Oscar Wilde was an established writer of the late 1800’s who had a gift of being witty. The “dazzling conversationalist”(Norton 1720) was once reported by Yeats whom said, “I never before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had written them all overnight with labor and yet all spontaneous”(Norton 1720).
Wilde displays this natural wittiness in his well-known play “The Importance of Being Earnest” which is a hilariously satirized caricature of the Victorian age and the hypocritical values that the people of that time held. In his work, Wilde exposes the scandalous social beliefs and ideals of the aristocratic society by derisively mocking their contemporary voguish ways.
By creating a laughing stock of the false views of having to live an earnest life, the fact that many actually live a double life, and the hypocritical stance of their societal mores, Wilde helps to bring to light the breakdown of Victorian values.
Being earnest or having earnestness can be most adequately defined as showing sincerity of feeling or being serious in intention, purpose, or effort. Simply put, it is the serious and determined desire to do the right thing. This entire idea of needing to be earnest was at the very top of the Victorian’s code of conduct even though many people lead corrupt lives.
The Victorians saw earnestness as the overall sublime virtue that one must achieve in their life in order to gain the acceptance of the aristocratic society. The way many revered it is almost trivial. They held it up on such a high pedestal that they nearly anthropomorphized earnestness into more than just a manner of being.
Wilde captures this perfectly with his character Gwendolen who says, “We live, as I hope you know, Mr. Worthing, in an age of ideals…and my ideal has always been to love someone by the name of Earnest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence” (Wilde 1742). Gwendolen can also later be seen saying how “the only really safe name is Ernest” and that “it is a divine name” with “a music of its own” (Wilde 1742). The presence of earnestness in someone is not a bad thing but the fact that people started holding each other to this standard as if it was the only way is what caused the trouble.
Many felt the pressure of having to live up to the idea of being earnest as tiresome, so they devised a way to satisfy society’s longings and their own as well. By living double lives, people were able to sustain their respectable image in society but then be their selves elsewhere. Jack and Algernon are both epitomes of this double life scandal.
Jack creates a fictitious brother whom he calls Ernest so that he can leave his duty as guardian and his home in the country under the false pretenses that his “brother” is sick so that he may venture to town without suspicion. There he courts his love Gwendolen and entertains himself with many pricey pleasures. Likewise, Algernon creates a friend whom he calls Bunbury so that he may escape from town to the country whenever he likes.
At one point, he even pretended to be Jack’s brother Ernest to win the heart of Cecily, for he knew how much women valued a man being called by that name. This type of lifestyle was very common in the Victorian age and is still heard of today. Algernon confirms this by saying, “What you really are is a Bunburyist… You are one of the most advanced Bunburyists I know” (Wilde 1738).
Jack however sees the immorality of all the lies and says later in return, “I’m not a Bunburyist at all. If Gwendolen accepts me, I am going to kill my brother, indeed I think I’ll kill him in any case… And I strongly advise you to do the same with Mr…. with your invalid friend who has the absurd name” (Wilde 1739). This art of “Bunburying” grew as more and more people felt the need to live separate lives, one masked by earnestness and the other plain.
Oscar Wilde reveals the hypocrisy of these strict social Victorian mores through many literary devices but most notably through inversions in the speeches of his characters. Gwendolen, for example, exchanges the word “style” for “sincerity” when she says, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing” (Wilde 1768).
Sincerity is typically held higher than style, especially in “matters of grave importance”, but this is what Wilde wanted us to see. Another notable case is when Lady Bracknell changes her mind about Algernon and Cecily’s engagement when she learns that Cecily is the heiress to a great fortune.
Ironically, while money seems to be the key quality in Bracknell’s eyes for marriage, it is not sufficient enough for her to approve of Jack’s proposal to Gwendolen, seeing that his family tree was unknown and that she did not want her daughter to “form an alliance with a parcel” (Wilde 1745).
Bracknell’s duplicate attitude towards what she believes to be sound is hypocrisy at its finest and shows the paradoxical nature of Victorian beliefs.
By mocking and satirizing Victorian’s views of having to live an earnest life, the reality that many live double lives, and their hypocritical societal mores, Oscar Wilde exposes the breakdown of Victorian values. The way he does so is his play is conceptually witty and entertaining. His characters show perfectly the falseness of the people during this time and the ideals of which they had.