A Focus on Oscar Wilde’s Satire in His Play “The Importance of Being Earnest”
Oscar Wilde’s works have been known for their comedic and satirical elements, and the play The Importance of Being Earnest is not an exception. From its very first opening at London’s St. James Theater on February 14, 1895 (Jones 1) to date, the play remains as one of the most robust stage plays of all time, not just in the country where it was first introduced, but rather at a global scale (Foster 19). Literary experts and critics both of the early 19th century and the modern era are in eternal disagreement as to what is the central focus of the play in question. Is it satire, comedic alludeALLUSION to manners of Victorian society, or farce? This paper suggests that the play is a combination of all components, albeit in varying level or degree, with satire enveloping the other two (2PLEASE STOP WRITING NUMBERS IN BOTH FORMS; THE PARENTHESES ONLY MATTER IN STRONGLY NUMERICAL CONTEXTS (STATISTICAL REPORTS, ETC.), i.e. the success of portrayal of comedic allusion to manners and farce depends in entirety to DEPENDS ENTIRELY ON Wilde’s effective use of satire. In addition, the satiric strategy of the play makes use of gender parody, with which the portrayal of actions and decisions expected of a certain sex are acted out by the opposite sex instead (Bastiat 53). Hence, in the following paragraphs, the presentation of satire in the play’s elements – the place or setting, the individual personalities of characters as well as the overall portrayal of characterization in relation to the setting, and the reflection of the Wilde’s own background, i.e. his own persona contained in the masterpiece he created – shall touch UPON the components of the play’s use of farce, comedy of manners, and gender parody.
The setting which presents the reality of Victorian society, in particular its “assumption of a code of behavior” is one of Wilde’s major formulae for satire (Reinert 15). For instance, the common obsession of Victorian society with societal status and family name is an enduring idea of the play, which Wilde effectively made a mockery of albeit in subtlety, through the use of comedic passages in the script which in no doubt gained appreciation and laughter from the audience, despite the glowering truth of their own folly being presented to their own eyes. Algernon after talking to his servant Lane stated:
Lane’s views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility (Wilde 3).
Wilde “caricatures the Victorian attitude toward and expectation of ‘national space’”, which in form and presentation means the “social space” which the characters – their identity and personality – create. The wealthy such as the likes of Algernon and Lady Bracknell believe and live the concept that members of high society have parallel levels of standards and codes to live by, which members of lower economic status will never understand, let alone be expected to follow (Jones 2-3). This societal norm was successfully shammed and struck down by Wilde, as Jack and Algernon, considered to be of higher societal status, created an imaginary person named Ernest, living as him as they go from city to the country and vice versa, in order to escape the strict conventions and judgmental eyes of Victorian society. While the play does not explicitly showed it, there are implications that both characters dipped themselves in manners and practices not expected of their status and breeding, some of them considered as decadent and dirty (Jordan 109), and successfully got away with it because of “being Ernest” or living a secret life as another person totally opposite of their own realities (Wright 199).
The physical place, or to be exact, the presentation of urban city and the country, is also a crucial and effective tool for portrayal of satire through the use of farce. Wilde plays on the common association of the urban city to things “dirty”, in both literal and figurative sense, and the rural countryside to private and domestic comforts where one can be preserved or be whole again in sphere of familial security. Comedy is Wilde’s tool in undermining the common conventions of Victorian era towards urban cities, with their demand for morality, class, and societal fancy, and the rural countryside that is usually eyed down by socialites. Wilde in fact, presents the duality of the use of places, through his main characters Algernon and Jack, who became different persons when they go to London and the countryside.
Jack Worthing: ….my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country (Wilde 6)
Wilde’s use of farce in creating binary characterization in relation to town/country dualism “demonstrates the absurd falseness of the Victorian perception of urban and rural existence” (Jones 6).
But perhaps the most obvious satirical strategy comes into play with the creation of the characters, and the use of comedy of manners to mock the reality of Victorian society. The characters are exposed to the audience as subjects of ridicule, with all their hypocrisies, vanities, and paradoxical personalities not reflective of their social standards, as well as their representations of excesses, which in real life will not definitely gain any kind of appreciation (Foster 20). Despite the title itself, with a play at the name Ernest and the word earnest (another form of satire), no one between Jack and Algernon is either Ernest or earnest. Their characters seem to present their natures like badges, but their actions ultimately revoke them. Jack and Algernon are mature men whose quest must be wits and worldly adventures, making them clever human beings, but they are at heart sentimental and worrywarts. The women they pursue, with all their romantic portrayal, genteel propriety and parental submission, are actually schemers and manipulators, who are already moving on with other plans if the men’s promises of devotion proved unsuccessful in their circumstance (Balkin 28).
Gwendolen: Ernest, we may never be married. From the expression on mamma’s face I fear we never shall. Few parents nowadays pay any regard to what their children say to them. The old-fashioned respect for the young is fast dying out. Whatever influence I ever had over mamma, I lost at the age of three. But although she may prevent us from becoming man and wife, and I may marry someone else, and marry often, nothing that she can possibly do can alter my eternal devotion to you (Wilde 16).
Cecily: I couldn’t wait all that time. I hate waiting even five minutes for anybody. It makes me rather cross (42).
The comedy of characters will not be as effective without a play on gender, or the gender parody. Wilde’s characters successfully present what the real Victorian society expect of the female and male sexes, and how such expectations go down the drain in real life. Wilde in subtlety shows how the gender roles interchanged, with the female characters as manipulators, and the male characters as the sentimentalists. Even Lady Bracknell, the dowager role, has power and disposition strong enough to put her husband Lord Bracknell in the shadows of absence, in both literal and figurative sense. The lord never appeared in any of the scenes – a symbolic portrayal that adheres to his reality in the play, because he is technically a non-person, being dominated by the female members of his family, and remaining as stay-at-home most of the time (Jordan 103).
Outside the family circle, papa, I am glad to say, is entirely unknown. I think that is quite as it should be. 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? (Wilde 30)
Isn’t Lord Bracknell’s character a representation of common female submissiveness, expected to be always in the background, or at home tending to house chores, the servants, and the children? This inversion of the gender role is indeed one of the play’s most powerful satirical mockeries of Victorian rules (Bastiat 54).
Perhaps this element of gender parody was created by Wilde’s investment of personal life to his plays. Wilde in actuality, is an editor of the Woman’s World, a women’s magazine during the early 19th century. Wilde’s portrayal of his women characters in the play reflect his celebration of the New Woman, who have autonomous mind and decision towards their role, particularly in the subject of marriage and domesticity (Kim 1). In line with this, it is important to point out the subtle mockery of conformity and disobedience of Victorian norms, with the latter being possible only if one lives a dual life. Wilde is a homosexual, who has a wife and children – the perfect farce to cover up one’s homosexuality. Critics and theorists point out the possibility of a message being put across by the play, which is the importance or unimportance of biological sex to the construction or elimination of roles, identity, and societal conventions. For instance, Lady Bracknell’s personality is strong, almost like a man. Algernon is a man, who likes to shop for the best clothes, just like the usual practice (or knowledge about) women (Bastiat 54).
In essence, Wilde’s mockery of the realities of his era was more than enough to be met not only with resistance, but possibly, uproar of denial, from his audience. The fact that escaping hypocrisy of convention is only mostly possible by pretending to be someone else, which in essence, is being a hypocrite itself, is a bitter pill to swallow (Reinert 16). However, the use of funny scripts and characterizations effectively covers the seriousness of the play’s context, and allow the very subjects of its mockery laugh at their own follies.
Balkin, Sarah. “Realizing Personality in The Importance of Being Earnest.” Modern Drama 59.1 (2016): 26-48.
Bastiat, Brigitte. “The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) by Oscar Wilde: Conformity
and Resistance in Victorian Society.” Cahiers Victoriens Et Édouardiens 72 (2010): 53-54.
Foster, Richard. “Wilde as parodist: a Second Look at The Importance of Being Earnest.” College English 18.1 (1956): 18-23.
Jones, Elizabeth M. “Town/Country Identity Exposed as Farce in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.” The Victorian 4.1 (2016).
Jordan, Robert J. “Satire and Fantasy in Wilde’s’ The Importance of Being Earnest’.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 1.3 (1970).
Kim, Yoonji. “Why is Being Earnest Important to Victorian Women?: New Woman and Social Geography of Victorian Culture in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.” Studies in English Language & Literature 40.1 (2014): 1-24.
Reinert, Otto. “Satiric Strategy in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.” College English 18.1 (1956): 14-18.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. London, UK: A&C Black, 2014.
Wright, Benjamin Jude. “Of That Transfigured World”: Realism and Fantasy in Victorian Literature. University of South Florida, 2013.