Victorian Satire Essay, Research Paper
“The Importance of Being Earnest,” a play by Oscar Wilde, gives an interesting look into each of the social classes existent in late Victorian England. As the play follows Ernest Worthing, the main character, through his dilemmas concerning his love for the wealthy Gwendolen, his lack of knowledge concerning his parentage and his overall lack of knowledge concerning his own identity, we see the many classes that he encounters throughout and are given a good interpretation of each. Each character is clearly included in Wilde’s masterpiece to represent a different class: both butlers, Lane and Merriman, although small characters, are seen to represent the realities of the lower class; characters Ernest and Algernon are those that represent the middle class; and characters Lady Bracknell, Cecily and Gwendolen act as the highest class or the nobles. As we can see, Wilde recognizes and separates each class. Wilde satirizes each social class’ attitudes and realities by using his own satire and wit. Their dialogue or their actions help convey their stereotypical views on death, on marriage and on the other social classes as well.
The play opens with a conversation between character Algernon and his butler, Lane. Algernon and Lane are seen to be discussing the institution of marriage:
Lane:…in married households the champagne is rarely of first-rate brand.
Algernon:Good Heavens! Is marriage as demoralizing as that?
Lane: I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.
Algernon: I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane.
Lane: No, sir; it is not very interesting subject. I never think of it myself.
… Algernon: Lane’s views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?
This dialogue goes on to characterize many different ideas that hold true in the classes of each of these characters and also goes on to satirize the stereotypical butler/master relationship. When one thinks of a butler in this time period, they think of a total and complete servant who is completely agreeable in all aspects. This scene satirizes that stereotype by watching Lane’s obvious disagreement to much of Algernon’s statements but also his ability to hide these ideas. An example is Lane’s disagreement to Algernon’s “demoralization” statement and then his quick retraction to reclaim his loyalty. Also, in allowing this discussion between the two characters, Wilde is able to bring the two classes together, an idea that was unthinkable at the time. Although the separation between the two classes was evident, it wasn’t as thick as is usually seen. Also, Algernon closes this interaction by making a statement that is very bold coming from a higher class in response to that of a lower. Critic Kyle Hawkins agrees and further recognizes the Algernon’s bold statement, “as though the wealthy observed the lower class members as role models.” This contradicts the general idea held by the higher class that is later embodied by Lady Bracknell.
This incident between Lane and Algernon is soon followed by one similar discussion between Algernon and Ernest concerning Lady Bracknell’s beliefs concerning this holy institution of marriage. Ernest pronounces his love for Gwendolen to Algernon and Algernon introduces his individual views on the institution. Algernon states that to him marriage is more of a “business” and goes on to twist the traditional idea that “marriages are made in heaven” by stating here that “divorces are made in heaven.” This also is a use of satire to put a negative light on the view of the middle class on an institution that is recognized by many as a bond of love. Algernon further goes on to criticize marriage by stating “that in married life, three is a company, two is none.” One critic goes on to say:
Wilde satirizes the excess of the elite, but at the same time the ideas proposed by Algernon do not seem so far off. In marriage, one need not look any further than Lady Bracknell to see a situation where three is company and two none: the epigrams delight also because they seem true.
This becomes evident as we hear Lady Bracknell tell Algernon that if he choose not to dine with her husband and herself tonight that no dining will happen at all and “your [Algernon's] uncle would have to dine upstairs.” This illustrates that the marriage and feeling between these two is only existent with the company of three. A satirical idea that is expressed by Algernon and holds true in the life of Lady Bracknell.
The idea and discussion of marriage also goes on to continue the satire throughout the play. Lady Bracknell, following her discussion with Ernest, refuses to allow Gwendolen to marry him because of his lack of a parentage. She says that she refuses to allow her “only daughter, a girl brought up with the utmost care, to marry into a cloakroom, and form an alliance with a parcel.” This proves the idea that the wealthier class views marriage not as something for love but instead as something that needs to be “the result of careful selection and planning on the part of parents, based on social respectability and standing… Ultimately, the only thing that matters to Lady Bracknell is not emotional happiness but rather financial and social security.” (Hawkins) Gwendolen views on the marriage, however, are almost at the same level of absurdity and go on to mirror those of Cecily in a later scene. Gwendolen agrees to marry Ernest because she feels the the name Ernest is one that “inspires absolute confidence.” This allows the reader to question her actual love for the individual against her love for the name. Gwendolen goes on to state that she felt she couldn’t love Ernest say his name be, hypothetically, Jack. This is a further satirization of this institution of marriage. These two examples show Wilde suggesting that, “to deny marriage based on birthright, as Lady Bracknell does, is no less ridiculous than denying marriage based on one’s name.” These examples are used together to connect the more obvious absurdity to one that was less obvious of the time and overall poke fun at the actions made by this social class.
Another satirical theme throughout this play of the brilliant Oscar Wilde is the everchnging view on death. The upper class seems to toy with the idea of death and seems to question the importance of those who may die. Lady Bracknell proves this with her response to Algernon’s need to visit his non-existent friend, “Bunbury” who had recently become ill. When Lady Bracknell heard of this news she stated:
…I think it is high time that this Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die… I should be obliged that you 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…
This illustrates Lady Bracknell’s views on the idea of death, and her selfishness that seems to characterize that of this social class. Ernest goes on to provide another look on the unimportance or use of death later in the play, when he fakes the death of his own non-existent brother, Ernest, just to change his own name. One critic says that this is yet another example of this social class, “treating death like marriage, with an air of offhand brevity.” Ernest his little concern about the reality of pretending that his brother has died. It is evident the he has no moral problems in faking a death in order to further his own social goals. This is another form of satire in how it criticizes the upper class take on the idea of death and its similarity to their views on marriage.
The final and most obvious satire is linked to the name of the play all together: “The Importance of Being Earnest.” To be earnest is to be serious or to be grave and important. This idea is satirized by the upper classes necessity in doing such. When Wilde wrote this play, he wrote it with the comment being made that the actors that play these characters must do so with the utmost level of earnestness themselves and must be completely oblivious to the satirical humor that they convey to the audience. This further satirizes the different classes by making Wilde’s interpretation of each individual character all the more real and even more so oblivious to their own humor or their own mistakes that truly make this play a comedy. Therefore, the characters acting themselves provided a final satirical humor that made Wilde’s play a success.
Therefore, the dialogue and interaction of the characters throughout Oscar Wilde’s play, “The Importance of Being Earnest, ” truly provides a satirical comedic look into the lives of the individual social classes and further provides a good amusing storyline. Although this satire is well accepted as comedy today, however, after those who lived in the time of this play realized that they were being poked fun at, their reaction was not one of rolling in their seats laughing. After Wilde’s play had been well read into and the true deeper meaning of his criticism or satirization of the upper class was recognized, it managed to blow up in his face and was said to possibly have been what led him into deeper waters. The people of that time were definitely not ready to realize that they really were that funny.