History Of English Literature And The Canon In The Victorian Era: The Importance Of Being Earnest

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Section 1: Social, Political and Philosophical Context

The Victorian era was one of great change and importance. The industrialisation of England during this time forever changed how and where people lived. The shift from rural to urban work accelerated with the rise of factories and the advancement of technology. The lower classes were overworked and suffered from horrible workplace conditions. Both adults and children worked tirelessly for sixteen hours per day on repetitive, strenuous and often dangerous tasks. For this, they were paid poorly, giving them just enough money to afford rent and a very sparse diet for their family.

Philosophical Context:

The way industrialists justified these conditions was by applying a philosophy which seemed reasonable in theory but was proven to have harmful effects. Utilitarianism is a theory which was applied by Jeremy Bentham. It promoted ‘the greatest happiness for the greatest number’, and judged a situation based on its outcome, simply how much ‘pleasure’ and how much ‘pain’ it caused. If the act resulted in more pleasure than pain, then it was justified. The philosophy relies on mathematics and statistics – it’s logical and hyper-rational, and it doesn’t account for the emotion of those involved. This philosophy was very attractive to some people, particularly of higher classes, but others found it limiting and soulless. Victorians and their literature were asking ethical questions in a lot of different ways, but utilitarianism was one popular lens through which to do it. The theory is purely logical and rational, but some writers, such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens, wanted to show a contrasting perspective: what befalls the ‘few’ who get sacrificed for the happiness of the many? Dickens strongly believed in the idea that people are individuals and their lives and choices cannot be explained by mathematics and statistics alone. He was deeply committed to the idea of altruism, generosity and compassion and believed that these behaviours would be lost in the system based on utilitarianism. In 1854, he wrote the novel Hard Times. In Hard Times, the ideas behind Utilitarianism, statistical economics, and the way they may shape the government, education, and society, in general, all combine to present a bleak future for the children raised under them. Those who idealize this philosophy imagine a logical, rational and highly efficient world. In this novel, Dickens presents us with children raised and educated under this system. ‘Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.’ (Dickens, Hard Times) These are the novel’s opening lines. Spoken by Mr Gradgrind, they sum up his rationalist philosophy. The children’s emotions are repressed, their imaginations starved, and their creativity discouraged. As a result, they grow into adults that lack morals and are unable to understand or emotionally connect with others.

Social and Political Context:

The Victorian era was characterised by rapid change and developments in nearly every aspect – from advancements in technological, medical and scientific knowledge, to changes in population growth and location. Over time, this intense change severely affected the country’s mood: an age that began with a confident and optimistic society, leading to huge economic success eventually turned uncertain and doubtful regarding Britain’s place in the world. While the industrialisation of Britain brought excitement to the society, its effects on their lives were mostly negative, particularly on the lower classes. This was reflected in many aspects of Victorian literature. For example, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South explores the life of Margaret Hale, a well-educated woman from a poor family who moves from southern England to the industrialised North. ‘North and South’ is all about challenging authority, specifically when authority works against compassion and justice. Margaret constantly oversteps her limitations as a Victorian woman. Her brother challenges authority by disobeying his commanding officer in the navy and causing a revolt. The factory employee Nicholas Higgins organizes workers’ strikes and insists on equal rights for the working class. When it was published in 1854, this book was met with severe criticism, directed at the fact that Elizabeth Gaskell (a woman) wrote sympathetically about the rights of English workers.

The middle Victorian age was one of theological conflict. Scientists and geologists were putting together a comprehensive fossil record which suggested that the world was much older than the bible had suggested. These theories caused an uprising and protests, as inconsistencies were discovered in the Bible. In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species which immediately sold out its first print run. This book suggested that humans had evolved from simpler animals. The mental transition from the belief that we were created by God to the possibility that we had evolved from apes was possibly one of the most profound shocks that humanity had ever undergone. Darwin’s publications were some of the most influential for the modern era.

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Section 2 – Close Study of Text

Written and debuted in the latter part of the Victorian era, Oscar Wilde’s satirical theatrical comedy, The Importance Of Being Earnest (1895) is still one that characterises the period’s rich literature and has withstood the test of time as Wilde’s most popular and widely acclaimed piece of work, which clearly reflects and responds to the world of Victorian London. Indeed, the play is a fascinating reflection of the Victorian era concerns with social class, marriage and gender. The text itself was extremely popular at the time of its premiere, its run cut short only by the real-life scandal that overtook the playwright. After the discovery of his sexual orientation, Wilde was imprisoned for ‘gross indecency’, a mere two months after the debut of they play.

As such, Wilde explores the role of the Victorian social classes in The Importance of Being Earnest. In the play, he ridicules the arrogance and hypocrisy of the aristocracy, highlighting the faults in the class structure which is based on little more than lineage and wealth. When Jack wishes to marry Gwendolyn, her mother, Lady Bracknell, interrogates him about his family history. This is because, in Victorian society, marriage was not predominantly for love, but for social status. Despite his positive first impression, Lady Bracknell refuses to risk her family’s legacy for a lineage that is of no real significance. ‘You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter – a girl brought up with the utmost care – to marry into a cloak-room and form an alliance with a parcel?’. Here, she references Jack’s unfortunate beginning, having been left in a train station cloakroom as an infant, and being orphaned because of it. Wilde satirises Lady Bracknell’s arrogance and superficiality. In many ways, she represents Wilde’s opinion of Victorian upper-class negativity, conservative and repressive values, and power. Thus, the ideas surrounding social class in The Importance of Being Earnest are an interesting and insightful reflection of and response to the Victorian era society.

Similarly, The Importance of Being Earnest provides an insightful reflection of marital norms during the Victorian era. Marriage is of high importance in the play, both as a key force which motivates the plot and as a subject for speculation and debate. As such, the entire play revolves around the question of whether marriage is a matter of ‘pleasure’ or ‘business’. The question of the nature of marriage first appears in the opening lines exchanged between Algernon and his butler, Lane, and is carried on throughout the course of the play in different contexts. Algernon and Jack discuss the nature of marriage when they dispute briefly about whether a marriage proposal is a matter of ‘business’ or ‘pleasure,’ Algernon thinks of marriage as a social obligation he must fulfil in order to maintain a respectable name and reputation. Contrastingly, Jack has a much more optimistic view of marriage and seems to regard it as romantic. Like Algernon, Lady Bracknell mentions a similar topic when she states that, ‘An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be.’ Even Lady Bracknell’s list of eligible men and the prepared interview which Jack is subjected to are based on a set of assumptions about the nature and purpose of marriage. In general, these assumptions reflect the conventional concerns of Victorian respectability—social status, income, and character. Therefore, the topic of marriage in Earnest is exaggerated, though nonetheless, an accurate reflection of the marital norms of the Victorian Era.

Moreover, in The Importance of Being Earnest, each gender’s role in society is questioned. In the Victorian world of this play, men were considered the superior sex. They worked, provided and made decisions for their families while their wives took care of the homes and raised the children. Men were valued for their intelligence and judgment, while women were attractive to men for their beauty and modesty. However, Wilde challenges these norms and raises thought-provoking questions about gender roles in The Importance of Being Earnest by putting women in positions of authority and by showing that men can be irresponsible and injudicious. In the play, Gwendolen is shown reversing the traditional roles of men and women. ‘The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man. And certainly, once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties, he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I don’t like that.’ Here, she challenges the conventional idea that women should be the ones at home, cleaning, cooking and taking care of the children. Moreover, in traditional Victorian society, it is typically the man who controls the life of his wife. However, in the case of the marriage between Lord and Lady Bracknell, Lady Bracknell seems to hold the majority of power and authority. When Algernon tells Lady Bracknell, his aunt, that he will, unfortunately, have to leave before dinner, she assertively replies. ‘It would put my table completely out. Your uncle would have to dine upstairs. Fortunately, he is accustomed to that.’ This line clearly portrays the dominance which Lady Bracknell holds over her husband, an untypical power dynamic for couples of the Victorian era. These are two of the few places where Wilde clearly shows that women can occupy positions of power and dismiss the traditional gender roles. It was also incredibly rare for Victorian literature to address gender roles in such a way. Therefore, Wilde provides an interesting reflection on gender stereotypes of the Victorian era by reversing and ridiculing them.

Hence, it is clear that every text is both a reflection of and a response to the world in which it was composed. This is highly evident in Oscar Wilde’s seminal play The Importance of Being Earnest, which was created in the late Victorian era. Indeed, the play is an interesting reflection of the Victorian era concerns with social class systems, marriage and gender norms, which Wilde portrays through humour and satire, as a way of communicating his thoughts and opinions on the subjects in an unserious way.

Bibliography

  1. Picard. L, The Working Classes and the Poor (2009), https://www.bl.uk/victorian-britain/articles/the-working-classes-and-the-poor
  2. Parker. M., Morrison. F., Masters in Pieces (2006), Cambridge University Press
  3. Shmoop Editorial Team. ‘Utilitarianism.’ Shmoop University, Inc. (2008) https://www.shmoop.com/victorian-literature/utilitarianism-characteristic.html
  4. VerKamp. A. ‘Utilitarianism made for ‘Hard Times’ in Dickens’ England’ (2018) https://simplelinesdegrowth.wordpress.com/2018/02/20/hard-times-dickens/
  5. Shepherd. A. ‘The Victorian Era’ (2001) https://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/Victorians/article.html
  6. Wearing, J. (1977). The London West End Theatre in the 1890s. Educational Theatre Journal
  7. Wikipedia (2019) Theatre in the Victorian Era https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theatre_in_the_Victorian_era
  8. Victoria and Albert Museum (2016) ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’: The first stage production, 1895 http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/t/the-importance-of-being-earnest-first-stage-production/
  9. History.com Editors (2018) Origin of Species https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/origin-of-species-is-published
  10. Shmoop Editorial Team. (2008). North and South. https://www.shmoop.com/north-and-south/
  11. Henderson, G. (2014) Gender Roles in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ https://prezi.com/pdqr2i5sgo68/gender-roles-in-the-importance-of-being-earnest/
  12. Sparknotes Team (2018) The Importance of Being Earnest – Themes https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/earnest/themes/

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History Of English Literature And The Canon In The Victorian Era: The Importance Of Being Earnest. (2021, August 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 2, 2022, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/history-of-english-literature-and-the-canon-in-the-victorian-era-the-importance-of-being-earnest/
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