The Burdens of Social Obligations
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is one of his most famous works, as it is a satirical play that’s purpose is to ridicule and expose the ridiculousness of Victorian society. While many accepted and followed the Victorian society’s rules and moral codes, Wilde was one of the first to question and rebel against them. Using the main characters of the play, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, Wilde exposes some of the Victorian society’s social obligations, and how he feels about them through satirical strategy.
Throughout The Importance of Being Earnest, various kinds of social obligations are slyly ridiculed such as the social views on marriage, obligation to attend family gatherings, and especially maintaining a “high moral tone” for one’s family and society. The absurdity of these social morals is clearly apparent to modern readers, because of the contrast in societies, but in the Victorian era they are accepted and followed without question, making the importance of Wilde’s meaning behind this play all the more important for the time period. For instance, while marriage was highly valued as something a man and woman must do, the monetary value of the marriage far outweighed its capacity for love and partnership. As Algernon says, “I really don’t see anything romantic about proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.” (Algernon, pg. 1745) Algernon is saying that there is a complete difference in being in love and being married. He even mentions that “The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous.” (Algernon, pg. 1739) He is expressing the Victorian view on marriage, which is the obligation to do so, and not the willingness. To Algernon, the moment you agree to marry someone and commit to them forever, you have ruined the entire romance, which is completely backwards and that is exactly what Wilde is trying to emphasize. The idea of arranged marriage goes hand in hand with this, similar to what we saw in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, and as Lady Bracknell displays in her dissatisfaction with “Ernest” proposing to Gwendolyn. “When you do become engaged to someone, I, or your father, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant…It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself.” (Bracknell, pg. 1743) Through Lady Bracknell’s dialogue, Wilde is exposing the absurdity of arranged marriage, and the unfairness of the matter. On top of this, as Gwendolyn expresses her adoration for the name “Ernest” and exclaims she could not possibly every marry someone whose name wasn’t Ernest, Jack uses his alter-identity to make himself favorable to a woman he loves. This is one of the many aspects of Victorian society that Wilde seeks to expose in its unfairness and absurdity.
Other obligations of Jack’s such as attending his Aunt’s dinner’s each week and maintaining a “high moral tone” for his ward Cecily are burdensome, and he eventually finds a clever way to escape all of his problems. As Algernon puts it, he is a “bunburyist”, named after his own alter-identity, meaning he has multiple identities that he uses to his advantage to escape these social obligations without seeming impolite. Jack’s “bunbury” is his made-up brother, Ernest, who lives in the city and is a trouble maker. Anytime he does not wish to go to his Aunt’s dinner, or he wants to escape to the city to have some inappropriate fun, he blames it on Ernest, and becomes Ernest himself. As Jack puts it, “My name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country…” (Jack, pg. 1737) He excuses his behavior by explaining, “As a high moral tone can hardly be said to conduce very much to either one’s health or one’s happiness, in order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother of the name of Ernest…” (Jack, pg. 1738) By saying this, Jack is expressing his dislike for societies expectations and moral code, and feels the only way to escape it without causing drama or being ridiculed, is to “bunbury”.
I believe Wilde represents them as burdensome because it is unhealthy to be confined within a box of social norms, and to constantly be someone you are not. However, Jack still feels an obligation to be a role model to Cecily, so he creates the best of both worlds by doing both at once. This way, he can still be Cecily’s guardian and be on good terms with his Aunt, but can also occasionally live his own private life in which he has fun and can do what he pleases. However, the play is seen as humorous because of all the mix-up between identities and who people are, causing drama between the characters. In the end, Jack discovers his real name is in fact Ernest, and he was not lying or escaping his true self all along, which he finds troubling. “It is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he ahs been speaking nothing but the truth” (Jack, pg. 1777) I believe Wilde does this with the intention of exposing that while “bunburying” worked for the men, they should not have to go to such measures to be who they truly are.
As Oscar Wilde was confined within the social code of the Victorian society in his life, hiding his sexuality and having to be two different people at once, he can sympathize with the struggle Jack faced. His entire life was ruined by being imprisoned for simply being who he truly was, which was not approved by the society. Jack had to create an entirely different identity and lie to the people he cared about, just to have fun and do what he wanted. While Wilde’s play is extremely humorous and appears quite light-hearted, it’s purpose and true meaning is to expose the injustice of the Victorian societies dictatorship over people’s lives and how they lived them.
Wilde, Oscar, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol.
A. New York: Norton, 2012. Print.
WRITTEN BY: GRACE RILEY
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