How does Wilde use marriage and courtship to create comedic and dramatic effects in "The Importance of being Earnest"?
The Importance of Being Earnest Coursework
How does Wilde use marriage and courtship to create comedic and dramatic effects?
At the time when the Importance of being Earnest was written, in 1895, society’s stance on marriage was very different to that of today. In our present society, when some say the idea of marriage is dated and becoming less common, it may be difficult to comprehend how pivotal marriage was to the Victorians.
Marrying for love is, surprisingly, a rather new idea. This was rarely the case with Victorian marriages, which were often business proposals. The aim of marriage was to draw profit and higher social status, and to collect the wealth of the other family involved. Failure to adhere to these expectations would be considered out of the norm. Even more rigid than this social rule was the class structure all Victorians abided by, which decreed that no one could marry out of their station, in order to preserve the wealth of the rich. As stated by K Danielová in her thesis on Victorian marriage, “The social class the future partners came from also played an indispensable role… Couples were expected to come from the same social class.” This is seen in the play for instance when Lady Bracknell tells Jack that he should, “acquire some relations as soon as possible,” in order for her to consider his engagement to Gwendolen. Clearly, she means relations of high status, as proof that Jack belongs to the same social class.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy of manners, and marriage is a concern of Wilde’s throughout. Neil King states that, “Comedy of Manners is a broad term which defines a drama in which the social behaviour (or manners) of a section of the community is humorously portrayed.” This is certainly apparent in Wilde’s work, where he draws on the ridiculousness of his society’s boundaries and conventions, and satirises the upper classes through the use of epigrams and hyperbole, in order to present a play that is both effective in terms of comedy, and conveys an underlying message of the ridiculous nature of Victorian society.
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There are many instances in the play where Wilde confronts the idea that marriage is a business transaction, to great comedic effect. This idea is first presented in Act 1, when Jack confides in Algernon that he came to town to propose to Gwendolen, and Algy replies, “I thought you had come up for pleasure? . . . I call that business,” articulating Victorian society’s normalisation of marrying for money; Algernon is surprised far more that Jack actually wishes to marry Gwendolen for love. However, referring to marriage as bluntly as “a business transaction” would still have been unexpected to Victorian audiences, and coupled with the play on words relating to the idea of avoiding mixing “business and pleasure”, the comment is amusing as it forces the audience to confront the brutal, emotionless reality of marriage in their own community.
A similar epigram is spoken by Lady Bracknell in Act III of the play, “To speak quite frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s characters, which is never advisable.” Here, Wilde further reiterates the lack of love surrounding most conventional Victorian marriages, in the form of an epigram- a witty saying that tries to make a poignant comment about society. This particular epigram is ironic, as marriage is supposed to be a lifelong, loving commitment, and it has comedic effect in the ridiculousness of its juxtaposition- there is the sensible concept of discovering a spouse’s character positioned next to Lady Bracknell’s consideration that the idea is, “never advisable”. This also conveys much social satire as it exposes the hypocrisy of Lady Bracknell’s views of marriage- and of Victorian society in general.
Wilde draws upon the subject of marriage in many more instances, and often the integrity of marriage is questioned, along with the views of the people entering into matrimony. It soon becomes apparent that the Victorians were very concerned about how other perceived their marriages, and wanted their engagements and personal lives to be seen as socially ‘correct’ to onlookers. Nowhere is this more evident than in the conversation between Algernon and Cecily in Act II, when Cecily reveals that she has already dreamed up her engagement with Ernest (Algernon), and has broken the engagement off before. To Algernon’s amazement, she comments that, “It would hardly have been a really serious engagement if it hadn't been broken off at least once.” This is yet another epigram that sounds naively matter-of-fact, reflecting the views of Victorian society, and Wilde uses this comment to satirise their preoccupation with image and appearances.
This superficial view is also reflected through an earlier comment made by Gwendolen, who, despite declaring her love for Jack, insists that he propose to her properly: “I think it would be an admirable opportunity [to propose]. And to spare you any possible disappointment, Mr. Worthing, I think it only fair to tell you quite frankly before-hand that I am fully determined to accept you.” Wilde satirises Victorian society’s importance of ‘following the rules’ through Gwendolen’s insistence that Jack proposes ‘properly’- Despite the fact that both characters already know the proposal’s outcome. This shows the extent to which the Victorians wanted to adhere to society’s boundaries, even in the privacy of their own private lives (at the moment of the proposal, Jack and Gwendolen are alone), and uses their preoccupation with knowing and obeying etiquette for satirical effect.
The Importance of Being Earnest is an example in the genre of a ‘Comedy of Manners, and it intends to mock the social class of its intended audience. One particular source of satire was Victorian society’s preoccupation with keeping the upper class elevated and the lower class in the right place. This affected Victorian marriage because it led to extensive competition between suitors, who were expected to have a flawless ancestry, a grand estate and a considerable amount of wealth. This is clearly reflected throughout The Importance of Being Earnest, particularly through Lady Bracknell’s interrogation of ‘Ernest’/Jack.
In a famous passage in Act 1, when Lady Bracknell learns that Gwendolen and Jack wish to marry, she interviews him to decide on his eligibility. The repartee used in the conversation is a very effective comedic device, as it follows a structure of Lady Bracknell asking Jack a question, Jack replying, and Lady Bracknell commenting with an amusing epigram to Jack’s response. This is especially effective to the reader as it conveys a sense of comic foreshadowing. Lady Bracknell’s approval of Jack’s first few answers leads the reader to think that eventually, some feature of Jack will not be to Lady Bracknell’s taste and his marriage to Gwendolen will be in jeopardy- after all, as Aristotle first speculated, for any plot to be effective, it must have some form of conflict in order for the story to progress.
When it eventually emerges, to the anticipation of the audience, that Jack’s true origins are unknown, Lady Bracknell’s horror also carries a sense of comic effect, in her hyperbolic utterance of the question, “A HANDBAG?” Her complete horror conveyed by Wilde’s character at the Jack’s lack of marriageable eligibility satirises the societal structures of the upper classes, and further reinforces the rigidity of the class system.
However, there is another comment made that is even more demonstrative of Victorian preoccupation with social classes. Upon learning that Jack was found in a cloakroom, an outraged Lady Bracknell exclaims: “You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter - a girl brought up with the utmost care - to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel?” This is an extended metaphor, as it has more than once example of imagery relating to the idea of luggage. This is a notion that was considered ‘common’ to the Victorians, and Lady Bracknell’s disgust highlights the absolute horror many Victorians would have felt in this situation, whilst conveying the outrageousness through an amusing, nonsensical comment.
The whole purpose of a ‘comedy of manners’ is to gently mock a certain class for their own amusement, by hyperbolising their trivialities and superficial preoccupations. This is certainly well achieved in The Importance of Being Earnest, especially when Wilde refers to marriage and courtship, because the perfect image of a marriage, the use marriage for achieving greater status, and the rigidity of the social structure were all deeply ingrained conventions in Victorian society.
Word Count: 1,407 words