Please help me analyze the following quotation from The Importance of Being Earnest
Algernon: "My dear fellow, the way you flirt with Gwendolen is perfectly disgraceful. It is almost as bad as the way Gwendolen flirts with you."
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In Act I of The Importance of Being Earnest Algernon and Ernest (Jack) discuss the latter's interest in Algernon's cousin Gwendolen.
Jack explains to Algernon that he has true interests for Gwendolen, which Algernon merely scoffs at, saying that Gwendolen's mom, Lady Bracknell, would not approve. Lady Bracknell will not even approve of Jack's presence at tea because, since she will not approve a marriage, she cannot approve of flirtatious behavior between them.
... Who is coming to tea?
Oh! merely Aunt Augusta and Gwendolen.
How perfectly delightful!
Yes, that is all very well; but I am afraid Aunt Augusta won't quite approve of your being here.
May I ask why?
My dear fellow, the way you flirt with Gwendolen is perfectly disgraceful. It is almost as bad as the way Gwendolen flirts with you.
The historical context of the play is set during a time when a man's flirtation with a woman in public indicated an upcoming betrothal. It meant that the man intends to marry the woman. If no marriage was forthcoming, this would have hurt and dishonored the woman.
Social conventions required a dignified, quiet, and respectful courtship that ended in marriage. If Aunt Augusta could not approve of Jack's presence over cucumber sandwiches and tea, she would never approve of Gwendolyn accepting a proposal of marriage. This is why Algernon calls Jack's ways "disgraceful"; the flirtation is open, yet has no expectation of successfully culminating in marriage.
Similarly, for women to openly flirt with males is even more dangerous socially speaking. Women in Victorian England, no matter the social rank, would never take the initiative to openly flirt with a man. Flirtation required the expectation of a betrothal. Flirtation would otherwise be a major stain on her reputation. This is also why Algernon says that it is equally disgraceful to see Gwendolen flirt with Jack.
They are both seem to be committing social misconduct, although, the truth is that they both expect to have a successful betrothal. Yet Algernon knows Aunt Augusta's state of mind better than they do. Bear in mind, this exchange between Jack and Algernon is part of the humorous, ironical satire Wilde is presenting.
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