Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest focuses on surfaces to reveal the problems and hypocrisy of society. The audience is meant to see what the characters do not see. What does the play keep at the surface, and what is the audience is supposed to take away from the commentary about surfaces, in one passage from the play?
One instance of hypocrisy and shallowness in The Importance of Being Earnest is actually one of the first events. In act 1, when Jack (as Ernest) proposes to Gwendolen, their entire exchange is focused on a shallow, surface issue: a name. Jack is only pretending to be named Ernest, and Gwendolen is smitten with the name more than the man. On the surface of this exchange, the only issue that seems to be creating conflict is the simple issue of a name.
Gwendolen actually alludes to the shallowness herself. She states that they live in "an age of ideals" and that her ideal is to "love someone of the name of Ernest." However, her statement about ideals is not meant to be a critique of contemporary life, more a statement with which she has no issue. She even makes a decision as significant as a life partner on basis of one of those ideals, one so shallow that it brought her to accept a proposal on basis of his name. Within the realm of the play, that is the extent of the exchange. However, the audience is able to understand the critiques of society embedded within that exchange. It is the height of silliness to choose a husband based on his name, and while the characters of the play don't seem to find issue with it, the audience is fully aware of the exceedingly arbitrary nature of that reasoning.
This is actually much deeper than it seems at first glance. The shallowness of the entire situation is a pointed jab at the shallowness of society as a whole. It is exaggerated, certainly, but that exaggeration is there to highlight a real issue in the contemporary society. While people may not have literally chosen a spouse based on a name, equally shallow exchanges did occur in Victorian society. For example, many people chose spouses based not on names but on titles, as members of the nobility. So, not only does it point at the shallowness of society, it also reveals the hypocrisy of that same society. While Victorian audience members may have laughed at the situation, they also had to understand that their own society was just as arbitrary as the one portrayed in the play. They would accept or reject a person for reasons as shallow as appearances or titles. The play was ridiculous, but only as ridiculous as the society that it was based on.
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