Illustration of Jack Worthing in a top hat and formal attire, and a concerned expression on his face

The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde
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What social criticism appears in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest?

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Historical context is an important piece of the puzzle when deciphering the social criticism of Wilde's play. The play premiered in 1895, at the turn of the nineteenth century. This was a time when the established Victorian values of English society were scrutinized by younger, bolder generations. The Victorian outlook is characterized by a sense of dignity and restraint, coupled with a rigid view of morality and social etiquette. Wilde's play posits that society's focus on social conventions and possessing a sense of poise is patently ridiculous. People who claim to be moral through "proper" behavior are in fact shallow and hypocritical. The play makes this observation time and again through satire, wordplay, and other forms of humor.

For example, early in the play, Algernon remarks that "I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them.” This is a rather pithy observation criticizing the social emphasis on table manners and the importance of correct etiquette. The idea that one should be serious about how they consume every single meal is a tedious and rather ridiculous notion. To suggest that people who neglect to practice socially constructed norms and behaviors while eating are shallow is also rather funny.

Algernon also comments:

Oh! it is absurd to have a hard-and-fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn't. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read.

It is unreasonable to think that it's vitally important to keep track of what one doesn't read. This highlights the pedantic nature of Victorian social values; every minute personal action is a social performance judged against arbitrary benchmarks for what is "right" or "wrong."

The characters are embedded in the high society of this time and place. So even as they criticize the rather superficial Victorian values, they continue to engage in them. They eat daintily, speak very formally, and make light of truly serious matters such as love and death. This contradictory self-criticism is also a core element of Wilde's humor and the depiction of England's upper echelons as a whole.

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One of the most significant social criticisms that Oscar Wilde builds into this play is that he disagrees with the superficiality of the upper classes. We see this superficiality in many areas of the play and through virtually every character. However, the title itself, and the story behind it, represents his strongest critique of his society's superficial nature.

The title, The Importance of Being Earnest, refers to the need by both Cecily and Gwendolyn to marry a man by that name. Both women admit that they could not truly love a man with any other name, even if he was a wonderful man. Upon becoming engaged to their respective fiancès, both Algernon and Jack set up a Christening so as to change their Christian names to Earnest simply so their fiancès will continue to "love" them. Clearly, the women are making their decisions about whom they spend the rest of their lives with on something entirely superficial and easily changeable. This speaks to their superficiality.

Their superficiality, however, represents Wilde's real-world society at the time when a name was everything. Usually it was one's last name, and the family one came from, and so on, that was considered important, which we also see in the play. Wilde simply takes it a step further in the play by making the mens' first names the most important thing and not just their surnames.

Oscar Wilde often critiqued the upper classes in his writing, and The Importance of Being Earnest is one of his best examples of this critique.

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