Gender Roles and Female Power in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest
Oscar Wilde's plays are characterized by satirical wit that exposes and derides the norms, values and believes of Victorian society. Although it could be argued that his comedies were mainly designed to amuse the aristocratic audience, his characters challenge the dominate gender roles in a revolutionary way. In her article "Gender roles in the 19th century," Kathryn Hughes explains, that "during the Victorian period men and women's roles became more sharply defined than at any time in history." It can be said that the clear division of two gender roles is created by a social system and the prevailing cultural beliefs of a society. Binary oppositions, like man and woman, male and female, always express a hierarchy and a claim to power (men being superior, women subordinate). The distinction that was made in this period reveals how power was distributed in Victorian society. While the society of this time established a set of precise characteristics and norms to divide the sexes (for example men being active and rational, women being passive and emotional), Oscar Wilde was devoted to blurring the line between them.
In his comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, he raises a multitude of questions about gender roles and exposes gender stereotypes by reversing them. The author puts his main female characters, Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen and Cecily, in positions of power and thereby challenges the core believes of his century. However, it would not be Oscar Wilde, a man famous for his contradictions, if there was not a catch. Though the female figures find themselves in control over the opposite sex, they are unable to use it. Instead of changing the status quo to their benefit, the women uphold the traditional gender roles and ensure them. To understand this paradox, the essay seeks to address the following questions, mainly focusing on the female perspective: How does the dramatic text The Importance of Being Earnest both set up and undermine a binary opposition between men and women? More precisely: In what ways, does Oscar Wilde reinforce gender roles of his time, and how does he invert them? Does the drama deconstruct gender stereotypes to embrace a new female identity, or is it mocking Victorian women by reinsuring the belief that women are the weaker sex and should not be given any power? It must be said that it is an exciting process to weigh the pros and cons to these questions, but there will not be a clear answer. The outcome cannot claim a universality, because, as Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle argue in "An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory": "Wherever there is writing, sexual or gender identity becomes equivocal, questionable, open to transformation."
To elaborate on the contradictions of gender representation and sexual stereotypes that can be found in the text, it seems inevitable to provide a brief insight into the English society of the 19th century, and a woman's position in it. The era, named after the reign of Queen Victoria, is defined by its dominance of aristocracy and the classification of society. It is widely known for its high values and a strong notion of morality, such as religiousness and decency, which became manifested in the term 'Victorian values'. The emerging industrialization and expansion of the British Empire led to the formation of a middle class that was seeking power and wealth, and the institution of marriage played a decisive role in this process. Hughes states, that unlike prior centuries, in which women often worked alongside men, "wives, daughter and sisters were [now] left at home all day to oversee the domestic duties that were increasingly carried out by servants". The ideal middle-class woman was taking care of the private sphere (household, family) to provide a safe and loving home for the man, who took care of anything in the public sphere (labour, politics). This distinct separation of the sexes led to gender stereotypes, which secured the social construct. In her book "Questioning Gender: A Sociological Exploration", Robyn Ryle states: "Women, through their association with the home and childcare, are supposed to be kind and gentle, while bold and aggressive men pursue success in the competitive world of business and the economy (Coltrane, 1996, p.25)." The common belief that women are naturally more benevolent and less selfish than men made them predestined to stay in the shelter of the house and be protected from the dangers of the world.
In contrast to the few rights women were granted (they could not vote or own property), the society had a variety of expectations and demands to make women perfect wives. Women were expected to desire marriage for the sake of becoming a mother and not for sexual or emotional gratification. From early childhood, daughters of the bourgeoisie were granted a new kind of education to gain valuable accomplishments solely for the sake of becoming the 'ideal woman' and maintaining the social standing of the family. Besides being beautiful and wealthy, women were expected to be well dressed, calm, well mannered, quiet, educated, artistic and skilled in hostessing. At the same time, however, part of this ideal femininity was not to be too educated or too eager to find a suitable husband. It can be guessed that hardly any woman could meet the high demands of such a strict social code, so the real task was keeping up this perfect appearance and obtaining the image within society.
With his literary work, The Importance of Being Earnest (first performed in 1895), Oscar Wilde explores the fundamental ideas of his time (marriage, morality, social standing) in a satirical manner. The plot itself and the dialogues within can be seen as an exposition of the hypocrisy and double standards of the Victorian society. The moral madness is united in the absurd question of whether it is more important to be earnest or to be named Earnest. Within the play's debate about social performances, Wilde creates confusion by exaggerating and reversing gender stereotypes and sexual norms. On this account, Brigitte Bastiat suggests in her article, "The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) by Oscar Wilde: Conformity and Resistance in Victorian Society", that this drama is not only a social satire but a "gender parody". Bastiat refers to the philosopher Judith Butler, who offers the following definition of this term: "Gender parody reveals that the original identity after which identity fashions itself is an imitation without an origin." This statement affirms the previous assumption that the normative behavior of the sexes is not natural but culturally and socially conditioned.
Although the comedy revolves around the lives and activities of the two male characters (Jack and Algernon), it is largely determined by the behavior and power of its female figures. At the undisputed top of the social hierarchy stands Lady Bracknell, Algernon's aunt, and Gwendolen's mother. She is portrayed as the voice of authority and an expert on social interactions. Entirely in line with Victorian upper-class intentions, Lady Bracknell's primary interest is to find a suitable (rich and well-connected) husband for her daughter Gwendolen, who was "brought up with the utmost care" (p. 370). Although she reveals that she was not born into the aristocracy herself ("When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind. But I never allowed that to stand in my way.", p. 409), she expects to be served and obeyed at all times. Her behavior can be described as greedy, interfering and insensitive. These character traits stand in explicit contrast to the qualities attributed to the ideal Victorian woman. Lord Bracknell (absent from the play) is described as an unhealthy and weak man, who does not participate in the public sphere, whereas Lady Bracknell is active, dominant and continually socializing. The relationship shows a clear reversal of gender roles and thereby an inversion of the typical power structure.
Lady Bracknell's statements, throughout the play, show that she takes neither men nor women seriously. Her social code is equally strict and abstruse on both sexes. She explains to her daughter Gwendolen that she may not decide for herself whom she gets engaged to, because "an engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be" (p. 367). The comment indicates that in Lady Bracknell's opinion a woman is incapable of choosing a suitable husband for herself. To her, love, affection or even pleasantness, is of no importance in this arrangement. In the cross-exam, to which Jack is subjected for the proof of his suitability, Lady Bracknell takes on the role of a father, and thereby reinforces a 'masculine identity'. In the evaluation of Jack's smoking habits, another reversal of gender roles becomes apparent. The sentence "A man should always have an occupation of some kind" (p. 368), must have seemed ridiculous to the Victorian audience, as it was more likely to apply to women, who had no profession and were bound to the private sphere.
The female characters Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew have a lot in common. They are both young, unmarried women, rich, attractive, well-educated and obsessed with the idea of marrying someone named Earnest. While Gwendolen was raised in the city, Cecily grew up in the sheltered environment of a country manor, under the care of her legal guardian Jack and a governess, Miss Prism. Despite the women's higher learnings, they are equally fixated on the idea to find the perfect man and to get married. Though these attributes and circumstances appear quite typical for the Victorian upper-class woman, and some of the women's behaviors serve gender stereotypes, one can find several surprisingly emancipated statements and actions, which do not fit the classic picture. This is also due to interdependence with their male counterparts, Jack and Algernon, who equally challenge the traditional notions of what it means to be a man or a woman. Jack describes Cecily as a girl, who has a "capital appetite, goes long walks, and pays no attention at all to her lessons" (p. 372). This portrayal contradicts the ideas of Victorian femininity in every aspect. A blessed appetite, which can also be associated with a sexual desire, was not something that was generally granted to a woman of the 19th century. Women's bodies were not intended for physical activities, and the dedication to their studies was an essential requirement. The fact that a man (in this case, Jack) positively emphasizes these characteristics, shows a significant shift from the prevailing norms. Cecily, whether it is consciously or not, is also no stranger to verbally turning gender stereotypes upside down. When talking to her teacher Miss Prism, Cecily says: "But men don't sew, [...] and if they did, I don't see why they should be punished for it" (p.376) as well as, "[...] I suppose, that when a woman is dressed rationally, she is treated rationally. She certainly deserves to be" (p. 377). Both of Cecily's statements are a result of a misunderstanding, and they form wordplays, which are intended to be funny. Never the less, her insights have revolutionary content because they promote gender equality.