Satire in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’
The importance of being earnest by Oscar Wilde uses satire to ridicule the cultural norms of marriage love and mind-set which were very rigid during the Victorian Age. Because it uses satire to ridicule these instituitions, it shows the deviance from the social order by making ridiculous the ideas of standards, morals and manners. By trying to correct the flaws of the characters in this play, this piece also serves as a great form of critiscim. “The play really owes something to the restoration comic tradition.”
Wilde was a master at the art of turning the English language around to fit his sarcastic themes and in this play he accomplished that to a high level. The title of this piece is even a play-on-word “Earnest” which can mean two different things. It can mean the obvious and be the actual characters name, but it also can mean a sense of seriousness and he then conveys that seriousness into reality for the characters. The two main characters in the play, Jack and Algernon, made every effort to be “Ernest” and “Earnest” in the play. They start their relationship based on the lies in the hope of marrying the girls that they love. There is irony in the play when they both call themselves “Earnest”, a name that suggests honesty and sincerity, yet they both create stories to escape something or the other. Jack creates a brother called “Ernest” in the city that he uses as a ‘scape goat’ to leave his prim and proper, respectable country life, whereas Algernon creates a friend by the name of “Bunbury” to escape his aunt’s high class society parties. He shows his lack of interest in such social events when he tells Jack,
“She will place me next to Mary Farquhar, who always flirts with her own husband across the dinner table. That is not very pleasant It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.” (Wilde, 533)
The Importance of Being Earnest focuses on two main couples, Jack and Gwendolen and Algernon and Cecily. Both Gwendolen and Cecily yearn to have a husband called “Ernest.” They both place emphasis on such a trivial matter as a name. When Jack attempts to tell Gwendolen that his name is really “Jack” and not “Ernest” she replies saying, “Jack”… No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed.” (Wilde,537) The only really safe name is Ernest.” Wilde deliberately uses farce in the play to exaggerate the mind frame of the upper class. It is seen here that Gwendolen loves Jack, but she places greater importance on silly, superficial and trivial matters such as a name, something a person has no control over. Similarly, Cecily also dreams of loving someone called “Ernest.” She clearly states to Algernon, “There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence. I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest.”(Wilde,556).
Again, Wilde is satirizing the institution of marriage, as it is not based on love, but on more vain superficial criteria. Although in this case there is exaggeration used to satirize the vanity of the aristocrats, Wilde still brings across the point that both Gwendolen and Cecily may have refused to marry the ‘men of their dreams’ if their names weren’t ‘Ernest.’
In Act Three of the play when Cecily asks Algy if he would wait until she was thirty-five years to be married (Wilde,570), even though Algy says yes, Cecily bluntly tells him she cannot. .”..I couldn’t wait all the time. I hate waiting even five minutes for anybody. It makes me rather cross.”(Wilde,570) One would think that after dreaming so much of the man she claims to love, waiting to be married will be a small favour to ask. In fact, Wilde uses another couple, Miss Prism and Mr. Chasuble as a foil to show the contrast between a relationship built on love and one built on other materialistic, shallow values. Miss Prism seems to be the only woman who doesn’t have an ulterior motive in the play when comes to marriage and love. Even Algernon seems to have ulterior motives. He has never met Cecily before, yet when he sees her, he instantly falls in love with her. Furthermore, his negative views on marriage in the opening scene, where he refers to it as ‘demoralising,’ seem to suddenly change when he meets Cecily. It can be inferred that Algernon’s bankruptcy influences his attraction to Cecily. Both Jack and Algernon are determined to get themselves christened in order to hold on to Gwendolen and Cecily. That also shows some level of vanity in the men as they are not even slightly perturbed that the women place so much emphasis on their names. These couples seem to be wearing masks as they all appear one way, but seem to have some ulterior motives behind their actions. Gwendolen and Cecily both appear as ladies when they first meet, calling each other sisters, “My first impressions of people are never wrong.” Yet when they believe that they’re engaged to the same “Ernest,” there is immediate coldness between them. Gwendolen satirically says to Cecily, “I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.” (Wilde,559) This is called ‘dissembling’ as the characters aren’t literally wearing masks, but metaphorically they are all pretending to be someone they aren’t. There is the division between truth and identity and it shows that sometimes certain laws in society force people to lead double lives.
Lady Bracknell is the driving force behind the plot of The Importance of Being Earnest. She represents women of the Victorian upper class society and believes that those of high class should be the ones in power. She has very little opinion of those with no title, or money and views the upper class society as being a ‘closed club.’ In other words, most people don’t deserve to be in it unless they were born into it. She appears as a guardian of society in that she forcefully dictates who should marry who in the play. In the first scene, Gwendolen is unable to defend herself from wanting to marry Jack when he proposes to her. Lady Bracknell firmly steps in saying, “Pardon me, you are not engaged to anyone. When you do become engaged to some one, I, or your father, will inform you.” Lady Bracknell is portrayed as a forceful character who leaves no room for opposition. Even though Gwendolen wants to oppose her, she hasn’t the strength to do so. Wilde uses Lady Bracknell to show a typical aristocrat who bends no rules of the upper class society. One example where he shows how values are inverted and emphasis is placed on more trivial matters is the scene where Lady Bracknell meets with Jack to discuss Gwendolen. In this scene we see that in stead of asking Jack if he loves Gwendolen (which would seem to be the most important question); Lady Bracknell focuses on the materialistic side of it. She questions Jack about his money, land, house and the area in which he lives. She makes it clear that it’s important for Jack to have a house in the town because Gwendolen cannot live in a country house. It is also seen here that Lady Bracknell treats the trivial things seriously, even though she’s supposed to be an upholder of the values of society. However, little attention is paid to moral values. In stead, Lady Bracknell is displeased with the side of which Jack’s town house is located- the unfashionable side. She thinks that everyone’s interest will be similar to hers and subtly tells him, “The unfashionable side. I thought there was something. However that could easily be altered.” The entire way in which Lady Bracknell meets with Jack is as though she is of a superior being than him. She takes down his answers to her questions in a notepad, as though it’s an interview rather than a personal meeting with her daughter’s love. The setting of the meeting reflects how Lady Bracknell views marriage. It’s more like interviewing someone for the job of being Gwendolen’s husband rather than getting to know the man her daughter is interested in. Upon the shock that Jack was found and he doesn’t know who his real parents are, Lady Bracknell immediately dismisses him, especially when she finds out that he was found in a handbag. The farce continues when she tells Jack,
“I would strongly advise you, Mr. Worthing, to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible, and make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over.”
This is an extremely impossible request of Lady Bracknell, as it is obvious that Jack has no knowledge about his real parents. Although he knows that he desperately wants to marry Gwendolen, he doesn’t hide his amazement upon Lady Bracknell’s request, “Well I don’t see how I could possibly manage to do that. I can produce the hand-bag at any moment.” This simply highlights how trivial the important things are to Lady Bracknell and how important the trivial things are to her. This is a major point Oscar Wilde focuses on in this comedy of manners- values are totally reversed.
Another example of Lady Bracknell’s ignorance of the non-aristocrats is seen where she is ready to turn a blind eye to Cecily, when she hears that Algernon is engaged to her. She immediately judges Cecily based on the fact that Jack is her guardian. However, her views instantly change when Jack tells her that Cecily has a hundred and thirty thousand pounds in funds, “A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her.” Once again emphasis is placed on a person’s wealth rather than their personality, sincerity, or compassion for the other. Marriage is viewed as an economic factor, whereby people marry for wealth or to conserve wealth in their families, especially Lady Bracknell who represents the guardian of an upper class society. She is however a hypocrite and uses social morals to her convenience. For example, she refuses to let Jack marry Gwendolen because of his social background, yet she tries to justify a broke Algernon marrying the wealthy Cecily. Her social hypocrisy is highlighted when she also confesses that she was not rich when she married her husband. “Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that. When I married to Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind.” She furthermore thinks that her status gives her the right to approve of the marriage between Cecily and Algernon without asking Jack what he thinks. Eventually, both sides come to an agreement and Jack’s name turns out to really be Ernest and he’s really Lady Bracknell’s nephew. Wilde gives the typical happy ending where everyone lives happily ever after and the stern mask that Lady Bracknell wears slowly turns into a smile.
In conclusion, The Importance of Being Earnest strongly focuses on those of the upper class society and the vanity of the aristocrats who place emphasis on trivial matters concerning marriage. Both Algernon and Jack assume the identity of “Ernest” yet ironically, they both are beginning their marital lives based on deception and lies. Lady Bracknell represents the archetypal aristocrat who forces the concept of a marriage based on wealth or status rather than love. Through farce and exaggeration, Wilde satirically reveals the foolish and trivial matters that the upper class society looks upon as being important. As said earlier, a satiric piece usually has a didactic side to it. In this case, Lady Bracknell learns that the same person she was criticising is actually her own flesh and blood.
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