Representation of Class in The Importance of Being Earnest
Oscar Wilde’s society play, The Importance of Being Earnest, examines the issue of class in Victorian London. The play is Wilde’s satirical interpretation of English high society as one big act. As described by Abrams, this play is the “supreme example” of a farce comedy because the “exaggerated character-types find themselves in ludicrous situations in the course of an improbable plot, but which achieve their comic effects […] by the sustained brilliance and wit of the dialogue” (Abrams 40). Wilde uses his characters to parody class expectations, by using humor. The function of the witty dialogue is meant to make the subject matter lighter and more approachable. The dialogue, along with the actions of the characters Lady Bracknell, Cecily Cardew, and Gwendolyn Fairfax, are used to represent the knowledge of one’s class. These characters use their knowledge and presumed membership of the upper class to judge those they do no believe to be of equal status to themselves. The significance of these characters is to show three different female viewpoints to the rules of proper society.
Lady Bracknell represents the high society matron of the time. She is knowledgeable that proper conduct and adherence to rules represents a “correct” upbringing. She self-centeredly thinks Algernon can persuade Bunbury to not have a relapse on Saturday. A relapse would keep Algernon from arranging music for her party. This example proves her concern for what only directly affects her. Her dialogue exhibits the rules of society, no matter how backward. In response to Gwendolen’s news of her engagement, Lady Bracknell responds, “Pardon me, you are not engaged to any one. When you do become engaged to some one, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. 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” (Wilde, 12). Lady Bracknell represents the upper class of Victorian London concerned with her daughter marrying for status, not love. The upper classes of this time looked at marriage as a business matter that should be decided by a girl’s family, not by the girl herself. Lady Bracknell has a list of appropriate men to marry her daughter and although Jack Worthing is not on that list, she is willing to add him if he answers a few questions to her liking. After inquiring as to his income, houses, and politics she decides to move on to the subject of his lineage. The importance of heritage and family lines are to ensure no drop in social status by those involved. Upon discovering that Jack is found in a handbag and has neither parent, Lady Bracknell is mortified. Without a lineage to assert Jack as being from an appropriate class to marry Gwendolyn, Lady Bracknell informs Jack that she will not let her daughter “marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel” (Wilde, 15). This ridiculous extreme is used by Wilde to symbolize the importance of “proper” family background in the upper class.
Lady Bracknell repeats her disapproval with a sarcastic reference to Cecily Cardew’s lineage when she asks Jack if “Miss Cardew [is] at all connected with any of the larger railway stations in London?” (Wilde, 46). After initially dismissing Cecily Cardew, she in informed of the young lady’s funds and changes her opinion of her. Lady Bracknell had no money herself and married into society, yet is hypocritical of Jack trying to marry into high society by wedding her daughter. When Algernon makes a dismissive remark about society, Lady Bracknell responds “never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that” (Wilde, 47). This statement implies Lady Bracknell includes herself in proper society and is thereby authorized to inform Algernon of the rules.
Gwendolen is a sophisticated, yet shallow young lady. She adequately represents the privileged Victorian woman. By analyzing her diary entries, her self-absorption is evident; all of her entries are about herself. Wilde uses Gwendolen’s obsession with the name Earnest as a metaphor for the upper class’s fixation on acceptable and admirable characteristics. She is looking for a man to fit a model, rather than looking at each suitor’s qualities individually.
When meeting Cecily Cardew, Gwendolen asks if she can look at her with her lorgnette. Wilde is using this instrument as a symbol of “society’s eye.” Through this instrument, Gwendolen can study and judge Cecily, just as one class judges another. During their tea, Cecily tries to remain dignified although she is given sugar in her tea and cake after asking for bread and butter because she has been raised to be polite. After arguing over who is engaged to Earnest, Gwendolen tries to upstage Cecily’s announcement that her engagement will be in the county newspaper. Gwendolen asserts her higher social standing by declaring that her engagement to Earnest will be in the “Morning Post.” The “Morning Post” is obviously a more elevated newspaper than a country one. This verbal “one-upping” by Gwendolen is not only done to show Cecily that she is who Earnest is truly engaged to but, to also show Cecily that she considers herself to be of a higher class.
Cecily Cardew represents the bourgeois society of London. She has money, but no parents, and therefore no lineage. Without an established family association she is not considered to be of equal class by Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen. Cecily living in the country represents the stereotype of rural Londoners as common and unpolished. Gwendolen boasts her superiority by scoffing at the characteristics of the country. Cecily tries to entertain Gwendolen and show her that she is her equal with the tea ceremony. When Merriman asks if he should serve the tea as usual, Cecily’s stern, calm command of: “Yes, as usual” is her assertion as the lady of the house and therefore she is to be respected (Wilde, 37). Cecily scandalously puts sugar in Gwendolen’s tea and gives her cake to retaliate for her derogatory comment of Cecily’s knowledge of spades. Gwendolen says: “I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different” (Wilde, 37). This statement clarifies Gwendolen’s opinion of herself as a proper young lady and Cecily as ignorant country girl.
The Importance of Being Earnest represents interaction among the social strata of Victorian London. Wilde was able to address a situation in a way that would make people talk by twisting and turning dialogue and situations. Confronting the stereotyping of classes in a comical way opened the situation up for discussion. Victorian ideals were prudent and serious. Wilde used his characters to function as starting points for conversations. After seeing the play, audience members could then discuss what was and what was not tolerated among the classes. This angle of approaching a problem was significant because one of the rules of the upper class was to not talk about class. Wilde made discussions possible because no one had to be serious.
Victorian London had divisions among its classes, but within these was also the division among the sexes. The dialogue Wilde gave to his female characters was legendary. Women of Victorian London were not generally outspoken. The snappy, and snippy, repertoire by the female characters addressed the issue of a male dominated society. This gender equality within the play was also significant starting point for discussions. Women could bring about the subject of their inequality on a light note. This representation of outspoken women was probably admired by female audience members who were encouraged to be quiet and reserved.
Wilde’s conception of character in The Importance of Being Earnest is relatable to the audience because his characters represent different societal classes. His blending of class lines with questions of acceptability could transfer to the audience member’s personal lives. Wilde exposes the ludicrous standards and rules of the upper class in a humorous way. This led them to think of the standards and rules themselves as ludicrous. This play opened the door to discussions about class and opened minds to question what class truly entailed.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. 1899. New York: Dover, 1990.