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Oscar Wilde is one of the renowned Irish dramatists of Victorian Era, infamous for his notorious history. He led a miserable life due to personal problems, marital issues, imprisonment, harsh criticism, and trails because of homosexuality. This led to his early death.
Wilde was also infamous for writing duplicate content. The Importance of Being Earnest is considered to be the most famous and his most original work.
In this play, he satirizes and mocks the Victorian society particularly the institution of marriage, morality and show off. He exposes the hollowness, hypocrisy and pretends nature of Victorian people.
The subtitle of the play “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People” though seems to be unrelating to the main title yet it splendidly articulates the purpose of his play. It reveals the hypocrisy, absurdity, and triviality of the upper class of Victorian society.
This class considered itself to be very important in Britain. Thus Wilde calls them “serious”. The word “Trivial” means “unserious” or “lacking importance”. Thus in this sense, Wilde probably wants to say that the play has nothing to do with the serious people. It is just mocking their ways of life.
Double Standard and Bunburyism
The play revolves around the story of two bachelors Algy and Jack. Both have a well-established life, Algy lives in London, Jack lives in the countryside as a Judge of the Peace. Being tired of their lives and hardship both create their invalids or pretends or altered egos.
Algy invents his invalid named “Bunbury” in the countryside and Jack creates his fictional brother Earnest in London. Algy has told everybody that he goes to the countryside in order to meet his friend Bunbury who is quite ill while Jack tells everybody in the countryside that he has his brother namely Earnest in the city and he goes there to meet him.
The other reason for this double standard is that Algy goes to the countryside in order to meet Cecily his beloved, (Jack’s cousin) while Jack visits London in order to meet Gwendolen, Algy’s cousin.
Both these ladies self-conscious, emancipated, educated and support their individuality but their narrow-mindedness can be seen when each of them claims that “my idea has always been to love someone of the names of Earnest”.
“Earnest” in a sense (a surname for high-class people) becomes the condition for love as well as for marriage. Thus this condition too becomes important for Jack and Algy for creating their other-self.
Institution of Marriage
The worse condition of Victorian upper-class society can be seen in the opening lines only when Algernon says to his servant that “Divorces are made in heaven.”
This sentence depicts a lot of the marital problems of the upper-class society in the Victorian age and Wilde was no exception to it.
After getting married and having children, he lost interest in his wife and began a homosexual affair with Lord Alfred Douglas in the following years.
As the plot develops, both bachelors reveal that they have created their altered egos as their beloveds have put on the condition that their respective lovers will have the name as Earnest.
The marriage on the basis of status, name, and money was quite prevalent among the “serious people”. They staked love, sacrifice, honesty for the sake of pseudo-status.
Thus in the play, he mocks the institution of marriage which was considered to be sacred in Christianity. For him, this institution is quite hollow. The concept of Bunburyism that meant the practice of a double life also refers to the concept of homosexuality in the play.
Hypocrisy Among the Victorians
Hypocrisy and absurdity is another common feature of the Victorians. Jack represents this trait of age. He introduces himself as honourable and honest. Though his boasting nature seems to be queer, yet it was, in reality, the common practice of the people of that age.
Jack is not the only conventional satire of Victorian-era but every character is a hypocrite in one way or the other. Algy introduces himself to Cecily as the brother of Jack and also keeps his real name as a secret before her until revealed.
On the other hand, both Cecily and Gwendolen are the prey of hypocrisy. Instead of finding a loving person they desire the one with Earnest by name.
In one Act, Gwendolen says, “In matters of utmost importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” However, they are not fully responsible for this kind of attitude but the society has also a considerable impact on them.
Lady Bracknell gives her consent for the marriage of her daughter Gwendolen with Jack when he introduces himself as Earnest. However, when she comes to know his real name, she at once rejects his proposal.
Again in the end when it is proved that his real name is Earnest, she chooses him as the future husband of her daughter.
She does the same with Algy as well. Upon knowing the status and richness of Cecily she at once accepts her as the future wife of Algy saying to Cecily, “Dear child, of course, you know that Algernon has nothing but his debts to depend upon. But I do not approve of mercenary marriages. When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way. Well, I suppose I must give my consent.”
Wilde also exposes the hypocrisy of the clergy class. Dr. Chasuble, a local Vicar is in love with Mrs. Prism, the ward of Cecily. Although the clergy class cannot have affairs yet Chausible is seen love-making with Prism Moreover he delivers sermons just to satisfy the moods of the audience. Here again, the hollowness and hypocrisy of the people in terms of religion can be seen.
Though the plot of the play is not thought-provoking yet it contains hidden meanings. Through the mode way comedy, Wilde brings to light the ills of the Victorian era and mocks it. Hence, it is a trivial comedy (having little meanings) for serious people (the people obsessed.) with hypocrisy for status and fame)