The surface overview of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest paints the image of an amusing comedy merely for entertainment purpose. Evidently, Wilde employs numerous techniques such as trickery, sarcasm, and jokes which are central to humor studies. Although a majority of the readers, critics, and reviewers agree that The Importance of Being Earnest is pretty funny, it justly castes a satirical limelight on the Victorian era (Wilde also wrote during the Victorian era).
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Victorian era was mainly characterized by improved political stability, increased wealth, and stringent cultural norms. In particular, the cultural norms involved some rules of conduct that highly influenced an individual’s social standing. Additionally, the rules of conduct in the Victorian era guided people on how to behave in a socially accepted manner especially in the public. These are the very ideals that Wilde satirizes in his play. As such, this paper’s primary objective is to discuss why Wilde satirizes the viewers whom he expects to buy the tickets to watch the play and the reaction he might be aiming to evoke in his audience.
Majority of the literary works are an illumination of the events that take place in a society and The Importance of Being Earnest is not an exception. Therefore, in as much as Wilde is popularly known for the use of satire in the majority of his writings, The Importance of Being Earnest sheds some light on the happenings that blanketed the Victorian era. It is for this reason that Wilde chooses to satirize his viewers who in this case are his audience. The Victorian era was commonly known for the strict moral codes that guided how people behaved in the public (Phegley 3).
In other words, people were expected to demonstrate proper behaviors approved by the society. Nevertheless, Wilde is satirical of this Victorian ideal especially when he exposes the hypocrisy behind behaving properly in the public. Thus, Wield through his all-rounded characters shows that while it is right to exhibit acceptable behavior while in the public, the same people tend to deviate from the moral codes when not in public. Jack and Algernon portray less than ideal manners when they both fake their identities as Earnest so as to attract the attention of the city girls who are obsessed by the name. Jack, for instance, disguises as Earnest while in town and as Jack while in the country (Wilde 9).
Additionally, Wilde satirizes the audience who highly aspired to live earnest lives but on the other and practiced double morality. The concept of earnestness in the Victorian era was of great importance (Valentinov Krastev, 3). Indeed, it was a prestigious concept used to refer to the people perceived as having a purpose in life, those that adhered to the moral codes of the Victorian age, and for those who strived to achieve certain goals in life (Valentinov Krastev, 9). In general, earnestness was a worthy title for the individuals who demonstrated self-control, self-respectability, and self-denial. The cult of earnestness, thus, is one of the aspects that led the majority of the Victorian people to lead lives of double morality. On one hand, the people lived a double life to maintain the respect of the conventional Victorian society while on the other hand, they choose to live frivolously to satisfy their desires. Algy and Jack survive by lying and living as Earnest imposters all because they want to gain moral freedom.
Similarly, Cecily leads a double life where she imagines that she is already married to Earnest. Cecily maintains that a diary usually chronicles the things that have never happened, and couldn’t possibly have happened (Wilde 32). Arguably, it is palpable that people had no right in leading personal lives dictated by no stringent moral standards.
Wilde mocks Victorian people who have no better ways of breaking away from the cocoon of the slim social ties and ideals than living deceptive/double/duals lives. Gwendolen is also aware of the ideals that have found their way in the monthly expensive magazines and pulpits (Wilde 16). It is the desire to untie from the social fa?§ade and immersing in secret pleasures that Jack and Algernon frame imaginary characters. Jack Worthington is, for instance, a very respectable judge of peace in the province but cheats that he has a younger brother, Earnest. Thus, Jack justifies his reasons for frequent visits to the town to rescue his mischievous brother from one problem or the other (Wilde 11).
In the same way, Algernon prefers going to the country bunburying to avoid the dinner engagements with the aunt. Dinner parties exhibited an ideal of family life and were taken seriously. It is also deducible from Algy’s words to Jack You are one of the most advanced Bunburyists I know (Wilde 11) that it is not only Jack and Algy who secretly deviate from the ideals. Algy’s sentiment is an indication that the majority of the Victorian people were so bound by the social ties but behaved differently while on their own.
One defining style used by Wilde is the manner in which he makes fun of the audience while amusing them through his characters. He is critical about the marriage of convenience which also intrinsically related to the concept of earnestness. Love and marriage were important aspects of the Victorian era (Phegley 5 ). Moreover, the families of the time were not only patriarchal but also authoritarian whereby the choice of a spouse was partly a responsibility of one’s parents (Phegley 5).
Of the importance to note, in this instance, is that the decision to arrive at a marriage agreement was also determined by the mutual benefits of economic and social exchange. The companionate marriage was also a Victorian ideal and love was a crucial component of such a marriage. In this view, Wilde indirectly mocks the audience for remaining blindfolded by the pursuit for earnestness. Instead of falling in love for love, the Victorian people instead contradicted the marriage ideal and fall in love with merely the name Earnest as well as gaining material possession. Gwendolen confesses to Jack that she was destined to love him from the moment Algernon mentioned that he has a friend by the name Earnest (Wilde 17). According to Gwendolen, ” my ideal has always been to love someone of the name Earnest” (Wilde 17). Cecily is also a victim in pursuit of earnestness and psychologically engages Earnest Worthing long before his proposal.
Undoubtedly, the Victorian era was known for the classification of people into different social classes. As a result of the prominence of the social classes, people’s daily lives were determined by the social class to which one belonged (Khan 515). Lady Blacknell, a middle-class person, makes the decision of who marries Gwendolen. At first, Gwendolen accepts Jack’s proposal mainly because he bears the name Earnest. Blacknell, on the other hand, is opposed to the proposal because Jack exhibits unacceptable behavior such as smoking and lacks a good profession and a title to his name (Wilde 20).
In short, Jack fails to meet the qualifications for a middle-class suitor. Blacknell opens to Jack that you are not down on my list of eligible young men (Wilde 20). Similarly, when Blacknell learns about Cecily’s engagement to Algernon, she opposes their union by arguing that the latter does not belong to Cecily’s social class. It is nonetheless ironical how Blacknell suddenly changes her stand when she learns about Cecily’s fortune of about 130,000 pounds. The lady appreciates that there were some social possibilities for Algernon’s proposal to Cecily (Wilde 73). Later in the play, Blacknell consents to Jack’s proposal to Gwendolen when it is revealed that Jack is Algernon’s elder brother. These instances unveil the hypocrisy of Victorian ideals, particularly in love, courtship, and marriage.
The name Earnest as used in the play goes beyond the surface meaning. The use of Earnest in the play denotes the qualities of an ideal man in the Victorian era and which include a man who is passionate, loving, sincere, trustworthy, and honorable. However, the reader knows that possessing the name does not guarantee the individual of such qualities. Further, a reader understands that the It is a divine name. It has a music of its own (Wilde 17). In this case, therefore, Wilde seeks to evoke the reaction that the audience should search for their true character which is not merely represented by their names. Furthermore, Wilde’s play acts as an eye opener to the audience about the insincerity of the Victorian ideals and how they had been duped into living the ideals. For instance, the adherence to the Victorian ideals led the people to live dual lives whereby they tried to exhibit the socially acceptable behaviors in public but at the same time breaking the social norms to meet their desires like Jack and Algernon.
In summary, Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a satire of the ideals of the Victorian era. Notably, the era was characterized by very high moral standards among other factors such as growing wealth and political stability. The concept of earnestness arguably one of the defining features of the Victorian era. However, one question that Wilde appears to raise and to which he calls upon his audience to ponder about is whether there is an inherent relationship between a mere name and the actual character of the individual. Therefore, the Victorian understanding of earnestness is the root cause of the moral fa?§ade, hypocrisy, and dual morality. It carried the meaning of an ideal Victorian man/husband who was supposed to be loving, caring, honest, and trustworthy. Thus, to demystify this falsehood, Wilde creates Jack and Algy who pretend to be Earnest all in the name of winning the love of the young women, Cecilia and Gwendolen. Hence, Wilde wants to evoke the emotions of his viewers by challenging them to face the truth and find the actual character in one’s personality other than the name.
Satire in the Importance of Being Earnest. (2019, Jul 23).
Retrieved July 4, 2022 , from
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