Parody On The Social Conventions About Marriage In The Importance Of Being Ernest

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Oscar Wilde was an Irish playwright, poet and essayist who was remembered for his witty epigrams and his imprisonment and early death. During the peak of his fame, Wilde had an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas and was imprisoned for 2 years. In the 19th century, people were “emotionally frigid about sexual matters”, however there was a dark side to those who belonged in the upper-class in the Victorian era where there was a ‘secret world’ of Victorian prostitution, pornography and homosexuality (Jan Marsh). Wilde wrote the novel and the play in the 19th Century during a period of aestheticism and decadence. The Aesthetic movement supported the emphasis of aesthetic values and the main focus was on art simply being beautiful instead of being of a model of morality and ‘correct’ behaviour. The decadent movement was an artistic and literary movement that shadowed aesthetic values of excess and artificiality. Wilde and many others involved in the movement, Swinburne and Charles Baudelaire, believed in ‘arts for art’s sake’. Wilde himself was a socialist who also believed in individualism. In a lot of Wilde’s texts, he created characters that serve the role of scrutinising and satirising the Victorian social class system, but particularly those who tended to sit at the top of the hierarchy.

The two main social classes in Britain are made extremely apparent in The Importance of Being Earnest the setting of the play through the important details of the settings described by Wilde. The beginning of the play, we are introduced to Algernon and Lane within Algernon’s flat in London which is depicted as “luxuriously and artistically furnished” with a piano that can be “heard in the adjoining room”. From this we can already see that Algernon is one character that is placed at the top of the Victorian societal structure. This is significant because of the use of the hyperbolic adverbs could perhaps be interpreted as Wilde showing the exaggerative nature that was typical of the Victorian era. Furthermore, Wilde makes a satirical statement between the social classes through the contrast of Town and Country. In the Victorian era, it was typical that the upper-class usually had a townhouse and a country manor. Jack himself had both a townhouse in London, where he goes by the name of Earnest, and a country manor, and this would suggest that he would have wealth and inheritance, yet he has neither due his lack of “relations”. Moreover, when Lady Bracknell and Jack are having a dispute over Cecily Cardew, we are introduced to the late Thomas Cardew and his properties, however, Wilde creates an address “the Sporran, Fifeshire, N.B.” Here, Wilde is using this artificial address to parody and depreciate the upper-class using satire, this is because a “Sporran” is a small bag that’s worn around the waist. Wilde is evidently using Jack to criticise Lady Bracknell, and therefore, criticise those in society who she symbolises. Similarly, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the main setting is in London and Wilde focuses on the social division, particularly within the capital. This evident in the terminology used by Wilde to depict a vivid contrast between the West End and East End. The East End is said to be “gloomy” and that there are “fantastic shadows” that create “monstrous marionettes”. The use of the gothic adjectives and personification serves to highlight that the bourgeoisie might feel threatened by a working-class and “ghastly” that’s full of “dens of horror”. It could be argued that Wilde is using hyperbole, through gothic fiction and grotesque imagery, as a form of satire to emphasise the difference between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie’s overindulgence, thus showing his dislike for the separation between the social classes. In the character of Dorian Gray, the division of class is clearly visible, as in the West End, he is a pure and beautiful soul but as the novel transcends the setting into the East End, we see his “corrupt” and “immoral” soul. From a psychoanalytical perspective, there seems to be hostility in his psyche between superego and id which suggests that Wilde believes the upper class are poisonous, despite them suggesting that it is the working-class. This is ironic, from a Marxist perspective, because the upper-class are the ones who have the control over things like the superstructure the working-class support and run it, so the upper-class will always be able to define what is wrong and right.

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Another way Wilde criticises social class is through the key theme of reputation. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, overindulgence is often associated with reputation and Dorian often does this with the guidance of Lord Henry Wotton. His reputation precedes him and has stories circling the West End about him and would usually be enough to ruin anyone else’s status. Since those surrounding Dorian are aristocrats and part of the bourgeois, the beliefs are that reputation can be fixed *epiphany* by physical features. We can see this through Basil’s confrontation, and the quotation “sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face” and this is an important quotation from the novel as it has religious connotations as we see one of the many of Dorian’s dismissals of penitence and remorse. But it also cites to the reader that there is no proof of the misdeeds and it highlights the role of the painting, which is holding the sincere power and corruption it represents. Additionally, Wilde is bringing to light how overindulgence and gluttony can impact people’s appearance, and by proxy, their reputation. John Greenaway states that “By the early nineteenth century … the issue of the excess consumption of alcohol began to be defined as a social problem, one of intemperance or excessive drinking” and it could be argued that Wilde is using the theme of excess to comedically critique his own class. Melanie R Anderson, who wrote a critical essay on the gothic theme of The Picture of Dorian Gray, suggested that the character of Dorian Gray “is portrayed as hiding his corruption behind his physical beauty” which I believe to be an accurate statement as is identifies Wilde’s crafting of Gothic versus Aestheticism. Comparably, in The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde uses comedy more often as it is a comedic play that ridicules those who value character and repute over all else. Particularly, Lady Bracknell falls victim to this, and critic Chris Sandford notes that “she is directly born out of Wilde’s twins desires to create a perfect comedy of the upper class and to ambush that upper class with his own notions on the worth and nature of art”. It is obvious that Wilde’s profound messages about the upper class are reaching the audience, and perhaps he was aiming for a social revolution. Ironically, Lady Bracknell disapproves of Algernon’s perspective on the Victorian society, “Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that” and this shows that she views anyone who does not admire, and to an extent worship the societal model are considered an outcast, therefore we can see that Wilde is aware of this and is attempting to bring to light the immorality of this form of hierarchy.

The Importance of Being Earnest parodies the social conventions about marriage, and an example of this would be when Lady Bracknell prevents Algernon from marrying Cecily Cardew until she finds out about her “solid qualities”. From this point, Cecily seems to be “a most attractive young lady, now that I (Lady Bracknell) look at her”. This is typical of the upper class and supports the idea that marriage within a Victorian Bourgeoisie ‘relationship’ is merely a business transaction. It could be argued that Wilde uses the play as a criticism of social seriousness, and he mirrors the upper-class’ ridiculous manners and seriousness through the fight of being “Earnest” and this represents the idea of decadence. This is because the Decadent Movement reversed the values of the artificial over the natural and instead, celebrated style, excess and pleasure which is represented in The Importance of Being Earnest. It is evident that Wilde uses the typical conventions of the theme of marriage to mock the Victorian society, as parents usually wanted their children to marry a higher class which meant the class barriers were never able to dissolve. However, Wilde uses the relationship between Gwendolen and Jack to show that class and marriage should not be associated, nonetheless, Lady Bracknell once again depicts a stereotypical Victorian Lady and does not allow the marriage to continue due the lack of wealth Jack possesses. We can further see this as Lady Bracknell is described as being horrified that her only daughter would consider marrying “into a cloak-room and form an alliance with a parcel”. A contemporary upper-class audience would find this laughable as to them, it would be absurd to have an “alliance” with someone who was “careless(ness)” to lose both parents.


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