Filed under Drama 1: The Importance of Being Earnest
The Importance of Being Earnest has been rightfully labeled as a farcical comedy. And really, it is merely a written play in which the main characters fabricate stories and personalities to avoid trivial, but considered burdensome, social obligations. The characters within this book regard serious matters very lightly. Their views of marriage and even the death of a sibling are superficial. They obviously lack sensitivity; this can be seen when Lady Bracknell stated that “to lose one parent… may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Another instance would be when Miss Prism’s reaction to the news of Jack’s (fake) brother’s death was to insult his insouciant lifestyle. The silly dialogues that takes place between the characters made it seem as if the characters, and people that belong to the same social class as them, are incapable of taking anything seriously, and are all petty and shallow and narrow-minded.
Even from the very first glance, it is obvious that one of the purposes of the Importance of Being Earnest is to mock the English upper classes during that time. However, the true reason behind this can be found with just a quick look into the author’s life.
The play first premiered in the year of 1895, where it rapidly gained popularity from its high farce and witty dialogue. This play was, until now, to be known as Wilde’s most popular play and marks the climax of his career. The play appealed to even the upper social class. In this play, Wilde had the ability to satirize the upper classes by making them sound ridiculous. Wilde was making a joke at someone else’s expense, in this case the upper classmen, and was able to not only get away with it, but to be applauded for it. It is not often that you can successfully manage to make someone laugh at their own ridiculousness by exaggerating it in literature form. However, many are unaware of is the fact that his downfall happened shortly thereafter. Wilde’s homosexuality was revealed to the public, and Wilde was consequently sentenced to two years of imprisonment and hard labor. I also find it interesting that, in light of the cutting remarks regarding France and its residents found in the play, the author died in self-inflicted exile in Paris, France at the young age of forty-six.
I don’t know how many times I found myself inadvertently saying “You have got to be kidding me” while reading this play. First of all, how gullible and foolish are these women?! So learned, yet so unintelligent all at the same time. Cecily and Gwendolyn seem like polar opposites at first glance. One is a pretentious, lofty city girl, while the other comes across as a much more innocent, tame, country girl (reminds me of the Puritans, from when I read the Scarlet Letter). However, in their shallowness when it came to the issue of finding suitors, they are two peas in a pod.
At one point, I thought that the play was mocking the Victorian upper class’ adherence to illogical social customs and expectations – but I now see that I was wrong. In this play, they don’t seem to care much about virtue and honor at all. They care about the appearance of it. They care about image, how other people perceive them, and how others are perceived – even when they know what they are seeing is an elaborate lie. As long as they (and their families) come across as proper, virtuous people, they seem fine with dealing with the fact that it is all a lie in reality. We see this in so many areas, most notably in the womens’ obsession with the name “Earnest”, and in the act of Bunburying in general.
The act of Bunburying, for one thing, is an incredible show of hypocrisy on the parts of the two men. Jack and Algernon use their alter-egos Earnest and Bunbury to get away from their respective communities, and to indulge in activities that would otherwise be considered uncouth for their “real” selfs. Jack clearly condemns the act of ‘Earnest’, yet he displays the attributes that he so passionately disapproves of in front of Cecily. I just find it amusing how he so easily goes on doing things that his other self (Jack) and the rest of society would not approve of. He is the center of a very extreme case of hypocrisy.
The womens’ obsession with names also represents how that society is so preoccupied with looks and appearances that they fail to look for what is truthful and genuine (ah, another instance of irony concerning the word ‘earnest’). Even after being lied to and manipulated, these women are ultimately only concerned with whether the mens’ names are indeed ‘Ernest’. They don’t seem too bothered by the fact that they were lied to at all – instead, they care about the least important thing in the whole situation. I can’t believe they would stick with those men just because they promised to go get christened as ‘Ernest’s. Such unbelievably shallow behavior.
Next, something I’ve touched on before, albeit just on a surface level – the nature of marriage in Victorian society. Before I could mock Lady Bracknell’s objective view of marriage and love, I caught myself, because I realized how real and relatable it all was. I’m not unfamiliar with parents that are so preoccupied with the objective aspects of future husbands (family background, financial background, genetic deficiencies, age, race) that they fail to think about whether that person is kind, or whether the couple genuinely has an emotional connection. Of course, as part of the family I am criticizing, I was raised to think that way. Thus, I don’t completely disagree with it, because it is probably a useful way to look for a husband, as it would ensure a stable, comfortable life. That said, it would be interesting to get this play translated, so that it becomes accessible to the rest of my community. I think that the social criticism in much of the play isn’t restricted to mocking the upper classes of Victorian society, but also the upper classes in the world of today.
“We judged the book by its cover” seems a better metaphor to sum up Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Essentially, I believed this phrase was the most suitable from Lady Bracknell’s statement towards the end of the play: “We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces”. Indeed, the play was preoccupied with the idea of surfaces and its importance in Victorian society, where it must have often seemed that appearance mattered more than anything else. Wilde was able to expose the unnaturalness of a world where the exterior have completely replaced the interiors and people are forced to judge based from what they see.
Lady Bracknell’s inquisition of Jack, servesas a telling prototype. Having already questioned Jack about his income, knowledge, and personal habits, Lady Bracknell now turns to other thing – his background. Her first of many reproaches on this score is a fine example of the baseless social appraisal that Wilde critiques so cleverly throughout the play. When Jack informs Lady Bracknell that he had lost both of his parents, her reaction is not one of sympathy or even curiosity, but instead of consternation. By replying whether he had lost both of his parents. What makes matter worse was her ‘ignorance’ and unsympathetic nature by saying “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune—to lose both looks like carelessness”. What I find interesting was her use of the word ‘look’ when saying that “to lose both looks like carelessness”, because it brings the focus to the idea of superficial appearances. It seems like she wants Jack to produce some parents, so that he will ‘look’ worthwhile. She wants Jack to be someone like Algernon, who “has nothing, but he looks everything.” Again it’s interesting how she uses the word ‘look’.
If this much seems absurd, her next accusation is even more so. Ernest reveals that he is not only a stray, but was found inside of a handbag—to which Lady Bracknell replies that “to be born, or at any rate, bred in a handbag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution”. Her blaming Jack for being born in a handbag is completely ridiculous, in some ways even more than her disdain for his having lost his parents. We knew that Jack had lost contact with his parents, but here we know immediately that in this instance of alleged culpability, Jack was actually an infant. Perhaps the only way to make Lady Bracknell’s annoyance more absurd at this point is to direct it towards a newborn child, as she blamed him for being placed in a handbag.
I think what is interesting is how one could relate a play performed in 1895 to something that is applicable in today’s society. It is funny how we can be so hypocritical towards Lady Bracknell and calling her ‘ridiculous’ when in fact she existed in every one of us. In all culture and society, I think everyone based their judgment from what they see – the way a person look; the way a person carries themselves, and many others – without even considering what caused them to be that way (i.e. being born in a poor family, etc). I think that many of us would rather befriend someone that fits our ‘criteria’ and looks the part, so that people would perceive us as what we wanted to be perceived. Honestly, we would rather befriend someone attractive and rich, rather than a hobo, am I right?
In a weird way, I kind of like Lady Bracknell. She has substance, something that Gwendolen doesn’t seem to have much of. Although overly prim, Lady Bracknell has a mind that is quite sharp. Her comment, “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square,” is very indicative of the Victorian mindset towards the lower, working class, and of the effect widespread education could have on Victorian society.
Lady Bracknell is stating a very serious political and social point with this quote. Education would empower the working class, but would threaten the social order of Victorian society. It is, therefore, in the upper crust’s best interests to keep the working class mute and uneducated. Although such an act is unfair, it is necessary. Even though some may not agree with her, Lady Bracknell deserves credit for being intelligent enough to realize the potentially devastating effects of education on the status quo.
The concept of ‘natural ignorance’ is one that Lady Bracknell has introduced me to. The idea that ignorance occurs naturally in the human population is easy to understand. As it is, I would prefer that ignorance will always continue to exist in this world, mostly for the reason that if it didn’t, and everyone had the same level of education, there would be no one to do any of the dirty work.
From a Marxist point of view, in order for the rich to stay rich by profiting from the poor, the poor have to stay uneducated. If, theoretically speaking, the world was filled with post doctorates, would there be anyone willing to work a factory job? The same situation, considered on a smaller scale, demonstrates both Lady Bracknell’s concern and the concern of the modern day wealthy. The more educated the masses are, the more difficult it will be to compete with them for employment. I find it comical how the concerns Lady Bracknell expresses 200 years ago are still relevant today. She’s refreshing – it’s not often you encounter a character with enough sass to wipe the smirk off any self-righteous governess’ face (ahem Miss. Prism), while at the same time possessing a mind that dares to speak of the politically incorrect 200 years before it would be politically incorrect!
Pertaining to my blog last week, we finally finished the book as well as the movie of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. As I have said before, the characters of Jack, Algernon, Gwendolyn, and Cecily has continued to colorfully enrich the flow of the story to the very end. Even the more frequent presence of the Lady Bracknell with her wit and charm had contributed to the humor side of the story. As I had left off in Act II last week, with Cecily and Gwendolyn discovering Algernon as well as Jack’s lies yet still forgiving them afterwards, Act III happened to be – much to my surprise, even more amusing to read.
The setting that had taken place in the drawing room, Lady Bracknell had appeared from London to come after Gwendolyn. Her original motives were to stop the relationship between Gwendolyn and Jack, whom she thinks is unworthy of her daughter. However upon her arrival, she was then graced with the information of the Algernon’s newly blossomed relationship with Cecily – whom he desires to marry. However, before he intends to do so, Algernon had asked Lady Bracknell to investigate further about Cecily. Lady Bracknell felt reluctant about Algernon’s intentions to marry Cecily, however all her thoughts were then banished after her discovery of Cecily being worth a lot of money after she is of age. However, the only barrier to this would be the fact that Jack is actually Cecily’s legal guardian. Without his consent, she would not be able to marry Algernon. This condition then brought Jack to creating a negotiation with Lady Bracknell. If Lady Bracknell were to give her blessing to Jack and Gwendolyn’s marriage, then Jack would give his consent to Cecily and Algernon’s. Ofcourse, this was refused almost immediately. As for Lady Bracknell’s disapproval, I still do not understand it until now. I don’t think that Lady Bracknell’s mere disapproval due to Jack’s “uncertain” background and insufficient financial capabilities is not enough reason to stop a marriage. Is marriage not to be of love? Isn’t marriage only about the two people joining together and agreeing to spend the rest of their lives with each other? How did it start to become about money? Or approval from the parents? Or even more ridiculously – about their name?
Throughout reading the whole book as well as see it come to life in the movie, I was constantly made frustrated. With the dialogues of the characters, with the storyline, and especially with the outcome. How was it possible that the act was then ended with the discovery of Jack being the child that Miss Prism, the governess had allegedly “stole” years ago from Lady Bracknell’s house. The overlapping of stories within Act III I thought was completely confusing, it was too much in a whole scene, creating drama and the resolution too close in range within each other. I thought the drama that was already going on between Gwendolyn, Lady Bracknell, and Jack, not too mention Algernon and Cecily during the start of the scene was already enough without the drama of Jack and Miss Prism to add to it as well.
However, I do think that the ending to the play altogether was one that was of great morals. After all the drama, it was quite relieving to see that Jack finally reached to a realization of the importance of being “earnest”, as well as being Ernest, whom is actually his real birth name as well as the man that Gwendolyn intends to marry. Again, the pun intended through the title that I acknowledged from the beginning of the story appears again in the ending, highlighting it’s significance and the sole moral message of the whole play. I am glad to have finally finished this book, and I’m looking forward to recapping the whole two years of my IB years in the upcoming exams…. And finally, oh finally, I will be able to say adieu to IB!
Although “The Importance of Being Earnest” generally stirs negative sentiment in our class, I think there is a lot to be learned from this over-exxagerated satire on English society. In my opinion, Wilde does an amazing job in identifying the problems society has faced, still faces, and will probably face in the future. There is this idea of brokenness that is pinpointed in society, whether it be English, American, Chinese, Indonesian, any society on earth we would ostensibly agree is broken. The play altogether criticizes the institution of marriage, the meaningless nature of the words that gets thrown around numerously, and the class wars that have continue to exist until today.
From a Marxist point of view, Wilde portrays the ‘evil’ nature of the bourgeoisie class – Lady Bracknell plays the main character in pegging the frivolous mindset of the upper class. All she, and the ‘rest of the class’ care about is maintaining their social strata, unwilling to associate themselves with those who are less fortunate than them due to a mixture of pride, abhorrence towards those who have less, and general ignorance. A Marxist would comment on the necessity of the proletariats, who actually know what it is to strive in labor, to revolt in order to gain equality both in social and economic terms.
Aside from this, the idea of the dying fundamentality of words is quite significant in this play. Words were once held like an oath – what was said was what was meant. Treaties, agreements, assurances were made on the foundation of what a man chose to profess, or to hold back. In a stretched tangent I think Wilde has drawn me to the overall idea of how disputes originate at all – we never mean 100% of what we say. Everything – whether it be personal or diplomatic, all wars begin because of promises that just could not be kept, and as a reader that asks me to evaluate myself. Wilde’s critique of society is conspicuous, and at times irritating, but it invites us to truly recognize the importance of sincerity, and play our role in ensuring that sincerity is reintroduced in our imperfect society.
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