Mary Wollstonecraft would have found in the witty comedy The Importance of Being Earnest a small vindication of her ideologies. Wilde touched on many issues that Mary Wollstonecraft herself had strong opinions on, such as, primarily, equality in society, including related concepts such as marriage, social responsibility, sexuality and gender roles, and independence. Wollstonecraft had argued for the rights of man, and then extended her arguments to cover women in particular, whom she felt were wrongly debased and exploited in Victorian society.
She wanted a change in British law that would grant women equal rights of property upon marriage. Most known for her radical feminist stance, Wollstonecraft was deeply concerned about the status of females in society. She argued that the womanly “innocence” is actually just a better name for miserable ignorance, saying that most women were unjustifiably kept in ignorance, and were valued for, and expected to give value to, appearances only, and she argued that women were educated to be attractive to men.
She argued for the education of women, and espoused the basic feminist assumptions of equality of men and women. She was particularly opposed to the idea of women being educated to become submissive. Wollstonecraft also contended that everyone, including women, had a right to be independent, and she envisioned a society where all were equal, where women had equal opportunities; she wanted women to hold power over themselves Wollstonecraft’s societal concerns are echoed in Wilde’s play. In the play, marriage is a dominant theme, and is shown as a strong moving force, a motivation for many of the characters actions.
Marriage, according to the Lady Bracknell at least, is a woman’s obligation. Algernon and Jack discuss whether marriage is a matter of business or pleasure, which is in some way a questioning of the institution of marriage as it was practiced then. Wilde’s play reflected the conventional views of Victorian society, and the Victorian class system is also parodied effectively. In Victorian England society social position was everything, and the upper class viewed themselves as having virtues unquestionable by the lower classes.
In Victorian society appearances were also of paramount importance; this is seen particularly in Gwendolen, when she insists on the correct performance of her marriage proposal above all else. The focus on appearances by the upper class furthered the superior attitude of the upper classes. The gulf between the upper and lower classes is widened because of this, to the detriment of other values such as equality and to the perpetuation of the exploitation of the lower classes.
Wollstonecraft had wanted a revolution in female manners; in the play the women portrayed roles that contradicted reality and thus presented a possibility of a change in gender roles. Lady Bracknell had a dominant personality; Gwendolyn and Cecily are shown as relatively headstrong and in charge of themselves, as opposed to the conventional expectations of society; Algernon and Jack are somewhat passive—thereby highlighting the cookie-cutter roles persons were supposed to assume in society. There is also a suggestion of sexuality in the women characters, as evidenced by their flirtatiousness.
We are also reminded of Wollstonecraft’s views on education in the play. Lady Bracknell approves of ignorance, explaining that “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… ” The upper class, of course, was interested in preserving the existing social structure, which allowed for unequal treatment and subjugation of the lower classes. .
This focus on appearances translates to the oppression of those who cannot keep up appearances—that is, the lower classes. Such a focus is seen in Lady Bracknell’s attitude towards Jack, to whom she is kind until she discovers his origins, or when she becomes very king to Cecily when she discovers the Cecily is rich. All in all, the play touches on Wollstonecraft’s primary ideological concerns, and is easily considered a blatant satire of Victorian England society. The play is a vehicle of ideas for social change, much like Wollstonecraft’s works. She would have approved.