What is the role of women in The Importance of Being Earnest, particularly the role of mothers and single women?
A fantastic representative of the comedy of manners, The Importance of Being Earnest provides the audience with a satiric glimpse into the everyday dynamics of the Victorian way of life.
The plot gears around the characters of Algernon and Jack: two bachelors who lead double lives in order to comply with their social expectations while secretly indulging their wicked, personal temptations.
The storyline features a detour from the typical shortcomings of the dandy in that both Jack and Algernon find what looks like true love interests: Jack falls for Algernon's cousin, Gwendolen, while Algernon falls for Jack's ward, Cecily.
The love matches are what actually mold the story, giving center stage to the female characters foils of the men who love them. For example, while Jack seems to be down to earth, flexible and somewhat tolerant of everything, he is in love with Gwendolen who, like her mother, is snobby and deprecating. Similarly, the seemingly sweet and kind-natured Cecily is matched to the materialistic and excessive Algernon. This supports the argument that the personalities of the females are meant to be juxtaposed to the personalities of the men.
However, in typical Wildean style, there is always much more to a character than what the audience supposes. More than mere foils, the women in The Importance of Being Earnest are also responsible for enticing the action, for developing it, and then for bringing the resolution to the ultimate mystery of Jack's true identity.
In a closer reading, it is clear that the problem of the story is caused by Lady Bracknell. She will not allow her daughter Gwendolen to marry Jack unless he "produces a mother or a father". What this means is that, since Jack was abandoned as a child, he is unable to trace his family name; he does not know who his natural parents are. To an upper-class woman like Lady Bracknell, this is social suicide. Hence, while Jack is left in an impossible situation, Gwendolen suggests a secret meeting to decide their fate together.
Hence it is Lady Bracknell's rejection of Jack as a potential husband for Gwendolen what ultimately sets the action in motion. It makes Jack return to his country estate to secretly meet with Gwendolen. It prompts Algernon to secretly follow Jack in order to meet Cecily. Finally, it leads to Lady Bracknell's chance encounter with the enigmatic Miss Prism when Bracknell goes to the country to hunt down Gwendolen.
Aside from prompting the development of the plot, the women also sustain it, and resolve it. Miss Prism confesses that it was she who left Jack accidentally abandoned as a baby insider a handbag. Moreover, thanks to this discovery is that we find out that Lady Bracknell is Jack's aunt, making him "worthy" of her. This also means that he is Algernon's brother and Gwendolen's first cousin which, at the time, should not pose a problem if they chose to marry.
One last salient trait of Wilde women is that they all do best when they are alone. They are unique, independent, and witty. They also "trash talk" their husbands the way that men do about their wives. Wilde gives women as much power as males, as long the females display the same careless tendencies as males. This is why Miss Prism seems to conceal a "wild streak", just as Cecily has no problem declaring war on Gwendolen. In all, the role of women in Wilde's plays is quite powerful and, actually, necessary for it all to come together as perfectly as it does.