The nature of marriage
Throughout the play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ we see that engagement and marriage seems to be one of the main goals for the characters. There is a sparking romance between Jack and Gwendolen, Algernon and Cecily and also Dr. Chausable and Miss Prism. For Victorian society marriage was not done for love, it was a means for people to better their social position, as seen through the interrogation given by Lady Bracknell. Jacks eligibility to wed Gwendolen was dependent on his ‘name, rank and serial number’, very trivial things which Wilde satirizes. We also see through Algernon and the beginning of the play that there is uncertainty around whether marriage is a matter of ‘business’ or ‘pleasure’. One of the things that Wilde humors about the Victorians is their superficiality, everything was a matter of appearance to them as evident through Jacks proposal to Gwendolen. Lady Bracknell has brought her daughter up to think like a traditional Victorian, her belief is that “an engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be.” We see this in action with Gwendolens need to perfect Jacks proposal so that it appears to be everything a Victorian proposal should be. The entirety of the play is both Jack and Algernon trying to please their women’s fickle desires. The main irony in the play is the fact that these men go through so much effort by breaking the rules by trying to prove themselves as eligible Victorian bachelors, however in the end no rules are broken. The status quo remains in tact and everyone marries exactly who society would deem right to marry.
During the Victorian period the upper class believed that they had the job of being moral compasses for the lower classes, reformation was a hobby of theirs that only took an ‘afternoon’ to accomplish. The fact that Cecily believes that it will take such little time to reform Algy is just a mockery of the way Victorians thought, clearly the ‘betterment’ of someone and to teach them all of the upper class ways would be a much longer task! HOWEVER in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ Algy states that it is the lower classes who should be setting moral standards for the upper classes, a complete reversal of how the Victorians actually thought. This is just another one of the ways in which Wilde satirizes the Victorians. The name Earnest itself means to be sincere and moral, which is ironic because that is the complete opposite to how the Victorians and the characters in this play behaved. The use of the name Earnest was never sincere or moral, it was a lie.
One of the examples of materialism is seen in Lady Bracknell’s interrogation to Jack which was all directed due to her desire in finding out his wealth, name and title, she wants Gwendolen to marry someone who has a lot of wealth and social status rather than someone with good intentions. Lady Bracknell states that “to lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune…to lose both seems like carelessness,” clearly blaming Jack for being an orphan, which is just ridiculous and mocks the Victorians. During that time period a persons family defined what kind of person they were, in both status and beliefs. This materialism is seen once again in action after Lady Bracknell’s discovery of Algy’s intention to marry Cecily, Lady Bracknell initially denies the union, however after finding out that Cecily is an heiress to a great sum of wealth, she is quick to neglect everything she said before. This is the perfect example of how important wealth and social status was to Victorians, it is one of the many ways that Wilde uses satire.
Another one of the themes that we see in action is gender. During the Victorian period women were treated as inferior and almost possessions to their husbands, what the man said was what was accepted. However Wilde challenges this by exploring female superiority through Lady Bracknell, she states that Algy not attending her dinner would mean that his ‘uncle would have to dine upstairs’. This is a gender role reversal as in reality, during the Victorian period, it would be the man who would call the shots and in a situation like this, the woman would be the one who had to dine elsewhere.