To what extent Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest criticizes the aristocracy
The social atmosphere of the late Victorian age was extremely conservative and restricted under the control of royal family. Based on this atmosphere, the aristocrats obtained fruitful privileges; certain worldview, value system and lifestyle for this class were created and formed through the consensus of their performances in daily life like behaviors, manners, tastes and so on. In the eyes of Wilde, those features of aristocracy were quite defects, which were totally unnatural. Since the huge repression from the authority, he chose to use this decent work The Importance of Being Ernest as his voice to criticize those defects of the aristocratic class in a satirical tone and let people awake of the true colors of those mincing people. To a great extent, his exquisite characterization in this work reflects the criticisms towards the aristocracy in various aspects from their surface to morality.
· Shallowness of the aristocracy
Shallowness seemed to be the surface of the aristocracy, like their behaviors and tastes, which could be presented through both the depiction of their lifestyle and their value of judgment. In this play, Wilde always depicted the idle lifestyle of the aristocracy in great detail, like “playing the piano, visiting their scandalous neighbors, gossiping about their scandalous neighbors, eating gorgeous cucumber sandwiches and making up lies to avoid dining with their relatives such items on their daily to-do list.”(Shmoop, 2015) In their daily life, they spent time on those useless things instead of being utilitarian. The depiction in this play was done in a satirical tone to show the absurdity of that age. The shallowness can also be presented in their value of judgment, which is that “Appearance was everything, and style was much more important than substance” (CliffNotes, Van). In the third act of this play, when Gwendolen tried to let Cecily accept Algernon’s apology, she said: “True. In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing” (Reidhead, 2230).The voice and attitude of the characters could reflect the Shallowness of aristocracy, which was only focusing on the surface of things, even people.
· Hypocrisy of the aristocracy
We could say that shallowness was their surface, then hypocrisy of the aristocracy was their characteristic or personality, which worked as the most important element for creating the dramatic conflicts. “The Victorian gentlemen maintained double identities and ladies were snobbish and affected under the garb of dignity” (Hazra, 2013). In the first act of this play, Algernon was advocating the benefits of “having a Bunbury” and both Algernon and Jack were acting as “bunburists” for their own purposes; even though Jack wasn’t an aristocrat, he was still acting in an aristocratic way. In the second act, “Jack rounded out the deception with costumes and props, and he did his best to convince the family he was in mourning. He was acting hypocritically” (Sparknotes, Editors). And Algernon was even a better bunburist, and he used the good excuse of Bunbury’s sickness and came to Cecily as her uncle “Earnest” for the engagement. The two ladies were also hypocritical in some ways. Both Gwendolen and Cecily claimed that they only wanted to marry a man whose name was Earnest but when they knew that the real names of their “Earnest” were Algernon and Jack, they still chose to forgive the lie. The reason was that things they actually loved were what they needed—money or aristocratic title. During their oral fighting, they were always admiring themselves and pretending to be the most excellent women so that they could win. Even Cecily wrote an affected and sentimental dairy to deceive herself about her romantic relationship with Earnest as the evidence. The aristocracy were pretending in every moment and we could not find their real emotion and thoughts directly. And through the plot, even though the characters found out the clues for others’ hypocrisy, like Lady Bracknell’s sarcastic words towards “the sick Bunbury”, they still used aristocratic ways to react with each other without revealing the truth. Wilde depicted it in a natural way to criticize that hypocrisy was almost the mainstream trait among the aristocracy.
· Absurdity: The identification and morality of the aristocracy
This play showed the absurdity of both the aristocracy and society in the late Victorian age through paradoxes. As mentioned, the aristocracy had shallowness and hypocrisy as the surface and personality. Wilde also alluded to their aristocratic value system behind those features. And it came from the identification of aristocracy in that age, which was their specific identification of being “earnest”. “The word ‘earnest’ in this play comprised two different but related ideas: the notion of false truth and the notion of false morality, or moralism” (Sparknotes, Editors). The false truth was Jack’s lot; he didn’t know the truth that when he was pretending to be Earnest, he was at the most earnest moment. The absurdity was ingenious enough to present the distorted morality of the aristocracy. Wilde used the paradox that the real “earnestness” was not the moment the aristocrats claimed to be but the moment that they thought were not earnest. “The characters who embrace triviality and wickedness are the ones who may have the greatest chance of attaining seriousness and virtue.” (Sparknotes, Editors) Wilde gave his criticism in a paradoxical way to show how willingly the aristocracy was shaped by their morality without the doubt of its credibility. Even if some of them were not aristocracy, like Jack, but he still used the criteria to identify himself and pursue it. In this paradox, if somebody wants to escape from something, he shouldn’t still use the same value to evaluate it. Algernon was aware of the fake surface of his counterpart but he still lacked the awareness of the moral barriers in his class. Wilde’s characterization was successful to show the twisted identification and morality of the aristocracy from the blind pursuit of middle class people and different voices coming from themselves.
Wilde’s satirical criticism in this play subtly invoked people’s healthy dislike of the kind of stereotypical aristocrats in the Victorian age. The progress of the society wasn’t going on as smoothly as its surface; the social problems still lied there. People were not enlightened enough to dump the blind pursuit of the aristocratic title. He tried to lead people to a new stage of worldview, which is a more modern one without those pedantic clichés and classifications. Even though his work was not perceived as an influential and groundbreaking literature work in that time, with the thriving of the modernism, Wilde’s work echoes more reflective notions.