To what extent is Wilde satirising Victorian society in The Importance of Being Earnest and how does this add to its comedy?- ALTERED

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To What Extent is Wilde Satirising Victorian Society in The Importance of Being Earnest and how does this add to its comedy?

Viewed as both the paradigm of upper-class Victorian dandyism and a non-conformist maverick of the regulatory restrictions of its prudish attitude, Oscar Wilde uses his polarised social standing to satirise Victorian society with relatively little backlash from the bourgeoisie of the time due to his personal self-deprecating sense of humour. The play’s subtitle, ‘A Trivial Comedy for Serious People,’ however, juxtaposes the defining distinction between Wilde and the peers of his class. Due to the social mobility brought by the Industrial Revolution, the upper classes of Victorian society implicated ludicrously strict regulations in an attempt to preserve the ‘purity’ of the English peerage- the manners in and aspects through which being perhaps the principle subject of Wilde’s satire in the play.

Victorian attitudes to marriage are the first subject of satire in the play- with Algernon’s “I thought you had come up for pleasure? ... I call that business,” ridiculing the transactional arrangement of marriage between upper-class families to secure or strengthen their social standing. Wilde himself, however, saw the value of marriage in the early years of his life as he married Constance Lloyd- writing in love letters that he “feel[s] incomplete without [her].” Whether these romantic proclamations are genuine or not, one can infer from this that he believed in the idea of marriage for love, proving by extension that it was the Victorian attitudes to marriage that he intended to ridicule and not marriage in general. This concurs with the inference of academic Danielle N. Baxley as she infers that “Wilde shows us how the upper class does not marry for love or happiness but for convenience and social standing”. One of the most farcical scenes in the play, Lady Bracknell’s interrogation of Jack, is perhaps the most explicit example of a satirical attack on the Victorian approach to marriage. The business-like, transactional manner in which this imposing stock character of the comedy of manners, (a trait of her stock character being her yielding of power) scrutinises every aspect of Jack’s life, consideration of his compatibility with the prospective wife being a relatively small factor in her decision, is a strong source of the comedy in this scene. The stage directions state that Lady Bracknell should have a “pencil and note-book in hand” which enforces the both formal nature of the meeting and the specificity of her “requirements”. She “feel[s] bound to tell [him] that [he is] not down on [her] list of eligible young men,” satirising how the decision was almost solely made by the family of a debutante and also establishing the daunting difficulty of the expectations which Jack must live up to. Also, these criteria, according to Lady Bracknell, “are what a really affectionate mother requires.” This mocks her idiosyncratic definition of affection, being not with the happiness of her child in her interests, but the pride of having a daughter of high social status- which can be extrapolated to a larger societal satire.

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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” ...

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