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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How does Oscar Wilde portray the country in The Importance of Being Earnest?

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The theme of "country life versus city life" is a resounding topic in Victorian comedies of manner, such as The Importance of Being Earnest. A comedy of manner is a piece of written literature that presents the main features of the diverse social classes, and overexaggerates them in order to produce a joke.

The play The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde, illustrates the different lifestyles of two types of dandies: London city man Algernon Montcrief, and country estate man Jack Worthing. Both men's stories present their views on love, life, extravagance, and fun under the scope of what society allows, and disallows. However, they are actually very similar characters. It is later on that we see the argument between the lifestyles.

Act 2, Scene 2 of the play presents a clearer picture of the differences between the classes with an argument between the two main female characters, Cecily (a country girl), and Gwendolen (a city girl).

Since both women believe that they are engaged to marry the same man, they begin a cat-fight of subtle insults based on their lifestyles. Part of their argument goes, in part:

Gwendolen. [Looking round.] Quite a well-kept garden this is, Miss Cardew.

Cecily. So glad you like it, Miss Fairfax.

Gwendolen. I had no idea there were any flowers in the country.

Cecily. Oh, flowers are as common here, Miss Fairfax, as people are in London.

Gwendolen. Personally I cannot understand how anybody manages to exist in the country, if anybody who is anybody does. The country always bores me to death.

Cecily. Ah! This is what the newspapers call agricultural depression, is it not? I believe the aristocracy are suffering very much from it just at present. It is almost an epidemic amongst them, I have been told. May I offer you some tea, Miss Fairfax?

The lifestyle differences go all the way as to the eating habits of each lady.

Cecily. [Sweetly.] Sugar?

Gwendolen. [Superciliously.] No, thank you. Sugar is not fashionable any more. [Cecily looks angrily at her, takes up the tongs and puts four lumps of sugar into the cup.]

Cecily. [Severely.] Cake or bread and butter?

Gwendolen. [In a bored manner.] Bread and butter, please. Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays.

Cecily. [Cuts a very large slice of cake, and puts it on the tray.] Hand that to Miss Fairfax.

Gwendolen drinks the tea and makes a grimace. Puts down cup at once, reaches out her hand to the bread and butter, looks at it, and finds it is cake. Rises in indignation.]

In basic terms, Gwendolen implied that life is the country is common, coarse, boring, and colorless despite of the natural resources available. In other words, as the aesthetic movement ascertains, art imitates nature and artificiality does not take away from beauty. The fashionable people live in London, the aristocrats live in London, and the city is the bringer of sophistication. Therefore, she (before Cecily) would know what is the latest even in terms of tea and cakes.

However, we find that Cecily's good disposition does not leave her immune to the same female spite that drove Gwendolen to make her sarcastic remarks. In other words, although the fashions may be different, all ladies are the same.

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