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 Lady Bracknell's character satirize the upper class in The Importance of Being Earnest?

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Lady Bracknell represents the Victorian upper-class, born into wealth and status and obsessed with its maintenance. She is the image of the period’s fascination with propriety, and her primary concern during the play is ensuring that her daughter Gwendolyn makes a match that can be considered favorable for their class...

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and her connections. When it is discovered that Jack has no such connections (and in fact, that he was a discovered orphan with no known parentage), Lady Bracknell gives a firm no.

To illustrate how her character is a satirized version of her class, you must look for quotes that reveal an exaggerated concern with either propriety or status. This is usually presented ironically—an inversion of one’s typical expectations for how one should feel or react. One example is in Lady Bracknell’s treatment of Bunbury in the first scene. Rather than show concern for Algernon’s ailing friend, Lady Bracknell is annoyed because his illness prevents Algernon’s presence at her event and ruins the way she’s organized her table settings.

I should be much obliged if you would ask Mr. Bunbury, from me, to be kind enough not to have a relapse on Saturday, for I rely on you to arrange my music for me.

While humorous, this also shows the social perception that this particular Victorian class was concerned only with their own well-being. Another example of Wilde exaggerating Lady Bracknell’s concern with status comes when she pulls out a notepad and a pencil to interview Jack as a potential suitor for Gwendolyn. Any parent would grill a prospective son-in-law, but few take it down on paper in such a formal manner.

Finally, we can see that Lady Bracknell is not above manipulation to achieve her goals, especially when that goal is to maintain a clean, high-class image, even to her own husband. After Gwendolyn runs away in pursuit of Jack, she lies to him to protect her daughter’s reputation:

Her unhappy father is, I am glad to say, under the impression that she is attending a more than usually lengthy lecture by the University Extension Scheme on the Influence of a permanent income on Thought. I do not propose to undeceive him. Indeed I have never undeceived him on any question. I would consider it wrong.

All in all, Lady Bracknell’s character is a hyperbolic representation of the Victorian upper-class, and her most scandalous moments reveal an exaggerated concern for self-preservation, image, status, and propriety.

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Lady Bracknell possesses the moral ambiguity evident in several members of the upper class in the play. When she first arrives at Algernon's, she says that she hopes he is "behaving very well." When he replies, saying that he feels well, she says that these are not the same thing, "In fact the two things rarely go together." Therefore, she claims that doing right and feeling good are almost mutually exclusive, implying that doing wrong is a surer path to personal happiness than moral behavior is. In this way, she satirizes the upper class's propensity towards immoral behavior and a rather hypocritical pair of beliefs that doing bad is the only way to feel good and doing good will not have the same effect.

Lady Bracknell is likewise unfeeling and cold when it comes to others. She declares that Algernon's (fictitious) friend, Bunbury, ought to make

up his mind whether he was going to live or to die. This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd. Nor do I in any way approve of the modern sympathy with invalids [. . .]. Illness of any kind is hardly a thing to be encouraged in others.

She is unkind and lacks compassion for people who are ill or convalescing, which is a decidedly heartless position to take. In this case, she satirizes the upper class's lack of feeling for the poor or less fortunate. For Lady Bracknell, nothing is more important than her social obligations and that includes another man's life.

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Rumor has it that Lady Bracknell was a combination of Wilde's own mother, Lady Wilde, and Lord Alfred's own mother, Lady Queensberry.  Seems like his mother takes the cake on the dead-on character for this.

Lady Bracknell is a woman of extreme mannerisms, she is a major-league snob with little disregard for human emotions as for example when he says that "losing one parent may be seen as a tragedy, but losing both parents seems like an act of carelessness"

She is entirely devoted to social ranking (her questions about Cecily's state of financial affairs prior to letting her marry Algy) and her equal questionnaire of Jack/John/Earnest when he was contemplating marrying Gwendolyn.

She is so elitist that Jack Worthing finds himself having to add that he was left in the terminus, but "in the Brighton line", meaning that even the route of the terminus would make a difference to Lady Bracknell. Also, she drops names (working together with the Duchess), and is careless about the feelings of others.

Victorian society was just as elitist, "holier than though", living above their means, hypocritical, censuring, snobbish, and name dropping as Lady Bracknell was. Her mannerisms make the entire situation so extreme that is what makes it a satire of her.

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