In Victorian society, the conventional norms of status, gender roles, and marriage were closely linked by an institution that men and women were placed with unrealistic demands and expectations from society. Women were brought up by their parents to become the perfect housewife, and men were forced into marriages based on status within the society. In Oscar Wilde’s play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” he mocks the typical Victorian conventions and ideals of what society held on the individual.
I will be examining the techniques Wilde uses, such as satire, symbolism, and farcical situations, and showing how he takes those Victorian values and changes their state of importance, where men will change their name for the women instead of vice versa, as well as the views he portrays of women, such is them having “Expected to be Idle and Ignorant” (Petrie 178). In “The Importance of Being Earnest” both Gwendolyn and Cecily have dreamed of the perfect man whose name must be Ernest. The name Ernest not only represents a literal name, but also the dictation of the word earnest meaning to be sincere.
Right from the start of Charles Petrie’s article, “Victorian Women Expected to be Idle and Ignorant,” he begins talking about how women were brought up, stating, “From infancy, all girls who were born above the level of poverty had the dream of a successful marriage before their eyes… (Petrie 180). Both Gwendolyn and Cecily make this fact true, as stated by Gwendolyn “…my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence” (Wilde 1742).
Wilde satirizes the name Ernest throughout the play, as seen in that quote, showing the ideal of a good earnest husband through a name. The long running satire has to deal with Jack and Algernon pretending their name be Ernest, instead of following the typical Victorian ideals of being earnest and truthful. At first, Jack is the only one using the name Ernest to trick Gwendolyn into thinking he is the ideal man to marry, so instead of being the ideal Victorian man and being sincere and truthful, he folds under the pressure of her need to marry someone named Ernest and keeps the deceit going all the way to the ending when Jack ealizes his name really is Ernest. He says to Gwendolyn, “It is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth” (Wilde 1777). In all actuality, Jack was never being truthful, lying about the reason Ernest was invented, saying it was to see her, but in truth, it was to get away from Hertfordshire, further supporting his conflict with the typical Victorian ideals. The leading of double lives by both Jack and Algernon symbolize the general hypocrisy of the Victorian mindset the Wilde wanted to portray.
Algernon, instead of living the lives of two people, has an invalid who always gets sick, allowing him to deceive people in order to get out of situations he does not want to be in, for instance, he says to Lady Bracknell that he, “has to give up the pleasure of dining with you tonight,” and “…I have just had a telegram to say that my poor friend Bunbury is very ill again” (Wilde 1740). He does not find the dinner to be something he would be interested in doing, so he uses his fake invalid Bunbury as a scapegoat.
Both Jack and Algernon seem to have similar cases of leading two lives, but Jack realizes that both his Ernest and Algernon’s Bunbury will only make things go badly and says, he will kill his brother if Gwendolyn will marry him. Algernon in turn mocks the institute of a blissful marriage, stating, “A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it” (Wilde 1739). He is saying that all Victorian husbands practice Bunburying, and if they do not, they will not live in bliss with their wife. He also states that, “Divorce is made in heaven” (Wilde 1735), inversing the normal idea that marriage is made in heaven.
According to Petrie, “The men’s expectations pressured women to be the ideal Victorian woman society expected them to be” (Petrie 180). This is true for the typical Victorian ideal, but in “The Importance Importance of Being Earnest” Wilde reverses this idea, having the men get pressured by the expectation of the women. This is shown exceptionally true when both Jack and Algernon are at Shropshire and they are planning on getting re-christened in order to change their name to Ernest, as stated by Jack “I have just made arrangements with Dr.
Chasuble to be christened at a quarter to six…” (Wilde 1766) and Algernon “I made arrangements to be christened at 5:30” (Wilde 1766). When Jack first finds out about Gwendolyn’s obsession over the name Ernest, and asks if she could love him if his name was Jack, she harshly responds “Jack? No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibrations… I have known several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were plain” (Wilde 1742).
This goes against the ideal that the typical Victorian women, as Petrie puts it, “must not only be innocent but also give the outward impression of being innocent” (Petrie 184). Throughout the play food makes its presence into conversation, either literally or figuratively. In act I, Algernon ends up eating all the cucumber sandwiches, and when Gwendolyn and Lady Bracknell arrive he notices and, given his deceitful behavior, quickly makes up a lie and blames it on his butler, “Good heaven! Lane! Why are there no cucumber sandwiches? I ordered them specially” (Wilde 1740).
Here Algernon uses food to cope with stress or sadness, or if he feels like he is being cornered, “When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me” (Wilde 1766). This admission of his flaws were not typical of a man during the Victorian times, bringing on a sense of gender role swap. Instead of him providing for his guests, especially the women, he tends to be the one on the receiving end of the food. Algernon’s compulsive eating comes back later during the muffin scene. Algernon tells Jack, “You are at the muffins again!
I wish you wouldn’t. There are only two left (Takes them). I told you I was particularly fond of muffins” (Wilde 1767). Both Jack and Algernon argue about who hates tea cake the most in the same scene, when Algernon tells Jack to eat tea cake instead of the muffins. This argument over the cake during a tea party was uncivilized and unbecoming of men during the Victorian times. Food also seems to be a metaphor for sex, as when Jack dives into the bread and butter with vigor and Algernon accuses him of behaving as though he were already married to Gwendolen.
Food in the play acts as a substitute for other indulgences. Role reversals appear a few times throughout the play also. The aforementioned admission of his flaws by Algernon was one, and another one in Act III, where Jack and Algernon are planning to be christened so they can change their name to Ernest. They both say, “Our Christian names! Is that all? But we are going to be christened this afternoon” (Wilde 1768). Gwendolyn and Cecily are moved by this grand gesture.
This seems to be the opposite of what would typically happen for a marriage, where the women would change her name to her husbands, instead here, Jack and Algernon are preparing to take that role on themselves. During the scene in which Jack proposes to Gwendolyn, she does not portray the typical assumptions of Victorian women, as Petrie mentions, “meekness, lack of opinions, general helplessness and weakness” (Petrie 184). Gwendolyn is very assertive and takes control over the entire proposal, taking the away the role of the man, as shown in this line, “I think it would be an admirable opportunity.
And to spare you any disappointment…I am fully determined to accept you” (Wilde 1742). Oscar Wilde shows a lot of method when altering the typical Victorian conventions. By using the satire with the name Ernest, he was able to get more than one meaning from it, the literal and the figurative. While using symbolism, Wilde showed double meanings, such as with using food as a coping mechanism and as a metaphor for sex, and gender role reversal, as with the proposal and Gwendolyn taking on the role of the man.
This play is filled with mockery and comedic puns that downplay the typical Victorian ideals. Wilde successfully creates a story, which is very unrealistic, but at the same time is very relatable to a lot of people at the time, and even today. Petrie, Charles. “Victorian Women Expected to be Idle and Ignorant. ” Victorian England. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhouse, 2000. 177-190. Wilde, Oscar. “The Importance of Being Earnest. ” The Norton Anthology English Literature. Ed. Julia Reidhead. New York, NY; Wells Street, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1962-2012. 1734-1777.