Victorian Culture and Values in "The Importance of Being Earnest"

The Importance of Being Earnest appears to be an ordinary 19th century travesty. False identities, denied commitments, overbearing moms, lost youngsters are typical of pretty much every travesty. Even though, this is just the surface in Wilde's play. His farce works at two dimensions from one perspective he disparages the habits of the high society and on the other he mocks the human condition in general. The characters in The Importance of Being Earnest assume false personalities to accomplish their objectives however don't meddle with the others' lives.

The double life driven by Algernon, Jack, and Cecily (through her journal) is basically other methods by which they free themselves from the abusive standards of society. They can make themselves and utilize their double personalities to offer themselves the chance to appear inverse sides of their characters. They mock each custom of the public and test its qualities. This makes the comic impact of the play as well as makes the crowd think about the genuine things of life.

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In the Importance of Being Earnest, the subject of each gender’s role in society frequently focuses on power. In the Victorian era of this play, men have greater influence than women. Men settle on the political choices for their families, while women work around the house, unobtrusively taking care of the kids. Men are esteemed for their intelligence and judgment, while women are alluring to men for their beauty and virtuousness. However, Wilde brings up fascinating issues about gender roles with regards to The Importance of Being Earnest by putting women (like Lady Bracknell) in places of power and by demonstrating that men can be unreliable and terrible at basic leadership.

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Jack, in a very patronizing manner says, “My dear fellow, the truth isn't quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl. What extraordinary ideas you have about the way to behave to a woman!”. (Pg 30)

Jack feels he needs to uphold the standards of being a gentleman. Jack implies that women are too idealistic and fragile to handle the truth and believes he is protecting women from a harsh society. During Act 3 Gwendolen and Cecily feel clueless about the: “dignified silence [that] seems to produce an unpleasant effect.” (Pg. 72) After Gwendolen and Cecily find out that the men they love have been lying to them, they realise that they now have the power in their respective relationships. Cecily and Gwendolen must now decide when to forgive Algy and Jack. Now that they have this power, they don’t seem to know what to do with it and humorously try many different tactics to handle the situations. This reinforces the idea that women should not be given any real power because they don’t know how to use it. In traditional Victorian society it is usually the man who controls the life of his wife but in this instance, lady Bracknell frowns, “I hope not, Algernon. It would put my table completely out your uncle would have to dine upstairs. Fortunately he is accustomed to that.” However, in the case of the marriage between lord and lady Bracknell seems to have most of the power.

Appearances are very important to Algernon, especially neckties and buttonhole flowers. He doesn’t hide his vanity from Cecily, confiding that "I never have any appetite unless I have a buttonhole first" (Pg. 42), and that Jack "has no taste in neckties at all" (Pg.41). (refernce) Wilde satirises Algy by portraying him as a dandy. The dandy represents the ideals of the aesthetic movement of which wilde was the face. Wilde’s goal was to make his dandies heroes with whom the audience could identify. Unlike the traditional dandies, Wilde dandies are not meant to be laughed at. Instead they use their role as truthful observers of society and individuals to point to what is ridiculous or hypocritical and the audience laughs with them. Wilde implies that gender and personality have very little to do with each other. Some women like Gwendolyn and Cecily cannot really seem to handle power while lady Bracknell is very comfortable with it. The satirising of gender roles contributes to the overall humorous tone of the play. Wilde’s original audience was used to a traditional role for both men and women and seeing people outside their respective roles in varying degrees of comfort gave Wilde’s audience a different perspective on society.

The Importance of Being Earnest reveals the contrasts between the behaviour of the privileged class and that of the lower class. The people from the upper class present themselves with a lot of pride and falsification, feeling that they are intrinsically qualified for their riches and higher social position. They are so distracted with keeping up business as usual that they rapidly squash any indications of defiance. In this play, Wilde ridicules the haughtiness and hypocrisy of nobility. The lower classes in the Importance of being Earnest are not so self-absorbed but rather more modest however, similarly great at making jokes. When Cecily and Algy fall in love and wish to get married but before that can happen, lady Bracknell must approve of them. “As a matter of form, Mr. Worthing, I had better ask you if Miss Cardew has any little fortune?” Lady Bracknell asked. (Pg. 78) Even though Cecily and Algy love each other very much, Algy’s aunt does not approve until she finds out that Cecily has money. This reinforces the idea that the perfect woman is also rich. Had Cecily been poor the two would have had to fight to stay together and prove that love can overcome social class but the two were already perfectly matched in that regard as were Earnest and Gwendolyn.

Women of high society in Victorian times not unlike upper class women today had high standards they demanded were met. Lady Bracknell could not imagine her precious daughter being away from the upscale and bustling life of the city for extended periods of time: there was no way a true lady could cope with such uncivilised surroundings. Women in the Victorian society were generally not allowed to marry without the consent of their parents or guardians and when Gwendolen told Lady Bracknell that, “I am engaged to Mr. Worthing, Mamma” (Pg. 23). Lady Bracknell refuses until she knows everything about Jack Worthing and that jack was found by Thomas Cardew in a handbag. Many decisions in the lives of Victorian women were made by the men in their lives. For Gwendolen most of her life is controlled by her mother, Lady Bracknell.

Another theme in Wilde’s works was that of dual identities. Jack Worthing, from The Importance of Being Earnest, who depicts himself as a high moral character but is also a liar. The concept of dual identity in Wilde’s work was also a reflection of his life; in public he adopted the façade of a heterosexual man through his marriage, but in private he had a string of homosexual affairs. Wilde’s secret identity was made public in 1895. There are certain significant similarities between Jack and Algernon. After all, they are brothers. Both of them are complex that they possess 'dual personalities'. Jack is using the name Ernest in town to make his life in town more interesting. Algernon create a friend named Bunbury as an excuse to get away from his society. They both use the fake identity as to escape from their own surrounding. Apart from that, they both deeply in love with the lady the first time they meet. Jack becomes attracted to the cousin of Algernon, Gwendolen. "Miss Fairfax, ever since I met you I have admired you more than every girl- I have ever met - since I met you." (pg 736). Algernon becomes in love at first sight with Jack's ward, Cecily. It seems they are link to one another. As a result, both Jack and Algernon make a quick and vague decision to propose to the ladies soon after they meet.

Consequently, they discover that they are long lost brothers which explains a few similarities between them. The dualities of society are well reflected in the play. Jack Worthing, a respectable provincial judge of peace, needs to invent a depraved younger brother to justify his frequent trips to his bachelor rooms in London. We can see that Aunt Bracknell is particularly concerned about Gwendolyn's prospective fiancé's qualification for marrying into the family from her constant stream of questions; she wants to know whether Jack smokes, how old he is, how much money he earns, if he possesses his own property and so on. The reader can guess how he spends the time in London when he is not with Gwendolyn, and where Algernon goes on his "bunburying" expeditions after he has got out of his dinner engagements. In the same way that Oscar Wilde attempted to live a double life, many people of the Victorian Age, even highly ranking personalities of the public, cultivated their own double lives. The idea of leading a double life in "The importance of Being Ernest" is an escape from the constricting social façade into the freedom of secret pleasures. What makes the play so special is the double occurrence of this leading of double lives and the similarity between Algernon's and Jack's way of fleeing social restrictions.

In the importance of being Earnest at the end the farce between the characters fantasies are brought to life. Their double life is not a hypocrisy. They mock the laws and the customs of the society in which they live. The characters challenge society's values, free themselves from their rigid customs and at the end of the play they manage to regain their balance and become Earnest.

Updated: Nov 16, 2022
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Victorian Culture and Values in "The Importance of Being Earnest". (2020, Sep 10). Retrieved from

Victorian Culture and Values in "The Importance of Being Earnest" essay
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