters trapped in their social roles would be better served under socialism than they are in late Victorian England. In the play, Lady Bracknell is used to being socially correct and proper, and her judgment of others is based on a code of conduct that she believes is appropriate for an upper class person to follow. Her daughters however, have no interest in this type of life and feel stifled by their mother's inability to understand them. Lady Bracknell does not know what to do with herself when she finds herself out of her element (the country) nor can she see why her friends will not go along with her wishes.

Expert Answers

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The way to approach this paper is to disagree with the premise that Wilde was anti-socialist and supported unbridled individualism. Wilde's essay, "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" strongly advocates socialism, and many of Wilde's plays show how greed, social stratification, and unfair laws concerning marriage and women's rights undermine the human spirit. 

Although "The Importance of Being Earnest" has less in the way of overt social critique than some of Wilde's other works, it does show how the capitalist social structure of late Victorian Britain trapped people in social and gender roles for which they were really not suited.

Lady Bracknell, with her strong, decisive character, and liking for managing people, in a less constrained society, could have been a politician or captain of industry, instead of being confined to the trivial task of trying to manage her family and social circle. Similarly, the two young couples seem destined for a life similar to that of Lady Bracknell, of unproductive leisure, determined by a class system in which productive work was considered crass and socially unacceptable for the upper classes. Finally, Lane the butler, who seems far more knowledgeable and intelligent than his employer, would, according to Wilde, under socialism be able to use his talents more productively than in domestic service. 

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