How is the institution of marriage treated in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest?
It may be a coincidence that Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest had its London premier on Valentine’s Day in 1895; it is certainly ironic. Wilde’s play is an acerbic indictment of the institution of marriage among the upper classes of London. Marriage is not its sole, or even its primary target – that honor goes to the broader category of upper class social mores in the constipated cultural atmosphere in which Wilde lived. Wilde’s characters in The Importance of Being Earnst are refined and proper; they are also boring and, in the cases of Jack Worthing, aka Ernest, and Algernon Moncrieff, desperate to avoid the social responsibilities that come with wealth. Within this context, the institution of marriage is not looked upon kindly.
Marriage in the England of Wilde was just another social obligation, executed as a matter of hereditary responsibility. Early in the play, Algernon and his manservant Lane discuss the former’s discovery that the latter had recently consumed a large quantity of alcoholic beverages:
ALGERNON Why is it that at a bachelor's establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne?
LANE I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.
ALGERNON Good heavens! Is marriage so demoralising as that?
LANE I believe it IS a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.
This exchange, occurring at the beginning of the first act, sets the tone. That marriage is a duty and not the result of love and a sincere desire to enter into a lifelong commitment is displayed in the following exchange between Lady Bracknell and her daughter, Gwendolyn, in which the refined, proper Bracknell dispenses with any notion that marriage is entered into for love:
" . . . you are not engaged to any one. When you do become engaged to some one, I, or your father . . . will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself.”
The character of Lady Bracknell represents everything that Wilde holds in contempt. It is she who presents the image of Victorian upper class London that is the playwright’s target. She is determined that the marriages that occur among the people in her orbit are conducted according to the social norms with which she is most familiar, and that precludes the injection of romance into the equation. Later in the play, she again makes certain all those over whom she has some influence do not enter into the institution of marriage for any but the most pecuniary of motives. In reaffirming her objection to the romantic inclinations of Jack, Gwendolyn, Algernon, and Cecily, she makes the following observation regarding the subject of long engagements:
"To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other's character before marriage, which I think is never advisable."
The Importance of Being Ernest ends on a happy note, with an entirely improbable evolution of story that allows for both couples to marry on their own terms. The cynicism prevalent throughout the play regarding marriage, however, is certainly one of its central themes.