What are the problems of the Victorian society that are satirized through  The Importance of Being Ernest ?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The main issues satirized in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest are not as thoroughly examined as they comparatively are in other works such as "The Happy Prince," or The Picture of Dorian Gray. Yet, being that this is a trivial play, we can extrapolate some of the topics upon which Wilde touches in a comedic way.

  • Social structure- The characters of Lady Bracknell, Algernon, and Gwendolen represent the aristocratic upper crust. Jack, Cecily and the country folk represent the less-sophisticated society of England. Just because Bracknell is a "Lady", she believes that she is due an unnatural amount of respect. Equally, Gwendolen is quick to point out to Cecily that she is more wordly and cosmopolitan. The excessive self-importance that aristocrats give themselves does not deny the fact that Algernon is always broke and does not pay bills, that Gwendolen is shallow, and that Lady Bracknell married for money.
  • The Victorian Marriage- “An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be". With these words, Lady Bracknell basically explains how marriage is a business transaction that she, herself, went through in her youth. Lane, Algernon's valet is unhappy in his marriage. Algernon calls it "demoralizing". Cecily and Gwendolen only consider it based on the first name of the groom. Marriage, its values, and what it is meant to represent is treated as a foolish and ambitious process.
  • False morality- "Ernest in the city and Jack in the country", "Bunburying", and Miss Prism's concealed past have all one thing in common: they are preceded by a fake sense of virtuosity and morality. Ernest is not who he says he is because his job is to go to the city to cause havoc. When in the country, he is the fatherly "Uncle Jack", the impeccably moral guardian of Cecily. Algernon fakes kindness to Lady Bracknell while carelessly insulting her behind her back and hiding from her when she needs him. In comes the invalid friend, Bunbury who continuously "shilly shallies" with death. Finally, there is Miss Prism's near puritanical righteousness hiding a past that includes writing novels and eloping while accidentally leaving the child whom she was in charge of abandoned in a handbag.
  • Appareances- While Lady Bracknell intends to marry her daughter well, she is actually interested in securing a fortune for her. Algernon lives like a dandy but is consistently followed by creditors and he does not pay. Miss Prism, as a governess feels the need to look virtuous while speaking quite cruelly about other people's bad habits. Jack merely appears to be a good man but he secretly yearns those nights in London when he parties with Algernon, runs enormous dining bills, and runs back to the country. Double lives are rampant in the play.

These are the major themes satirized in the play. Some additional sub-topics may be considered but these are definitely the most salient ones.

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The Importance of Being Earnest

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