The concept of marriage up until the twentieth century was considered to be prestigious and was the central aim of the English novel. Wilde uses the concept of marriage in The Importance of Being Earnest as a paradox. The characters are disinterested, some repulsed, by the concept of marriage yet it is the final goal and motivation of the play. The concept of marriage is presented in many ways. Each character presents their opinion on marriage, and has had an experience with it. The characters call marriage by a number of names and present it to be a “demoralizing,” state. It is portrayed to end in problems and unhappiness yet unknowingly the characters all move towards this goal. Wilde, who had been married himself, uses this play to show the two class systems that are developed from marriage. Like the upper class and lower class there is the married and unmarried.
Algernon’s first discussion with Lane about marriage presents it to be an awful state. Lane expresses his own experience with marriage and refers to it as a “misunderstanding.” This begins the play, and provides and an image of the miserable state of marriage. Algernon’s second conversation about marriage favors divorce. Algy’s opinion on relationships and more specifically marriage show that he believes it to be “very romantic to be in love,” and that “divorces are made in heaven,” but he speaks with great distaste for marriage suggesting that there is “nothing romantic about a definite proposal.”
Through the play Algy’s opinion is reformed upon his meeting of Cecily. Algernon proposes upon this first meeting. His presentation of this institution is inconsistent. I believe that Wilde uses the irregularity in Algy’s opinion is to represent the unneeded emphasis on marriage, and more importantly on the bizarre reasons for marriage. Victorians often married to gain political and social status or more specifically property, power and prestige.
Lady Bracknell shows little to no interest in her husband. She does not directly speak of her reasons for marriage but whilst discussing Cecily’s “social possibilities,” it is suggested she “had no fortune of any kind,” and married for reasons of social status. Lady Bracknell’s priorities when deciding who Gwendolyn should marry reveal a shallow requirement of a name and prestigious relations, suggesting to Jack that he needs to “require some relations,” before he could possibly be considered to marry Gwendolyn.
Bracknell’s definite ideas about the reasons to get married present a shallow and superficial idea of marriage, and perhaps are used by Wilde to highlight the incongruity between the reasons for marriage and marriage itself. Wilde presents a conflict between idealized romanticism and the political reality, Gwendolyn has a desire to be married to Ernest however her mother, Lady Bracknell refuses the possibility due to the stature and lack of relations. Gwendolyn and Lady Bracknell present a conflict between the idealized romanticism presented in the Victorian poetry and the highly politicized reality.
Gwendolyn and Cecily present the reasons for marriage to be highly superficial, marrying merely for a name, whether it is first or last. The irony used in this play shows that while the women are concerned for a name they do not see the necessity of having an earnest husband rather than just a husband that is named Ernest. Wilde uses this shallow opinion to draw attention to the irrelevance of a name or a position in society. The final statement of the play reflects the moral that a name is just a name, and that there is a “vital importance of being,” earnest. The concept of marriage ties together some of the ideas that are presented in this play and pokes fun at the Victorians misconception of marriage.