Understanding Wilde’s play “Importance of being earnest”
The play is a farcical comedy set in the late 19th century, the Victorian era. The play repeatedly ridicules the Victorian traditions and social customs like marriage and pursuit of love. The play is set in London and Hertfordshire, England. The Victorian customs were so suffocating that Wilde creates the characters of Jack and Algernon living secret lives and creates false impressions about reality. These other lives make them free and allow them to neglect their social duties. They could escape the burden of social obligations. These secret lives are created in Act I and they continue throughout the play.
Oscar Wilde brings out the stringent Victorian class system and how people from same class marry each other. He also shows the snobbish and aristocratic attitudes of the upper class people. When Jack tells Lady Bracknell his London address, she says “The unfashionable side. I thought there was something. However, that could easily be altered.” When Jack asks “Do you mean the fashion, or the side?” she says “Both, if necessary”. Wilde has brought out the shallowness of the upper class. Jack’s interrogation by Lady Bracknell brings out the fact that she is only interested in his money, name and fame.
Wilde’s witty nature is evident when he brings out the popular belief of that time that nothing good comes from France. Lady Bracknell says “French songs I cannot possibly allow. People always seem to think that they are improper, and either look shocked, which is vulgar, or laugh, which is worse.”
Victorians showed little sympathy for illness and death. When Lady Bracknell hears that Bunbury is sick and invalid, she says “I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die. This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd.” In the play nobody has shown any compassion for the one who is sick. They are talking as if one has control over death and one can decide how, when and where to die.
Oscar Wilde had an outstanding ability for witticism. When Algernon says “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” Wilde’s ability to construct these saying has made him famous. He is also popular for subverting the established sayings. For example, “in married life, three is company and two is none” in place of “two is company and three is crowd”. He is also legendary at coining terms. For example, “Bunburying”, the term has a deep meaning. Algernon uses illness of his fictitious friend Bunbury to avoid social engagements.
The play becomes very interesting and comic due to the light hearted language, sometimes unexpected reactions to situations and overall bringing out false values and hypocrisies of Victorian era. It has also popularized new sayings and new terms. By subverting the established saying, the play brings out a new meaning for the old sayings.