Satire is defined to be the use of humor to ridicule faults and vices. The Importance of Being Earnest written by Oscar Wilde is a social satire, using irony and paradoxes to insinuate the problems and faults found in the Victorian society. The Importance of Being Earnest is set in the late Victorian Era during a social reform. The class system was defined by the animosity between classes, the upper class treating the lower class with disdain and disgust. The upper class was rigidly controlled by savoir faire, knowing what to eat, wear and how to behave. The Importance of Being Earnest satirizes the class system, etiquette and disposition that was expected from Victorians. Wilde uses irony, humor and characters not only to call attention to the absurdity of the Victorian behavior but also to highlight the ironic humor in the characters shortcomings that reflect the Victorians who were watching it.
The Importance of Being Earnest seems to be a criticism of society. The play is a light-hearted comedy but also a social satire utilizing this chance to criticize social issues. The use of irony reveals an inconsistency between the characters words and the truth, suggesting that society is hypocritical. The Importance of Being Earnest reflects the audience it was written for. From the entrance of “Mr. Earnest Worthing,” there are constant criticisms between Jack and Algy. Jack criticizes Algy for speaking, “you talk exactly as if you were a dentist.” This criticism presents an irony; Jack believes it is “very vulgar,” for Algy to present to be someone he is not. This is ironic as Jack is not self critical enough to be aware that by being “Earnest in town and Jack in the country,” he himself is presenting a “false impression,” and behaving like a hypocrite. The dramatic irony of this is that the laughter incurred from this irony is ironic in itself.
The audience can identify the faults in Jack however this laughter suggests that they cannot see the reflection of themselves in this play. This satirizes the Victorian society and their faults. Jack is a representation of society and he implies that society is hypocritical. Jack is presented to be a pretentious hypocrite, living by one set of rules for him but having another for Algy and Cecily, his ward. I see this use of irony and satire as a criticism of the Victorian society but more specifically the delusional self image held by the audience. Wilde uses this technique consistently through out the play to highlight the short comings of the Victorians and their etiquette. This consistent use of quick wit and clever humor presents a social satire delving into the vices of Victorian society.
Wilde in his own life came from a home that prided itself on its class and stature. Wilde was received as a great success and married in 1884. However Wilde presented a “false impression,” of himself. In 1891 Wilde fell extravagantly in love with Lord Alfred Douglas, and four years later was imprisoned for acts of gross indecency. Prior to this imprisonment Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest and in this play highlighted the incongruence in the lives lead in the Victorian society, in order to meet the unwritten rules and expectations of the upper class. The characters behavior towards each other and their staff present a comical situation. Wilde uses this to mock the social standards and power structures within a Victorian household. The first scene set in Algernon’s flat between Lane and Algernon is highly satirical.
Algernon’s behavior towards Lane and his distaste for Lane’s opinions suggests he is an elitist. Believing that the rich are better that the poor. Algernon shows no compassion for Lane’s feelings, stating openly that “I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life Lane.” This interaction presents a satirical view of the Victorian class system. Wilde’s presentation of the unfair behavior, discrimination and double standards excepted from the upper class represents a criticism of the Victorian society and the unspoken rules of etiquette. Wilde uses the light -hearted comedy to draw attention to the elitist and irrational ideals that are upheld by the class system. Wilde’s intelligent presentation of the characters and humor satirizes his opinions so they are inoffensive and entertaining.
Wilde’s life in many ways is presented in The Importance of Being Earnest, and I believe that within this play Wilde uses satire and humor to draw attention to the inconsistency of society. Wilde indirectly passes a commentary on the flaws of society that affected him badly. The Importance of Being Earnest is almost a definition of satire drawing attention to the vices of society, but also the discrimination and hypocritical behaviour of those who were part of it. I would define The Importance of Being Earnest as a social satire. The play exaggerates the negative aspects of the Victorian society and plays it up in a comical manner. Wilde’s clever use of wit and irony is used to indirectly make criticism of Victorian social expectations and behavior.