On Oscar Wilde´s "The Importance of Being Earnest"

Mirror and critic of the late Victorian gender concepts and the ideas of marriage

Term Paper 2011 14 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Victorian concepts of womanhood and the counterparts in Wilde´s play
2.1. Historical background and change of concepts
2.2. Cecily
2.3. Gwendolen

3. Appearance and reality of marriage
3.1. Victorian concept of marriage
3.2. Algernon´s view of marriage
3.3. Jack´s view of marriage
3.4. Lady Bracknell´s view of marriage

4. Conclusion


Declaration of authorship

1. Introduction

In the Victorian period novels about daily life came into vogue, reflecting, criticizing, and questioning the societal habits and customs, particularly the issue of gender and the circumstances of marriage. Indeed, “the marriage plot is the dominant form of literacy fiction in this period,” (Dever, 157) mirroring the importance of the matrimony in this time for both men and women.

But not only these usually voluminous novels take up the mentioned themes, there were also plays and poems which dealt with social conditions and their effects on men and women alike. Oscar Wilde´s play The Importance of Being Earnest can be regarded as one of them. It is a “comedy of manners [which] refer[s] to ‘the conventions of an artificial society’ […].” (Study-aid series, 8) Treating these conventions in a comedic way by depicting extreme characters and situations, the play illustrates certain parts of the high society in an exaggerated way. These figures “do not present a comprehensive picture of society,“ (Study-aid series, 9) but they do present an angle of that society.

Wilde adheres to the common Victorian novel, which means complying with “the demand for a happy ending […] with a wedding at the end,” (Flint, 25) although the weddings are merely implied and not yet carried out. Also the fashion of publishing a novel in three volumes at least can be found in Wilde´s play, which consists of three acts. He even takes up typical appearing themes such as “a picnic and a parting in the second [volume], and an opportune death in the third,” (flint, 25) but following the manner of his play even death is being treated in a comedic and exaggerated way.

This paper will identify certain types of characters of the upper-class and relate them to the developments of the gender role in the Victorian era. Going along with it the men´s different attitudes toward marriage as a constantly present issue in the play will be illustrated and compared to the points of view that dominated the high society in that time. Wilde refers to many more social habits and temporary fashions which however shall not be part of this paper.

2. Victorian gender concepts and the counterparts in Wilde´s play

2.1. Historical background and change of concepts

In many early and mid Victorian novels men are depicted as villains who “take advantage of women at the slightest opportunity. Women must be continually in their guard, and this is what most of their education is about.” (Calder, 16) In the last two decades of the 19th century however, the concept of the female role was questioned and gradually changed in some aspects, mainly concerning the marriage issue. This can notably been seen in The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner or The Woman Who Did by Grant Allen, amongst others. In both novels the heroine refuses matrimony in order to stay self-contained or to evade the concept of marriage which she takes as degrading. Thus new female concepts evolve besides the already existing Angel in the house which embodies the emotional and caring (house)wife, and the ingénue, which combines sexual innocence with restricted intelligence: The femme fatal and the fallen woman. Both concepts undermine the female asexuality which used to go with the elder images of women. (cf. Schneider, 179)“Die Figurenkonzeption der New Woman war jedoch weder eine rein literarische Erfindung,“ (Schneider, 309) nor an analogy of reality. It rather illustrated the gradual and often selective developments in society.

Going along with it, the concept of the gentleman also changes slightly or rather becomes less desirable for the upper class. The “ideal type of manhood – serious, conscientious and morally impeccable […] became less attractive to high Society [sic], though they still governed the outward behavior of the majority of upper-class Englishmen.” (Margretson, 91)



2.2. Cecily

Cecily, although at the age of eighteen and therefore in the notion of the Victorian age already a woman, is a girlish and dreamy character. The other figures describe her as “excessively pretty” (Wilde, 16) and a “visible personification of absolute perfection” (Wilde, 31) Indeed, Algernon depicts her as a “perfect angel,” (Wilde, 33) which strongly reminds of the concept of the Angel in the House. As a matter of fact, Cecily herself is pleased about Algernon´s compliment and records it in her diary. “Certain details, such as the practice of keeping diaries to record the most minute details of everyday life, where then in vogue.” (Study-aids, 32) Cecily carries it to excess by writing down faked events such as Algernon´s - alias Ernest - proposal in the past and later taking this entry as proof for realness. In fact, women “have no reality except in terms of the marriages they are to make […].” (Calder, 18) Cecily is so much under compulsion to get married that she sees herself forced to invent a fiancé, for “[…] women who did not marry were a class of unfortunates.” (Calder, 58)

One gets the impression that Cecily is eager to completely fulfill the concept of the ideal Victorian woman when she tells Algernon that she “would [not] care to catch a sensible man. I shouldn´t know what to talk to him about.” (Wilde, 25) This remark conforms to the “Victorian men [who] looked for virtue and simplicity in their wives, not for intelligence, for purity and sentimental sweetness, not for boldness or independence.” (Margretson, 114) She even notes that she does not “quite like women who are interested in philanthropic work. I think it so forward of them“. (Wilde, 34) Her statement implies her preference for a familiar way of life albeit it means neglecting progress regarding the emancipation of women. Her ambition to not just get married but to get married to the most ideal man is shown when she states: “[…] it had always been a girlish dream of mine to love someone whose name was Ernest. […] I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest.” The name Ernest can be regarded as a telling name as Wilde shows in his pun he has Algernon used: “You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest looking person I ever saw in my life.” (Wilde, 5) The name Ernest in Wilde´s play stands for honesty, sincerity, reliability. It embodies all the virtues a gentleman of the Victorian age should possess. Therefore Cecily´s naïve fixation on this name which she holds on to: “Your Christian names are still an insuperable barrier,” (Wilde, 44) is her reaction to Algernon´s confession that his name is not Ernest, and it seems to be her only concern till the end of the play. It seems odd and undue that Cecily falls in love with a man she never had seen before, only because people in her surroundings talk about him (cf. Wilde, 32). This seemingly arbitrariness of the selection of a husband to-be points to both her determinedness to get a perfect match and her desire for diversion from her tedious life in custody. It also shows the questionable value system of “the upper classes, where love may, or may not, depend on such a triviality as the name of Ernest.” (Study-aids, 32)

2.3. Gwendolen

The man´s Christian name is also a criterion for Gwendolen. In contrast to Cecily´s rural home she is an urban child and ignorant of country life which she haughtily points out in front of Cecily (Wilde, 37). Jack, who is in love with Gwendolen, describes her as sensible and intellectual (Wilde, 18). In opposition to Cecily´s fondness of being perfect she explicitly claims that she does not want to be so, for “It would leave no room for developments.” (Wilde, 8) She is not consistent with the image of the ideal woman who would indeed have no room for developments, for “As long as marriage held so central a place in the conception of ideal womanhood, it was not unnatural that women were trained to […] suppress their own wants.” (Mitchell, 267) Obviously Gwendolen remains resistant to this habit, which crystallizes in her statements as well as in her manner. This can particularly be seen in her behavior towards her mother, which is not as regardful and obedient as it was expected in this time (cf. Wilde, 10).

Nevertheless, she shows the same attitude as Cecily does toward the issue of marriage. She is well aware of the attitude the Victorian society has toward men, women and marriage, and she makes the best out of it for her: “We live […] in an age of ideals. […] my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest.” (Wilde, 10) Again, Ernest - whatever man might be behind this name - is the personification of a serious, moral and ideal man, accordant to the ideal gentleman: “It is a divine name.” (Wilde, 11) The name indeed seems to be the only crucial criteria for Gwendolen. She says: “The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.” (Wilde, 10) She explains her justification for her unromantic focusing on the name that “The only really safe name is Ernest. And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment´s solitude.” (Wilde, 11) John in the Victorian age is an ordinary name which signals belonging to the middle or lower class. Therefore a wife of a John won´t be able to enjoy the luxury of boredom because she would have to work in order to keep up the living standard. In contrast, Gwendolen seeks an exalted level of living without having to work. In this respect an ordinary husband won´t come up to her expectations. Opposed to Cecily´s invented proposal, engagement, breakup and reunion that only exist in her diary, Gwendolen insists on a formal and perfectly explicit proposal. In fact, she criticizes Jack´s lack of experience concerning proposals. Matters of form are most important to her. (cf. Wilde, 11)



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Title: On Oscar Wilde´s "The Importance of Being Earnest"