Explore Wilde’s use of food and eating in The Importance of Being Earnest. You must relate your discussion to relevant contextual factors.

This is an essay plan:

Introduction –

  • Oscar Wilde continuously shows the role of food and eating throughout ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’.
  • Food seems to be used as an excuse or cover up for most of the characters.
  • During the Victorian times people, especially the upper classes, were expected to keep up happy and respectable appearances. This meant not showing their troubles and emotions to others.
  • Wilde explores this and uses food as a means for people to vent their frustrations.


Paragraph 1 (eating and devouring food as a metaphor for suppressed emotion) –

  • Algy eats the cucumber sandwiches that were set out for his Aunt Augusta and cousin Gwendolen.
  • He blames Lane for the fact that there is ‘no cucumber sandwiches’. Algy acts as if he has no knowledge of him consuming all of the sandwiches.
  • When Algy is ‘in trouble, food is the only thing that consoles’ him.
  • His promptness to lie about his eating habits shows that he is aware of the fact that he eats to suppress emotions, however as a Victorian man, feels the need to hide that.
  • In the Victorian era men were supposed to be quite masculine in the sense that they were not expected to share their emotions or flaws.
  • The way in which Algy opens up to Jack about the fact that he uses food to ‘console’ him, shows that because Jack is unmoved by this information, he also shares the same flaws.
  • Wilde is mocking the fact that men are expected to uphold this masculine, emotionless image.


Paragraph 2 (food used to make points about class and social structure) –

  • In Act II the climax of Gwendolen and Cecily’s disagreement comes about when food is introduced.
  • Gwendolen states that sugar is ‘not fashionable any more’ and ‘cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays.’
  • The women use food as an excuse to critique one another’s social backgrounds.
  • Cecily thought as a senseless country girl, Gwendolen thought of as a snobby city woman.
  • Food becomes part of this conflict because it is Cecily’s action of giving Gwendolen sugar and cake that is what may push Gwendolen ‘too far’.


Paragraph 3 (food to replace sexual desires) –

  • There is also the idea that food is consumed to substitute sexual desires.
  • In Act I Jack begins to eat the bread and butter after finding out that ‘Gwendolen is devoted to bread and butter’.
  • Jacks greed makes Algy believe that Jack is acting as if he ‘were married to her already’.
  • Algernon’s comment on marriage enforces the idea that food stands in for sex.
  • When both Algy and Jacks engagements are in jeopardy they both fight over ‘muffins’ and ‘tea cakes’.
  • Symbolises their lust and sexual desires, they’re eating food in times where they believe their lust will not be fulfilled.
  • Victorians were not open about the topic of sex due to their reserved nature, therefore they deal with this through food.


Conclusion –

  • Wilde uses food in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ to highlight the way in which Victorians were forced to deal with their emotions in strange ways, like through food.
  • It is also used because food was very important in class differentiation as seen through Gwendolen and Cecily in Act II.
  • Only the wealthiest people could afford certain types of food, and by serving that to their guests is one of the ways in which they flaunted their wealth.



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