Oscar Wilde's criticism of society in The Importance of Being Ernest
One of the main ways in which Wilde uses language and character in ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ is not only to entertain but also to criticise society - Oscar Wilde's criticism of society in The Importance of Being Ernest introduction. This is mainly reflected in the way that Algernon so frequently uses paradoxes to challenge and, in a way, poke fun at orthodox ideas and in the way that Lady Bracknell and Jack think so highly of society and indeed the way it must be run.
The character of Lady Bracknell is often used in a more comic fashion, but it is also true to say that she is used to criticise the way that society is run.
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Lady Bracknell is one of the most traditional characters in the play. She herself criticises society, but not in the way that Wilde does. She uses paradoxes to criticise the way that society is changing. She does not approve of social developments such as education, as she believes that ignorance is a precious quality. She also believes that if people were more educated, they may question and therefore threaten the upper classes/aristocracy.
Wilde often pokes gentle fun at the rules of social behaviour through Lady Bracknell.
For example, it could be said that she is criticised for her strict views on social behaviour such as her attitudes towards dining habits:
“It would put my table completely out. Your uncle would have to dine upstairs.”
This is an example of her absurd reaction to Algernon not being able to dine with them.
Also, “Come, dear, we have already missed five, if not six trains. To miss any more might expose us to comment on the platform.” This statement is a typical example of a criticism of society as it suggests that one has no privacy and that they may be judged for their activities. It also suggests that one cannot do anything if it is something that society may disapprove of.
Another factor of society, which is also shown through Lady Bracknell, also allows Wilde to criticise popular views. This is the view on fashion/dress codes.
There were strict rules in Victorian times involving personal appearance, especially for women. It was a society obsessed and enslaved with fashion.
“Pretty child! Your dress is sadly simple, and your hair seems almost as nature might have left it. But we can soon alter that.”
“Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn. They are worn very high, just at present.” This criticises society as it suggests a certain degree of snobbery.
Wilde also presents a society, which had no permanent moral values. Instead, values are dictated by what is said by others, rather than what religious views are taught.
“We live, as I hope you know, Mr Worthing, in an age of ideals. The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines…”
Marriage is so often criticised by Wilde, as it is a key part of the play. It is presented as something which families take part in just to improve/sustain their social status. Lady Bracknell will not even let her daughter choose her own husband. This is because it is supposed to be something that the parents choose.
“An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself.”
The way that Wilde uses the character of Jack to criticise society is much like the way that he uses the character of Lady Bracknell. However, he also uses the character Jack to express the opinion that many ‘typical’ Victorians were indeed very hypocritical.
This is shown by the way that Jack takes such a moral tone on serious issues. For example, he takes a high moral tone about Algernon’s ‘Bunburying’ when he is, in fact, doing exactly the same thing.
It is also shown by the way that he talks about women. Our first impression is that his attitude towards women is honourable-that he respects them and believes that they deserve to be told the truth (shown in the way that he disagrees with Algernon keeping a secret about Bunbury and the fact that he intends to tell Gwendolen about ‘Ernest’). Yet he is later shown to be somewhat contradictory when he talks about not telling Gwendolen the truth about his fictional identity of Ernest, o his life in the country.
“My dear fellow, the truth isn’t quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl.” This is also very patronising.
The way that Wilde uses the character of Algernon to criticise society is in a totally different way. The character’s language is full of paradoxes and puns, which challenge and criticise society in themselves.
His outlook on life is totally opposite to that of a ‘typical’ Victorian, allowing Wilde to reject the rules of normal society and create new Victorian concepts through Algernon.
“I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them.” Not only is this comic and typical of Algernon’s ideas, it creates the idea that society is wrong in what is said to be important and pleasure is actually the most important thing in life.
Algernon also hates the idea of “washing one’s clean linen in public.” This is also totally controversial of typical ideas as even Lady Bracknell suggests that everything one does will be public knowledge.
Although on the surface it can appear that Wilde uses character and language solely to develop comedy in the play, it can also be said that a more important idea of society’s criticisms is developed through the characters and language.
Wilde using language and character to criticise society Sheree Morrison