Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" Analysis

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The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde uses humor, and the characters to personify stereotypes of the Victorian era, as well as to highlight the absurd social norms.

For example, in Victorian society, the parents often arranged the marriage of their child and approval of the suitor was the most important part of a proposal and marriage. Lady Bracknell’s interrogation of Jack to afford him a place on her list of suitors for her daughter exposes the upper class’ fixation on income, education, and family lineage as manipulative tools for social advancement.

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Instead of asking Jack how he feels about her daughter, Lady Bracknell questions him about his assets, exposing the Victorian era’s social hierarchy based on wealth. She does not tiptoe around the question, but asks him matter-of-factly, “What is your income?” She is unsatisfied with just an annual amount, and continues her investigation asking, “in land or investment” which she accepts well, trivializing property ownership as without profit. When questioning him about his home, she dismisses his mention of Lady Bloxham being elderly, saying, “nowadays that is no guarantee of respectability of character,” continuing her inquisition about where it is located without pause, further showing her fixation on monetary value. Jack’s answers to her financial inquiry dictate whether he will be considered as a suitor for Gwendolen, rather than his affection for her.

Lady Bracknell’s absurd approval of Jack “knowing nothing” further proves her motives are seeded in social advancement. She says when a person is too educated it proves a “serious threat to the upper class.” If people become too educated, they may see the social class differences and that would “probably lead to acts of violence.” She is concerned with her position at this point in the conversation.

The importance of family history to the Victorian upper class becomes a prominent joke when Jack is burdened with telling the story of his adoption. Jack tells Lady Bracknell that he “lost” both of his parents. She assumes from his earlier answers about his finances that his father was “evidently a man of wealth.” She is quickly disenchanted when he further explains to her that he was found “in a hand bag…in the cloak-room at Victoria station.” Lady Bracknell is not saddened by his past and not enchanted by his promise that he would “do anything to ensure Gwendolen’s happiness”, but rather responds by telling him that she would strongly advise him to “acquire some relations as soon as possible”, as if he were worthless without family. When he explains that he cannot find his parents, she makes a mockery of him saying, “You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter – a girl brought up with utmost care – to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel.” Her snide remark gives weight to the Victorian principle that the family a person married into was just as important as their own social status.

In conclusion. Oscar Wilde’s use of humor mocks the historical Victorian practices of having a parent approve of a marriage, despite the existence of love between the two parties. It was never about being an “affectionate mother” for Lady Bracknell. He uses the dialogue between Lady Bracknell and Jack to demonstrate the importance of income, education, and family lineage to the upper class in the nineteenth century.  

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