Satire in The Importance of Being Earnest
History works are similar to a pendulum: the more oppressed people are in one epoch, the more moral freedom they receive in the following one. Literature often works not only as a mirror, but as a facilitator of such historical changes. Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest is the author’s response to the major issues of Victorian society. By means of satire he exposes hypocrisy and unnecessary restrictions imposed on human communication.
The name of the play The Importance of Being Earnest is based on a pun, as the characters try hard to pretend being a man named Ernest. This comedy situation is a metaphor that describes a typical behavior in higher class circles in Victorian Britain. Wilde’s satire is aimed at double morals and double behavior that people followed, in order to have the right reputation. It was not important to be oneself, it was important to seem the right kind of person. So, the mythical Ernest is a symbol of unattainable ideal of Victorian society: a man who looks perfect in all ways, including his wealth, manners, and reputation. By satirizing the twisted expectations of the women in the play who want to see the romantic Ernest, the author implies that society has created wrong principles, which are far from reality.
One of the institutions, which are exposed in the play, is marriage. Although, young characters seem romantic at first sight, they meet society’s expectations in the end. In Victorian society everyone is perfectly aware that it is important to marry the right person, of the right origin and position and with the right income. It is made clear from the conversation between the characters: “Jack: I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her.Algernon: I thought you had come up for pleasure? . . . I call that business”. ( Wilde)
Another aspect, satirized in the play, is the standards of behavior that upper class is expected to follow. The author makes fun of artificial manners and speech, which is made especially visible by means of contrast with lower class characters. Besides, he describes how people’s opinions of each other depend on position and money. Thus, for instance, while Lady Blackness disapproves of Cecily at first, firther she changes her mind about her as a potential wife for Algernon: “Lady Bracknell: A moment, Mr. Worthing. A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her.” (Wilde)
It is also possible to say that Wilde’s satire concerns not only with the individual aspects of Victorian society, but with the whole lifestyle. He demonstrates the emptiness of higher class life filled with empty talk and daily entertainment, which is in fact boring too. The contrast between being useless and seeming important is the conflict of the play and the major object of satire. Despite the fact that Wilde has a positive attitude to his characters, it is clear that the system affects even the best of them.
Thus, Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest is light and entertaining in its form and tone. At the same time, alongside with humor, the author resorts to satire in order to highlight the flaws of Victorian society. The play demonstrates that there is a gap between people’s real self and their behavior dictated by the rules. Although some characters seem to rebel against the standards imposed on them, they end by meeting everyone’s expectations in the end.
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