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The Importance of Being Earnest as a Social Satire

A brief look at Wilde's humourous critique of Victorian society.

[q]Lady Bracknell: ?A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her. Few girls of the present day have any really solid qualities that last, and improve with time. We live I regret to say, in an age of surfaces. [/q][1]
Lady Bracknell?s sudden change of mind with regard to Cecily?s suitability as wife to Algernon reveals the essence of {The Importance of Being Earnest}. This marvellous frivolity as Eltis remarks, is ?the most capricious, and most uniquely Wildean? [2] of all Oscar Fingal O?Flahertie Wills Wilde?s plays. To the great annoyance of George Bernard Shaw, it was and still remains a perfectly formed farce, engagingly amusing and constantly funny. Writing in the Saturday review, Shaw declared:
[q]I cannot say that I greatly cared for {The Importance of Being Earnest}. It amused me of course; but unless a comedy touches me as well as amuses me, it leaves me with a sense of having wasted my evening. [/q][3]
Shaw had been an active member of the Fabian Society ? a Socialist ? who though firmly established in the upper echelons of English society, disliked what he saw as pandering to their whims.
But I believe that Shaw had missed Wilde?s true meaning of {The Importance}. Yes it is floral and decorative, and on first appearance perhaps a little shallow, however ?this was the camouflage for Wilde?s most subversive and satirical work.?[4] Three years prior to the completion of the stage version of {The Importance of Being Earnest}, Wilde wrote in his essay ? {The Soul of Man Under Socialism }? of the potential for revolutionary art in ?burlesque and farcical comedy, the two most popular forms [of drama].? [5] Thus through {The Importance}, Wilde uses this medium to amuse with one hand and undermine with the other.
The Importance of Being Earnest is essentially the absolute absurd bound by a thinly layered normality ? to Wilde farce equals anarchy and everything is reversed. Nowhere is this more evident than in the very first scene of the first act involving Algernon and his manservant Lane. In particular, the normal perceptions of marriage and class are reversed; this is a common theme throughout the play.
[q]Algernon: ?if the lower orders don?t set us a good example what on earth is the use of them? [/q] and
[q]If I ever get married, I?ll certainly try to forget the fact. [/q][6]
Algernon luxuriates in a society that has created its own rules, morals and principles.
Initially Wilde attempted to sell the play to theatre companies, describing it as a harmless farce written to indulge the public, at a time when he was gaining considerable notoriety. Having first refused the play, George Alexander agreed to stage The Importance of Being Earnest, though Oscar warned ?that the play might be too slight.?[7] ?Subversive? is a word that is bandied about by many modern critics when discussing {The Importance of Being Earnest}, yet Wilde was at pains to downplay any subversive subtext and present it as he hoped it would be perceived by its intended audience:
[q]?to Charles Mason he reported that ?it is quite nonsensical and has no serious interest?, but ?will I hope bring me in a lot of red gold.? [/q][8]However, as Wilde prepared the script for publication five years later, he emphasised that The Importance was not quite as harmless as he had originally pretended. Following his prison sentence Wilde was unsure of the reception his published works may receive:
[q]While the public like to hear of my pain?I am not sure that they will welcome me again in airy mood and spirit, mocking at morals, and defiance of social rules.[/q][9]
{The Importance of Being Earnest} aims a stinging blow at Victorian society, in particular at the upper and middle classes. For the purpose of the play Lady Bracknell equals society ? though again, Wilde?s interpretation of society. She is an immense snob with an insatiable appetite for money and wealth. On hearing of Jack?s proposal to her daughter Gwendolen, she immediately begins to interrogate Jack about his means ? ?What is your income??. Many Victorian handbooks on etiquette existed detailing how to deal with various social niceties, and it can safely be assumed that questioning other guests about their financial means was not considered polite drawing room manners. Lady Bracknell does not stop there:
[q]You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter ? a girl brought up with the utmost of care ? to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel. Good morning Mr. Worthing! [/q][10]
No doubt this would have titillated Wilde?s audience, there was an overt snobbery exhibited by the upper classes and targeted at the social climbing merchant class. This is reflected in much of the literature of the period, for example Austen?s Emma or indeed Balzac?s P?re Goriot, where the old landed gentry are socially superior to these nouveaux riches. Indeed Sos Eltis points out:
[q]Lady Bracknell?s interviewing of Jack [is] the centrepiece of Wilde?s satire?while without addressing Jack directly, she reduces her daughter?s suitor to a social impossibility. [/q][11]
The working classes are also a source of distress for Lady Bracknell. At a time in Britain when there were growing calls for free education for the masses, Lady Bracknell finds relief in the poor state of the educational system.
[q]Lady Bracknell: ?The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes and probably lead to violence in Grosvenor Square. [/q][12]
As the play progresses there is a juxtaposition of the contemporary male/female role. Men are there to be looked at, as pleasant decorative artefacts. Algy and Jack are the given examples of man ? with enough time on their hands to do everything they could possibly wish to do, which is:
[q]Jack: Nothing
Algy: It is awfully hard work doing nothing. However. I don?t mind hard work where there is no definite object of any kind. [/q][13]
Lady Bracknell concedes that smoking is an entirely acceptable occupation for a gentleman as ?there are far too many idle men.?[14] Similarly, the idea that a man must be knowledgeable is not a belief that Lady Bracknell would prescribe to, as she does ?not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance.?[15] This was principally the Victorian view of women, but Wilde and a socially aware intelligentsia were not so certain of this. Things had to change and were undoubtedly changing.
Wilde was a great champion of the ?new woman?; indeed Speranza ? Lady Wilde, Oscar?s mother ? provided his greatest inspiration. He used some of these characteristics in constructing Gwendolen and Cecily. They are both university educated, upwardly mobile individuals, very intelligent and just as witty as their male cohorts. Nevertheless, Wilde adds a little fickleness and other stereotypical female mannerisms for comedic effect.
Gwendolen is the epitome of the sophisticated, modern woman about town, where as Cecily is ? at first ? displayed as the natural, unspoilt country girl. Much of the humour arises as Wilde pits the two characters against one another. Cecily is not as innocent as we are first led to believe. There is a vivid contrast between her ?supposed maiden simplicity and her actual intelligence, self-possession, and knowing acuteness.? [16] The women?s initial bonding and subsequent misunderstanding illustrates that Cecily is certainly not the Victorian stereotypical ?country girl?, and gives as good as she gets:
[q]Oh, flowers are as common here, Miss Fairfax, as people are in London.[/q][17]
She, like the other female characters, takes firm control of her man from the outset. Algy?s patronizing superiority is easily sterilised by Cecily?s unsheathed wit. The idea of marriage is a major theme in The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde once wrote:
[q]In our day it is best for a man to be married, and men must give up the tyranny in married life which was once so dear to them. [/q][18]
However, by the time Wilde came to write The Soul of Man Under Socialism, and later The Importance, ?his views on marriage had become radically subversive, precisely because he observed how deeply the institution was embroiled in property and commerce.?[19] Lady Bracknell the standard bearer of institutionalised Victorian morals, confesses to the fact that even she had no personal wealth before her marriage to Lord Bracknell. Despite this fact, she will not allow her daughter ?to marry into a cloak-room? nor will she permit the marriage of her nephew, Algernon, to Cecily ? that is until she learns of Cecily?s acceptable ?background.? Jack uses Cecily?s wealth and lineage as a bargaining tool:
[q]The moment you consent to my marriage with Gwendolen, I will most gladly allow your nephew to form an alliance with my ward. [/q][20]
Lady Bracknell regards marriage firstly as a financial and social transaction, and secondly as a battle for domination. It is not until the final d?nouement ?when Miss Prism arrives, and Jack?s lineage attains familial respectability, can the comedy move to its formal resolution: marriage.?[21]
Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble may be regarded as the ?moralizing members of the population who condemn vice.?[22] Their pious behaviour is ridiculed by their ?vicarious pleasure? in hearing about various tales of gossip and society scandal. Prism condemns the working classes for lack of thrift in producing too many children, while Chasuble conducts his life according to strict codes of canonical practice. [23] From a modern perspective, their lustful behaviour and quiet walks together, display the true extent of Victorian hypocrisy.
In some regards the balance of the sexes is equal. Algy, Jack, Gwendolen and Cecily draw comparative sympathy from the audience. Yet Wilde takes every opportunity to satirise contemporary fads, whether he is in favour of them or not. For example, just as male domination is mocked so too is the idea of female independence ? Oscar was nothing if not fair handed. The notion that Cecily will be under the ward-ship of Jack until she is thirty-five years of age is clearly ridiculous, though essential to the plot. Cecily?s sexual eagerness separates her from the conventionally innocent heroine. Not only does she offer the encouragement needed by Algy to pursue her and convince him of his love for her, but declines the prospect of remaining the eternally faithful maiden. ?Waiting, even to be married, is quite out of the question.?[24]
It is hardly surprising then, in a world and society where men are so subdued that the only method of escape is ?Bunburying.? When ?Algernon Moncrief escapes from the regimen of respectability he does so on the pretext of visiting a permanent invalid friend who is not only fictional, he is also Irish.?[25] Thus Bunbury according to Neil Sammells, in Rediscovering Oscar Wilde, is the absent Irish presence in The Importance. It has been suggested that duality is a theme in the play ? and at least superficially that seems obvious. But some commentators have even suggested that the Bunbury concept points to a Wildean homosexual subtext.[26] Certainly this would reflect Wilde?s own problems with Bosie?s uncle, the Marquess of Queensbury, and possibly his own ?Bunburying? in Algeria with fellow Bunburyist Andr? Gide.[27]
Archibald Henderson reviewing The Importance noted: ?[it] never rises above the farcical plane because its characters are endowed with every grace save the saving grace of reality.?[28] While this is very much the case The Importance of Being Earnest, even today, lives up to its much-cited tag as ?the best of Wilde?s plays.? In the words of the eminent Anglo-Irish scholar, Richard Ellman:
[q]The Importance of Being Earnest constructs its wonderful parapet over the abyss of the author?s disquietude and apprehension. By a desperate stratagem Wilde keeps the melancholy of the world at a distance. Deception is everywhere, cancelled by spontaneity and humour. Erotic passions compete with family ambition, innocence longs for experience, and experience longs for innocence. Tears are taboo. Wilde masked his cares with the play?s insouciance, by a miracle of control. A friend said it should be like a piece of mosaic, ?No?, Wilde said, ?it must go like a pistol shot.?[/q] [29]


[1] Wilde, O. F. O?F. W., The Importance of Being Earnest, London: Penguin, 2000, pp348-349.
[2]Eltis, S., Revising Wilde ? Society and Subversion in the Plays of Oscar Wilde, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996, p170.
[3] Beckson, K. (ed.), Oscar Wilde ? The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge & Keagan Paul, 1970, p195.
[4] Eltis, p171.
[5] Ellman, R. (ed.), Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, London: WH Allen & Co., 1970, pp255-289. From here on in this book will be referred to as ?Ellman, Critical Writings?, with relevant page numbers for each citation.
[6] Wilde, pp296 & 297.
[7] Eltis, p174.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Wilde, p311.
[11] Eltis, p180.
[12] Wilde, p309.
[13] Wilde, p314.
[14] Wilde, p308.
[15] Wilde, p309.
[16] Eltis, pp182-183.
[17] Wilde, p337.
[18] Varty, A., A Preface to Oscar Wilde, London: Longman, 1998, p197.
[19] Ibid.
[20] Wilde, p352.
[21] Varty, p197.
[22] Eltis, p194.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Wilde, p351.
[25] Sandulescu, C. G. (ed.), Rediscovering Oscar Wilde, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1994, p362.
[26] This is taken from the footnote on page 198 of Eltis? Revising Wilde, which in turn sources an article entitled ?Alias Bunbury?, by Craft.
[27] Ellman, R., Oscar Wilde, London: Penguin Books, 1988, p405. From here on this book will be referred to as ?Ellman, OW,? with relevant page numbers for each citation.
[28]Beckson, K. (ed.), Oscar Wilde ? The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge & Keagan Paul, 1970, p276.
[29] Ellman, OW, p399.


Beckson, K. (ed.), Oscar Wilde ? The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge & Keagan Paul, 1970.

Coakley, D., The Importance of Being Irish, Dublin: Town House, 1994.

Ellman, R. (ed.), Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, London: WH Allen & Co., 1970.

________, Oscar Wilde, London: Penguin Books, 1988.

Eltis, S., Revising Wilde ? Society and Subversion in the Plays of Oscar Wilde, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996.

Hart-Davis, R. (ed.), Selected Letters of Oscar Wilde, Oxford: OUP, 1979.

McCormack, J., Wilde ? The Irishman, London: Yale University Press, 1998.

Sandulescu, C. G. (ed.), Rediscovering Oscar Wilde, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, 1994.

Varty, A., A Preface to Oscar Wilde, London: Longman, 1998.

Wilde, O. F. O?F. W., The Importance of Being Earnest, London: Penguin, 2000.

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