Food as an Important Symbol in the Importance of Being Earnest
Food plays an important part in any situation; it can make or break the problems. In the Importance of Being Earnest, food plays a very vital role in helping create movement in the plot. The play, importance of being earnest by Oscar Wilde uses food as an essential motif /symbol of an act of working out problems. Set in the Victorian era the tea time custom is vastly a part of the play. From the very beginning where Algernon is questioned about the “cucumber sandwiches” he claims “I believe it is customary in good society to take some slight refreshment at five o’ clock.
This custom that became increasingly popular in Victorian England was the tradition of taking afternoon tea. This practice was displayed predominately by the upper class. Further on in the play we are informed that the motive behind afternoon tea is not their hunger but it is fashion and society expectations that require them to have tea at five o’ clock in the afternoon. The theme of importance of trends and fashion. Keeping up with the trends of society is seen as only the aristocrats or the higher classes took refreshments.
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The character of Algernon seems to have greed towards any form of food, be it cucumber sandwiches or muffins. This is evidently seen when after his confession about bunburying he continues to eat “calmly”. This represents two phenomena; the first one is the concept of eating in distress, as Algy claims it helps one calm down. ‘When I’m in trouble, eating is the only thing that convinces me” The theme of eating in distress is seen. People are seen eating more than usual when stressed. They look for comfort in food. Example: when people are upset or stressed they look for comfort in muffins and bread & butter.
The second reasoning could be that food is most important to them and being in the Victorian era even while unhappy they have to maintain style, decorum and traditions (table manners) while eating. Even when they are furious their manners or their attitude is not dropped. They maintain calm even when speaking with fury. As an aristocratic person and having a higher class of living they are meant to be setting examples( apparently) however in each and every situation apart from their meals they look at the lower classes to set some examples (act 1 conversation between Lane and Algy, page 296).
The fight for food amongst the two lead roles could symbolize their want for similar things that may not be food, but it being the Victorian era they are not saying it out loudly but are expressing their views in other matters. (Metaphorizing each situation). It is very pathetic of the characters as they live in aristocracy and are expected not to have food problems; this also shows their lavish greedy nature. Further it reflects on their insecure positions. Every time the scene of tea time is portrayed, a conflict occurs.
For example when Gwendolyn and Cecily come to know of their marital status, conflict occurs over them being engaged to the same man. The theme of honorable vengeance is seen when Cecily ignores Gwendolyn’s requests about tea and bread and butter. By putting four cubes of sugar even after Gwendolyn refuses sugar, Cecily is displaying her anger and want for vengeance. This adds to the aforementioned point about how style and expectations of society dictate every action and feeling by the characters.
Gwendolyn is characterized as someone who believes fashion comes before morals and everything one does should be fashionable, no matter what their class is. ‘Cake is rarely seen in the best houses nowadays. ’ Gwendolyn shows the preference towards bread and butter and passes it off as fashionable. Her character sketch also points towards this. She is both a model and an arbiter of elegant fashion and sophistication, and nearly everything she says and does is calculated for effect.
Similarly even while dining she maintains ultimate style and posture. One of the many themes in the importance of being earnest the tone of sarcasm and wittiness. Sarcasm is a part of their daily meal and is very evident in these scenes. Overall the tea time custom is very important and needed in order for the plot to move forward. The tea time custom brings about change and movement in the play and makes the audience laugh. Finally food plays a vital role in affecting the relationship amongst the lead character.