On the one hand, The Importance of Being Earnest is a light farce that plays up absurd situations with name substitutions and successfully combines elements of a comedy of morals, a witty mirror of social problems. In this play, Oscar Wilde tries to convey to the reader the idea that ill-considered actions committed by frivolous young people for a one-minute benefit can later ruin their lives if chance intervenes. On the other side, the play is extremely influential and in fact, it is a destructive criticism of the public mores of the time (Dixon 25). The emphasis that characters put on details, such as names, origin, and clothes, refutes the desire for something more substantial. The writer ridicules Victorian people and society for the formalities they expressed for each other that were superficial. Oscar Wilde makes marriage one of the central concerns of the play to show the attitude towards this issue and criticize the mores of Victorian society.
Relationship Between Men and Women in the Play
Oscar Wilde masterfully manipulates the course of events under the most advantageous option to ridicule Victorian pretentiousness. The play is based on two young people, one of whom is a young man named Jack who lives in the village. However, to avoid the tedious work of his extremely conservative lifestyle, he created an alter ego, Ernest, who often goes to London to have some fun (Wilde 260). Jack pretends to visit his poor brother Ernest, which allows him to escape from a boring life and have fun with his good friend Algernon. However, Algernon suspects Jack is leading a double life when he finds a personal message in one of his cigarette cases (Wilde 261). Jack has a young and attractive ward named Cecily Cardew at his Gloucestershire estate. This piques Algernon’s interest, and uninvited, he appears at the estate, pretending to be Jack’s brother Ernest to win Cecily’s favor. Meanwhile, Jack’s fiancée, Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen, has arrived, and Jack confesses to her that in fact, his name is not Ernest (Wilde 270). Algernon, despite his common sense, also confesses to Cecily that his name is not Ernest either.
This lie causes several problems in the love life of the characters since both girls have a rather strange attachment to the name Ernest and cannot consider marrying someone who does not bear that name. Moreover, there is another, even more serious obstacle to marriage. Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell, will not allow her daughter to marry Jack due to his social status (Wilde 265). He was an orphan whom his adoptive parents found in a purse at King’s Cross. Since Jack is Cecily’s guardian, he will not allow her to marry Algernon unless his aunt changes her mind. This seemingly insoluble situation is brilliantly solved when, upon examining Lady Bracknell’s purse, she discovers that Algernon’s brother was lost in just such a purse and that Jack must be this lost child (Wilde 275). Moreover, the child was named Ernest, which gives him even more chances for marriage.
The Characters’ Attitude to Life and Marriage
The Importance of Being Earnest combines an intricate plot of a seemingly insoluble farce narrative, but it, like no other, shows what the institution of marriage means to the characters. Oscar Wilde is rather skeptical about the representatives of high society and their attitude to marriage, and he also sharply condemns young aristocrats suffering from idleness (Dixon 26). The men in the play do not think about the consequences of their actions. Meanwhile, the girls do not have the opportunity to apply their energy anywhere, and therefore cease to distinguish the world of their fantasies from reality. For example, young Cecily not only falls in love with a young man she knows only from stories but also enters into an active correspondence with his fantasy.
The play is filled with caustic observations of the cynical and ambiguous mores of the Victorian high society. The plot of the play, in the course of which Algernon and his friend Jack change social masks in search of profitable parties for marriage, seems incredibly advanced even by today’s non-moral standards (Dixon 27). For example, Jack, being in London, plays the role of a dissolute man Ernest, and going to the country estate of his protege, puts on a mask of a serious young man (Wilde 260). Algernon’s behavior is the same: when he wants to escape from another girl, he easily pretends that he has to visit his disabled friend who lives in the village.
Wilde’s female characters and their marriage relationship match their male counterparts. Jack’s fiancé Gwendolen is willing to marry only a man named Ernest, and her pompous mother Lady Bracknell would never allow her daughter to tie the knot with a fiancé of common origin (Wilde 265). In turn, both Gwendolen and Cecily have the ideal of marrying a man named Ernest, a popular and respected name at that time. Gwendolen, quite in contrast to her mother’s analysis of John (Jack) Worthing’s suitability as a husband, puts her entire faith in the name, proclaiming in Act I that “The only really safe name is Ernest” (Wilde 263). This is the opinion shared by Cecily in Act II: “I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest” (Wilde 263). The girls indignantly declare that they have been deceived when they learn men’s real names.
The Problem of Marriage in the Era of Victorian Hypocrisy
The paradox of the play reveals the exposure of the hypocrisy of Victorian England and the vices of the high society that it disguises. The Importance of Being Earnest is not just a comedy. In this play, Oscar Wilde eliminates the boundaries between moral and immoral, honest and dishonest. The cheerful comedy is played out of the realm of the ideal, and this gives it a touch of critical irony (Christian 26). The play repeatedly teases Victorian traditions, social customs, attitude to marriage, and the pursuit of love in particular. Sometimes the brutality of the Victorian characters can seem a little exaggerated. However, it is precisely such comic squalling that gives the performance a fresh edge (Christian 27). After all, Oscar Wilde is especially close to the modern public in that he has never been shy in expressing reality.
The Victorian era was a rather controversial period in the history of England: arrogant and extremely irreconcilable to everything that was not included in the established secular framework. Although sufficiently free and progressive, English society was nevertheless constrained by a strict Victorian morality, which established certain patterns of behavior for all occasions (Christian 31). Vigilant control over the implementation of these rules by the environment made the situation serious (Shabir 84). After all, freedom of expression was limited to the point of absurdity and the external signs of decency gave rise to ever-increasing hypocrisy. Hypocrisy manifested itself in the following formula of the Victorian era: wear masks, smile, observe a bunch of conventions, and be courteous to all people, despite personal antipathy to some of them.
Thus, the issue of marriage highlighted in the play is permeated with the problems of the Victoria era. Through the prism of relations between men and women, Oscar Wilde was able to reflect the peculiarities of the life of the Victorians, their values, the nature of social ties, and double standards (Christian 32). The choice of a partner was, of course, a priority issue. Although in the era of Queen Victoria, contractual marriages were no longer relevant, love between spouses before marriage was perceived rather as a pleasant, but not a mandatory bonus (Shabir 85). Both partners were looking for something for themselves: stability, material security, status, career prospects, and many other benefits. Marriages between members of different social strata were rare and discouraged by this society (Christian 28). A bride or groom was usually chosen from the same social status, otherwise, the lovers could meet the active resistance of the family of one of them and, as a result, financial repression.
As Oscar Wilde portrays, class played a huge role in the choice of a spouse. It was argued that women did not raise a man to the position that she occupied before marriage, but descended to his level. However, the man lifted the woman, no matter how low her position might be before (Christian 42). Marriage was considered a serious thing and had nothing to do with coquetry, flirting, and other misconceptions that girls could glean from the unnatural philosophical system presented in sentimental novels(Shabir 85). That is why the status and origin of her future son-in-law were so important to Lady Bracknell. Before making their free choice, young people were strongly encouraged to seek advice from their parents. After all, a lady, having met a gentleman at a ball or another public event, could easily fall in love (Christian 41). She needed advice and an attentive attitude to her feelings, which only a mother could provide. The parents were responsible for determining the character and position of the admirer, preferably even before young people fell in love.
As Oscar Wilde showed in the example of Cecily, women were taught from childhood to hunt their husbands. Therefore, they gave special importance to any sign of attention from a man. Fearing that they might have to go to court for breaking a marriage promise, men avoid female society, and asking parents about their intentions concerning this or that girl made them tremble (Shabir 82). This made communication between men and women strained, artificial, and awkward. Puritanism, taken to the extreme, engendered guilt and hypocrisy. That was the reason why the main male characters in the play decided to disguise themselves and lie about their names.
An ordinary person did not fit well into the Victorian system of values, where each subject was supposed to have a specific set of required qualities. Therefore, hypocrisy was considered not only permissible but also obligatory (Shabir 82). Only with the closest people, one could sometimes afford to move the iron mask that hid the true face. That was the reason why Oscar Wilde criticized Victorian society in his play. Modesty, hard work, and impeccable morality were prescribed and valued (Shabir 82). However, it was quite enough to seem to have these qualities. The desire for social and material development corrupted the heart and soul of people. They were judged by their wardrobe, dinner manners, the way they spoke, and other criteria. That society did not try to change the nature of humans; people could feel whatever they wanted, but it was highly discouraged to give out the feelings or commit inappropriate actions.
Oscar Wilde contributed to the destruction of a class-based, superficially obsessed society. His play The Importance of Being Earnest makes the readers look below the surface and try to find real people who are suppressed below social norms. It is an unusual experiment, filled with ridiculous conventions and subtle satire. Brilliant, inventive, witty, and hilarious, Wilde’s play is a milestone in the history of Western theater and probably the greatest achievement of this writer. The author did a great job of criticizing the Victorian era, noble gentlemen, ladies, and their attitude to love and marriage. This seemingly frivolous play is a sharp satire of both the hypocrisy of the society in which Wilde lived and its devastating effect on the souls of those who lived under Victorian rule. The writer honestly depicted the society of Victorian England, distinguished by the aristocracy, class consciousness and elitism, scarcity of human values, materialistic aspirations, and hypocrisy.
Christian, Mary. Marriage and Late-Victorian Dramatists. Springer Nature, 2020.
Dixon, Tracy. “The Importance of Being Earnest.” SWOSU Sayre Student Anthology, vol. 1, no. 2, 2019, 25-27.
Shabir, Junaid Shah. “Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’as a caricature of Victorian England.” Contemporary Literary Review India, vol. 7, no. 3, 2020, pp. 80-90.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays: Lady Windermere’s Fan; Salome; A Woman of No Importance; An Ideal Husband; The Importance of Being Earnest. Oxford Paperbacks, 2008.