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Essay: The Importance of Being Earnest – aristocratic society & Victorian attitudes

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published: 23 January 2022*
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  • Words: 1,039 (approx)
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  • Tags: Oscar Wilde essays

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Webster’s dictionary defines earnest as “characterized by or proceeding from an intense and serious state of mind,” a definition that is subject to total upheaval in The Importance of Being Earnest. Oscar Wilde uses satire to ridicule marriage, love, and the mentality of the Victorian aristocratic society in the play. George Bernard Shaw criticized the play saying, “Clever as it was, it was his first really heartless play,” referring to his belief that the play lacked the discussion of social, political, and humanity issues overall. Since Wilde made it his duty to mock Victorian life as an imperative part of the story, Shaw’s statement is superficial and lacks in-depth analysis of the storyline. Wilde intentionally portrayed the characters to lack humanity to effectively ridicule Victorian attitudes. The play was meant to mock every ideal Wilde was so against in his society using satire, and does so successfully. The title itself is a direct exposure of the hypocrisy of Victorian men and women and their lack of morality. The title of the play reflects that there is something valuable and even honorable about being “earnest”, or sincere. However, everybody in the play has lied to each other in one way or another. The end is even more ironic; all the lies that Jack said have turned out to be true. When Jack finds out about his dead parents, realizes that his name is dully Ernest, that he does have a brother, and that all this time he had been speaking out things that were true, he smugly says “now I know the vital importance of being earnest.” In other words, he is congratulating himself for being right all along, rather than admitting his mistakes.
The Importance of Being Earnest focuses on two main couples, Jack and Gwendolyn and Algernon and Cecily. Both Gwendolen and Cecily yearn to have a husband called “Ernest,” placing emphasis on 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. The only really safe name is Ernest.” Wilde deliberately and effectively uses farce in the play to exaggerate the mind frame of upper-class. Gwendolen actually loves Jack, but she places a 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 the name that seems to inspire absolute confidence. I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest.” Again, Wilde is effectively satirizing the institution of marriage, as it is not based on love, but more on 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 man of their dreams” if their names were not “Ernest.”
Through the comparison of education of nobles and lowe-class, juxtaposition is woven throughout the play for comedic effect and to further satirize the aristocracy. Lady Bracknell is the main character to portray this satirical technique, as she believes the upper class to be much more educated than the lower class, purely because of social status. “The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.” Her statement shows how she thinks the peasants should stay uneducated, for if they did receive an education, they would try to overtake the upper class, which, in her mind, are educated. Through the play though, the reader comes to understand that Lady Bracknell herself does not possess the intellect or knowledge to be considered “educated,” which leads them to see that the discrepancy in education between the upper and lower class is rather small, if there is any at all. Following Lady Bracknell’s beliefs, those of the lower class should lack the intellect of the upper class. Instead, a member of the lower class, Miss Prism, is portrayed as being quite intelligent compared to those around them. Miss Prism, a governess, has her knowledge credited by her student, Cecily, “You know German, and geology, and things of that kind influence a man very much.” Miss Prism’s vocabulary is also larger than all the other characters in the novel, commonly using words such as “misanthrope” and “vacillating.” This comparison between what Lady Bracknell says and Miss Prism’s nature, makes Lady Bracknell look badly and dim-witted. This is further proven by Cecily, a girl of higher class, who does not want anything to do with learning. With this subtle social criticism, Wilde demonstrates the ignorance and unjust ego of the upper-class through Lady Bracknell’s comedic lack of self-awareness.
The Importance of Being Earnest is, without a doubt, a light-hearted comedy criticizing aristocratic society and Victorian attitudes. The use of irony reveals an inconsistency between the characters’ words and the truth, supporting the idea that society is hypocritical. The play reflects the audience it was written for. In an interesting manner, he, in hidden words, says those things which can never be said directly to the people. He has conveyed his message to the Victorian Society and showed them the mirror. The play 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 effectively uses satire to reveal the foolish and trivial matters that the upper-class society looks upon as being important. The artificiality and paradox embedded in the dialogue well matches the sham and hypocritical values and pretensions of the people targeted by this satire.
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