How are the female characters in The Importance of Being Earnest presented and in what ways do they conform to the Victorian ideal of passive women. Victorian England made a clear division between gender roles of men and women. The life of a conventional Victorian woman was focused on marriage and family in which her upbringing was based on this. Young girls were brought up to perfectly innocent and sexually ignorant. The typical Victorian woman was seen to be weak and passive, she was taught to be obedient to authority and to keep her opinion to herself or not to have an opinion at all.
Within the home, a Victorian woman took charge of the household and the education of the children however at the same time she was to provide a place of comfort for her husband. In this period, Oscar Wilder grew up to become one of Britain’s best-known writers. His private life was controversial as he was known for not following the traditional roles. Even though he was married, he preferred to spend time with young students who he was said to have sexual relationships with. He was convicted for homosexuality and spent two years in prison.
His play the importance of Being Earnest portrays a critical side to the traditional Victorian gender roles. The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy which shows the typical gender roles of both males and females in Victorian society. The play deals with the falseness of society and the demands laid on men and male dominance in marriage. The woman show unconventional behaviour by being aggressive in their love lives and the men make up alternative identities to escape morality. Through Wilde’s characters and their actions, there is criticism on late Victorian Society.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde uses different stereotypical characters but reverses their tradition roles, which makes them unconventional and as a result, establishes a social explanation. Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew are the two female leads in the play. Both women provide conflict in this romantic comedy as they are the objects of affection. During Acts One and Two the women are deceived by well-meaning male characters, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff. However during the beginning of Act Three, all is forgiven. Both women are hopelessly in love with their male counterparts.
Cecily is describes as “a sweet simple, innocent girl. ” Gwendolen is seen as “a brilliant, clever, thoroughly experienced lady. ” Despite these contrasts both women are intent on marrying a man named Ernest, Eager to embrace one another as sisters and quick to become rivals pitted against each other. Gwendolen seems to be a typical Victorian woman at first glance. She was raised in the city by her mother. Lady Bracknell, and has become “the sophisticated, fashionable woman of the town”. Her mother has sheltered her from the dangers of the world and still tries to control her life.
Due to her conformist, sheltered upbringing, Gwendolen believes she lives in “an age of ideals” and believes in self-improvement for this reason. Her mother has made sure she recovered a good education, this was emphasised on a multiple occasions in the play that she is a “sensible, intellectual girl”. It was not uncommon for upper class girls such as Gwendolen to receive a good education during their upbringing. She is obedient to her mother; Lady Bracknell wants a good advantageous marriage for her daughter and is perfectly happy to interfere if things do not go to plan.
Lady Bracknell forbids Gwendolen to marry jack, which she seems to accept, at first. However Gwendolen also shows signs of rebellion against her mother which are quite unconventional. Even though Wilde portrays Gwendolen as a typical Victorian woman much of her behaviour towards her mother suggests otherwise. Gwendolen is obedient to her mother as she does utter “yes mamma” however she secretly blows kisses to Jack behind her mother’s back, which indicate she does not take her mother’s opinion seriously.
Furthermore, when her mother forbids her to marry Jack, Gwendolen returns to Jack to tell him “although she may prevent us from becoming man and wife, and I may marry someone else, and marry often, nothing she can possibly do can alter my eternal devotion to you”. Even though Gwendolen seems like a typical Victorian woman who obeys her mother, she is in fact perfectly capable of taking care of herself. She secretly opposes her mother’s opinion and besides that, she also manipulates Jack in his engagement. Gwendolen is very un-typical in her behaviour towards Jack Worthing.
In her conversations with Jack, she has the upper hand and guides him into the direction she wants to take. She gives him advice about love and almost forces him to propose to her. Normally, when a proposition was made, a woman only had the power of refusal, but Gwendolen tells Jack beforehand she is willing to accept him. When he does ask her, she asks: “Mr Worthing, what have you got to say to me? ” When Gwendolen finds out Jack is not really called Ernest, she is upset at first but is eager to confront him about his lie.
While doing so, she literally puts the words in his mouth: “Mr Worthing, what explanation can you offer me for pretending to have a brother? Was it in order that you might have an opportunity of coming up to town to see me as often as possible? ” Gwendolen is always in control during her conversations with Jack and guides him. She says to Jack that even though they may never be married and she may marry other men, she will always be devoted to him. In saying this she shows that she isn’t a typical Victorian woman and goes by what she wants and because dominant with Jack.
As Gwendolen is holding onto the idea of wanting to marry a man named Ernest, Wilde is mocking the idea of upper classes in Victorian Society. In a conversation she has with Jack, Gwendolen comments on the ideals of society. She knows these ideals from “the more expensive monthly magazines”, which is a first sign of Wilde mocking society. It suggests that someone should believe everything written in a magazine rather than trust their own judgment on the matter. Gwendolen goes on to say “my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest”.
She believes a man with this name to be reliable, because the name is divine and has music in it. She was “destined” to love Jack, even before she met him, simply because Algernon told her Jack’s name was Ernest. When she finds out he is in fact named Jack, her ideal is shattered and she is very disappointed and feels deceived. Wilde shows a better understanding for the flaws and weaknesses of men and expresses a desire for woman and society to lower the standards on men. Cecily and Gwendolen both hold onto the ideal of marrying a man named Earnest, who is not earnest in his behaviour.
Wilde shows a double standard by which men and woman were judged in the Victorian period. Like Gwendolen, Cecily hopes to marry a man named Earnest. According to Cecily, “there is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence”. Both girls believe that a man who is named Ernest has a moral character and is reliable. However, they do not want their suitors to display earnest behaviour all the time. Especially Cecily, who is fascinated by wickedness, which is why she fell in love with Algernon, who is described as her uncle Jack’s wicked young brother.
Both women prefer a more experienced man, since they were not in the position to experience anything themselves due to their sheltered upbringing. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde turns society upside down. He creates a world of his own in which the traditional roles of his characters are reversed. The women, for example, are both predatory in their love lives. Throughout the play the ideals of what Victorian women are really like are mocked and the characters do not conform to the ideal of passive Victorian women.