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The Importance of Being Earnest: A tale of Victorian mockery Essay

“Every word and every part of an individual was expected to be in accordance with the rigid moral and behavior rules, and each, even the slightest deviation from the rule was considered an offence which made the delinquent publicly disgraced. Even literature and art had its cannons which were to be respected” (Mathews, 2009). In Oscar Wilde’s satirical comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest, Victorian hypocrisy is presented within the lines of the play as it unfolds a story about the courtship of two young women and men of that era. Wilde utilizes triviality as the guise to unwind his message about the most certain hypocrisy that occupied society during that time. Superficiality within the story serves as not only the veil but statement of the consequences of repression. The ills or wickedness of Victorian Repression are exposed through the authors cutting wit as well as the duality coming alive within the characters and situations presented to them by society’s standard (Wilde, 160). Within Oscar Wilde’s comedy superficiality is extremely significant, surfacing in its pages. As the characters converse at a dinner party or in a more intimate setting, rules must be adhered to. In Act 1 Algernon states “Yes, but you must be serious about it. I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them” (Wilde, 1895).

Algernon represents how most gentlemen would speak of something as simple as dinner, his view on how dinner should be is in fact shallow the very thing he wishes it not to be. Robert Ross supports this notion as he says “The play repeatedly mocks Victorian traditions and social customs, while providing social commentary and offering reform” (Ross, 2003). Society not only affects the way relatives and acquaintances are to be held but also courtships and marriage. Cecily the young girl courted by Alegrnon, clearly says “I pity a poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest” (Wilde, 1895). She represents how most of the young girls during the Victorian Era put forth names and titles before how a man will treat a lady in marriage. The importance of such superficial things causes her to neglect the importance of happiness with a man and focus instead on social rank. One of Oscar Wilde’s reviewers notes, “{The} ideal of marrying a man named Ernest, a popular and respected name at the time” (Watkins, 1988), sounds quite ridiculous when considering to pursue someone romantically.

Lady Bracknell, the mother of Gwendolyn perhaps most vividly shows the audience how superficial even the older generation was. As she speaks with Jack, the consequences of society’s superficial manner is revealed, “To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people an opportunity of finding out each other’s characters before marriage. Which I think is never advisable” (Wilde, 1895). In the Victorian Era there is no real intimacy between individuals due to the fact that they are not permitted to discover each other’s nature, “Wilde embodied society’s rules and rituals artfully into Lady Bracknell: minute attention to the details of her style created a comic effect of assertion by restraint” (Smith, 2008). Oscar Wilde’s comedy unravels the wickedness of the Victorian Repression using his wit in order to broadcast the ills brought upon by such a time. During an exchange between Jack and Gwendolyn, Wilde proceeds to expose an ill {Jack:} Gwendolyn, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?” (Wilde 1895). The author once again shows how “The men following traditional matrimonial rites, whereby suitors admit their weaknesses to their prospective brides” (Ross, 2003). All of these ceremonial conversations are due to the repression by which society lived.

During the Victorian Era it was very difficult to have a distinction between what behavior was approved. Alegrnon in Act 2 serves as a prime example, “One has to be serious about something if one is to have any amusement in life” (Wilde, 1895). The Importance of Being Earnest is able to communicate this message to the audience because it is “Precisely because it is consistently trivial that it is not ugly” (Keiser, 2001). How each individual handles matters is also questioned within this play. In one scene Lady Bracknell asks Jack who is now named Earnest if he is being trivial. He responds by stating “On the contrary, Aunt Augusta”, he replies, “I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of being Earnest.” (Wilde, 1895). Jack one of the main protagonists of the play has been so consumed with the repression that he in fact forget what his own name symbolizes. Wilde comically demonstrates this by “The theme (being) hinted at in the play’s ironic title and “earnestness” is repeatedly alluded to in the dialogue” (Smith, 2008).

Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest has remained a timeless classic and literary favorite due to it’s repression and duality in the lives of the characters. The dual lives of the characters give the story a trivial feel as well as a complex twist in the story. “The characters in The Importance of Being Earnest assume false identities in order to achieve their goals but do not interfere with the others’ lives… They have the freedom to create themselves and use their double identities to give themselves the opportunity to show opposite sides of their characters. They mock every custom of the society and challenge its values. This creates not only the comic effect of the play but also makes the audience think of the serious things of life” (Watkins, 2009). Titled a “trivial comedy for serious people”, the comedic effect results from doubling the main motif of creating a double life, which mocks the morals of people from that time period. Jack uses his alter ego, Earnest, to fulfill things in life he would never be able to do, like marry the girl of his dreams.

Gwendolyn knows nothing about Jack, but knows the man she loves as Earnest. Gwendolyn is hopelessly in love, at least by Victorian standards, with their male counterparts. She says the name Earnest “Is a divine name. It has a music of its own,” explains Gwendolyn. “It produce vibrations” (Wilde, 59). When she finds out his name is actually Jack, he plans to be christened Earnest immediately. “Her inflated self-appraisal makes her seem foolish at times, especially when she reveals her devotion to the name Earnest” (Keiser, 1992). Through a course of events, however, Jack realizes that his birth name is actually Earnest, it’s not just an alter ego. The journey of finding his true self explains the title of The Importance of being Earnest. By the end of the story he realizes the real meaning of being Earnest and he gets the love of Gwendolyn without having to be christened a name that’s not his true name, explaining how he finds himself and the real importance of being himself.

In conclusion, The Importance of being Earnest is not just a trivial play, but a complex mockery of the social standards of that time period. He uses triviality as the guise to unwind his message about the most certain hypocrisy that occupied society during that time. He uses his comedic superficiality, wickedness of Victorian mockery, and literary repression in the characters to get his full purpose of the work across. This play is so cleverly written that it continues to be a go-to piece of work for students and writers to this day. The internal dual between Jack and Earnest, and the ending result really shows what the true importance is of being Earnest.

Bibliography
Keiser, Danielle. “Female Characters in “The Importance of Being Earnest”.”Plays / Drama. Web. 6 Jan. 2014.
Ross, Kailey. “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Shmoop. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Jan. 2014.

Smith, Sarah. “The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People by Oscar Wilde.” Gutenberg. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Jan. 2014. Watkins, Ben. “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 1 Mar.

2014. Web. 6 Jan. 2014.


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