In what ways is Oscar Wilde mocking Victorian society in his drama The Importance of Being Earnest?

Expert Answers
M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Criticism and satire are ubiquitous in the play The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Not only does Wilde blasts against the snobbery, self-importance, ignorance, and idleness of the upper-class Victorian society, but he also targets plenty of ideals that were as ridiculous as they were nonsensical.

An example of this is the treatment of the themes of marriage and courtship. To the Victorians, marriage was an institution that provided social possibilities for both parties involved: The "better" the marriage (money wise), the higher the possibilities. Marriage also served as a way to network for the improvement of family finances and for the preservation of family names. On the other hand, courtship was part of this networking process: It was the period of "weeding out" good or bad "candidates".

In the play The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde treats the topic of marriage with plenty of comedy, especially among the male characters. Lane, Algernon's butler, admits that his marriage was a result of a "misunderstanding"; Algernon feels that marriage is "demoralizing"; Lady Bracknell sees it as a process in which she has to "work together" with higher ranking ladies to assure that the candidate is "satisfactory"; Gwendolen and Cecily see marriage as a fantasy led by the triviality of a first name.  In all, that aspect of Victorian society which was so safeguarded in the best families was the subject of complete ridicule in the play.

Another aspect of society that is satirized is the secret reality of how the upper classes enjoy living above their means. We see that, even though both Algernon and Jack are considered "upper class men", both have a very hard time paying back creditors. Algernon does not pay because he is obviously an over-spending dandy. Jack is too, but his overspending is done as his alter-ego "Ernest", who has a penchant for eating in expensive restaurants and not paying the bill. In Jack's case, he just enjoys the thrill of being "bad". However, both Algernon and Jack expose the reality of many so-called "well to do" families: Many of them lived off their family name and did not have enough capital to sustain their expensive habits.

Therefore, Wilde basically gives Victorian society all he has to give as far as his true feelings for it: He care very little for the high and mighty ways that Victorians would adopt only to look down on the underdog. Hence, the play did its job at making their lives look fake, trivial, and worst of all, worthy of laughter!

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In addition, Wilde portrays the troubles and the desires of the rich as extremely trivial and ridiculous. Algernon's most troubling problem seems to be his desire to avoid his aunt's dinner parties, and Jack's is that he has created a fake brother with whom the woman he loves has fallen in love. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn and Cecily are so shallow, if likable, that they have persuaded themselves that they are in love with men they hardly know only because they believe that their names are Ernest. The fights that take place with food at Jack's country estate further prove their triviality. Jack and Algernon fight over muffins and how many each man should get to eat, just after Gwendolyn tried to insult Cecily by insulting the offer of cake with tea and Cecily offended Gwendolyn by putting sugar in her tea. A great many more people in Victorian society wouldn't have the luxury of cake, muffins, or afternoons in the garden; many more lived in poverty and want and had much more pressing concerns such as disease and starvation.

Further, many in the upper class claim to have adopted a high moral tone—Jack, especially—and yet he goes to great lengths to find a way to behave immorally. The falseness of such behavior, of pretending to be an upright gentleman and all the while lying so that he can visit clubs and gamble and so forth, shows his terrible hypocrisy. Those in the upper crust want to blame the "lower orders" for social problems, but it begins to seem as though much of the bad behavior originates from those with more power rather than less.

Read the study guide:
The Importance of Being Earnest

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question