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.
Table of contents
“The Importance of Being Earnest” was written by the famous Irish author Oscar Wilde. Wilde was born in 1854 and died of cerebral meningitis in 1900. “The Importance of Being Earnest” was his final and most lasting play – “by all accounts, a masterpiece of modern comedy.”1
This play is filled with wit and wisdom, which Wilde himself wrote of it, too.
“Well I think, an amusing thing with lots of fun and wit might be made.”2
It represents Wilde´s late –Victorian view of the aristocracy, marriage, wit and social life.
The play tells the story of Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff. Both men lead a double life. One in the country and one in the city. Then, they both fall in love, and a series of crises threatens to spoil their romantic pursuits.
The main plot line of the play is definitely marriage. “Of course Wilde pokes fun at the institution of marriage, which he saw as a practice surrounded by hypocrisy and absurdity.”2 He focuses on the higher class and satirises the life of the English aristocracy. His characters are typical Victorian snobs who are arrogant, overly proper, formal and concerned with money.
This essay will provide an outline of the comic effects in this play. How Wilde uses humour, satire, farce and irony. The analysis will show, what makes this comedy so funny and so special. The essay will show some combinations of dialogue, dramatic irony, social criticism, characterisation and exaggeration and it will prove that the dialogues with its puns and epigrams are the basis for the humour in Wilde´s last play.
One of the ways Wilde´s wit manifests itself is in puns. He uses puns quite often throughout the whole play. The first double meaning can be already found behind the word “earnest” in the title. On the one hand, it functions as the name of a man and on the other hand, it is an adjective and describes seriousness. The whole play actually turns around this theme. Both male characters, Jack and Algernon, pretend to be Ernest. They are lying to the women they are in love with. But towards the end of the play, they discover, that they hadn´t been lying at all. In claiming to be Ernest, both men had been earnest without knowing it by themselves.
In the play, the characters who are not earnest are rewarded with love. They don´t act like the Victorian society wants them to be, they lie to get what they want. They stand up against the society during this time. Not like Lady Bracknell, who is the typical upper class lady in Wilde´s era. She shows the unhappiness of such a way of life.
But there can be more puns found in the play. The extended “dentist” joke for example in Act I is quite characteristic of his plays on words, of which we are never quite sure that the characters are fully aware.
Jack. My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist. It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn´t a dentist. It produces a false impression. Algernon. Well, that is exactly what dentists always do. (5)3
These puns show how easily you can play with the English language. It demonstrates that Wilde must have had an interest in playing games with the English language.
The construction of the false impression which is created in Act I and the explosion of the joke in Act III can be named as another major pun.
Another pun is hidden in the first few lines of the play. When Algernon is talking with his butler Lane.
Algernon. Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?
Lane. I didn´t think it polite to listen, sir.
Algernon. I´m sorry for that, for your sake. I don´t play
accurately – any one can play accurately – but I play
with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is
concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for life. (1)
The pun occurs here in the word “forte”. It stands both, for human strength and a loud playing in the context of music. With this pun, Algernon wants to tell everyone, how great he is. He knows how to use words to compliment himself, without making it too obvious.
1 www.homepages.together.net/-theatre/earnest/synopsis.htm 22.07.2001
2 STUDY-AID SERIES. The Importance of Being Earnest. Methuan, 1968.
3 All numbers in brackets refer to the page number of:
Oscar Wilde. The Importance of Being Earnest.