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The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde
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What is Algernon trying to say in The Importance of Being Earnest when he says, "Lane's views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem as a class to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility"?

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon blames the lower classes for his and his upper-class peers' lack of morality. People, then, usually believed that the upper class should set the good example for the lower classes, and Algernon's statement ironically makes exactly the opposite claim. He sees no "use" for the lower class if they cannot provide a model of moral responsibility, forgetting all the work they do. It's an absurd claim that shows how entitled he is.

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The typical belief during this era was that upper-class morals and propriety would trickle down to the middle and lower class, there the upper class could and should set the example for their social inferiors to follow. As such, when Algernon claims in these lines that the "lower orders" ought to set the good example for the upper class, he is making a claim that is precisely the opposite of the common wisdom of the age. The lower class has not had the benefit of education or upbringing like the upper class has, so they would not be expected to adopt a higher moral tone than their social superiors. This is an example of both situational and dramatic irony: Victorians would not expect a member of the upper class to look to a member of the lower class for tips on social propriety or moral responsibility; exactly the reverse would be true.

Further, although Wilde and the audience are certainly aware of this, Algernon seems to live in a blissful upper-class ignorance, blaming the lower class, and their faulty example, for his own lack of morals. Moreover, when he asks, "what on earth is the use of them?" he seems to be conveniently forgetting that it is the lower classes who likely produce his clothes, grow his food, and even wait on him in his own home. They have plenty of use. Now he expects them to be an exemplar of morality as well? It's absolutely absurd, which, given the play, makes perfect sense. Wilde seems determined to point out how absolutely absurd the upper class is through examples such as these.

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Although the character of Algernon is being quite serious here, this is an example of dramatic irony in which Oscar Wilde is commenting on how the upper classes in nineteenth-century England can be both fickle and nonsensical.

Through this comment, we can conclude that Algernon means that society should be able to depend on the salt-of-the-earth, hardworking people to be practical and dependable. If the upper classes can no longer be trusted for their virtue, what is their purpose at all?

We also see that although Algernon is the one who poses the question "Is marriage so demoralising . . . ?" he also brushes off the personal experience that Lane supplies in answer, telling him, "I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane."

This comedic effect (at the expense of the upper classes) for the audience occurs right in the opening scene, setting the tone for both Algernon's character and the play itself.

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The excerpt you mention in your query is an ironic postscript to an exchange between Algernon and his understated butler, Lane, in the opening scene of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest.

The opening interaction between Algernon and his butler introduces Algernon as a comically arrogant, self-absorbed member of the wealthy elite. Algernon disparagingly mentions marriage, and his butler Lane replies:

I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have been married only once. That was a consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and the young person.

Algernon, with characteristic narcissism, dismisses Lane and then launches into a tirade about Lane and the lower classes. Algernon whines that Lane’s views of marriage are “somewhat lax,” which is humorously ironic because it was Algernon who had characterized the institution of marriage as “demoralizing” just seconds before. Algernon switches to complaining about the lower classes, stating that they “have absolutely no sense of responsibility” and whining that the poor should set a “good example.” This is, obviously, a comedic reversal of society’s expectations and shows Algernon’s absurd level of hypocrisy.

Interestingly, Lane and another butler, Merriman, are the only characters in the entire play who are from the lower classes; the remaining cast of characters are aristocratic. The absence of lower-class characters in the play allows Wilde to create a sort of narcissistic echo-chamber where the popular opinions of the elite are recycled for comedic effect.

Much of Oscar Wilde’s play is dedicated to pillorying the hypocrisy of upper-class England, and this excerpt from the opening scene serves to cast the British elite as comically self-righteous and self-absorbed.

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Lane is Algernon's self-depricating servant.  He serves as the eiron (character who thinks he is lower than he really is), a comic foil to Algernon's alazon (character who thinks he is better than he really is).

Verbal irony is key in Wilde.  So, Lane works by understatement and Algernon works by overstatement (hyperbole).  Witness the exchange before this:

ALGERNON: I don't know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane.

LANE. No, sir; it is not a very interesting subject. I never think of it myself. (understatement)

And so, after Lane leaves, Algernon delivers this mini-soliloquy/aside to the audience.  It's classic overstatement, a funny statement because we have a member of high society making a condescending remark about the lower classes, when all the while the audience knows that Algernon has very little moral responsibility himself.  He owe's money, changes his name, lies about his whereabouts.  Also, of course, it's an unmarried man giving an older happily married man advice about marriage.

Algernon is speaking for Wilde here.  The statement satirizes the elitist, self-styled, and arrogant nature of the British upper-class, many of whom would have been in the audience laughing at themselves.

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