Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy that used the figure of the upper class dandy to critique the narrow-mindedness of the middle class in the 1890s.
What makes this play so funny is that the upper class is illustrated as silly when they try to mock the earnest middle class. Proud characters who were bred in high society, such as Lady Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolen, may think that they are making particularly nasty snubs, but they do not seem to realize that Wilde cleverly plays the joke on them.
The receivers of the ‘nasty snubs,’ actually are sarcastic in turn, but the upper class fails to notice it because of their narrow-mindedness. In fact, it is the middle class who are portrayed as the characters with the most sense in the play. Through the use of satirical and sarcastic language, Wilde reveals the lack of imagination in the upper class and sensibility in the earnest middle class of Britain in the 1890s. The lack of sensibility is introduced to the audience in the very opening of the play. Algernon, nephew of Lady Bracknell and best friend of Jack, is rather dim-witted.
However, as an upper-classman, he deludes himself into thinking that he is witty and too good for those of lower status. For example, his manservant Lane, is a delightful character seen only in Act I. Obviously, he is not in the same rank as Algernon, judging by the fact that he is serving Algernon.
Algernon gives his remarks on the topic of marriage, and Lane sees it fit to give his input on the topic. “’ I have had very little experience of it [marriage] myself…I have been married once…’ ‘I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane’ (1699-1700). Also learn how to behave in class
Lane politely gives his input, because just prior to this discussion, Algernon was upset that Lane did not listen to him play a piece on the piano and comment on the brilliancy of it. Lane sarcastically told him that he “didn’t think it polite to listen,” but Algernon did not catch the snub (1699). After Lane attempts at being polite, Algernon tells him he is not interested with Lane’s family life. Clearly, he thinks this is a witty remark on his part. Lane adds to Algernon’s satisfaction, saying “No sir, it is not an interesting subject.
I never think of it myself” (1700). If Algernon is not dim-witted, he should realize that Lane’s comment is dripping with sarcasm because according to Algernon, he had lacked politeness with giving his input before, but now his input is not being appreciated; he is mocking Algernon’s hypocrisy. Lane is a delightful character with his sarcastic responses to Algernon. However, he is not the only one capable of making the upper class look foolish. Lady Bracknell, mother of Gwendolen, Jack’s love interest, is a very proud woman.
That being said, proud women are easy to be portrayed as foolish because of the extreme things that come out of their mouths. Lady Bracknell happens to say particularly radical things. For example, when her nephew, Algernon, tells her that his friend ‘Bunbury’ is sick yet again, and that he cannot eat dinner with her because he needs to be by his friend’s side. Lady Bracknell gives an extraordinary speech that she thinks makes the middle class look foolish, but in reality, Lady Bracknell is the one who looks foolish. “I should be obliged if you would ask Mr. Bunbury, from me, to be kind enough not to have a relapse on Saturday, for I rely on you to arrange my music for me” (1705-6).
How could this invalid Bunbury not use his sense and realize what a hindrance his poor health was causing? This is what Lady Bracknell thought, anyway. However, Lady Bracknell fails to use her sense to comprehend the fact that it is very difficult to choose when to be or when not to be sick. Lady Bracknell continues her trend of proud air headedness when she drills Jack about his life in order to ensure whether or not he would make a suitable husband for her daughter. ’What do you know’… ‘I know nothing’… ‘I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance…’” (1708). Lady Bracknell and members of the upper class look down upon the middle class because they are ignorant. In other words, they are not accepted because they are apparently ignorant of the luxuries the upper class enjoys, of how to behave properly in society, and money. Therefore, it is ridiculous that she says that she approves of ignorance.
To her, however, it sounds very intelligent and she continues in vein about ‘natural ignorance,’ saying it is like an “exotic fruit,” and that education is abominable, but according to her, “fortunately…education produces no effect whatsoever” (1708). For a woman who is convinced that everything that comes out of her mind is eloquent and well thought out, it is not. No sensible person would consider ignorance to be an exotic fruit, nor utter such nonsense that ‘education produces no effect whatsoever’ in England.
If education produced no effect, England would be a frightening place to behold in the 1890s. Throughout the play, Lady Bracknell never ceases to make absurdly ridiculous comments that point to the upper class being narrow-minded, rather than the middle class. As she continues to drill Jack as a possible candidate as a suitor for her daughter, she uncovers the truth of Jack’s past. He does not know his parents; he was simply orphaned by Thomas Cardew, who found him in a black bag at the train station.
Jack notices that this is simply intolerable, but he really wants to marry Gwendolen. Therefore, he asks Lady Bracknell, “…what would you advise me to do? ” And her reply is: “I would strongly advise you, Mr. Worthing, to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible, and to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent…before the season is quite over” (1710). Lady Bracknell makes it seem as though there is some sort of a database of individuals who list themselves as potential parents for those in need of parents. However, sensible people know this is not the case.
If sensible people, such as Jack, would know about some sort of a parent database, then he would not ask for Lady Bracknell’s advice. Lady Bracknell’s pretentious attitude for the middle class constantly backfires on her, and makes her look narrow-minded. Gwendolen, like her mother Lady Bracknell, fails to sound intelligent and snippy when she wants to. When she first meets Cecily, Jack’s ward, she claims how she adores Cecily, and that they will be such great friends. However, when the two uncover that they are to be wed to Ernest Worthing, a cat fight ensues.
At this point, there is no real Ernest Worthing in the play; he is a fictional character. It is not until later that the real truth is uncovered. However, Cecily and Gwendolen waste no time to exchange certain words to convey their simmering anger. When discussing something so simple as how many counties are seen from their current location, Gwendolen thinks it appropriate to throw in an unpleasant comment, since the middle class Cecily is too narrow-minded to come up with something just as unpleasant. “’Five counties!
I don’t think I should like that. I hate crowds. ’ ‘I suppose that is why you live in town? ’ (1727). Gwendolen attempts to make Cecily feel as though where she lives is simply not accepted by the upper class by the comment she makes, saying that she would not like the five counties because of the crowds. However, as Cecily sarcastically points out, it is silly of her to say such a thing if she lives in town, where it is constantly crowded. Obviously, the middle class Cecily is not quite as dim-witted as Gwendolen initially thought.
Not only does the upper class consider the middle class to be narrow-minded, but they also consider them to have a lack of imagination. However, like the narrow-mindedness, the upper class unconsciously proves that it lacks imagination. When Algernon visits Jack’s home in the country, he meets Cecily and falls in love with her. Thinking that he is ahead of the game, he underestimates Cecily’s imagination, and asks her to marry him. She responds: “Of course!
Why, we have been engaged for the last three months…” This is enough to baffle anyone, and so Algernon asks, “But how did we become engaged? ” (1722-3). She then launches into a detailed account of how the engagement took place; she even goes so far as to say which date she accepted his proposal. This is a perfect example of the middle class not lacking in imagination. Even Jack pretends he has a younger brother, Ernest, whom he has to constantly take care of in the city, whereas in reality, there is no younger brother; he simply goes to town to have fun and uses his ‘brother’ as an excuse.
It is therefore safe to say that the middle class does not lack in imagination. The Importance of Being Earnest is a hilarious, well-written play that reveals how ridiculous the upper class was with thinking that they were automatically better than the middle class because of their status. Through his choice of language and situations in the play, Wilde makes it possible for the audience to see that it was not the middle class who were narrow-minded and lacked imagination; it was the upper class that were slow and lacked wittiness.