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

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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?

The Importance of Being Earnest, subtitled, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People is a comedy of manners whereby Oscar Wilde rebukes the Victorian aristocracy for their social issues that seemingly prioritise the most trivial of things such as style and appearance above those of true significance such as. Wilde further achieves this by incorporating elements such as farce and melodrama in order to highlight their senseless main concerns. Wilde portrays the act of “Being Earnest” as being in opposing to its definition as having features of dishonesty and false morality, with one of the main characters Algernon stating that “The truth is rarely pure and never simple”.

Wilde’s first satirical attack in the play is marriage. Algernon is shown to perceive marriage to be a business deal as opposed to the projected illusion of it as described in the play as being based on mutual feelings of love (evidence – Ceclily or Gwendolen). This is evidenced by Algernon’s sharply comical and paradoxical epigrams in response to his best friend Jack Worthing’s admittance of wanting to propose to Algernon’s own ward Gwendolen he states: “I thought you had come up for pleasure? ... I call that business.” Wilde is seemingly satirising concept of marriage presenting it to be a legal contract between consenting families of similar social class and fortunes; Baxley comments “Wilde shows us how the upper class does not marry for love or happiness but for convenience and social standing”.)Algernon views marriage in an unorthodox way, unlike the expectations of modern day now. He views it as a disease, one that to be bearable needs an escape:

Nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury, and if you ever get married… you will be very glad to know Bunbury. A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it.” 

‘Bunbury’ (who is he) is a direct metaphor for Algernon’s deceit and escape from social expectation. He is a fictitious person; one that Algernon suggests is needed in general life but indeed emphasises that this is the case most particularly when one is married. Algernon disregards Jack’s confidence that once he finds love he will no longer needs a ‘Bunbury’. On one level the exchange merely is a continuation of the long running marriage gag of the Victorian notion of “marriage bliss” in an era where the English aristocracy was dominant and superior, and far removed even from the British middle class. This would in turn amplify the humorous situation through Wilde’s blatant social criticism-through the ‘Bunbury’ double entendre to the middle class audience in particular.

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Nevertheless, it also brings to light a darker subtext, one were Algernon insinuates that all husbands in Victorian society have and need a ‘Bunbury’ thus satirising the moral values by highlighting the fact that aristocratic meaning as long as they kept within the appearance of propriety, they could lead a double life and avoid responsibility but still keep upmost respect from society. Consequently, Oscar Wilde satirises duty and respectability simultaneously with the notion of marriage in Victorian society by demeaning their importance. Wilde could be said to be suggesting that their ‘duty’ is a pun (with reference to the title ...

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