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Social Class in the Importance of Being Earnest

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Oscar Wilde was an Irish playwright, poet and essayist who was remembered for his witty epigrams, his imprisonment and early death. During the peak of his fame, Wilde had an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas and was imprisoned for 2 years. In the 19th century, people were “emotionally frigid about sexual matters”, however there was a dark side to those who belonged in the upper-class in the Victorian era where there was a ‘secret world’ of Victorian prostitution, pornography and homosexuality[footnoteRef:1]. Wilde wrote the novel and the play in the 19th Century during a period of aestheticism and decadence.

The Aesthetic movement supported the emphasis of aesthetic values and the main focus was on art simply being beautiful instead of being of a “model of morality” as Carolyn Burdett[footnoteRef:2] and ‘correct’ behaviour. The Decadent movement was an artistic and literary movement that shadowed aesthetic values of excess and artificiality. Wilde and many others involved in the movement, Swinburne and Charles Baudelaire, believed in ‘arts for art’s sake’. Wilde himself was also a socialist who also believed in individualism. In a lot of Wilde’s texts, he created characters that serve the role of scrutinising and satirising the Victorian social class system, but particularly those who tended to sit at the top of the hierarchy. In the Victorian period, society was divided into three classes where the majority of the country lacked the power that the minority held. [1: Jan Marsh – Sex and Sexuality in 19th Century] [2: Carolyn Burdett – 2014]

The two main social classes in Britain are made extremely apparent in The Importance of Being Earnest the setting of the play through the important details of the settings described by Wilde. The beginning of the play, we are introduced to Algernon and Lane within Algernon’s flat in London which is depicted as “luxuriously and artistically furnished”[footnoteRef:3] with a piano that can be “heard in the adjoining room”[footnoteRef:4]. From this we can already see that Algernon is one character that is placed at the top of the Victorian societal structure. This is significant because of the use of the hyperbolic adverbs could perhaps be interpreted as Wilde showing the exaggerative nature that was typical of the Victorian era. Furthermore, Wilde makes a satirical statement between the social classes through the contrast of Town and Country.

In the Victorian era, it was typical that the upper-class usually had a town house and a country manor. We learn that Jack himself had both a town house in London, where he goes by the name of Earnest, and a country manor, and this would suggest that he would have high status and a ‘good family’, yet he has neither due his lack of “relations”. Moreover, when Lady Bracknell and Jack are having a dispute over Cecily Cardew, we are introduced to the late Thomas Cardew and his properties, however, Wilde creates an address “the Sporran, Fifeshire, N.B.” [footnoteRef:5] Here, Wilde is using this artificial address to parody and depreciate the upper-class using satire, this is because a “Sporran” is a small bag that’s worn around the waist. Wilde is evidently using Jack to criticise Lady Bracknell, and therefore, criticise those in society who she symbolises. Similarly, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the main setting is in London and Wilde focuses on the social division, particularly within the capital. This evident in the terminology used by Wilde to depict a vivid contrast between the West End and East End. The East End is said to be “gloomy”[footnoteRef:6] and that there are “fantastic shadows”[footnoteRef:7] that create “monstrous marionettes”[footnoteRef:8].

The use of the gothic adjectives and personification serves to highlight that the bourgeoisie might feel threatened by a working-class and “ghastly”[footnoteRef:9] that’s full of “dens of horror”[footnoteRef:10]. It could be argued that Wilde is using hyperbole, through gothic fiction and grotesque imagery, as a form of satire to emphasise the difference between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie’s overindulgence, thus showing his dislike for the separation between the social classes. In the character of Dorian Gray, the division of class is clearly visible, as in the West End, he is a pure and beautiful soul but as the novel transcends the setting into the East End, we see his “corrupt” and “immoral” soul. Landon Gilmour (2012)[footnoteRef:11] states “’The setting of the story seems to parallel the protagonist in many instances” and this is clear as Dorian’s personality almost reflects how the upper class sees the West End and the East End. From a psychoanalytical perspective, there seems to be hostility in his psyche between superego and id which suggests that Wilde believes the upper class are poisonous, despite them suggesting that it is the working-class. This is ironic, from a Marxist perspective, because the upper-class are the ones who have the control over things like the superstructure the working-class support and run it, so the upper-class will always be able to define what is wrong and right. [3: Oscar Wilde The Importance of Being Earnest p. 1] [4: Oscar Wilde The Importance of Being Earnest p. 1] [5: Oscar Wilde The Importance of Being Earnest p. 46] [6: Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray Chapter 16 p. 146 ] [7: Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray Chapter 16 p. 146] [8: Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray Chapter 16 p. 146] [9: Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray Chapter 16 p. 146] [10: Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray Chapter 16 p. 146] [11: Landon Gilmour on Setting 2012 –]

Another way Wilde criticises social class is through the key theme of reputation. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, overindulgence is often associated with reputation and Dorian often does this with the guidance of Lord Henry Wotton. His reputation precedes him and has stories circling the West End about him and would usually be enough to ruin anyone else’s status. Since those surrounding Dorian are aristocrats and part of the bourgeois, the beliefs are that reputation can be restored by “beautiful” physical features. We can see this through Basil’s confrontation, and the quotation “sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face”[footnoteRef:12] and this is an important quotation from the novel as it has religious connotations as we see one of the many of Dorian’s dismissals of penitence and remorse. But it also cites to the reader that there is no proof of the misdeeds and it highlights the role of the painting, which is holding the sincere power and corruption it represents.

Additionally, Wilde is bringing to light how overindulgence and gluttony can impact people’s appearance, and by proxy, their reputation. John Greenaway (2003)[footnoteRef:13] states that “By the early nineteenth century … the issue of the excess consumption of alcohol began to be defined as a social problem, one of intemperance or excessive drinking” and it could be argued that Wilde is using the theme of excess to comedically critique his own class. Melanie R Anderson (2008)[footnoteRef:14], who wrote a critical essay on the gothic theme of The Picture of Dorian Gray, suggested that the character of Dorian Gray “is portrayed as hiding his corruption behind his physical beauty” which I believe to be an accurate statement as is identifies Wilde’s crafting of Gothic versus Aestheticism.

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Comparably, in The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde uses comedy more often as it is a comedic play that ridicules those who value character and repute over all else. Particularly, Lady Bracknell falls victim to this, and critic Chris Sandford (2004)[footnoteRef:15] notes that “she is directly born out of Wilde’s twins desires to create a perfect comedy of the upper class and to ambush that upper class with his own notions on the worth and nature of art”. It is obvious that Wilde’s profound messages about the upper class are reaching the audience, and perhaps he was aiming for a social revolution. Ironically, Lady Bracknell disapproves of Algernon’s perspective on the Victorian society, “Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that”[footnoteRef:16] and this shows that she views anyone who does not admire, and to an extent worship the societal model are considered an outcast, therefore we can see that Wilde is aware of this and is attempting to bring to light the immorality of this form of hierarchy. [12: Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray Chapter 12 p.119] [13: John Greenaway – The Drinking Problem in Early Victorian Britain 1830-70] [14: Melanie R Anderson – Dorian Gray as an Aesthetic Vampire] [15: Chris Sandford – Incredible Lightness of Being Earnest] [16: Oscar Wilde The Importance of Being Earnest p. 47]

The Importance of Being Earnest parodies the social conventions about marriage, and an example of this would be when Lady Bracknell prevents Algernon from marrying Cecily Cardew until she finds out about her “solid qualities”[footnoteRef:17]. From this point, Cecily seems to be “a most attractive young lady, now that I (Lady Bracknell) look at her”[footnoteRef:18]. This is the epitome of the upper class and supports the idea that marriage within a Victorian bourgeoisie ‘relationship’ is merely a business transaction. It could be argued that Wilde uses the play as a criticism of social seriousness, and he mirrors the upper-class’ ridiculous manners and seriousness through the fight of being “Earnest” and this represents the idea of decadence. This is because the Decadent Movement reversed the values of the artificial over the natural and instead, celebrated style, excess and pleasure which is represented in The Importance of Being Earnest.

It is evident that Wilde uses the typical conventions of the theme of marriage to mock the Victorian society, as parents usually wanted their children to marry a higher class which meant the class barriers were never able to dissolve. However, Wilde uses the relationship between Gwendolen and Jack to show that class and marriage should not be associated, nonetheless, Lady Bracknell once again depicts a stereotypical Victorian Lady and does not allow the marriage to continue due the lack of wealth Jack possesses. We can further see this as Lady Bracknell is described as being horrified that her only daughter would consider marrying “into a cloak-room and form an alliance with a parcel”[footnoteRef:19]. A contemporary upper-class audience would find this laughable as to them, it would be absurd to have an “alliance” with someone who was “careless(ness)” to lose both parents. Correspondingly in The Picture of Being Earnest, we see the pure innocence of Sibyl Vane’s love for Dorian Gray when she is confessing to her mother her love for him. “Why does he love me so much? … I am not worthy of him”[footnoteRef:20] this is highlighting the fact that she is aware that they should not be together because of her low status as an actor. Also, Wilde uses the meta-text A Rebours, which is the Yellow Book Dorian Gray is given, as a tool of corruption (and a direct link to the Decadent Movement) as its purpose in the novel is to boost Dorian’s ego after the suicide of Sibyl. The book is described as “poisonous” like the idea of love that killed Sibyl Vane.

From a Marxist perspective, it can be argued that love is intoxicated by the bourgeois, and capitalism and the bourgeoisie are completely corrupt and provide no meritocracy within society. In addition to this, we see more of Dorian’s toxic lifestyle when we are introduced to the character Hetty. “Simply a girl in a village. I really loved her”[footnoteRef:21], here Wilde is using the typical tragedy conventions and showing Dorian’s ultimate doom through an idea of peripeteia and his hamartia as the storyline is becoming cyclical. From this quotation, we can see that his “vanity” and pride overrides all, as he states that he “loved” her, and the use of this past tense verb is important as it highlights that despite being with her the day before, he no longer loves her as he was “determined to leave her as a flower”[footnoteRef:22]. Due to his previous behaviours, Lord Henry and the reader are forced to believe that her fate mirrored Sibyl Vane’s. This furthers the idea that his need for pleasure is his fatal flaw. [17: Oscar Wilde The Importance of Being Earnest p. 47] [18: Oscar Wilde The Importance of Being Earnest p. 47] [19: Oscar Wilde The Importance of Being Earnest p. 15] [20: Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray Chapter 5 p. 51] [21: Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray Chapter 19 p. 166] [22: Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray Chapter 19 p. 166]

Social class is also mocked through paradox, which was something Wilde used in his texts a lot as part of his humour, and this was seen through the inversion of social hierarchy. In the opening in The Importance of Being Earnest, we are introduced to Algernon and his butler, Lane. Stereotypically, the upper-class were supposed to set the example to follow for the working-class, since they were seen as superior and because they were the socially and economically powerful class, they could define what was right and wrong. However, Wilde inverts this when Lane is presented as setting the example for Algernon, as he says, “I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir.”[footnoteRef:23] Here we can see that Lane is teaching Algernon, his ‘leader, that marriage is not “demoralising” and is more than a business transaction. Gabi Reigh (2016) [footnoteRef:24] talks about the subversion of the play and states “rather than deferring to the authority of the aristocrat, the butler criticises his tastes and artistic endeavours”. I agree with this statement from Reigh because she is highlighting that Wilde perhaps knew that the working-class, mainly the serving class, were more societally intelligent, despite their lack of education and he wanted to make this apparent to his audience.

To the same degree, Wilde further uses satirical comments to mock society through the character of Jenkins, who played a carter in the countryside and had recently had twins that were to be christened that day. The comment made by Chasuble is “poor Jenkins the carter, a most hard-working man”[footnoteRef:25] and this comment is an innocent comment on the surface as Jenkins was a working-class man, thus low in the hierarchy, however on a deeper and more humorous level, Wilde is saying he had to have worked twice as hard to make twins. As the Victorian society was a classed ruled era, this would be fitting, as those who were upper-class saw rural people as people who lived for pleasure and did as they pleased. So, the upper-class watching this play would find this extremely clever and witty since it is a middle-class joke. On a similar basis, Wilde continues to make profound statements about social class in The Picture of Dorian Gray through the characters of Lord Henry and Basil Hallward. Lord Henry a symbol of hedonism and aristocracy, which is transferred to Dorian, and he is contrasted with the innocence and purity of Basil Hallward and this may be due to their differences in class. When we are first introduced to both characters, Basil is infatuated with Dorian, who essentially morally untouched, and even though Basil never outright morally educates Lord Henry, we can see he discourages Lord Henry’s incorrect behaviour, and effectively the upper-class. For example, Basil is shown to have said “Don’t spoil him. Don’t try to influence him. Your influence would be bad”[footnoteRef:26] we can see that Basil is trying to preserve whatever is left of Dorian’s morality, and it could be argued that he is trying to prevent Dorian’s hamartia inevitably winning this psychological battle – this being his loss of control over self-indulgence and pure but ugly vanity. From a Freudian perspective, there is an intrapersonal conflict occurring in Dorian’s psyche and this is depicted through Lord Henry and Basil and it is trying to get him to take their ‘ideal’ path of the societal hierarchy. This is also symbolic of the Aestheticism movement during the 19th Century, Epifanio San Juan Jr (1967)[footnoteRef:27] said “Dorian Gray is enraptured by personae, by masks and not by persons” which is interesting as it opens up the Jungian perspective that the vulnerable Dorian is hiding behind the others personas and is perhaps not being influenced by Lord Henry at all. Therefore, we can argue that Wilde is actually using the vulnerability of the upper-classes façades and showing that aren’t as stable as once thought and he’s highlighting that through a satirical yet gothic theme. [23: Oscar Wilde The Importance of Being Earnest p. 1] [24: Gabi Reigh – ‘How subversive is The Importance of Being Earnest] [25: Oscar Wilde The Importance of Being Earnest p. 28] [26: Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray Chapter 1 p. 15] [27: Epifanio San Juan Jr on Aestheticism and Art]

I fully agree that Wilde uses satirical statements to make critical comments upon a Victorian society, yet he cleverly disguises them which in itself is a criticism of the upper-class as it may suggest they cannot unmask his jokes for criticisms. Wilde’s previous play A Woman of No Importance, he also used witty epigrams from his characters to directly make his criticisms on social class. Wilde himself came from a successful Irish family, but since his mother was an early advocate for women’s rights, he may have been able to see the clear division within society and knew that most of the things his name, and the bourgeoisie stood for was immoral and should be changed. It is clear that Wilde was presenting social class ultimately being trivial and meaningless.


  1. Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895
  2. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891
  3. Carolyn Burdett, Aestheticism and Decadence, 2014
  5. Jan Marsh, Sex and Sexuality in the 19th century,
  7. Melanie R Anderson, Dorian Gray as Aesthetic Vampire, 2008
  8. John Greenaway, The Drinking Problem in Early Victorian Britain 1830-70, 2003
  9. Chris Sandford, Incredible Lightness of Being Earnest, 2004
  10. Landon Gilmour, The Picture of Dorian Gray – Setting, 2012
  12. Eric Bentley, History of Modern Drama, 1949
  13. Gabi Reigh, More than Mockery- How Subversive is The Importance of Being Earnest, 2016
  14. Epifanio San Juan Jr, The Art of Oscar Wilde, 1967

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