A womans role in society is a principle that has been debated since the beginning of time. Until recent years, her stereotypical place seemed to be in the home, cooking, cleaning, hosting guests, and caring for her children. This conventional image of a woman proved to be especially true during the Victorian era, in which women were under the control of the men in their lives who used them simply to obtain status through marriage and valued them only for their beauty.
Oscar Wilde challenges and even pokes fun at the stereotypical image that women in Victorian society were powerless against men throughout his play The Importance of Being Earnest by frequently allowing female characters to hold power over the minimally masculine male characters. Wilde furthers this ideal by giving male characters more feminine traits, which defies Victorian era gender roles as a whole.
At the onset of the play, Algernon Moncrieff is visited by his good friend Jack Worthing who tells him that he desires to marry Algernons cousin, Gwendolyn Fairfax.
Gwendolyn and her mother, Lady Augusta Bracknell, arrive at Algernons house soon after so Jack speaks to her in private and proposes. Algernon returns with Lady Bracknell, who is appalled at the idea of Gwendolyn and Jacks engagement and immediately sends Gwendolyn outside to wait for her as she probes Jack about his personal life. Lady Bracknell seems unsatisfied with Jacks answers to her many questions and denies him permission to marry her only daughter unless he can provide her with satisfactory answers.
Jack immediately obliges. Wilde uses Lady Bracknell to challenge traditional gender roles in the Victorian era by writing her into a position of power. Even though she is a woman, Algernon and Jack clearly respect her, and it seems as if they fear her as well. Algernon even goes as far as making up a fake friend to use as an excuse in order to avoid dining with her. Wilde wrote Lady Bracknell to have many exaggerated characteristics of a traditional male character, as she is assertive and has the upper hand over majority, if not all, of the characters. Algernon and Jacks fear of Lady Bracknell is almost comical, since she seems quite pompous and overly strict which one can assume Wilde did on purpose in order to effectively call-out and make fun of the stereotypical image of a woman during this era.
In addition to Wildes intense characterization of Lady Brackell is the aspect of Algernon and Jack not necessarily being characteristically male. The stereotype for a man in Victorian era society was someone who was strong, sturdy, and independent. Men tended to have more value than women did in society and were made out to be greater intellectuals than women who were valued only for their beauty. Wilde, however, writes both Jack and Algernon as liars who attempt to deceive the women around them. This is another trait that Wilde gives the men which is not stereotypical in Victorian era society because men were made out to have good judgement and be earnest. Gwendolyn and Cecily are perceived to be smarter even though they are women because they discover the truth and hold it over the mens heads, gaining power over both Algernon and Jack. Both women even make assertive comments about the men as they approach them after the theyre exposed as liars, with Gwendolyn saying They’re looking at us. What effrontery! and Cecily exclaiming They’re approaching. That’s very forward of them. in lines five and six of Act III. Though these comments may seem small or petty, they represent much more. The women are surprised that these men would dare approach them after wronging them. Typically, in this society, a woman would come running back into her mans arms, never truly having been angry with him no matter what he did. These women, however, stand their ground and the men are intimidated by them. Gwendolyn and Cecily are clearly different than conventional female characters as Algernon and Jack are different than typical male characters. Another aspect of this is that both Algernon and Jack often discuss their appearances and seem to care an awful lot about how they look, which is somewhat common for men of their social status, but their obsession with their appearances symbolizes much more. In chapter twenty-five of Thomas Fosters How to Read Literature Like a Professor, he discusses deeper ideas in novels and what they may symbolize. Foster mentions that as you read a novel, you learn more and more about its contents and characters, so you are able to uncover deeper meanings of the symbols the author uses. At first, readers are inclined to think that Algernon and Jacks obsessions with their appearances are normal because they are both living in a high-class society. However, after reading further it is more obvious that Wilde was making fun of traditional gender roles by doing this. Vanity is a trait that is very stereotypical to female characters, no matter their class, and Wilde intended for Algernon and Jack to be more on the feminine side.
Furthermore, Wilde writes both Gwendolyn and Cecily to be more successful when they are without Jack and Algernon. The pair discuss how the men have wronged them and even belittle them when they are alone together, something men would typically do. Gwendolyn frequently rejects Jacks ideals and he obliges to her demands, showing that she clearly holds power over him which is a huge defiance of normal gender roles. She also straight-up says that she believes men belong in the home, which is the most common characteristic of the conventional woman in Victorian era society. The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man. And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I don’t like that. states Gwendolyn in line 266 of Act II. Here, we see that Gwendolyn chooses not to conform to societal norms about the separate genders. Both she and Cecily are much wittier and show their true character when they are away from Jack and Algernon. They display characteristics typical of men, which Wilde does on purpose to challenge and ultimately mock stereotypical gender roles in Victorian era society.
Oscar Wildes defiance of common, clich? gender roles in the Importance of Being Earnest generates deep thought throughout the play. As one reads this work, they discover more and more about Wildes perspective on society and his attitudes towards women and mens roles in it. Algernon and Jacks flamboyant personalities, fear of Lady Bracknell, and submittal to their fianc?s stronger personalities is a strong indicator of reversal of the stereotypical gender roles. Both Gwendolyn and Cecily are written to be smarter and more prominent power figures than Algernon and Jack even though they are women. Wildes use of females in powerful roles and men with feminine characteristics resonates deeply with the reader because it seemingly ridicules the conventional womans role in Victorian era society and other works that have been written about this ideal. He initiates the idea that women, in fact, are not objects who are confined to a life at home where they cook and clean, but rather can be intelligent individuals who think for themselves and maintain authority over men