The Importance of Being Earnest- Gender and Class Conflict

After reading a couple of pages of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, I thought reading it will be ok, but let’s see it being acted out somewhere. I was lucky to find it on YouTube in the 1986 full length movie starring: Paul McGann, Rupert Frazer, Joan Plowright, Amanda Redman and Natalie Ogle. These are British actors, and me personally I find British comedy to be not funny, but I figured this is classical drama of a play written in the early twentieth century. But 15-20 minutes in the movie, it started to grow on me and I watched the whole thing.

The play within the movie or the movie of the play didn’t have that many actors, around a dozen or less. So for the director to keep it interesting for almost 2 hours with limited cast is quite an achievement in my opinion. I enjoyed the language, the attempt at wit and humor, which wasn’t all that bad. So overall, it was a good story while it lacked a grandiose and spectacular ending. It came to a close pretty much with the fake persona Earnest, who was trying so hard to be Earnest to please his lover, just ending up being the real Earnest after all – a son of a general that was lost as a baby in a woman’s handbag.

I want to discuss this play from the social status and gender conflicts that were clearly the dominating theme of the play. The class status conflict was portrayed to the extreme by Lady Bracknell. She is the unswerving representation of the aristocratic class that separates itself from the lower class. When a suitor named Earnest is about to enter her turf of wealth by marrying her daughter, she puts him to the test and inventories his assets item by item. She asks “what is your income?” (23:40), “A country house! How many bedrooms?” (24:21). Lady Bracknell is just safeguarding her wealth and reputation. She’s unwilling to risk her status by giving away her only daughter to the poor man.

The social class conflict is also noted in Algy’s character, a noble and sophisticated man that is mainly bored with the high class life and is ready to take a break. Algy decides to venture into a rather less noble lifestyle by creating his own fake persona for the sole purpose of self-entertainment. He ended up falling in love with Cecily, a country girl belonging to a different social class.

The gender conflict is seen in how both Jack and Algy craft their deceitful plans to win over their lovers, Jack becomes Earnest for Gwendolen and Algy becomes a wicked “bad boy” for Cecily.

Jack and Algy are talking strategy on how Jack should approach his lover Gwendolen. Both men have different understandings and ideas about love and romance from the male perspective. Algy is the stereotypical kind. The kind that is less honest about his feelings and is just there to use a woman for what she has to offer physically. He’s the kind that is not willing to commit, “I don’t see anything romantic about proposing, it is very romantic to be in love, but there is nothing romantic at all about a definite proposal” (Algy 4:58). Gwendolen on the other hand is only stimulated by flirting and affection, “Earnest [..] It is a divine name, it has music of its own, it produces vibrations” (Gwendolen 18:28). A clear disparity on how both genders see each other.

The social class and gender issues raised in the play over a hundred years ago continue to be relevant today. I understand that women have taken substantial steps towards emotional and romantic freedom, but men continue to see them the same way they did for generations. Males are less willing to commit, their needs are primarily sexual and physical, and both have different perspectives on marriage. Same can be said for the social class and ongoing clash between the haves and have-nots. It is very safe to assume today that social barriers through wealth are here to stay. Wealthy families continue to marry amongst each other and it is rather rare to see a case that breaks this social norm.