When I first read this play, I felt that I might have missed the essence of it. Well, I’m happy to say I have. 🙂 I have certainly not understood the underlying grave social criticism and thus, have under-appreciated. So here I am, trying to make up for my misunderstanding of one of the greatest plays written by Oscar Wilde.
The Importance of Being Earnest is one brilliantly written comedy. But through the wit and humour, one can see the depth of his satire, when he lashes at and ridicules Victorian morality and conventions. The hypocrisy of the Victorian institution of marriage and the “requirements” for forming a suitable alliance are utterly ridiculed, and the superficiality of the upper society is thoroughly exposed.
Through satirical dialogues of Algernon’s and Lady Bracknell’s, Wilde exposes the false and nonsensical attitudes of Victorian upper society. “You don’t seem to realise that in married life three is company and two is none” This view of Algernon speaks volumes of the true nature of marriages of the “rich and noble”. And I particularly enjoyed this conversation between Algernon and Lady Bracknell. Lady Bracknell refers to a recently widowed friend and says “I never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger”, to which Algernon replies “I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief.” Jack Worthing is a wealthy gentleman, but his parentage is questionable, and thus, not an eligible match for a daughter of a peer. How strictly Victorians were concerned in the lineage are shown from these sharp words of Lady Bracknell: “You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter…..to marry into a cloakroom, and form an alliance with a parcel” But this same lady has no scruple in consenting for a marriage of Jack Worthing’s wealthy ward, Cecily Cardew to her nephew, Algernon. “A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her.”
Two dialogues strike me as particularly interesting when exposing the shallowness of Victorian society. One is when Gwendolen says that “In matters of grave importance, style not sincerity, is the vital thing”. The other is Cecily’s answer to the question of whether she knows about the relations between capital and labour to which she answers “All I know is about the relations between Capital and Idleness – and that is merely from observation”!
Finally, the story is about two gentlemen, Algernon Moncrief and Jack Worthing. both of whom are leading double lives. Upper-class gentlemen were quite known for their indiscretions. To keep a respectable front to society while indulging in their misconducts, they needed to have two kinds of lives. And that’s what Oscar Wilde severely attacks here. “Earnestness” was considered a very important virtue by the Victorian high society, but Wilde shows that none have ever cared to practice it.
This is no doubt that The Importance of Being Earnest is Wilde’s best “drawing room” play. It is also one of the best plays that I’ve read. There was animation, wit, social satire, and humour that it was such fun to read it. I still prefer An Ideal Husband personally, but I believe that no other play of Wilde has displayed the depth that we see here.