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The issues of parentage and family are profoundly of paramount importance in the play The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, both as primary forces motivating the plot and as subjects yielding philosophical speculation and debate. Parentage can be defined as the group of individuals descending from a common ancestor and in Victorian England the issue of parentage was largely touched upon. In fact, appropriate parentage was a key to proving ones place as a member of the upper class of that particular era.
Through his work, Wilde attempts to express his views on the matter through his so called “trivial comedy for serious people” and these views, along with integrated examples from the play itself, are what will form the basis of this essay. The issue of family is introduced from the very first Act, where we observe Algernon Moncrief expecting a visit from his aunt, Lady Bracknell, and her daughter Gwendolyn Fairfax.
Even though Algernon has devised the act of Bunburying so as to be able to avoid confronting his family members in order to keep up appearances he agrees to meet Lady Bracknell for tea, even arranging for cucumber sandwiches to be made specially for her visit. The extended cucumber sandwich joke further exemplifies the superficiality of Algernon’s relationship with his Aunt when without realizing it; he steadily devours all the sandwiches that have been meticulously prepared for her visit.
The arrival of Algernon’s kin, towards the middle of the first Act is signalled by the sound of the electric bell in a way that “only relatives, or creditors, ever ring in that Wagnerian manner”, according to Algernon. When Gwendolyn and her mother arrive the issue of parenting immediately comes to the foreground. Lady Bracknell immediately urges her daughter to join her in the kindest of manners: “Won’t you come and sit here, Gwendolyn?
” in an attempt to keep her at her side. Her domineering nature, even over her own daughter, is exposed once again when, rather than asking as before, she states “Gwendolyn, you will accompany me (into the music room)” . Nevertheless, as in mother-daughter relationships of the present day, children always defy their parents and Gwendolyn does so by intentionally staying behind so as to confront Jack about their relationship.
Gwendolyn’s determination and conduct during her brief encounter with Jack does show evidence of her mothers affect on her. Therefore, it is proven true that as stated in one of the most famous witticisms of the play “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy”. Nevertheless, the instance during the play where the notion of parentage proves pivotal is during Lady Bracknell’s “interview” of Jack, so as to see if he would make an eligible husband for her daughter.
Here, it is noticeable that even though Lady Bracknell is willing to negotiate with Jack on his political beliefs, hobbies and rather “unfashionable” place of residence she condemns his marriage to her daughter unless he manages to “produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over”. To back up her decision she further clarifies that neither herself nor Lord Bracknell would ever allow their only daughter “to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel” as she sweeps out in majestic indignation (as designated by Wilde’s stage instructions).
On the basis of Lady Bracknell’s words and actions, it is evident that the fact that Jack was abandoned as a baby without any indication of which family line he descends from excludes him as a potential husband for Gwendolyn, proving just how significant parentage was in the Victorian era. It is common knowledge that above all else both parents and family are responsible for the upbringing of their children by setting the right examples. When crafting the character of Cecily, Wilde depicts the norm that occurs when one loses his/her relatives at a young age.
In this case, even though Jack is not Cecily’s blood relative, she is his ward and he -apart from being as her legal guardian- acts as her father figure. Out of sheer respect Cecily addresses him as: “Uncle Jack” and her gratitude is even more evident in her engraving on his cigarette case: “from little Cecily with her fondest love”. Ward’s were not uncommon in the Victorian era as mortality rates were high and the average life span was a little over 50 years, but Cecily differs from Jack in the sense that she knows which family line she descends from.
To conclude, it has been confirmed that the notion of family and parentage is influential throughout the play. First, it is what drives Algernon to the act of Bunburying. Second, it causes ideals to be projected from mother to daughter (from Lady Bracknell to Gwendolyn). Third, the absence of parentage in Jack’s case constitutes a barrier to his marriage to Gwendolyn and finally in Cecily’s case the absence of her family augments her relationship to Jack, as his beloved ward.