Wilde not only satirises the Victorian transactional approach to marriage selection, but also uses it as a medium to ridicule the traits that form “an ideal husband” and, by extension, an ideal man. The criteria which this ideal man must meet to achieve high status is a brilliant way to span over a range of social flaws in one short scene taking the form of an interview. For example, even when she questions Jack on his politics, her true question is whether the members of the party are to her approval; her response to Jack’s identification as a “liberal unionist” is of no relation to his politics, but a satisfactory remark about the fact that “they dine with [her and her entourage]”. The satirical comedy of Lady Bracknell can also be found in Wilde’s linguistic choices for her. Her proud, pronounced ignorance, evidenced through her famous description of it as a “delicate, exotic fruit”, helps the audience to instantly realise the comedic comedy in her unintentional satire. Her question, “you have a town house, I hope? A girl with a simple, unspoiled nature, like Gwendolen, could hardly be expected to reside in the country” is an inadvertently paradoxical statement, known as a linguistic inversion, is constructed upon the nonsensical reversal of the classical idea of the romantic “country” being associated with “a simple, unspoiled nature.” This could also be interpreted as a droll self-parody for Wilde’s preference for the artificial over the natural, a common characteristic of both Dandy and Aesthetic figures.
While satirical remarks in his earlier society comedies are consciously expressed by the more intelligent characters, Wilde employs paradoxical, absurd statements through such less sophisticated characters as Lady Bracknell in his final comedy to create a form of unintentional ironic satire for the very society which she epitomises, the reason for this being that Wilde’s humorous intention in this play is subtler, more sophisticated than his earlier works. Being the Grande Dame of the play, yet also comedically foolish is in itself a form of satire, with fact that her literary function completely contrasts the character’s intent in her words. Her opinion on Victorian education, for example, “the whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever” not only satirises her ridiculous need to conserve the class system, but also makes a sincere point about the prescriptive nature of the Victorian education system, further satirised by Wilde in the education of Cecily. As is Lady Bracknell’s character, in this epigram she makes critical analysis of Victorian society without apparent awareness on her part.
Wilde also satirises marriage from the perspective that dishonest interludes- perhaps by extension infidelity, are the only means by which one can “survive” a marriage, yet still keeping the impression of idealistic morality and gentlemanliness. As Algernon advises, “a man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it.” Bunbury, of course, being his fabricated excuse for not attending social obligations such as dining with Lady Bracknell- using a fabricated moral tie to excuse himself from a true one- satirising the sanctimonious nature of the Victorian, who has hedonistic tendencies but masks them with a façade of selfless morality. Queer readings into ‘bunburying’ have inferred that the sound ‘bunb’ put into this verb form is a punning neologism for what would then be called ‘sodomy’. Taking this reading into account, an entire homoerotic subplot emerges- one akin to the life of Wilde himself, with his homosexual extra-marital affair with Lord Alfred Douglas during his marriage to Constance. Further support for this queer sub-plot is in the title- Earnest. Evidence of the word “Earnest” being a clandestine slang word for a gay man has been found to be supposedly originated from Wilde’s Oxfordian classmate John Gambril Nicholson, a pioneer of Uranian poetry- Uranian referring to a passage from Plato's Symposium, often used at the time to describe someone who would be termed "gay" nowadays (from which the term is supposedly derived), one of his most renowned being Love in Earnest (1882). A repeating line being, “While Ernest sets my heart aflame.” The fact that the majority of Victorian audiences would be ignorant to this euphemism and thus its queer reading creates a form of satire within the Uranian intelligentsia of the time, with their ridicule of Victorian oblivion to such “nefarious activity” being present in bourgeoisie society.
In a similar manner to his use of marriage selection as a medium to satirise the Victorian ideals for a male, Wilde uses the education of Cecily to ridicule the ideal upbringing of a Victorian girl and her preparation for proper ladyship for marriage- regarded as the most socially-securing event in a Victorian debutante’s social career. However, this preparation for marital submission seems to have had the opposite effect on the young Cecily, with the upper-class Victorian focus on superior education to distinguish themselves from the nouveau riche affecting Cecily to the extent of arrogance. Miss Prism stating that Cecily’s ward is anxious that she “should improve [herself] in every way” initially seems like a, however unrealistically generic, respectable aim of education. However, the fact that he “lays stress on [her] German” for an important factor of this is a satirical attack on what education meant, and to some extent still means, to the upper class. The consequent intellectual arrogance and idealistic expectations of Cecily are evidenced both with the contents of her diary and her almost sacred regard of it. This satirises the dreams of the upper-class girls in the Victorian era who have everything, and expect more. The comedy in Cecily’s reading of her diary to Algernon, “I accepted you under this dear old tree here. The next day I bought this little ring in your name, and this is the little bangle with the true lover's knot I promised you always to wear” is in the ludicrously intricate detail- and her lack of reservation when reciting it to him, and the complete ease with which he receives it in his blasé response “did I give you this? It's very pretty, isn't it?”
Another victim of Wilde’s satire is the sanctimony and hypocrisy with regards to virtue of Victorian upper class society. The two protagonists, Jack and Algernon, are both “bunburyists” in that they use fictional moral excuses to excuse themselves for any genuine tie which would not entertain them- Algernon using his “permanent invalid called Bunbury” and Jack using his alter-ego of Earnest. Therefore, Wilde satirises the Victorian insistence in being prudish and religious in two characters who, deep inside, are just as regular as anybody else, and maybe even less virtuous.
To conclude, Wilde’s use of satire in The Importance of Being Earnest is of a didactic yet humorous nature to make the Victorian upper class reflect on their regulated, restrictive attitude to every aspect of life. The play’s subtitle, “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People” encapsulates Wilde’s aim to convey the message that these aristocrats take insignificant, “trivial” aspects of their lives, for example the need for “cucumber sandwiches”, due to their upper-class connotation, and take them to an superfluously grandiose levels to express their superior social status.
Penguin Popular Classics- The Importance of Being Earnest
Love in Earnest- John Gambril Nicholson (1892)
Satire and Wit in Oscar Wilde- Danielle N. Baxley (2010)
Bunburying in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest- Christoph Haug (2010)
Notes on Camp- Susan Sonntag (1964)