In these scenes Jack Worthing decides to propose to Gwendolen and is then forced to endure questioning from Lady Bracknell. He does this primarily through irony and hypocrisy in the character’s dialogue and actions. Lady Bracknell and Algernon Moncrieff are completely immersed in the superficial ways of the leisure class. Gwendolyn does not get much of a voice due to the fact that she is a girl and still in the care of her parents, though when she does speak it is shallow and trivial. Insight and understanding are required in order to find thoughtful humor funny.
Lady Bracknell is an example of the worst parts of high society. Lady Bracknell sees it as important to interview Jack for the position of Gwendolen’s husband. Lady Bracknell already had Jack on her “list of eligible men” (12;Act 1) that could be considered as possible suitors for her daughter. The process did not involve Gwendolen at all, in fact, it was believed that “an engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise,” (12; Act 1). It was common for the time to have your wife or husband picked for you. By getting together with the Duchess of Bolton to create a official list of men that would be allowed to propose to their daughters, Lady Bracknell’s actions were an exaggeration of what would normally happen at the time. Though members of the upper class in the audience would be laughing at her outrageous actions, they would also be able to relate to the situation thus making it more funny and a criticism.
The things Lady Bracknell focuses on when questioning Jack seem trivial and unnecessary. She is concerned as to which side of the street he lives on but is glad to hear that he smokes because “a man should always have an occupation of some kind,” (12, Act 1). The upper class in London at the time that the book was written was called the “leisure class.” They did not work and needed something to do in the day, in this case smoke and lie about who you are. This gross exaggeration of their sense of worth is used to condemn the upper class in London. The audience would laugh at her antics and priorities though they would also think back to their own spouse. They would ask themselves the criteria they looked at when picking their partner. Lady Bracknell’s comments are used by Wilde to exaggerate and evoke thoughtful laughter but still have an underlying level of criticism. The audience laughs at the over exaggerated and comical version of themselves but fail to recognize it as critical and insulting.
Though Wilde avoids using overt examples of sex and love he does mention them in subtle ways that require some thought to understand. Gwendolen does not want to be perfect because she intends “to develop in many directions” (8;Act 1). This is a comment of the times. Women were not to be outwardly sexual or they would be considered improper; however, by stating that she is intending to develop in many ways she is implying that she wants to grow, both in her body and her ability to control it. He was having her say that she was gonna have big boobs and be good at sex without explicitly stating it. This is subtle enough to go under the radar and not offend anyone but, if caught, is incredibly funny. This idea is continued with Lady Bracknell later in the act. She feels as though “ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone” (13;Act 1). In this case the dialogue is alluding to virginity. The ignorance she is talking about is purity and, like with a delicate fruit, you start doing things to it, it’s no longer pristine. This another case of the underlying criticism. She is comparing ignorance to virginity, but she is saying that virginity is exotic. Even if someone were to get that this joke is about sex it is very possible to glance over the subtle dig that Wilde throws out. Once again, this works out to stop people from getting offended because if someone is able to catch the joke they will most likely find it more funny than crude.
Every character in the play exhibits a level of hypocrisy in their actions or words. Jack tries to convince Gwendolen that the name Ernest is not fitting for him and that she should feel the same for him even if his name was Jack. Gwendolen does not think that Jack is an adequate name because she knew “the moment Algernon first mentioned” (10;Act 1) him, that she was “destined” to love a man named Ernest. The name itself is ironic in that he is not being earnest with her. Furthermore, her saying that she would only love someone named Ernest is also hypocritical. She would love someone for their name but not look at them to see if they have the qualities of an earnest man. She essentially throws out the idea of love by not accepting him and having superficial desires in her relationship. This entire situation evokes laughter because it is clear the irony of the situation. She wants someone named Ernest and he is not being Earnest. In her mind she saw this as a completely logical reason to love someone. The reason this evokes thoughtful laughter is because Wilde is mocking the London upper class. He is saying that things they want in a relationship are superficial and irrelevant, people are not marrying for true love. Wilde is using this scene as a way to belittle and undermine the upper class. He is recognizing that they take themselves way too seriously and mocking them for it.
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