The Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest, is set in the Victorian era of the late 19th century London. The play’s characters are all highly positioned in the society, the members of the upper class. None of them rely on regular jobs due to their wealth, leaving them with the life of leisure. The Victorian age had a large impact on people’s state of mind, where people sought after the perceived perfection. In the late 1800’s the industrialization spread like wildfire, introducing and offering a better standard of living. Britain, specifically London, blossomed. The society changed, social status, education and money became very important, especially in the upper class.
Wilde presents the characters by using sarcastic, posh and sharp language. With this writing style, he is critically viewing the society he lived in, and tries to portray that to the audience. He uses irony to ensure the humorous aspects in the story line to cover up the seriousness of the society’s problem. Wilde also elegantly exaggerates to express his view how appearance is overvalued and ridiculous, which is one of his main points in the play. The play itself focuses on the desire for perfection and its importance to the characters. Small details such as the name of a person, can affect the difference of one finding his/her true love “I am told; and my ideals has always been to love someone of the name of Earnest” (10).
The modern-day society has developed itself away from what is described in the play. The present-day reader, will have a clear overview of the differences between the men and women of the present, and those of the Victorian era. The todays readers can notice the behavioral differences, clearer than the audience of the late 19th century.
In the first act, men have different characteristics than women. The men are portrayed as wittier and more intelligent, whereas women are innocent and naïve. The beginning of the play presents men as superficial beings. As the play develops, it is learned more about women and men and how one’s personality starts to form. In the last act, the third act, different situations suggest how some characteristics, e.g. passion, weren’t shown till this point. The third act, gives a truthful insight of every character’s personality. Men as a social group of the Victorian age are presented through Algernon and the protagonist Jack. Both of these men live a double life, and Algernon calls it “Bunburying”. This is a life style that Wilde is focusing on. Men have made up friends, brothers or relatives. “I have invented … Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down in the country whenever I choose” (6). This is believed to be the case of the average male in late 19th century. Society dictated men to live a double life. Having a double life was the only escape and freedom for men in the upper class. When writing The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde was developing characters and closer to the last chapter, exposing their secrets, their true personality. This silent exposing was directed toward to men in the late 19th century.
Women as a social group were seen as innocent and naïve, despite being the opposite. They were intelligent, and knew exactly how to use men. Their position in society was not equal to men, with no objection from the women. In order to marry, women only needed to be tied to a prominent family, the wealth was not as important. This is shown as Algernon is head over heels in love with Cecily without knowing her financial situation. Algernon does not question it either, and he is determined to marry her as soon as possible. The marriage is a way of expanding both in power and economically. Men had to be economically stable, provide women security, support as well as covering any other need. Whereas women were taking care of the appearance, and the perfection desired by the upper-class society. Women saw men as superior, they were educated and more intellectual. Women were very often blinded by stereotypes at the time which led to unequal position between women and men in the society.
Oscar Wilde wrote one of the most iconic play in the world. It is imposing how cleverly and well he presented men and women. The wealth, the reputation and appearance was all that had significance to the society of the Victorian age. Wilde presents it clearly that hypocrisy was the most dominate trait of an individual. Men living the double lives, and women at the first sight, falling in love with wealthy strangers. Men and women had the same nature, the point of view and the motive. There was no distinctiveness in one. Reading the play today with a critical view, arrays a larger depth to it. The play is very abstract and whimsical, but a truthful presentation of a melodramatic society Wilde lived in.