In Earnest, mere characterization is used to convey a significant theme in this play. Two of the main characters, Cecily Cardew and Gwendolen Fairfax are characterized similarly by Wilde. This can be seen when Gwendolen says “we live in an age of ideals…says in expensive monthly magazines.” She basically tells Jack, her “lover” that ideals come from magazines and not society itself. This makes her seem quite foolish and superficial, Wilde demonstrates the same superficiality with Cecily, where she says “I’ve always dreamt of marrying a man named Ernest.
” This tells the audience that Cecily is quite artificial because she wants to fall in love because of a name and not because of attraction to a man. Even the more minor characters show this superficiality. For example, Lady Bracknell tells Jack Worthing that he should go find some relatives before he can be considered for marriage with her daughter, Gwendolen. Wilde takes a lot of care to clearly show the superficiality, only in the upper class, aristocratic characters of this play.
He does this to show how superficial the Aristocratic class was during the Victorian Era.
This is one of the main themes of the play demonstrated through the repeated personality traits in Wilde’s Aristocratic characters.
In Earnest, the whole narrative is repeated again to show Gwendolen and Jack’s supposed love story is not an anomaly. However, Wilde first shows the audience that their love story lacks any true love or passion since Gwendolen is only in love with the name ‘Ernest’ and Jack says things like “May I propose to you now?” These elements of their love story are not romantic and reiterate how superficial the Aristocrats were during the Victorian Era. To show that this was not an anomaly, Wilde sets up the same love story with Algernon and Cecily in the second act, where there is an obvious lack of passion as well. This can be seen where Cecily says, “I want to write down what you are saying in my fiary,” when Algernon is proposing to her. Wilde highlights the theme of superficiality amongst the Aristocrats to satirize the upper class, he is simply mocking their lifestyle and showing the audience that they exist merely for decorative purposes. He can get away with this because he was an Aristocrat himself and he says that this play is “a trivial comedy for serious people.” This means that it was not to be taken seriously. This is another example of where the repeated use of language can help make something dramatically significant.
In Wilde’s play, the appearance of things was equally important but is conveyed through language rather the stage directions. This can be seen where Cecily says, “that does not affect the beauty of his answer.” This tells the audience that she only cares for the appearance of the answer and not the answer itself. The appearance of things was quite important to Wilde himself as he was an aesthetic and was part of the aestheticism movement during his life. This theme is also important in Streetcar as Blanche always tries to escape reality by creating a world of her own, drinking and hiding from the truth. The appearance against reality is a major theme that is reiterated by both authors, Williams and Wilde, and is conveyed through the repeated use of expressionism and speech.
In Earnest, Wilde bases Jack’s two identities on the setting as Jack says “I am Ernest in town and Jack in the country”. It demonstrates situational irony as the country was thought to be perhaps more humble and better than the people in town. It appears that Wilde mocks Victorian society by using Jack’s motivation in keeping his different identities based on location. Wildes shows that there is no difference, later on, between the two supposed spheres. In addition, whenever Jack leaves for the country, he always stresses on Cecily’s “German”, to Miss Prism, as she says whenever “he is leaving for town”. Further emphasizing that Jack has to do something of high moral to make him feel better about his actions.
Similarly, Jack appears to have a different identity to maintain his reputation. It illustrates that he is dictated and controlled by the Aristocracy. However, incomparison, Algernon is more accepting of being a “bunburyist” which shows him to be honest of his behavior. Whereas, Jack hides this fact even to Algernon, who already knows of his behavior, stating that all married men have a doubled life, “three is company and two is none”. Wilde cleverly illustrates that perhaps men are constrained by society that they have ignored their own desire. Wilde satirizes the fact that the aristocracy is superficial despite that they are meant to be superior. It seems that Jack had to carefully maintain his reputation due to the pressures of society and class.
Wilde shows that Jack’s two identities have be a waste of efforts as he is both Jack and Ernest, Wilde presents a moral paradox. It seems to question the real significance of “being Earnet” as Jack does not fulfill this but ends up having a considerably better life. In addition, Jack decided to kill off Ernest, once he was married to Gwendolen. Perhaps Jack had these two identities to allow himself to be free of constraints but in the same time maintaining his reputation.
In “The importance of Being Earnest, none of the upper class characters have any real depth, which suggests a one dimensional personality; they are trivial and shallow which best depicts the absurdity of social life in the Victorian Era. Algernon is seen to represent a member of the upper class, demonstrating a trivial and self-centered nature. This is seen when he proclaims “I hate people who are not serious about meanest. It is so shallow of them”. The audience is invited to see the irony of this statement, as meals are not normally considered to be of serious importance, yet Algernon suggests that they are. In doing so, Wilde portrays the upper class as trivial, showing them to be serious about trivial things and, at the same time, trivial about serious things. It is even more ironic that Algernon calls people “shallow” if they do not take meats seriously, whilst the audience sees that the upper class are in fact shallow. The use of the motif of food is important, as it is repeated throughout the play to reinforce the trivial nature of the upper class. By obsessing over something as trivial as food, the audience sees that the aristocracy were only concerned with superficial things. Nonetheless, Algernon’s attitude is highly exaggerated, so Wilde’s upper class audience would not see this as a direct attack of themselves. In fact, the hyperbolic nature of Algernon’s character creates humor in the play, allowing Wilde to criticize the audience in a more palpable manner. Through, Algernon’s trivial and self-centered nature, Wilde has effectually mocked the strict code of morals in the Victorian Era; the use of satire effectively foreshadows and prepares the readers for further shock in the ensuing plot.
Wilde constructs Lady Bracknell as an exaggerated representation of the Victorian upper class. She demonstrates extreme, one-sided attitudes, such as when she tells Algernon “it is time that Mr Bunbury made up his mind whether to live or die. This shilly-shallying with the business is absurd”. Lady Bracknell’s snobbish attitude towards him illustrate that the upper class did not take grave issues seriously. Although only fictional, Lady Bracknell’s views on his poor health and possible death demonstrate that she felt little to no concern for him. Whilst Algernon shows the attention of the upper class to trivial things, Lady Bracknell conversely shows that the aristocracy had very little regard for serious matters. The audience finds her ridiculous comments to be humorous due to their exaggerated nature. Since she is depicted to be such an extreme, almost caricature-type person, the audience will not personally identify with her, allowing Wilde to deliver his commentary on the upper class without insulting them. Lady Bracknell represents the repressive values of the aristocracy, being a powerful, arrogant and proper woman, as such, she contributes to Wilde’s satirical commentary on the upper class; thus it effectively foreshadows and prepares the readers for further shock in the ensuing plot.
Contrastingly, Lady Bracknell signifies the hierarchy and hypocrisy in the Victorian society. After Lady Bracknell saw Cecily she commented, “There are distinct social possibilities in her profile”. This shows her adherence to the idea of society and status. When Algy commented he doesn’t care, she replied sternly “Only those who cannot get into society speak ill of society.” Lady Bracknell takes great pride as part of a high social class. Ironically enough, while she claims she despises “mercenary” marriages, her own marriage to Lord Bracknell is a mercenary one. Should the roots of Lady Bracknell be considered, her status is much lower than Jack’s and should be in no position to pass judgement over Jack and Gwendolen’s engagement. This is a perfect examination of Victorian hypocrisy, and Lady Bracknell proved to be the very symbol of such a hypocritical and superficial society.
On the opposite spectrum of social hierarchy, Lane and Poncia both have distinct purposes in their respective plays. At Victorian times, when Earnest was performed onstage and the dialogue between Lane and Algy plays out, it would appear to be most comedic and ridiculous to a Victorian audience as their own relationship with their butlers would be very different between Lane and Algy’s. This exaggeration of character and extreme irony pokes fun at Victorian social stereotypes and expectations and stimulates the Victorian audience to question or examine their own relationships with their butlers. The purpose of Lane is to investigate and poke fun at Victorian hierarchy and ridicule Victorian social expectations.
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