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‘We live, as I hope you know, Mr Worthing, in an age of ideals’ what are these ideals in the context of the play in Act One, and how does Wilde present them to the audience? In ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, ideals are a dominant theme, and to that end are critical in determining the actions of the characters. Wilde is typically subtle in his presentation of these ideals, and consequently many of them come to be used as a means for satirising the society depicted.
It is important to establish from the outset that Wilde’s presentation of ideals utilizes the different characters as bastions for the various ideals, and in doing that subjects them to scrutiny when ridiculing their respective characterizations. One of the most important ideals presented is fittingly one of the first to become apparent; that being the division of the classes and the social status that they entail.
On line 1 of the play, Algernon asks Lane, after playing the piano in the adjoining room: ‘Did you hear what I was playing. Lane?’ Lane’s response: ‘I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir’ is indicative of various aspects of his position. Firstly, his butlership requires that he should abstain from partaking in any activity considered to be distracting to his duties, of which listening to the piano would be one. Secondly, his position in society, that of one of the lower classes, demands utter obsequiousness, hence any comment on Algernon’s playing would be risky in case it appeared to be unflattering.
The ideal of social standing being absolute is immediately challenged by Wilde, as it is quite preposterous that Lane should think it not polite to listen, a distinctly ironic and seditious undertone is palpable. In this instance, Algernon represents the foppish dandy without a brain, whereas Lane’s quiet obedience, representative of the downtrodden worker, whilst not perhaps admirable is at least sensible. Thus, Wilde establishes certain connections between the tenets of proper society, and its greatest protagonists, and hence weakens the establishment. The fact that this is done through the means of an implicitly comic exchange helps to alleviate any graveness associated with the matter.
Connected to the ideal of status and society is the position of women, which is also a prevalent theme in Act 1. During the Victorian Age and before, it was considered proper practice that woman have an inferior position in society to men. This was effected by their disenfranchisement and their inability to ascend to high positions, whether it is in society or in the work place. It is therefore a shock to the system when Gwendolen challenges Jack’s natural authority when speaking to him about their marriage. Whereas he is vacillating and circuitous in what he says: ‘I do mean something else’ ‘Personally, darling, to speak quite candidly’, Gwendolen is forceful and direct: ‘I thought so. In fact, I am never wrong’ ‘I would certainly advise you to do so’.
By being so controlling, Gwendolen reverses the accepted patriarchy, and in doing so challenges the ideal. In this case in point, Wilde is quite prepared to dispose of any comic vignettes in order to make a point; instead the dialogue itself provides ample means for dismissing the given principle that women should be subordinate. The character of Lady Bracknell is another example of a dominating woman; a slightly more matronly persona gives some precedence for such commands as: ‘Mr Worthing! Rise, sir, from this semi-recumbent posture’ however her assumption of authority is still contradictory to the established social norms.
Her verbose and eloquent manner of speaking is also out of the ordinary, as it challenges the demure image normally associated with women. Lady Bracknell challenges the patriarchal society in a more forceful and deliberate way than does Gwendolen, as seen from her interviewing Jack: ‘You can take a seat, Mr Worthing’. Although this matronly caricature is somewhat trite by today’s standards, at the time of writing it would have served to provide an original attack on the male’s dominance of the running of society.