Alicia Fortner Dr. Robinson

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Alicia Fortner

Dr. Robinson

Victorian Literature

12 April 2011

Seeking Identity: Wilde’s Criticism of the Condition of England in

The Importance of Being Earnest

Life in Victorian England revolved around the search for identity – at both the national and individual levels. The world had changed more under the reign of Queen Victoria than it had for hundreds of years. And England, being so much at the center of this world, saw more change than any other country. London, with a population that had increased to roughly three times the pre-Victorian number, had become the pivotal city of Western civilization. Voting rights expanded to middle class men, and later, with the second Reform Bill of 1867, to working class men. The newly established public schools offered a basic education to a growing number of children. And technological and scientific advancements provided Victorians with a better understanding of the world around them. The country had also experienced an enormous increase in wealth and power as a result of the rapid influx of industrialization as well as its influence in trade markets around the globe and its control over and investments in its colonized regions. But these newly booming aspects of Victorian society also brought with them drastically negative consequences.

The early years of the Victorian era were riddled with social and economic distress. The flood of England’s working class into London and other manufacturing cities led to the rise and expansion of cramped and unsanitary slums. Hunger and starvation became serious threats to the working class as a result of an economic crash in 1837 followed by years of bad harvests and increasing prices for such staples as bread and potatoes. And the threat of rebellion loomed while, throughout the rest of Europe, revolutions raged. But England’s leadership reacted against these troubles with some efficacy – enacting the two Reform Bills of 1842 and 1867 and ending the Corn Laws, which had aggravated the difficulty of England’s working class to attain food. But the need for social change had already become apparent, and by the time Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde released what would be his final dramatic work in 1895, Victorians were questioning their identity more than ever.

Born in Dublin in 1854, Wilde lived a relatively privileged life. The son of a successful surgeon and an Irish Nationalist poet, Wilde received an excellent education, eventually making his way to Oxford, where he studied with such aesthetic leaders as John Ruskin and Walter Pater. Later, he moved to London, where he established himself among the city’s high society and became famous (and fashionable) for his wit. Many of his opinions were seen as radical by his peers, and his ostentatious attitude and dress also became part of his socially oppositional personality.

While his reputation over the years defined him more and more as “different,” Wilde did pride himself on those personal features which made him unique, including his intellect, and he had no qualms about satirizing what he saw as English hypocrisy. Considering the rapidly changing condition of England, Wilde’s work ran the gamut of England’s social problems. But despite the ever more critical views of society presented in his works, the Victorian upper class loved him. Soon, he had become London’s leading literary figure, and he used his success to further criticize the faults he saw in Victorian society.

Most famously in The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde details upper class life and the values and hierarchies that hold it together, and he questions the validity of these long-held beliefs in a world now undeniably in flux. The play, which was critically acclaimed even by those people who it so subtly berates, calls for a reassessment of such aspects of Victorian society as class structure and social etiquette, gender issues, marriage, education, religion, and of course the place and influence of earnestness, or of taking oneself and one’s beliefs seriously, in a world where people’s actions seem to diametrically opposed their stated values. More than anything else, Wilde encourages his audience to think more critically about how society has influenced the formation of their individual identities just as it influenced that of the characters in the play.

In essence, The Importance of Being Earnest is a social comedy. The play satirizes with a delicate, though sometimes cutting, flair the absurdity of the social rituals and etiquette that define the upper class. From such trivial aspects of daily life as the taking of tea to such weighty decisions as marriage and baptism, the play brings to light the negative influence of social rules on the lives of people bound to those rules – especially on the ability of those people to actually enjoy the lives they have been given. Furthermore, the play also criticizes the caste system of Victorian society and the futile fixation of the aristocracy on maintaining that system despite its growing irrelevance in the modern world.

From the very beginning, the audience is presented with two characters whose words and actions seem oppositional to the ideals of their classes. Algernon, who should be the picture of civility and refinement, seems laughable in his unrealistic and unconventional views of talent and relationships. Lane, his servant, who the aristocratic audience would expect to work in humble gratitude for his master, seems to have a better grasp on reality than Algernon does and seems to tolerate the ridiculousness of his aristocratic foils with hardly ignorable irony. Wilde ensures that his audience recognizes this discrepancy and the inaccuracy of stereotypical class profiling when he has Algernon say: “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” (I. 28-30). Although these lines often draw uproarious laughter from the audience, Wild is making a very serious claim about the real lack of “moral responsibility” of the upper class. After all, it is the members of the upper class in the play, Algernon and Jack specifically, who take part in morally questionable activities, such as Bunburying.

But even in describing their games of false identity, Wilde questions whether it is so very bad for a man to create his own identity separate from that which society has created for him. As Otto Reinert explains in his article Satiric Strategy in The Importance of Being Earnest, “The Bunburyist lives in a world of irresponsibility, freed from the enslavement of a hypocritical convention. He enjoys himself. But life beyond hypocrisy is life in a climate of dangerous moral anarchy [. . .]” (17). As Reinert suggests, Wilde here presents an idea that is both integral to the development of true identity and dangerous to that of social mores.

What’s more, Wilde calls attention to the various social rules and customs followed by the Victorian elite and how those customs signify an inhuman obsession with external appearances rather than internal value. We see this personified most clearly in Lady Bracknell whose reliance on social rules to guide every aspect of her life, including, it would seem, her actual beliefs and desires, is so exaggerated that she seems to a modern audience completely backward. But it probably would not have been all that difficult for members of the Victorian upper class to see in Lady Bracknell a stark resemblance to people in their own social circles. What is ironic about Lady Bracknell is that she seems to understand, at least in part, the absurdity and superficiality of the social life in which she so avidly involves herself. She says of one social occasion: “It is my last reception, and one wants something that will encourage conversation, particularly at the end of the season when everyone has practically said whatever they had to say, which, in most cases, was probably not much” (I. 298-300). But Lady Bracknell also embraces this superficiality.

She is so concerned with ensuring that her daughter will maintain the appearance which she has so carefully cultivated in her upbringing that she doesn’t see the absolute evil of essentially wanting to bind her daughter to a man for the rest of her life based on a value system that has absolutely nothing to do with her personal happiness – that is unless Gwendolen cares as much about whether a man smokes and what his family is like as her mother does. But Gwendolen’s decision to marry Jack without any knowledge of these aspects of his life suggests that her value system is different from her mother’s. Regardless of the fact that Gwendolen still idolizes such superficial values as she does, saying to Jack in the third act of the play “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing” (III. 26-27), through her and her relationship to her mother, Wilde illustrates to the audience of his generation that their identities need not depend upon the values of a group of people unfamiliar with the reality of what would soon be the twentieth century.

Education, too, becomes a subject of critique in Wilde’s play. While a classic education, like that which Wilde himself received, was a sign of refinement, many in the upper class only valued education for its superficial benefits. In the play, Wilde criticizes the strict and often prejudiced definition of what proper English people should or should not learn. Particularly in the character of Cecily, who abhors the “Horrid Political Economy! Horrid Geography! [and] Horrid, horrid German!” (II. 87-88) that her guardian, Jack, insists upon her studying, Wilde asks why Victorians should submit themselves to learning subjects about which they have no interest. Should education better a person as a servant of society, or should education develop that person’s individual interests and abilities?

Wilde further criticizes the educational system by pointing out its inherent flaws which exist as a result of the self-preserving desires of the aristocracy. The system, which was developed by the leisure-centered upper class, a group with no real interest in the positive social change that could come about as a result of improvements in education, maintains the security of the upper class lifestyle. This is made clear when Lady Bracknell says to Jack:

I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square. (I. 418-423)

Her statement, as silly as it may sound, illustrates the desire of the upper class to minimize the educational opportunities of the working class, who, if they were to be exposed to the ideas of other systems of government and social structure, probably would rebel against the aristocracy. As had been seen in rebellions all over Europe, this was a very real possibility.

Another subject of satire in the play is religion, or, more specifically, the Victorian tendency to use holy ceremony and custom as a means by which to secure social reputation or other secular benefits. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde comments not only on the corruptibility of the clergy but also on the willingness of the people to allow such corruption to exist as well as on their general indifference regarding the spiritual value of religion. This idea is brought forth primarily through the character of Canon Chasuble, who all but brags about his ability to use prepared sermons interchangeably without any real consideration given concerning the spiritual needs of the people to whom he preaches. As he explains to Jack in the second act of the play, “My sermon on the meaning of the manna in the wilderness can be adapted to almost any occasion, joyful, or, as in the present case, distressing. I have preached it at harvest celebrations, christenings, confirmations, on days of humiliation and festal days” (II. 220-223). These lines suggest that Chasuble, although he does seem to have a sincere love of God and of the natural world that God created, has used his talents to better his own career rather than strictly to glorify God. They also suggest that Chasuble’s audience is more concerned with gaining the social advantages of being seen at a religious event rather than with the spiritual advantages of actually listening to and learning from a sermon. Here, Wilde is clearly criticizing the Victorian obsession with appearance and the blatant hypocrisy of those who claimed superiority based on insincere religious devotion.

What’s more, Chasuble, a man who by society’s standards should be pious and chaste, has obvious sexual desires for Miss Prism. This is made clear when he says to Cecily, “Were I fortunate enough to be Miss Prism’s pupil, I would hang upon her lips” (II. 67-68). Chasuble quickly ascribes his comment to metaphor in an attempt to preserve his pious exterior, but the audience (and Cecily) is already well aware of his interest in Miss Prism. Now, it would be all too easy to condemn Chasuble as being unfit for his position as a reverend. But Wilde seems to discourage his audience from thinking badly of Chasuble just because he feels a forbidden love. Wilde himself had to face society’s chastisements because of the love he felt toward other men, a love that, like Chasubles, was forbidden and considered immoral. So he would have been all too familiar with the feeling of injustice that stems from being punished for something that cannot truly be controlled. Moreover, by suggesting to his audience that it is unnatural to condemn the natural love that exists between Canon Chasuble and Miss Prism, Wilde questions the wisdom of social norms that favor the good of an infrastructure built to benefit only a small minority over the good of the individual and individual happiness.

This question also plays a pivotal part in Wilde’s exploration of traditional gender roles and the restraints placed on Victorians by their society’s insistence on the strict adherence to these roles. Women were expected to fulfill their role in the private sphere, focusing on providing their husbands and their children with a loving environment in which to thrive and a sympathetic shoulder on which to lean. Their identities were defined based on their performance as delicate, emotional, attractive beings. Men, on the other hand, were expected to fulfill their role in the public sphere, maintaining political and economic peace and providing safety and monetary security for their families. Their identities were defined based on their ability to support a family and their performance as strong, rational, politically minded beings. But, as Wilde’s play suggests, the roles that Victorian women and men played in their society were often far more complicated and far less superficial than tradition would have them be.

There were many women who were at least somewhat educated and intelligent, and who were perfectly capable of using their powers to acquire security for themselves and for their children. There were also many women who were required to leave the private sphere and enter the world of work in order to survive. Likewise, there were many men who had no desire to be involved in public political life or to start and maintain a family in the traditional sense – men who were more skilled and more interested in living lives free of the constraints of traditional morality, work, and marriage. We see all of these types depicted in the play.

Lady Bracknell, for example, strives to exemplify the ultimate Victorian upper class woman. She stringently follows social rules and guidelines, and she works to make sure that her daughter Gwendolen and her nephew Algernon also follow those guidelines, at least superficially, in order to ensure their future success in marriage and society. When Gwendolen informs her mother that she is engaged, Lady Bracknell insists that a woman’s engagement to a man has nothing to do with that woman’s desires but with the choice made for her by her parents – a choice that seems to be based not on the suitor’s ability to care for their daughter but on his ability to appear as he should in society. Wilde here points out that society’s gender standards, which were put in place in order to protect traditional values and familial relations, become meaningless in a world where superficiality is more important than sincerity.

What’s further, Lady Bracknell has basically brought up Algernon to play the part of an aristocratic man despite the fact that he doesn’t seem to be part of the upper class in any sense aside from the familial. Although Lady Bracknell knows that Algernon, with neither money nor title, could potentially fall from his place in high society, she is also confident in her own ability to guide him in maintaining the appearance of a suitable bachelor. This is made clear when she says in Act III, “Algernon is an extremely, I may almost say an ostentatiously, eligible young man. He has nothing, but he looks everything. What more can one desire?” (III. 187-189). As Jeremy Lalonde explains in his article The Importance of Being Earnest as Social Criticism, “Her question to Jack, ‘What more can one desire?’ underlines her belief that Algernon has achieved a form of fashionable masculinity and her incredulity that Jack fails to recognize its value in social circles” (663). Here, Wilde nods to one of the more oxymoronic ideals of his society. The upper class claimed to desire men who were morally, economically, and physically strong, and men felt pressured to make those traits part of their identities. Yet, that same society also idealized the image of the dandy – the man who is so entrenched in the easy life of wealth that he forgoes the traditional appearance of masculinity, centered on rationality, functionality, and utility, for more effeminate, decorative clothing and flamboyant behavior. This was because the upper class became defined more and more in the Victorian era as a class of femininity. As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick explains in her book-length study Between Men: English Literature and the Male Homosocial Literature, “[. . .] the abstract image of the entire class came to be seen as ethereal, decorative, and otiose in relation to the vigorous and productive values of the middle class” (93). Algernon is valuable to Lady Bracknell’s social class only because he has been able to maintain the appearance of being wealthy and carefree – which presumably served him better than any other means of establishing a reputation.

Through these two situations, as well as many others throughout the play, Wilde uses the absurdity of Lady Bracknell’s ideas to cleverly criticize the hypocrisy of Victorian high society – especially that of their gender ideals and how those ideals, based more on appearances than anything else, influenced individual’s reputations and therefore their perception of themselves. Men were certainly not always strong, and women were certainly not always weak, but they were still expected to appear so despite the many changes taking place in the world around them. Thus, in this work and others, Wilde questions why any Victorian should idolize social customs that stunt the growth of the individual.

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