Why does Algernon consider a woman who flirts with her husband in public scandalous?

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teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Hello! I take it that you are referring to Algernon from Oscar Wilde's The Importance Of Being Earnest. This interesting play is considered by many to be Oscar Wilde's crowning achievement, where he combines satire with faux intellectualism. He pokes fun at the surface refinement of Victorian society in his play.

Jack Worthing is an influential citizen in Hertfordshire; he is a landowner and an employer, as well as a justice of the peace. He is in love with his best friend, Algernon Moncrieff's cousin, the beauteous Gwendolen Fairfax. We learn as the play progresses that Jack is also Earnest; Earnest is actually a make-believe black sheep of the family Jack created to get out of tiresome social obligations. Algernon also has his own "Earnest," a nonexistent friend, Bunbury, who supposedly suffers from a chronic illness.

Algernon is really Wilde's alter ego. He is a celebrant and believer in aestheticism, the appreciation of life as one's art form. To live beautifully is the main aim. Algernon delights in using Bunbury as an excuse to indulge his own happiness and whims, while also appearing as responsible and trustworthy. In other words, he fulfills the expectations of society without destroying his sense of freedom and autonomy. He says about his hostess at a party:

'She will place me next to Mary Farquhar, who always flirts with her own husband across the dinner-table. That is not very pleasant. Indeed, it is not even decent . . . and that sort of thing is enormously on the increase. The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one's clean linen in public.'

On one hand, Algernon believes that the "very essence of romance is uncertainty." He does not see that the marriage proposal is anything as wonderful as Victorian society portrays it to be. After all, he believes that it is precisely the marriage proposal which destroys all sense of romance and spontaneity. On the other hand, he contradicts himself, as we see with what he says about women flirting with their husbands. He is mirroring the strict social conventions of the time: flirting with one's husband is "clean linen" but still needs to be kept out of the public eye. Yet, ironically, flirting with one's husband (and enjoying it) may just prevent divorce, which is frowned upon in Victorian times. So, Algernon is not really criticizing women who openly flirt with their husbands; he is Wilde's mouthpiece for showcasing the rigidity of social conventions that may not serve the greater happiness of its own citizens. Remember, this play is rich in satire.

Thanks for the question!

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The Importance of Being Earnest

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