Despite the comedy in the ways in which women in the play are presented, Oscar Wilde forces even a modern audience to attend deeply to serious matters. To what extent is this case in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’?
The Importance of Being Earnest is a trivial comedy for serious people written by Oscar Wilde and set in late Victorian London. The comedy is made purposely to criticise the aristocratic. The play’s crucial themes are the triviality with which it treats institutions as serious as marriage, and the satire of the Victorian system and their strong beliefs at the time. Although the play was heavily criticized for its lack of explicit social messages however its dialogue of high quality farce and wit made the comedy very successful to this present day.
Wilde presents the females of the play in a stereotypical manner. Women who are dainty, nice and not independent are seen as attractive and desirable (Cecily and Gwendolen) however, women who are independent and controlling are considered unattractive and mean. For example ‘but these expectations are completely flouted. The refined young ladies turn out to be hard-headed, cold-blooded, efficient and completely self-possessed and the young gentlemen simply crumple in front of them.
In the Victorian era, men had a greater influence than women. Men make the political decisions for their families and were the breadwinners, whilst women worked around the house and took care of the children. Men were valued for their intellect and judgment, while women were seen to be attractive to men for their beauty and chastity which is known as aesthetics. However, Wilde raises interesting questions about gender roles in The Importance of Being Earnest, by putting women (like Lady Bracknell) in positions of power (for example she is in charge of finding a suitable spouse for Cecily) and by showing that men (i.e., Jack and Algernon) can be irresponsible and terrible at decision-making. Lady Bracknell has usurped the traditionally masculinity role of dominating the household and granting permission for Gwendolen to marry Algernon. Wilde’s dandified women embody a threat that women might exercise power far beyond the purity that was allowed in middleclass ideology.
Wilde shows that Gwendolen, despite being from an aristocratic family who are wealthy enough to ensure Gwendolen to be admired and desired by all types of males despite how she looks, still earns for attention from Jack. This is shown in the following quote ‘What wonderfully blue eyes you have, Ernest! They are quite, quite, blue. I hope you will always look at me just like that, especially when there are other people present’ Gwendolen yearns for Ernest to “look at her just like that, es-pecially when there are other people present” reveals her to be a vain woman who is concerned about her appearance in the eyes of others. It is also telling that Gwendolen wants men to look at her in a desirous way, as if she specifically needs the male gender to validate her.
Each woman in the play represents different women in society. There are three women representatives of the upper class, and each has been portrayed in a satiri-cal manner. Wilde uses Gwendolen’s ignorance as humour for example through Cecily and Gwendolen’s dialogue he reveals that although fond of living in the city, she hates crowds. Cecily on the other hand is another representative of the upper-class and is indeed a better specimen than Gwendolen. She provides humour to the audience by her absurd behaviour. She keeps a diary and writes down every compliment and praise she receives from Jack. Wilde uses Lady Bracknell’s charac-ter to portray her as the most satirical character. Her domineering nature appears al-so in the manner in which she has control over her daughter and her own husband to the point where she completely controls who she has to marry. The portrayals of Lady Bracknell, Cecily and Gwendolen of the aristocracy is very successful in ex-posing the failings and absurdities of the women in society of the Victorian era. Wilde uses this to continuously make fun of women to the extent where feminists would argue that he is misogynist. For example Wilde portrays Cecily and Gwendo-len as love sick to the point where they are manipulated by the men they are in love with but are still quick to forgive them. Wilde is clearly sending a message to the au-dience at that time that women were completely reliant and dependant on men and even if they did wrong as long as they had money and power, would be accepted.
Oscar Wilde, the literary representative of the so-called Yellow Nineties, stood at the end of the nineteenth century and jeered at the Victorian age. He ridiculed Victorian values most particularly in The Importance of Being Earnest, probably his most popular work. Turning on the play of words in the title, the drama also satirizes the very idea of earnestness, a virtue to which the Victorians attached the utmost significance. To work hard, to be sincere, frank, and open, and to live life earnestly was the Victorian ideal. Wilde not only satirizes hypocrisy and sham virtue, he also mocks its authentic presence.
Wilde mocked the high society of his time, and he paid a high price for it. Within weeks of the first production of The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde’s career came to a scandalous and tragic end. Although Wilde was married and the father of two children, he, like many apparently heterosexual men, also had sex with men, a not unusual situation in late-nineteenth century England. Wilde’s mistake was to be open about his sexuality. When the marquis of Queensbury accused him in public of being a sodomite because of Wilde’s sexual affair with the marquis’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas, the playwright brought a suit of slander against the marquis. The case was dismissed after it was established in civil court that the marquis’s allegations were a matter of fact. However, because British law held homosexual acts to be criminal, once Wilde lost his suit alleging slander, the door opened for criminal proceedings against him. The first trial ended in a hung jury, but Wilde was immediately tried again, found guilty, and sentenced to two years hard labor. After serving the full sentence, he went at once to France. He did not set foot again on English soil, and he died in Paris two years later, a broken man.
These biographical details are closely connected with the art of Wilde and with The Importance of Being Earnest, a play in which a number of the characters lead double lives. The play’s characters, too, let truths slip out while pretending to be engaged in social chitchat. They are adroit at saying and doing two opposing things at once, and they are virtuosic in their use of language. Nearly all the humor in the play depends on these devices.
At times, it is not quite clear if the characters intend to imply another, usually hidden (because socially dangerous) meaning or if they are quite unconscious and even inept. This shimmer between intention and its opposite is constant throughout the play, making the play a parade of cognitive dissonance. Reading or watching the play is to observe the unconscious of the society of Wilde’s day. Indeed, Wilde’s popularity stemmed from the fact that his society loved the experience of watching its own unconscious on display. The Importance of Being Earnest, in particular, was immensely popular, its run cut short only by the real-life scandal that overtook the playwright. The man who exposed secrets so subtly in his writing had exposed his own altogether too explicitly.
The four young characters of the play have an engaging insouciance about them; they are defiant in their frankness and lovable for their vulnerability. At the same time, they represent a very distinct character type. Algernon, Jack, Gwendolen, and Cecily show intelligence, wit, and taste, but they also reveal the shallowness, frivolity, and hypocrisy of their kind. Indeed, they can strike an audience as downright idiotic at times, a reminder of the author’s final joke: a marriage pending between first cousins, the kind of union that society condemns for its possible consequences. The jibe at the inbred nature of polite society remains implicit, but it is all the funnier for being so.
An intellectual glow emanates equally from all the characters. The formidable and overbearing Lady Bracknell is given such wonderful lines that the audience grows fond even of her. The plain, uptight Miss Prism and her pompous lover, Canon Chasuble, would have been two-dimensional characters in anyone’s treatment but Wilde’s. However, he gives them things to say that are every bit as puzzling and funny as what the wittier characters say. Wilde’s humor is so intriguing because it is not clear whether what is said is meant to suggest all that it does suggest. It is the kind of humor that often requires a double take.
The plot of The Importance of Being Earnest hinges on mistaken identity, as many plots do, though not many do so to such comic effect. What is funny about the play is that the audience realizes that the characters could easily be someone quite other than who they seem. It is no wonder that audiences continue to love the play: Its humor is intoxicating, and its critique of society is breathtaking.