Oscar Wilde was an Irish poet and playwright born in Dublin the year 1854 -1900, he is best remembered for his epigrams within plays. Wilde was born from a prominent family and was a well-educated man, he was noticed as a scholar, however, his reputation is held upon some of his famous comic masterpieces including, The Importance of Being Earnest; a comical parody with lots of linguistic techniques used to represent Wilde’s morals on Victorian society; about a man named Earnest who has a fake persona to evade social obligations and maintain his reputation. This essay will analyse how Wilde represented his view on Victorian morals and society through one of his famous plays ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. (TIOBE)
The Importance of Being Earnest is structured into three acts. Throughout the play, various themes stand out, for example, social conventions; the play satirizes social conventions and explores the accepted social norms of Victorian society. Another theme throughout is Love. Love was central to Wilde’s life just like this poem centered around love with the following themes of marriage. Another major theme is society and class, and this is presented in Lady Bracknell who follows the norms of arranged marriage based on class and security and therefore she refuses Earnest to have Gwendoline’s hand because his heritage is unknown and quite ‘unfortunate’ until the end of the play. The theme of love within the play is based on hearsay and drives the characters throughout the play and the speed of characters falling in love adds a satirical comedy effect.
Although TIOBE holds many significant characters, Lady Bracknell was who the audience could identify with more because she as a character is everything that Victorian Society adheres to. The norms of Victorian society are well outlined, their values are respect and reputation in which Wilde represented through the character of Lady Bracknell remarkably, Lady Bracknell would not accept Earnest’s proposal to Gwendoline on the grounds he was not ‘one of her eligible candidates’ and further found out he held no heritage. Lady Bracknell is dominant within Victorian ethos, she is high class, wealthy, and conservative; she sees marriage as an alliance for property and stability and this could represent Wilde’s opinion of upper-class morals. Lady Bracknell is pivotal within the play, due to her requirements for Jack to marry Gwendoline, she becomes the means of conflict and causes the complications within the play and for the play to end happily, these complications must be overcome. (Course Hero, 2019)
Another significant character is Algernon ‘Algy’ Moncrieff, Algy is one of Wilde’s dandified characters; he is the nephew of Lady Bracknell and lives like a bachelor and dresses very flamboyantly in Victorian society and lives on the ‘fashionable’ side of London and takes on less obligation. Algy was born into aristocracy but acquired a lot of debts through his foolish behavior, foolish is a theme we see throughout the play and is represented through Algernon. Algy symbolises wittiness and represents Wilde’s cleverness through the luxurious way Algy poses and moves on stage. Algy’s wit and wisdom can be summed up in one of his lines ‘of course the music is of great difficulty. You see if one plays good music, people don’t listen, and if one plays bad music, people don’t talk Algy even applauds himself on his humor ‘it’s perfectly phrased’. Algernon is also given witty lines and epigrams showing his humor and disrespect for Victorian values. The parallel to Wilde, Algy leads a double life by using an invalid friend named ‘Mr. Bunbury’ to get out of his boring social duties. Bunbury provided Algy with a way of indulging himself while also suggesting great importance and responsibility. Jack does not admit he is a ‘bunburyist’ however Algy not only identifies his behaviour but enjoys it. Algernon is also an example of the lengths Victorians had to go, to escape the repression and guilt bought about by a society that values appearance over reality. Throughout the play there are constant references to Algernon’s eating and his repetitive actions of gorging himself on ‘cucumber sandwiches’ and ‘muffins’ this is also to show Algy’s self-indulgent morals. Although Algy relates marriage to ‘business’ and has no thoughts about marrying at all, the change at the end when he falls in love with Cecily was quite a twist and could possibly show that appearance and wealth are priority within society as Cecily had a perfect ‘profile’ and a hundred and thirty thousand pounds in the funds’ shows that their engagement then became appropriate for Lady Bracknell and potentially for Algernon to cover his debts. The secrecy was also an aspect of Wilde’s life and Algernon represents the rule breaker side of Oscar Wilde, the side that evidently caused Wilde’s downfall. It is also believed that Algy is a representation for Wilde himself; Algy dresses flamboyantly and is proud of his behaviour and personifies aestheticism and wittiness, aestheticism was an art movement of the late 19th century that believed in ’art for art’s sake. (N. allitt. 2019) Wilde was one of the English literary advocates of the movement. Algy is also well-cultured and very egocentric which allows Wilde to discuss Victorian tyranny and shame. (Course Hero, 2019)
Wilde used many literary techniques within his play, for example, epigrams are used widely throughout the entire play to show witticism and aphorism and the characters’ constant change of opinions, for example; ‘the only way to behave to a woman, is to make love to her if she is pretty, and to someone else, if she is plain’ (Algernon, Act 1, pg. 16) this shows the audience the comical view of marriage to Algernon who later gets engaged to Cecily and shows his changing opinion of marriage within Victorian society. Another example is ‘if you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life’ (Gwendolen, Act III, pg. 52) this is an example of witticism which Wilde uses in the play to ridicule the values of Victorian society in a comical approach, these examples show the forever changing opinion of the characters. Another literary device Wilde uses is symbolism and this is produced through Algernon’s food consumption and this is also used as a conflict tool between the characters so they can fight but in a nonviolent way for example ‘cucumber sandwiches’ Algernon refuses to allow Jack to eat the cucumber sandwiches which also shows us Algernon has an advantage over Jack another example; in act II, lines 1644-1660 Cecily intentionally sabotages Gwendolen’s ‘tea and cake’ giving her cake instead of bread and butter. (Malterre, Marsters and Willis. N.D)
Wilde uses satirical lines and witty humour throughout the play to express his opinions of Victorian morals, he scorns the egotism and pompousness of the higher class believing that they are ignorant of anything but their own problems and if appearances are decent, it did not matter what went on in their private lives if their reputation was maintained. Also, the fact that Cecily and Gwendolen only wanted to marry Jack and Algy because they believed their names were ‘Ernest’ which is ironic because Ernest is a homophone to ‘being Earnest’ which also means honesty and as Gwendolen describes ’It is a divine name. It has music of its own. It produces vibrations. In victorian society earnestness was of utmost importance and society fell in love with the idea of being earnest. It is also evident that Wilde believes the lower class is humble and thinks smarter than the higher class because they appear to be true to themselves and do not hide feelings and this is shown through Miss prism and Rev. Chasuble’s relationship. Wilde disapproves of the aristocracy values within Victorian Society and expressed this through what he was best at, writing plays. (Bethany Lutheran College, 2018)
There are multiple significant features of a play from scenery to props. Scenery is crucial in a play because it is the visual representation of the playwrights ideas, for example, TIOBE is reduced into three acts mainly because the changing of scenery disrupts the play, so the reduced acts help the plot flow through while also immersing the audience into a whole other world. The first act is set in Algernon’s apartment, and this gives a visual representation of Algernon’s character and indicates that he is a wealthy aristocrat in Victorian society. It also reduces production costs if it is based within a house or a garden. Also, it depends on humans to outline the plot, unlike a book which is left to the imagination. Another significant feature of a play is costumes, costumes are used for historical context, and in this play, it gives a brief background on each character, all characters within this play are dressed in wealthy aristocrat clothing to represent Wilde’s ideas of upper-class society. The costumes assist the characters’ actions, thus portraying the proper characteristics required of the actors.
In conclusion, a play requires a lot of work and thoughts to give the audience the proper effect of the plot involved. A book is meant to be read, poetry is meant to be heard and a play is meant to be seen and heard. Wilde produced TIOBE into a play to show his opinion on Victorian society in a way that represented his own persona and views of the Victorian Era and writing this play meant he could get his point of view across while also making people laugh.
- Bethany Lutheran College (2018). The Importance of Being Earnest presented by Bethany Lutheran College. YouTube. Available at: https:www.youtube.comwatch?v=BWPftxsBPz0 [Accessed 9 Jun. 2021].
- Course Hero (2019). The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde | Summary