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...

(The entire section contains 4 answers and 912 words.)

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