Entertainment and Criticisms of the Victorian Era
At first glance, Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest, appears to be a witty comedic work. When one takes a closer look, however, it becomes apparent that Wilde was issuing a variety of criticisms about the Victorian period. The characters are perceived as having power and wealth, and the very idea having said power causes the characters to behave in a way that they believe to be worthy of that power. They will stop at nothing to keep up this “powerful” facade; even fabricating lies to do so. even it means fabricating the truth. The play constantly pokes fun at the era on topics such as honesty, marriage, and compassion. Through the witty dialogue and scenarios throughout the play, Wilde reveals the deceitfulness in the importance behind the word earnest. This ultimately leads to unfolding the many truths, including the reality of Earnest.
The name Earnest is one of the many rising conflicts that takes place in the Victorian era. Wilde, in my opinion, has constructed a plot that is confusing and tricky at times to show the ridiculousness of Victorian society. The illogical events and the motivations behind these events are meant to poke fun and show how illogical Victorian society has become. For example, the main character, Jack Worthing, was a wealthy man who developed an alter ego, Earnest who he claims is his brother. He uses this fictional character by escaping to the city of London to avoid social obligation. His friend, Algernon also uses a similar tactic to escape from social engagement by inventing an imaginary friend, Bunbury. In reality, Algernon makes up these lies to go to the country to see Jack’s ward, Cecily. To Cecily, he is known as Earnest. Similar to Jack, Algernon uses the name Earnest to manipulate Cecily into reciprocating his love. Jack is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, Algernon’s cousin. Gwendolen is so infatuated with the name Earnest that she refuses to marry a man if his name is not Earnest. In the first act, Gwendolen says, “There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.” (Wilde, Oscar). Gwendolen is blindsided by loyalty and love because she believes ‘Earnest’ portrays honesty.,
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In another example of hypocrisy that was common to Victorian society can be seen in Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell. She vehemently expresses her distaste of Jack because of his poor family dynamic. She is so quick to judge his character because he was found in a hand-bag at a railway train station when he was a young boy. Lady Bracknell voices her opinion of Jack in the first act saying, “Mr. Worthing, I confess I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.” (Wilde, Oscar). Here she not only deems herself worthy of judging another, but she criticizes Jack for an upbringing that he had absolutely no control over.
Another consequence of Jack and Algernon’s lies is that they lead Cecily and Gwendolen to believe that they are in love with the same Earnest. Their proposals coincidently falling on the same day introduce us to the flaws of marriage that occurred in this era.
Criticisms of marriage is another social issue that is taken lightly in the Victorian era. It was preferable to see cousins marry than one find true happiness with someone who is not equally as wealthy, powerful, or family oriented. An example of criticism of marriage is shown in Frank Miller’s article, “Turner Classic Movies.” He stated, “An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself.” (Miller, Frank. 1952). To no surprise, this was said by Lady Bracknell and in this era, a criticism like this was seen as acceptable. However, a woman should be able to decide for herself who she wants to spend her life with. In Lady Bracknell’s eyes, marriage wasn’t seen as a lifelong commitment, it was a way to become wealthier; a simple means to an end. This is proven in the Third Act of Wilde’s story. Soon after Jack mentions Cecily’s fortunes, Lady Bracknell confides in her relationship with Algernon. She says, “A moment, Mr. Worthing. 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, any of the qualities that last, and improve with time.” (Wilde, Oscar). It was obvious that Lady Bracknell had changed her opinion of Cecily when she became aware of her wealth.
One of the key tenets of marriage is that of trust; an unspoken bond based entirely on loyalty and trust. The sacredness of the institution of marriage is completely taken for granted and disrespected by Jack and Algernon. These men both proposed to their loved ones and, in theory, are promising to always be truthful and faithful. Yet, their entire relationships with these women have been built on lies and this shows the lack of respect men in this era had for women. If their love was so strong, they wouldn’t have to lie about their own names to win over these women. Women should also be ridiculed for choosing to love someone simply because of their name. As we see in Wilde’s story and in his commentary as a whole, the actual Earnest doesn’t exactly live up to his name. This demonstrates the lack of respect and compassion the characters had for each other.
Another one of Wilde’s critique of the Victorian Era is the lack of compassion and sympathy the characters showed for their family and friends. Lady Bracknell, who herself can be seen as a burden in many aspects, has very little sympathy for most. Algernon suggests that Bunbury had suddenly died. He said, “My dear Aunt Augusta, I mean he was found out! The doctors found out that Bunbury could not live, that is what I mean—so Bunbury died. “When she is told about the death of Algernon’s imaginary friend, she shows hatred toward Algernon. In the Third Act she says, “He seems to have had great confidence in the opinion of his physicians. I am glad, however, that he made up his mind at the last to some definite course of action and acted under proper medical advice. And now that we have finally got rid of this Mr. Bunbury, may I ask, Mr. Worthing, who is that young person whose hand my nephew Algernon is now holding in what seems to me a peculiarly unnecessary manner?” (Wilde, Oscar). If Algernon were telling the truth about Bunbury, Lady Bracknell would be seen as heartless. She completely brushed off the fact that Bunbury had passed away. Through these scenes and depictions, we are ultimately, shown that this era had a variety of downfalls which revealed the lack of morality and values.
Wilde’s story criticizes the upper-class of Victorian society, calling attention to the worst of their faults; they lack respect for one another which is clearly seen through the absence of genuine care for one another, poor marital respect and freedom, and overall neglect of moral values. In the end we come to learn that Jack is actually Earnest. Through all of the lies he comes to realize the importance of being Earnest.