Wilde's Play and Victorian Concepts of "Earnestness"
To modern theatre audiences, the title of Oscar Wilde's most popular play, The Importance of Being Earnest, seems a clever play on words. After all, the plot hinges on the telling of little—and not so little—white lies, while the title suggests that honesty (earnestness) will be the rule of the day. The title also implies a connection between the name and the concept, between a person named Earnest and that person being earnest. The narrative action does not bear out this assumption but rather its opposite. Audiences who saw the play when it opened in London in 1895 would have brought to it more complex associations with "earnestness," a word which historians, sociologists, and literary critics alike see as, at least in part, typifying the Victorian mindset.
The word "earnest" has three related meanings: to be eager or zealous; to be sincere, serious, and determined; and to be important, not trivial. During Queen Victoria's more than half-century reign, tremendous economic, social, and political changes rocked Great Britain. These were caused by earnest actions and their consequences required, indeed demanded, earnest responses. The Agricultural Revolution dislocated rural populations, forcing people to leave the countryside for cities. There, those people became workers in the factories created by the Industrial Revolution. While, over the long term, the British nation as a whole benefited from these changes, individuals often suffered greatly.
Even the wealthy were not immune to the changing economy's negative impact on land values. In The Importance of Being Earnest, this becomes clear when Lady Bracknell inquires into the finances of Jack Worthing, Gwendolen's choice for a husband. When Jack indicates that he has suitable income, she is pleased it comes from stock rather than land, for the declining value of "land . . . gives one position, and prevents one from keeping it up."
By the mid-nineteenth century, discussions concerning issues of economic disparity came to be known as the "two Englands" debate. People considered what would happen to Britain if economic trends continued to enrich the few while the majority of the population worked long hours in dangerous factories, underpaid and living in squalor.
Writers and intellectuals as well as evangelicals and politicians earnestly engaged in this debate. Poets and novelists such as Elizabeth Barrett Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell, created literary works which portrayed the lives of the underprivileged. Writings such as these ultimately contributed to changing public attitudes—and more importantly—public policy toward practices like child labor and public executions. Reforms in hospitals and orphanages, prisons and workhouses, schools and factories can all be traced to debates initiated or fueled by writers. The earnestness of all these reformers—artistic, intellectual, religious, and political—improved the quality of the life in Victorian Britain.
Earnestness did not characterize only those who addressed social evils, however, but also those whose activities created social problems in the first place. The farmers, investors, and manufacturers whose actions dislocated rural populations and resulted in the squalor of factory towns like Manchester, were also "earnest" about their actions. They believed they were improving the quality of peoples' lives and, in some ways, they were.
Overall, the country produced more abundant, cheaper food and better quality, affordable mass produced goods like clothing. Indeed, historian Asa Briggs termed the middle of the nineteenth century "The Age of Improvement" (a phrase he employed as the title of his book on the subject), because of the rising living conditions but also because of the concern to improve the quality of life, to ensure that each generation lived better than the last.
Like British farmers and industrialists, British colonial administrators also justified the nation's imperial ambitions because they "improved" the...
(The entire section is 3,977 words.)