Marriage is the third main ideal to be presented in Act 1 of the play. Whilst it is not strictly an ‘ideal’ in itself, the manner in which it is presented leaves a sense of mocked ceremony. The female leads treat marriage with a deadly seriousness in all respects, with Lady Bracknell saying: ‘an engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise…It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange herself’ this seeming dedication to the meticulous arrangement of a marriage in order to achieve the best results ironically destroys any romantic element, and in that aspect chances of true love. The male attitude to marriage is quite different.
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When talking with Jack in private, Algernon takes a rather dismissive stance on marriage: ‘A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it’, this negative view is also shown in ‘In married life three is company and two is none’. This is again representative of a character’s embodiment of an ideal, or the anathema to one in this case. The attitude of the men changes when in the company of the women, in order to appear courteous and honourable, as the woman superficially believe they are. This pretence of behaviour is something of a microcosm for the ideal of marriage itself.
The explicit female view of marriage is dismantled with various epigrams, for instance Lady Bracknell saying that after her husband’s death, Lady Harbury ‘looks quite twenty years younger’. Again Gwendolen’s statement that her ideal ‘has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest’, is obviously facetious, and through that it is clear that the women have an equally sceptical view of marriage as the men.
Yet they are inexorably drawn towards it because of the perceived duty to live up to the romantic ideal of marriage. Wilde’s satire of this situation again helps to dismiss the validity of the ideal presented. Marriage is probably the most complex of all the ideals presented in Act One of the play, in that the view presented very much depends on the interaction of the two sexes, which in itself is a questionable motif, consequently a definite opinion can not be drawn from it.
Ultimately, the presentation and satire of the ‘age of ideals’ is light hearted and insincere, however there are several poignant facets of this dissection of society that are worthy of note. The duality of human nature, whilst being an over-used speculation is particularly applicable in the play, as it is the habit of the characters to have sincere feelings and yet be incapable of showing them at all. The motiveless and consequently worthless existence of the upper classes is starkly compared to the diligence of a few hard working men of the lower echelons measures up unfavourably. Whereas the objectification of women is quite clearly the biggest irony in the play; as is quite clear from the actions of Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell, they are in fact the ones in charge.