I wrote this analysis in my The Evolving Stage class where we read and discussed popular plays and their meanings. The objective of this assignment was to analyze a play we have read in class. I chose to analyze the play The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. I focused on the idea of marriage during the time period the play was written which was the nineteenth century. I discussed the different views of marriage portrayed in the play and compared them to today’s ideas of marriage. I quite enjoyed reading and analyzing this humorous drama.
“I now pronounce you, man and wife.” This ceremonial phrase, commonly used to announce a newlywed couple during a wedding ceremony, marks the happily ever after that many dream of today. In today’s society, marriage is an expression of love between two individuals. Marriage has not, however, always been an act of love. During the late nineteenth century, marriage was practically considered a duty, especially if the suitor was wealthy. Literature, as well as drama, can portray customs, such as marriage, of the time they were written. One drama, The Importance of Being Earnest, describes late nineteenth century traditions as it was written during that time period. The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wildereveals the portrayal of marriage during the late Victorian era.
The play’s plot consists of a young man named Jack Worthing, the protagonist, who falls in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, a woman of pride and high society. Under the assumed name of Earnest, Jack pays a visit to his friend, Algernon, and discusses his plan to propose to Gwendolen, the love of his life. Algernon, who is Gwendolen’s first cousin, mocks his companion’s intention as he refers to marriage and proposals in a different way. Wilde’s character, Algernon, states, “I thought you had come up for pleasure?—I call that business.” (1. 1.). Jack is stunned by his companion’s response of his good news and retorts, “How utterly unromantic you are!” (1. 1.). It seems as if Wilde portrays these two characters as different views of marriage, or in simpler terms, business versus romance. While Algernon views the idea from a more old-fashioned stance, Jack’s position on the matter is more modern for his time, as he seems to be the “romantic” of the pair. It is interesting, however, that Jack believes marriage to be an expression of love as he is in love with Gwendolen, while Algernon views it in a more negative light as he is not in love at the time. Algernon then comments about Jack and Gwendolen’s flirting, “Well, in the first place, girls never marry the men they flirt with. Girls don’t think it right.” (Wilde, 1.1.). Algernon protests Jack’s intentions of proposing by informing his friend that he must give consent before Jack proceeds with his plans. This even further demonstrates Algernon’s opposition with the idea of Jack marrying for love.
When Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell finally do enter the scene, the characters bring whole new ideas of marriage to the table. Lady Bracknell portrays a snobbish and dominating character who views marriage in a completely different way as well. Instead of her nephew Algernon’s mocking viewpoint, Lady Bracknell ridicules the idea of marrying for love instead of duty and honor. When Jack and Gwendolen announce their engagement to Lady Bracknell, she retorts, “Pardon me, you are not engaged to anyone. When you do become engaged to someone, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact.” (Wilde, 1. 2.). Lady Bracknell can be viewed as an old fashioned character who believes marriage is an arrangement and is done to gain wealth, reputation, and a higher social status. She considers adding Jack to her “list of eligible young men” for her daughter by questioning him on topics such as wealth, property, age, politics, and family (1. 2.). After discovering that Jack was found in a handbag with no family to account for at that time, Lady Bracknell dismisses the idea of her daughter marrying him until he finds a family member to meet the requirement of an acceptable family background. In Victorian times, according to Jen Ziegenfuss, “The husband-to-be had to prove that he could support his new bride in the lifestyle she was accustomed to.” Apparently Lady Bracknell thought Jack could not provide that lifestyle for her daughter Gwendolen. Throughout the play, it seems that Lady Bracknell portrays the antagonist with dated viewpoints.
Besides Jack, or Earnest, there are two characters in the play that represent more modern, as well as romantic, ideas about marriage. One of these characters is Gwendolen Fairfax. Gwendolen is not only romantic, but she is also quite aware of her social status. She tells Jack as he’s attempting to propose, “And I often wish that in public, at any rate, you had been more demonstrative.” (Wilde, 1. 2.). One could say that Jack may have been “blinded by love” in these situations. Gwendolen later comments on her desire to love one by the name of Ernest. She remarks that she was “destined” to love Jack after she discovered that was his name (1. 2.). To Jack’s dismay, he must try to convince his new fiancé to love him for who he really is. Throughout the play, Gwendolen seems to be a demanding and high maintenance sort of woman. During Act Three, Jack asks Gwendolen to wait for him and Gwendolen responds, “If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life.” (Wilde, 3.). What does this line say about marriage during this time? Were high class women as demanding and impatient as Gwendolen apparently is? Considering that most literature and drama reflect the period of time it was written in, one could only conclude that it may be so.
Cecily Cardew, Jack’s ward, is also quite a romantic soul. She also may represent the modern fantasies of young girls today. It seems as if Cecily is attracted to the “bad boy” image that many young women of today’s society are drawn to. After hearing of Cousin Ernest’s “wicked” reputation, Cecily immediately became attracted to him (Wilde, 3.). When Algernon poses as the character Ernest and pays a visit to Cecily, he claims that he has “been rather reckless” in which Cecily responds, “I’m glad to hear it.” (3.). Algernon is quite taken with Miss Cardew and begins to “woo” her with flattery. Cecily seems to also resemble young teenage girls by romanticizing in her diary about her and “Ernest’s” supposed engagement, “Why, we have been engaged for the last three months.” (3.). Not only does Cecily dream up a fantasy engagement to a man that she’s never met, but she also writes letters to the man she loves, as well as the letters from her “fiancé”. Cecily takes this imaginary engagement quite seriously, as she told Algernon that she had broken off the affair once. When Algernon questions her reasoning for this, she simply replies, “It would hardly have been a really serious engagement if it hadn’t been broken off at least once.” (3.). The acts of dreaming up a fictional romance proves that Cecily believes marriage to be an expression of love and passion; it should include a happily ever after.
The difference between the ideas of marriage during the Victorian era and today is quite considerable. The Importance of Being Earnest reveals that the beliefs of marriage were black and white. Lack Bracknell, for instance, believed that marriage was an arranged affair and that one must marry wealthy in order to climb the social status and live well. Then there are skeptics like Algernon, who, humorously, turns his opinion completely around when he first meets Cecily. He falls passionately in love with Mr. Worthing’s ward the moment he lays eyes on her. Then there are the romantics such as Jack and Gwendolen, who believe one must fight for their love. It is Jack who finally convinces Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell that he is quite the eligible young man for her daughter. Last, but not least, there are the hopeless romantics who become carried away with even the thought of love and, like Cecily, dream up a fantasy romance with someone they have never met. Marriage today is quite unlike Lady’s Bracknell’s beliefs on the matter as it is quite an outdated custom. Today, society seems to resemble the characters of Jack and Gwendolen, who marry for love, but do not become infatuated to the point of complete senselessness. Still, there are a select few who, in modern day society, like Cecily, wait for their “knight in shining armor” or, lovely princess, to sweep them off their feet. Those who are able to embrace the passion and beauty of true love in a marriage, while also remaining rational, truly possess the rightful meaning of matrimony.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Importance of Being Earnest.” 1895. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Drama. By Lee A. Jacobus. 6th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. 493-517. Print.
Ziegenfuss, Jen. “Marriage in the Victorian Era.” University of Florida. University of Florida. Web. 22 Oct. 2011. <http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/agunn/teaching/enl3251/vf/pres/ziegenfuss.htm>.