Discuss whether The Importance of Being Earnest could be read as a document of historical or social value. 

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is, of course, a work of fiction. However, Oscar Wilde is notorious for mocking the most ridiculous aspects of Victorian society, which were indeed as ridiculous as they were real.

One thing that is unique to Oscar's criticism is the arrogance of the upper classes. Wilde lived in a time in history where a lot of social changes were taking place. The middle classes were beginning to earn more money due to the guilds of businesses that were growing along with Industrialism. This left an upper class of aristocrats losing their inherited wealth and spending the little that some had left on the businesses and industries that were owned by the middle classes.

Far from humbling the aristocrats, seeing the middle classes raise financially made them even more stuck up and pretentious, making some of them live above their means. We see this tendency in Algernon, who lives fashionably but never pays his debtors.

Additionally, the upper classes and the newly-formed upper-middle classes would use charity and church as a way to flaunt their fortune, rather than for the sake of helping others. This, we see in the character of Lady Bracknell, who apparently moves this way in the aristocractic circles. However, she does it for the non-altruistic motif of finding a richer and more fashionable husband for her daughter, Gwendolen.

Wilde's literature takes note of these aspects of history and society and use them as part of a formula to create comedy. Mocking the mannerisms and ideals of the hypocritical aristocrats, mocking the institution of marriage as a socially-binding project, and mocking the lifestyles of the so-called fashionable can definitely serve as a mirror into the past; a time and a place where holier than thou was the way to be.

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The Importance of Being Earnest

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