The play The Importance of Being Ernest Oscar Wilde ridicules Victorian customs and traditions, marriage and particularly the pursuit of love.
In Victorian times earnestness was considered as of the topmost ideals for reforming the lower classes. Later on, it spread to the upper class as well. The very subtitle of the play ‘A Trivial Comedy For Serious People’ shows the theme.
Within the play, we get various instances that show the beliefs of Victorian people. e.g. in the first act, Algernon says, “Divorces are made in heaven.” This statement exposes the problems which prevailed a lot among married people. Some other statements similar to it are:
- “The old-fashioned respect for the young is fast dying out.’ (Act 1)
- ‘In married life, three is company and two is none.’ (Act 1)
Again there is a description of a double standard of Victorian people. e.g. Jack has invented a complex double identity for himself, he is Jack in the country where he has a house, ward and her responsibilities.
And in the city, he pretends to be Ernest in order to win the love of Gwendolen as she says in Act 1, “my idea has always been to love someone of the names of Ernest…The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he has a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.”
Similarly, Algernon pretends as earnest and goes to the village for Cecily whom he is in love with. He had known that Cecily loves Jack’s pretend brother Earnest. So he goes to meet her as the brother of Jack.
Like Gwendolen, Cecily also says, ‘It had always been a girlish dream of mine to love someone whose name was earnest.’ Thus both characters Gwendolen and Cecily discover that they are both engaged to “Ernest” a popular and respected name at the time.
Wilde ridicules religious institutions as well. The chasuble is a priest who delivers sermons just to satisfy the moods of the audience. Similarly, the attraction of Gwendolen’s mother towards Cecily after getting aware of her status and fortune and her hate for Jack because of not being of a high class also exposes the false ego practised by Victorian society.
Thus Victorian society was so much sunk in the fake ideals of earnestness that it could cross any moral limit to achieve this. This craze towards pseudo-earnestness made the people live a double-standard life.
They gradually became hypocritical in order to obtain the ideals of earnestness. Greed, selfishness, haughtiness took birth among the people thus spoiling their innocence and morals. The Victorian society was thus fashionable from outside but hollow from inside.