The Importance of Being Victorian: Oscar Wilde “The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility” (Wilde 14). As a brilliant writer of the 1800’s, Oscar Wilde devoted the majority of his works towards unveiling the harsh truths of the Victorian society. Leading a life of deception himself, he chose to showcase his distastes for the social injustice he saw around him with unrestrained humor.
Being the first playwright to include homosexual innuendos, uplift women, and mock present social norms, it was surprising to find how widely accepted his production became. Reviews praised his use of witty dialogue and comedic characters, creating the most enduring play of the Victorian Era. In “The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,” Oscar Wilde utilizes his personal experiences to unmask the social conventions of the British Aristocracy during the late 1800’s.
Oscar Wilde’s life was far from conventional. Born under the irregular name Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde on October 16th, 1854, he grew up in a “richly eccentric” family (Woodcock 9). His father, Sir William Wilde, was an esteemed aural doctor for the Victorian upper-class who was “appointed medical advisor to the Irish Census of 1841” by the young age of twenty-eight (Gately). Wilde’s mother, Jane Francesca Elgee, often referred to as Lady Wilde, was an Irish nationalist who believed herself to be a revolutionary.
She wrote poetry under the pen name “Speranza,” for a weekly Irish newspaper, The Nation, and organized several gatherings for artists to converse upon intellectual topics (Harris 3). Between the two of his parents, Wilde was introduced to a wide array of artists, intellectuals, and doctors from around the world. These ideas helped Wilde to learn to value witty and intellectual conversation, which he illuminates throughout “The Importance of Being Earnest. ” Wilde was provided with the advantage to attain a superior education.
Winning several awards at Portora Royal School, he was already considered a profound scholar before attending college at Trinity and Magdalen in Oxford (Pearson 18). At these schools, Wilde began a lifelong adoration of the classics, which would later influence his subsequent writing (Harris 17). Under the influence of three professors, John Ruskin, Walter Pater, and Frank Mahaffy, Wilde was transformed into a capital gentleman who dressed in unorthodox clothing and constantly questioned the Victorian norms (Harris 24).
Ruskin inspired Wilde’s imagination and aristocratic soul with “his prose” style and romantic writing (Harris 28). Pater, Wilde contends, “taught me the highest form of art: the austerity of beauty” (Harris 28). His emphasis in the arts also urged Wilde to live for pleasure and experiment with “the instrument of speech,” which later helped him form witty dialogue in his plays (Harris 28). Mahaffy took him on trips to Italy and Greece, inspired his love for the Greek language, and challenged him to look at the repressive ethics around them (Harris 27, Pearson 34).
Without the guidance and encouragement of these professors, Wilde may not have evolved into the humorous and esteemed writer seen today. Wilde entered into the celebrity limelight through his intellect and irregular lifestyle. To make himself memorable, he wore eccentric clothing and sported flowers and lilies with each of his outfits. He traveled and lectured to increase his fame in Britain and abroad (Pearson 38). Listeners proclaimed, “[he] was without exception the most brilliant talker I have ever come across, the most ready, the most witty, the most audacious… Nobody could pretend to outshine him” (Pearson 170).
As his reputation blossomed, he began to court celebrities and book triumphant tours. On one of these tours, Wilde met his wife Constance Lloyd, for better or for worse (Harris 52). They settled down together, became respectable parents, and had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. Consequently, this all changed dramatically in 1891 when he met Lord Alfred Douglas and entered into a homosexual relationship with him outside of his marriage (Gately). Bored by the convention of his married life at home, Wilde would often escape to a second town home with Douglas and openly share a relationship with him (Small 25).
His secret, doppelganger lifestyle, intellectual background, and experiences with Victorian Britain all come together in his comedy to showcase Wilde’s criticisms for the British aristocracy. In the West End of London, Wilde’s ,“The Importance of Being Ernest,” premiered during a time of transition. Around him, many social, religious, political, and economic doctrines were evolving. Prior performances at the George Alexander’s St. James Theater, for example, never dared to mock the standards of society (Raby xi).
It was considered a major foul to scoff the aristocracy, but Wilde was not afraid to jeopardize their support. On February 14th, 1894, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” made its debut and quickly rose to a success, running eighty-six more times thereafter (Gately). As a farce, his humorous play exaggerated physical action such as slapstick, absurdity, and improbability, to surprise the audience with unexpected events and restore genuine comedy to the stage (Bloom 35-39).
As an Irish Protestant outsider to London, Wilde was popularly accepted by the upper class of London, even as they laughed about themselves. His three major sources of comedy: social criticism of the upper and middle class, homosexuality, and epigrams and puns; made the play a brilliant success (Mazer). Wilde’s play reveals several implications about this Victorian upper class. Algernon Moncrieff, a wealthy bachelor who pretends to have a brother named “Bumbry” to escape from the city, is always looking for excitement as a result of his boredom with the conventions (Wilde 15).
Concerned with personal satisfaction and appearance, Algernon represents the visual ideals of the upper class and always dresses in stylish and dandy attire. Although he outwardly embodies them, internally, he actually goes against the etiquette of the upper class, creating a paradox. Wilde reveals through Algernon’s character that Victorian values of duty and virtue are repressive to the human spirit (Raby 59). John Worthing, on the other hand, is a justice of the peace, guardian of Cecily, and owner of a respectable country estate.
As a result of his position, he is a product of his social standing and therefore, abides by rules (Bloom 38). He is accepted by the upper class for his fortune and appropriate manners, which have a higher value than the lifestyle Algernon leads. Although both men lead a secret life unknown to society, Wilde implies that society “cares about substance but instead reveres trial and triviality” (Raby 82). Similar to Wilde’s personal life, his male protagonists lead secret lives. In writing a play about truth, “surfaces [and] labels assume a special ignifigance” (Raby 52). John Worthing refers to himself as “Jack” in the country and “Ernest” when he travels to the city for fun (Wilde 15). Algernon, Jack’s friend, also reveals that he created an imaginary friend named “Bunbury” to visit whenever he desires to leave the city and later on pretends to be Jack’s wicked brother “Ernest” when he visits his country estate (Wilde 15). Both of these characters parallel to Wilde’s personal character– living as a married man with a homosexual double life.
As a Victorian ideal, “earnestness” means to have great devotion to virtue and duty, standing for sincerity and seriousness (Raby 51). Wilde instead contradicts these implications and turns it’s conservative meaning upside down by making the name stand for deception: a mode by which his characters can escape from the hassles of their everyday lives and responsibilities. Therefore, Wilde is implying that living a conventional lifestyle is formulaic and dull. In order to liven things up, one must seek a fictitious counter-identity, similar to the clandestine one Wilde holds with Lord Alfred Douglas.
To the aristocrats, appearance was crucial and style much more important than substance. While a person could lead a secret life, carry on affair within a marriage or have children outside of wed lock, society would look the other way as long as the appearance of propriety was always maintained (Bloom 43). For this reason, Wilde questions whether the more important or serious issues of the day are overlooked in favor of small talk about style and gossip. Gwendolen states, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing” (Wilde 86).
Her mother, Lady Bracknell also believes Algernon is a perfect husband for the same reasons. “What more can one desire,” she questions, “Algernon is an… ostentatiously, eligible man. He has nothing, but he looks everything” (Wilde 95). In a society where image is everything, Algernon is certainly a perfect surface image of a husband. Throughout the first act, marriages in Victorian England become a central theme. To Wilde, marriages were an institution, characterized by hypocrisy and greed to achieve status within society (Small 109).
Following suit, when Algernon’s house servant, Lane, informs him that wine in married households is never superior in quality, Algernon responds, “Good heavens! Is marriage so demoralizing as that? ” and Lane responds that his own was “in consequence of a misunderstanding” (Wilde 7). The humor continues when Algernon discovers that Jack has come to the city to propose to Gwendolen Fairfax, a wealthy debutante. He believed his friend had “come up for pleasure? […] I call that business” (Wilde 8).
Like Wilde, Algernon believes that once marriage occurs, flirtation and the passion of love all fade away because women do not marry men they are interested in, they marry men for financial security and status (Pearson 175). During a time period where marriage was considered a serious matter, Wilde used absurdity through his characters to humor his conservative, upper-class audience to unveil his true opinions of marriage. In Act II, Wilde introduces us to the repression of sexual desires of the Victorian society.
Confined to a country estate, Cecily Cardew is infatuated by sin and wickedness. Being raised far from social life in the city and sexual temptations, Cecily seeks escape by allowing her imagination to run wild in her diary entries. In her society, young women did not know of sex and adults would always speak of it in metaphoric terms in order to protect them. As Mrs. Prism continually tries to teach Cecily German in her studies, Cecily is unable to focus and chooses to live vicariously through her fantasies.
Wilde utilizes her character to showcase to his audience that the repression of our innate sexual desires leads to more of a curiosity in them (Bloom 135). Mrs. Prism, her tutor, continually tries to get Cecily to recite her German; however, she finds it plain and redundant. Dreaming of the man she believes Ernest to be is more fascinating to the youthful mind of Cecily. Education sought to promote the status quo during this time period so that young people would learn not to question the society in which they live.
By satirizing this, Wilde shows his upper-class audience that imposing rules upon people hinders the personal spirit and can sometimes have the opposite effect upon people. These suffocating norms were so repressive that Wilde creates episodes in which his characters lead secret lives and craft false impressions of who they really are. Algernon and Jack both create personas to escape from their lives and neglect their duties. Wilde unveils their alternative lives within the first act and allows them to continue until the final act to represent his own life of deceit as a homosexual (Bloom 31).
Rejecting their responsibilities, Algernon and Jack pursue pleasure and eventually find themselves desiring marriage. Realizing that this will end their secret lives of passion they comment, “[y]ou won’t be able to run down to the country quite so often as you used to, dear Algy,” and “[y]ou won’t be able to disappear to London quite so frequently as your wicked custom was” (Wilde 80). If either of these characters were to get married, their spontaneity would diminish and freedom removed because society requires married couples to follow certain conservative standards.
These standards would hold Algernon and Jack back from having lives filled with happiness, just as Wilde’s was with his wife, Constance Lloyd. There is an evident gulf between the upper and middle classes in “The Importance of Being Earnest. ” Intermarrying was not permitted between classes because families sought to keep their status within the bloodline (Woodcock 166). If such an act were to occur, the family would be tainted in the eyes of society. Conservative, strong, powerful, arrogant, and ruthless, Lady Augusta Bracknell represents the negativity within the upper class.
She firmly believes that the lower and middle classes should never be educated or taught to think or question the world in which they live. If they were to obtain power through knowledge, the playing field between classes would be eliminated and the prominence of the upper class questionable (Bloom 31). Education was not designed so that the upper class would be able to think, it was designed to teach them how to mindlessly following convention (Bourke 47). Lady Bracknell explains this explicitly when she states, “[t]he whole theory of modern education is radically unsound.
Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever” (Wilde 67). Wilde speaks his own mind on the matter through her words. He believes as she does that education is meaningless unless the mind is allowed to be free and capable of studying for the purpose of intellect, not social customs. Living in a society full of restrictions and order, Wilde sought an escape from his life of structure and duty. Dictated to live a life full of appearances, Wilde was forced to marry for security, live pure and plainly, repress sexual desires, and dress fashionably.
With so many rules to abide by, it’s no wonder Wilde had a difficult time being genuinely happy in life. As the false world he lived in continued to sicken him, he found an escape route through writing “The Importance of Being Ernest” and his secret relationship with Douglas. If it had not been for Wilde’s background with classic literature and humor, he may have never dared to exploit the faults of Victorian England. Characters like Algernon and Jack provide resemble himself in many ways and reveal subsurface themes about defying the norms of society.
Overall, Oscar Wilde’s background and use of humor within “The Importance of Being Earnest” allowed him to express the deficiencies of the upper class in Victorian England. Works Cited Bloom, Harold. Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. New York: Chelsea House, 1988. Print. Bourke, Joanna. Working-class Cultures in Britain: 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity. London: Routledge, 2003. Print. Gately, Nicole. “Biography: Oscar Wilde. ” 12 Aug. 2005. Web. 8 Nov. 2010. Harris, Frank, and Bernard Shaw. Oscar Wilde. Michigan State UP, 1959. Print. Mazer, Carey M. “Wilde, Society, and Society Drama. People’s Light and Theatre Company, June 1993. Web. 8 Nov. 2010. . Pearson, Hesketh. Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit. New York: Harper & Bros. , 1946. Print. Raby, Peter. The Importance of Being Earnest: A Reader’s Companion. New York: Twayne, 1995. Print. Small, Ian. Oscar Wilde: Recent Research. Greensboro: English Lit. Trans. , Univ. of North Carolina, 2000. Print. Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. Lexington, KY: Filiquarian P, 2007. Print. Woodcock, George. The Paradox of Oscar Wilde. New York: Macmillan, 1950. Print.