Module 4 Product

The Limited Victorian Society

"The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde

A satirical parody, "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde humorously puts the spotlight on the issues of Victorian society and its ideals. Keeping in mind that the play is satire, there is no doubt irony and messages disguised as humor shine throughout. The constant irony and drama between the characters is comical, but there is more to this play than comedy. The irony and humor throughout the play aim to dissect the unethical qualities of Victorian society. Victorian ideals included sexist expectations, strict social code, and conformity. Carefully and intentionally, Wilde successfully exposed the inhumane and limiting ideals through his play.

Sexist Expectations

Sexist expectations were symbolized by all characters in the play. Women in Victorian society were seen as objects of marriage and innocence and were strictly limited to becoming a powerless housewife. This can be seen in the characters of Gwendolen and Cecily. The two women were solely interested in courtship and "proper" social status. While men had expectations for women, women also had expectations for men. Men in Victorian society were supposed to be successful, rich, "manly", married, and impressive. To poke fun at this, Wilde created the characters of Algernon and Jack. These two tried excessively hard to come off as successful and impressive in order to get married to prove their manhood. Ironically, the two men both lied about their names being "Ernest" in order to impress and attract Gwendolen and Cecily. The name Ernest is a play on the word earnest, and the meaning is what really intrigued the two girls. In addition, men were expected to be glorified caretakers for their wives and families. When Algernon and Jack admit that they were going to be Christened with the name Ernest, the girls are impressed and wooed by their act of generosity and sacrifice for themselves. Wilde uses irony and humor here to make fun of the expectation for men as the girls were so easily wooed by an idiotic act.

Strict Social Code

Victorian society indefinitely had a terribly strict social code. People were compelled to better themselves simply for the social aspect and increased probability of marriage. The social code put an immense amount of pressure on both men and women to meet expectations. If one did not meet the expectations or follow the social code, that person could expect to be disliked and not considered for marriage. Again, Wilde puts the spotlight on this unethical issue through the use of the characters. Jack and Algernon led alternate lives; Ernest and Bunbury, respectively. Wilde did this to show that the pressures of the social code can be too much. Ernest and Bunbury were alternate lives of Jack and Algernon that allowed them to escape the pressures and expectations the Victorian society had for them. Yet it is quite ironic that Ernest was the most desired even though he is an alter ego created for the purpose of escaping the society.

Conformity

With the lack of ambitions and independence throughout the play, it is apparent that the inhabitants of Victorian society conformed to the social norm. Pressure and expectations led people to conform to the social norm, while the social contract provoked people to lack independence and individuality. Of course, Wilde saw this issue and humorously brought light upon it. In the play, Jack and Algernon constantly lie about being Ernest in an attempt to gain courtship. Then, when Gwendolen says, "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.", it shows her shallowness and conformity to the materialistic society. The characters lacked the sincerity to be ambition and truthful.

"The Importance of Being Earnest" Supporting Quotes

  • "Algernon: Lane's views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility. (I.17)" - Algernon's statement is ironic in that he believes the lower class should set the example for the higher classes.
  • "Gwendolen: 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. (I.167)" - Gwendolen demonstrates Victorian societies shallow focus on appearances. She is much more concerned with her appearance than anything else.
  • "Miss Prism: [Calling] Cecily, Cecily! Surely such a utilitarian occupation as the watering of flowers is rather Moulton's duty than yours? Especially at a moment when intellectual pleasures await you. Your German grammar is on the table. (II.1)" - Miss Prism expresses how she believes watering flowers is an activity inferior people participate in and that Cecily should be bettering herself through study.
  • "Jack: [In a very patronising manner] My dear fellow, the truth isn't quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl. What extraordinary ideas you have about the way to behave to a woman! (I.236)"- To follow the social norms of Victorian society, Jack tells the women that they are too innocent and fragile to hear the truth, so the men must protect them. Wilde brings out how the society's ideals are undermining and sexist.
  • "Gwendolen: Outside the family circle, papa, I am glad to say, is entirely unknown. I think that is quite as it should be. The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man. And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I don't like that. It makes men so very attractive. (II.266)"- Wilde expresses that women are more capable than Victorian society puts them up to be.
  • "Lady Bracknell: Mr. Worthing, is Miss Cardew at all connected with any of the larger railway stations in London? I merely desire information. Until yesterday I had no idea that there were any families or persons whose origin was a Terminus. [Jack looks perfectly furious, but restrains himself.] (III.61)"- Lady Bracknell shallowly insults Jack and declares that she is of much higher class than him. This shows the social expectations and materialism of Victorian society.
  • "Gwendolen: [After a pause] They don't seem to notice us at all. Couldn't you cough?Cecily: But I haven't got a cough.Gwendolen: They're looking at us. What effrontery!Cecily: They're approaching. That's very forward of them. (III.3-6)" - Due to women's lack of power or roles in society, capturing men's gazes gives them a sense of empowerment.
  • "Jack: Then I was christened! That is settled. Now, what name was I given? Let me know the worst.Lady Bracknell: Being the eldest son you were naturally christened after your father. (III.162-163)"- This showed how important bloodlines were for wealth and power.
  • "Gwendolen: I adore you [Jack]. But you haven't proposed to me yet. Nothing has been said at all about marriage. The subject has not even been touched on. (I.157)"- Her insistence on proper proposals shows her as petty.
  • "Lady Bracknell: You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter - a girl brought up with the utmost care - to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel? Good morning, Mr. Worthing! (I.218)"- Lady Bracknell believed women should marry to increase their social status.

"Class, Culture and Suburban Anxieties in the Victorian Era" by Richard L. Stein

This article by Stein suggests that the Victorian ideals originated from rising incomes, moving demographics, and villages becoming less picturesque. The rather large income gap caused distress among the people and put hopes and fears into the material places. Anxieties rose as people felt compelled to conform to society and become more materialistic. Ultimately, the article supports the idea that Victorian ideals were unethical due to the pressures of the social contract and materialism.

Article Quotes

  • "The main outlines of Whelan's story are familiar: incomes rose, people moved, villages developed into something less picturesque."- This statement suggests the origins of Victorian ideals.
  • "As the size and idea of London shifted, material places gave rise to hopes and fears."- The materialism of homes and places of living causes anxiety.
  • "Escape from the inner city, once the cherished dream of a rising middle class, produced a social return of the repressed when undesirables joined the march of bricks and mortar out of town."- The large income gap caused much distress and social expectations.