Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice and Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest, present opinions on society through irony, wordplay and characterization. The central themes of society that influence both texts include the significance of hierarchy and societal class, how love and courtship is either financially beneficial or true passion and how first impressions are often inaccurate and influence the reader’s perception of the character.
The over exaggeration of characters is present within both texts, particularly connected to the importance of first impressions. Within the Victorian age, it was common to base an entire opinion of someone on first impression. The characters of both texts are written to be ridiculous, in a cartoonish matter and somewhat reflect a Deus ex Machina. In an era in which all societal meetings were formal and serious, Wilde exaggerates the characters sincerity, particularly revolving around self-obsession and love, to highlight the sternness of the era in a humorous way. Similarly, in Pride and Prejudice, the actions of Austen’s exaggerated characters, emphasise the ridiculousness of the characters ability to judge situations, for example when Elizabeth meets Mr Darcy, she views him as a dark and arrogant person, but later changes her mind due to his financial state, “…these are heavy misfortunes…. but the wife of Mr Darcy must have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation, that she could, upon the whole, have no cause to repine…”. Austen often places these characters alongside ‘normal’ ones, to hide the level of irrationality similar to how it was during the Regency Era. Both authors enhance humour and often display a Deus ex Machina to express the absurdity in how first impressions were perceived. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Cecily Cardew makes a positive first impression upon Gwendolen Fairfax, “… something tells me that we are going to be great friends. I like you already more than I can say. My first impressions of people are never wrong…”; however, Gwendolen’s mind quickly changes after the miscommunication between her and Cecily regarding their engagements, “…from the moment I saw you I distrusted you. I felt that you were false and deceitful. I am never deceived in such matters. My first impressions of people are invariably right…”. Wilde’s characters are expressing the harsh reality of the Victorian Era within their dialogue and actions, whereas Austen is expressing her personal views and concerns regarding the Regency Era directly through authorial intrusion, particularly her character Jane Bennet. Authorial Intrusion is present in Jane Austen’s work due to her being a female writer and originally published Pride and Prejudice with a pen name; her inability to take credit for her work due to her gender, urged Austen to write her personal views through multiple characters and her own character. Austen’s text holds are more serious tone in comparison to Wilde’s. Wilde’s play offers a comedic relief to mask the deeper critical meaning. It appears light-hearted, yet it displays the harsh superficial aspects of Victorian life.
Superficial standards detained by society are present within both texts and are critiqued by both Austen and Wilde for the irrational philosophies and falseness of the time period, questioned by wordplay and puns. Wilde is continuously mocking the hypercritical and superficial views of the upper class throughout his text. The title of the play itself is a pun, and an initial mocking point as the true meaning of “Earnest” is to be sincere and show intense conviction. Both Jack and Algernon play the role of “Ernest”, which in turn forces the characters to learn the “Importance of Being Earnest”; the double meaning conveys a sense duality in all Victorian life. Within both texts, men possess the ability to create trickeries in social scenes. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Jack and Algernon display an act of dishonesty, referred to within the text as “Bunburying”, in order to receive affections, a direct form of hypocrisy against the name and its meaning. Pride and Prejudice presents how the aspects of societal standards connects people together. For example, the final relationship status between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy is present due to how society manipulated both characters into seeing the beneficial, and more commonly financial, gain of love, which Mrs Bennet gives voice to when she exclaims “…ten thousand a year and very likely more! ‘Tis as good as a Lord!…” . The disparities between social classes craft tension and great prejudice. Social classes of the same equity interact and are suitable to marry each other but will not interact with members who belong to class far below their own. For example, whilst the Bennet’s belong to the middle class, they interact with the Bingley’s and Darcy of the upper class. The Bennet’s are underlings of the social class and are treated in the manner by both the Bingley’s and Darcy’s. Austen satirizes this style of class awareness particularly through the character Mr Colin’s, whom of which spends majority of his time trying to impress upper class Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Alike Wilde, Austen’s title Pride and Prejudice too reflects as a pun, as Elizabeth is guilty of prejudice and Mr Darcy of pride.
Love and courtship are the two strongest themes within both texts, frequently displayed as a contract to inherent wealth rather than an act of love. Austen challenges the idea of marriage for personal profit by romanticising the courtship between Elizabeth and Darcy to emphasise the importance of the characters themselves rather than their social statuses; despite the fact that Elizbeth originally turned down Darcy’s proposal due to her wrongly accused first impression. Similarly, in The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde supports this belief within the engagement of Gwendolen and Jack, as the pair mean to marry for ‘love’, the arrangement was originally declined by Gwendolen due to Jack’s social status. Both Wilde and Austen question the nature of marriage from the opening lines and dialogue of their texts, with Pride and Prejudice opening with the statement “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife…”. Wilde questions marriage with the opening dialogue between Algernon and Lane, discussing if a marriage proposal is for “pleasure” or “business”, before Lady Bracknell states “…an engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be…”. Both authors are critiquing the time period, where society makes it impossible for women, especially of a lower class, to be financially independent, therefore the harsh reality of being forced into marriages was a convenient solution. In Pride and Prejudice the character Charlotte Lucas is designed to display this fact; by marrying a rich man, whom of which is not the brightest, for his money, demonstrating that love is not always the cause of marriage. However, Austen’s central characters suggest that ‘true love’ prevails.
Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde present the harsh realities of both the Victorian and Regency eras within their texts Pride and Prejudice and The Importance of Being Earnest. Although Austen’s text possesses a serious tone in comparison to Wilde’s comedic play, both authors display their personal views on marriage, superficial standards and the importance of first impressions in a light-hearted manner, that behind the coding, displays a range of serious opinions of society.
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