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The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde

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How does Oscar Wilde mock Victorian society in The Importance of Being Earnest?

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In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde satirizes Victorian society by mocking its hypocrisy, especially in the upper classes. He highlights characters whose outward respectability conceals morally dubious behavior, and portrays the troubles and desires of the wealthy as trivial and ridiculous. Wilde criticizes the pretense of high moral behavior, as characters lie and deceive to indulge in less reputable activities, suggesting that much of society's problems originate from those with more power.

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Oscar Wilde lived during the Victorian period (i.e., the reign of Queen Victoria, which lasted from from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901). It is important here to distinguish between the Victorian period and the rather unfortunate use of the term "Victorian" as standing in for...

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a certain type of sexual mores which differ from those of the twenty-first century. As satirical writer, Wilde made fun of what for him was contemporary society, something most satirical writers do.

One of the main targets of Wilde's satire was hypocrisy. He himself was a gay man who was jailed for a homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas. As a gay man who married to conform to social conventions, he was very aware of how laws regulating relationships led to certain forms of hypocrisy. He was opposed to various forms of double standards and often portrayed characters whose veneer of respectability covered morally dubious behavior.

Wilde's main audience was the upper-middle and upper classes, as they were the ones who were most likely to buy his books and attend his plays. Thus his satire was directed at their behavior. There are two underlying reasons for this. The first is that he was writing about the segment of society that he was most familiar with. Second, even as he was criticizing upper-class hypocrisy, he also was flattering their egos by making them a central subject and intimating that the educated people watching his plays were cleverer and less hypocritical than their less "woke" peers. This form of subtle flattery led his work to become very popular among those who considered themselves sophisticated thinkers for their period.

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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.

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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!

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What does Wilde satirize in The Importance of Being Earnest?

The title of the play helps us understand what Wilde is satirizing or poking fun at. For starters, he is skewering middle-class hypocrisies about domestic bliss; one of the confusions about talking about the Victorian British "middle class" is that these are people we today would consider, on the whole, wealthy. Middle-class Victorians, at least in public, paid an immense lip service to "earnestness" or sincerity, often typified as a sentimental dedication to home and hearth, while at the same time, as the play indicates, often leading double lives. In fact, Algernon asserts that all married British men lead double lives, meaning they all have a life on the side that their wives are unaware of. Jack and Algernon themselves have double lives to the extent they have invented imaginary alter egos named Ernest and Bunbury. As it happens, both Jack and Algernon pretend to be Jack's imaginary brother Ernest: the irony (and satire on earnestness) is that both of them show their lack of complete earnestness or honesty in taking on the fake name Ernest.

Adding to confusion and satirizing a concept that was an important part of the "arts for arts sake movement" Wilde was part of, it happens that Jack's name truly is Ernest. This pokes fun at the idea that Wilde wrote about in his essay/dialogue "The Decay of the Art of Lying." In it, he repeats the aesthete's theme that nature imitates art: once an artist paints clouds in a certain way, for example, people see them that way. In his play, he extends that idea comically to the fictions we weave about ourselves: how easy it is to become what we pretend to be, as happens literally to Jack when he finds out he is Ernest.

Jack's name being Ernest also gives Wilde a chance to spoof or satirize another frequently commented on social ill: the inadequate nurse maid or caretaker of young children (we can think, too, of the children in Barrie's Peter Pan having a dog for a nurse): in this case, the nurse. Mrs. Prism, puts her book in the bassinet and baby Jack/Ernest in a satchel, leading to him being left at Victoria Station and found by Mr. Cardew. This exaggerates the incompetence of nurse maids, but it is a theme that would have resonated with the audience.

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What does Wilde satirize in The Importance of Being Earnest?

The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People is an 1895 farcical comedy written by famed Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. It tells the story of Jack and Algernon, two bachelors who wish to marry the girls they fell in love with, and who occasionally call themselves “Ernest” so that they can escape their monotonous lives and avoid their social responsibilities. Wilde uses satire to mock and ridicule many social and cultural aspects of the Victorian era, which is why some analysts and literary critics consider the play a social satire.

For instance, Wilde mocks the institution of marriage, as well as the idea of falling in love; he explains how people don’t really care about love, respect, and empathy, and only care about the social and financial status of the person they intend to marry. He also mocks the wealthy elites and the upper class of Victorian London, showcasing their unhealthy obsession with materialism, triviality, “perfection,” and political and social relevance and influence, while the rest of the population wallows in poverty and misery. Finally, Wilde highlights "the importance of being earnest," honest and genuine, and he ridicules those who choose money and power over love and kindness.

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What does Wilde satirize in The Importance of Being Earnest?

Wilde targets several social institutions for his satire.  One of the most obvious in the play is Wilde's satrical view on marriage.  He does this by giving the girls (Gwendolen and Cecily) silly prerequisites for marriage: only the name Ernest.  Nothing else matters to them, other than the name Ernest.  Lady Bracknell, when inquiring as to Jack's suitability as a potential husband for Gwendolen, asks about his income, his politics and whether his owns land and house--not if he truly cares for her.  Wilde is satirizing marriage, showing these people thing it nothing more than a social adventure rather than a loving union.

Another element of society that Wilde satirizies is the upper class.  All of the characters (except for the butlers) would be considered upper class, and each shows a sense of frivolity toward life and serious issues.  Jack uses his brother's "death" as a way to excuse his Bunburrying; Alergnon seems to take nothing seriously, except eating.  Gwendolen wants only to look fashionable--and requires Jack to propose in "the proper way".  Lady Bracknell chases after her daughter to the country, all to prevent a marriage.  At a time when there were thousands of poor people suffering and barely making a living in England, these are trivial concerns.

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What does Wilde satirize in The Importance of Being Earnest?

So many things are satirized in this play!

1. The snobbery, classism, and elitism of Victorian London is exemplified by Lady Bracknell

2. The fake imagery of grandiosity and wealth by living above their means and still hang out with the upper crust is represented with the dandy, Algernon.

3. Marriage, and the reasons to get married. Victorians might have at times married for love, but most marriages were also business transactions such as the one Lady Bracknell tried to conduct between Algy and Cecily- all for the sake of going up in social ranking

4. Snobbery is illustrated when Jack and Ms. Prism in separate ocasions describe how Jack was abandoned in a handbag at a train station. The play QUICKLY mentions that he was left in Victoria Station but in "THE BRIGHTON LINE"- that is, the line that goes to the Posh side- In other words, forget that he was abandoned. The imporance is that he was abandoned "in the Brighton Line"

5. Moralism is mocked with the reasons why women get attracted to men. As Victorians were moralists and always claimed to abide by religious motivations for everything, here are Gwendolyn and Cecily, falling in love with men just because their names are Earnest. 

6. Algy's eating habits are also a mockery of how the upper classes feasted on excess while the slum district of Victorian London in the East End was in one of the worst economical situations in history.

Trust me, there is a WHOLE lot more satire than our posts would fit!

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What does Wilde satirize in The Importance of Being Earnest?

The most obvious satire is about love and relationships.  Wilde uses the characters of Gwendolen and Cecily who only fall in love with men because of their names (Ernest).  Cecily has even created a relationship with a man she's never met.  She's been engaged, then it was broken off, and then she was engaged again--all without his even knowing about it.  On top of that, the Ernest she "fell in love with" never existed.  There is also the relationship between Dr. Chausable and the governess.  Such a relationship would never exist in the Victorian era, as he is a holy man who chose God over marriage.

The other side to his satire is making fun of Victorian society.  It seems to be the women who make all of the decisions in the play.  We never even meet Lord Bracknell.  He is constantly regarded as the woman of the house, as we would see it today.  Lady Bracknell won't even tell him about Gwendolen running out to the country to see Jack.  She thinks he can't handle it, so she tells him Gwendolen is at a lecture somewhere. 

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What is the social satire in The Importance of Being Earnest?

The social satire that permeates Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest consists on mocking the mannerisms, customs, and lifestyles of the aristocrats and those considered "upper class".

The settings of the play are Victorian London, and the English countryside. Both of these are known hangouts for the rich and the fashionable of the time. However, those who are rich and fashionable in England during this era are also hypocritical, classicist, and narcissistic people who used charity and church as a way to flaunt even more their marked social differences.

Lady Bracknell, Algernon, and Gwendolen represent the snobby Londoners who lead double lives, hide secrets, and conduct themselves poorly while hiding behind their fancy clothes and exaggerated manners of speech and behavior.

Jack and Cecily also represent the country side rich who also lead double lives and hide beneath their supposed country traditions. All characters, aim to demonstrate that everybody wears masks to hide who they really are, and the behaviors shown in the play clearly demonstrate it.

Therefore, Wilde exposes the low values of the higher classes by mocking them through characters that show how hypocritical and superficial high society can really be.

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How does Oscar Wilde satirize his audience in The Importance of Being Earnest, and what may he be trying to evoke from the audience?

Wilde satirizes the hypocrisy of his Victorian audience. There were such strict moral codes at the time, codes to which members of the upper class certainly purported to live by, and yet so many people continued to do immoral things; they just kept those behaviors hidden. Like Jack Worthing, they appeared to all the world like good, upstanding citizens but found creative ways to hide their more depraved tendencies. Jack invents a brother, Ernest, who lives a life of dissipation; when Jack goes to London, away from his home and his impressionable young ward, he can pretend to be Ernest so that he does not sully his own good name. As Ernest, he can go places and see people and do things that he would never do as Jack. Then, he can return to his home, his reputation as a moral man still intact, and no one is the wiser. He claims that strong morals, especially because he has a ward, are so important, and yet he lies in order to be able to exhibit a lack of morals when he so chooses. Algernon is similar, with his creation of Bunbury, the imaginary invalid who gets him out of all kinds of unpleasant social engagements that he cannot simply choose not to attend and still retain his reputation with his aunt.

Perhaps Wilde is trying to evoke a sense of awareness from his audience. Characters like Algernon and Aunt Augusta comment on the "lower orders" and people of lesser status as though those of lower status are of lower moral character. However, their own moral character—despite their class—is really not very good. A little less judgment and a little more self-awareness is called for.

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How does Oscar Wilde satirize his audience in The Importance of Being Earnest, and what may he be trying to evoke from the audience?

The subtitle of The Importance of Being Earnest is "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People". "Serious" is, of course, a synonym for "Earnest" and this type of wordplay, as well as the inversion of "trivial" and "serious" permeates the entire play.

To determine how Wilde satirizes his audience, we have to know what sort of people the audience were. The type of people who frequented the St. James's Theatre in the 1890s were not, on the whole, the aristocracy and the landed gentry whom Wilde was so fond of portraying on stage but the respectable middle-classes. They are most effectively satirized in the person of Lady Bracknell, who is now a society grande-dame but lets slip that she comes from relatively humble origins ("When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind ...").

Lady Bracknell's obsession with respectability and propriety betray her middle-class origins at every turn. About high society she is generally wrong, assuming that an Oxonian could never be untruthful and preposterously asserting that only people who cannot get into society speak disrespectfully of it. She remains comically concerned about what other people think ("'Come, dear ... we have already missed five, if not six, trains. To miss any more might expose us to comment on the platform").

It is typical of Wilde to cast the most unimaginatively middle-class figure in the play as the gorgon aunt and guardian of the younger characters' fates. In this, as in so much else, The Importance of Being Earnest presents a topsy-turvy world, where normal values and relationships are continually inverted. This strategy presents the audience with the triviality of their most serious concerns and perhaps even causes them to reflect amongst the frivolity on what is really of vital importance.

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How does Oscar Wilde satirize his audience in The Importance of Being Earnest, and what may he be trying to evoke from the audience?

In his satirical play The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde ridicules the superficiality of his Victorian society audience and their values and behavior. As his title suggests, Wilde satirizes the facade of earnestness, a virtue purportedly highly esteemed by Victorians, whose hypocritical behavior belies this sublime virtue.

By assigning the quality of being earnest to the name of a man, Wilde creates a subtle allusion to the words of Shakespeare's Juliet, who realizes a name does not determine character: 

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet (Act II, Scene 2, verses 1-2).

For certain characters in Wilde's play, having the specific name of Ernest, a homophone for the virtue earnestness, becomes essential. Jack must be named Ernest to win the love of Gwendolen. This condition points to the superficiality of the upper class, as a young woman prioritizes marrying a man by the name of Ernest over any other qualities he may possess. The name Ernest holds some sort of ideal for her. 

In Act I, Jack displays the duality that exists in Victorian society when he explains to his friend Algernon that he created the character of Ernest as his younger brother because he must behave in a certain way as the guardian of Cecily Cardew. With this false identity, he can give vent to his private interests, which are anything but true and worthy values. The irony of this is that Jack actually turns out to be named Ernest, as he was named after his natural father. Gwendolen is delighted that Ernest is his name. Employing his inimitable satire, Wilde has his character Jack ask, 

Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?

Wilde may have written these lines to induce members of his audience to search their own characters and discover that when they have acted in pretense, they may verily have been more true to their real character than when they have conducted themselves in polite society. 

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How does Oscar Wilde mock traditional nineteenth century drama with his play The Importance of Being Earnest?

The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed in 1895, near the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. Victorian values such as respectability prevailed during the sixties and seventies, but industrialism soon led to upheaval in England’s class system: upward mobility grew easier for factory owners, while farmers struggled. As the disparity between rich and poor grew ever-wider, a new middle class formed. Amidst the struggle, people began to reject Victorian values.

Victorian values persisted in art as well as life, and so similarly, artists began to turn against the moral overtones so common in nineteenth-century plays. Art was supposed to be morally instructive and enlightening, but the tides turned; aestheticism, which held that a painting need only be beautiful or a play only be clever, grew to become a movement. Oscar Wilde, of course, was one of the leaders of aestheticism.
The Importance of Being Earnest is the opposite of a morality play. The plot itself, in which two men attempt to escape their responsibilities and two women are only willing to marry men named Ernest, is trivial. The characters are absurd—Algernon Moncrieff is a jaded character, serious only about amusements, Cecily Cardew charts her entire relationship with “Ernest” before ever meeting him, Lady Bracknell is an unapologetic snob—and the ending even more so: Jack is revealed to be Algernon’s older brother, named Ernest at birth.
The play mocks marriage (“I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief,” Algernon says of a recently widowed woman), satirizes shallowness, and reveals as its happy ending an impending marriage between two first cousins—a subtle dig at the inbred nature of the upper class. Innuendo and double meaning are woven into the lines of the play, creating complexity in otherwise superficial characters; hypocrisy and and shallowness are mocked with deadly accuracy. The characters are caricatures, the plot absurd and artificial—and yet the play reveals more about the Victorian social conscious than any morality play could.
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What social criticism appears in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest?

Historical context is an important piece of the puzzle when deciphering the social criticism of Wilde's play. The play premiered in 1895, at the turn of the nineteenth century. This was a time when the established Victorian values of English society were scrutinized by younger, bolder generations. The Victorian outlook is characterized by a sense of dignity and restraint, coupled with a rigid view of morality and social etiquette. Wilde's play posits that society's focus on social conventions and possessing a sense of poise is patently ridiculous. People who claim to be moral through "proper" behavior are in fact shallow and hypocritical. The play makes this observation time and again through satire, wordplay, and other forms of humor.

For example, early in the play, Algernon remarks that "I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them.” This is a rather pithy observation criticizing the social emphasis on table manners and the importance of correct etiquette. The idea that one should be serious about how they consume every single meal is a tedious and rather ridiculous notion. To suggest that people who neglect to practice socially constructed norms and behaviors while eating are shallow is also rather funny.

Algernon also comments:

Oh! it is absurd to have a hard-and-fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn't. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read.

It is unreasonable to think that it's vitally important to keep track of what one doesn't read. This highlights the pedantic nature of Victorian social values; every minute personal action is a social performance judged against arbitrary benchmarks for what is "right" or "wrong."

The characters are embedded in the high society of this time and place. So even as they criticize the rather superficial Victorian values, they continue to engage in them. They eat daintily, speak very formally, and make light of truly serious matters such as love and death. This contradictory self-criticism is also a core element of Wilde's humor and the depiction of England's upper echelons as a whole.

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What social criticism appears in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest?

One of the most significant social criticisms that Oscar Wilde builds into this play is that he disagrees with the superficiality of the upper classes. We see this superficiality in many areas of the play and through virtually every character. However, the title itself, and the story behind it, represents his strongest critique of his society's superficial nature.

The title, The Importance of Being Earnest, refers to the need by both Cecily and Gwendolyn to marry a man by that name. Both women admit that they could not truly love a man with any other name, even if he was a wonderful man. Upon becoming engaged to their respective fiancès, both Algernon and Jack set up a Christening so as to change their Christian names to Earnest simply so their fiancès will continue to "love" them. Clearly, the women are making their decisions about whom they spend the rest of their lives with on something entirely superficial and easily changeable. This speaks to their superficiality.

Their superficiality, however, represents Wilde's real-world society at the time when a name was everything. Usually it was one's last name, and the family one came from, and so on, that was considered important, which we also see in the play. Wilde simply takes it a step further in the play by making the mens' first names the most important thing and not just their surnames.

Oscar Wilde often critiqued the upper classes in his writing, and The Importance of Being Earnest is one of his best examples of this critique.

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How, and with what effects, does Wilde satirise society and social convention in The Importance of Being Earnest?

There are many satirical targets in this witty and humorous play by Oscar Wilde.  Satire points out the flaws in human nature with the hope of instruction. Satire usually uses humorous ridicule to do this.  In this play, Wilde has many flaws to make fun of; here are a few:

  • the shallow nature of "true love" -- falling in love at first sight or even before first sight in the case of Cecily; the fact that Gwendolyn's primary concern in a husband is his first name.
  • the shallow nature of high society that is primarily concerned with name and reputation as evidenced by Lady Bracknell
  • the idleness of the upper classes as evidenced through Algernon and Jack to a certain extent.
  • foolishness -- Cecily's attitude about her education; Prism confusing her manuscript for a baby; Algernon and Jack with their 'Bunburying' 
  • the clergy -- the fact that Chausible gives the same sermon for every occasion

There is something to be "learned" in the satirical sense in nearly every scene in the play.  Algernon's commentary and Lady Bracknell in particular serve as excellent vehicles for Wilde's themes.  By the end of play the audience has had a wide exposure to several ideas worth thinking about in regards to what this play is saying about the shallowness and silliness of human nature.

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What commonly accepted ideas are satirized in the Importance of Being Earnest?

Oscar Wilde's play, the Importance of Being Earnest, satirizing many conventions of Victorian social life and culture. One obvious target of the satire is love at first sight, but there are many more.

Algernon's interactions with Lane satirize the concepts of the "noble savage" and the romantic idea that poverty brings with it moral superiority.

Cecilia and Ms. Prism are both involved in several conversations which satirize the "new learning" (focussed on science rather than humanities) and "new woman" (women who aspire to careers and authoritative cultural roles). The Vicar, or course, satirizes the worldliness of the Church of England.

The image of the writer are inspired but absentminded is satirized in Prism's novel-writing and absent-mindedness.

Lady Bracknell is used to satirize social conventions and unmask the hypocrisy of high society.

The themes of dual identities and foundlings make fun of conventional elements of the plots of the Victorian sensation novels and melodramas.

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