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How Oscar Wilde Satirizes Marriage in his play, The Importance of Being Earnest.
The play, The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde is a satirical play that mocks several aspects of Victorian society. These aspects include gender roles, marriage, love, and social status. Victorian society treated men as providers while women took care of the household and children (Klein 39). For marriage, a man had to meet certain requirements to be allowed to marry a woman of his desire. The factors that influenced a marriage decision include the social status of the man and his income. The Victorian society believed that if a man had a high social status, the woman will acquire the same social status (Hammerton 269). Therefore, the woman’s parents were careful to choose a suitor that would elevate their daughter’s social status. However, the play mocks these high moral values through satire. The characters in the play include Jack (Earnest)- the guardian to Cecily Cardew, Gwendolen Fairfax- Jack’s love and the cousin of his friend, Algernon Moncrieff, Lady Bracknell- Gwendolen’s mother, Miss Prism- Cecily’s governess, and Dr. Chasuble- the local rector. In the play, Oscar Wilde satirizes marriage in the Victorian society through perspectives on gender, social status, and wealth.
Wilde satirizes marriage through perspectives on gender. Gender perspectives about marriage in Victorian society shows the views of the characters. The characters as members of the Victorian society, perceive marriage as a sacred union between a man and a woman, which is ordained by God and cannot be separated. Despite believing in the sacredness of marriage, which calls for reverence, the characters hold different views deep down in their hearts (Delaney 30). They see marriage as a burden, which has no importance. For example, Algernon’s servant, Lane says that to him marriage is an accident. He says, “I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.” (ACT 1, page 1). According to Lane, marriage is not a deliberate act, but an accident. He mocks the champagne served at married households that it is seldom of a first-rate brand, which means the couple cannot afford a high-quality brand. Algernon is shocked with Lane’s sentiments and asks if marriage that demoralizing. Lane says he believes it is pleasant, but says he has very little experience because he was married only once. Lane defends himself that his marriage was an outcome of a misunderstanding between himself and a young person, whom he does not mention.
Wilde displays perspectives on gender through Lane’s conversation with Algernon. Victorian society perceives marriage with reverence and honor. Married people are one, and inseparable unless death separates them. Therefore, parents ensured that their daughter is groomed well for marriage and looked for a better suitor. For example, the parents subjected suitors to interview to know their background and socioeconomic status. Once the daughter’s parents ascertain that the man comes from a well-off family, they can approach the marriage if there are no other social conditions that may inhibit the marriage. However, Lane has the audacity to say that marriage is an accident to him. Lane describes his marriage as a misunderstanding between him and a young person. This means that despite the vetting process that a person goes through before getting married, Lane could not realize that he had to stay committed in marriage.
Wilde shows the effect of gender perspectives by satirizing romance in marriage. Victorian society believes marriage is a culmination of romance between a man and a woman. However, the play mocks the idea of romance by displaying the possibility of adultery. For example, Algernon says there is no romance in marriage. Algernon says, “I really don’t see anything in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal (ACT 1, page 3). Algernon explains that one may be accepted, but the excitement sheds off. According to Algernon, uncertainty creates romance. He says that if he ever gets married, he will certainly try to forget the fact. Algernon has the same perception about marriage as his servant, Lane. Lane said he got in marriage because of misunderstanding between him and a young person. Lane’s statement is demoralizing and makes one to think twice before considering marriage. Similarly, Algernon views marriage in the same lens as Lane when he says, “If I ever get married…”, which means he is not considering to get married.
Furthermore, Algernon mocks Jack, who is in love with Gwendolen. Jack opposes Algernon’s view that there is no romance in marriage, and that married people can look for romance outside the union. Jack says, “…if I marry a charming girl like Gwendolen, and she is the only girl I ever saw in my life that I would marry, I certainly won’t want to know Bunbury.” (ACT 1, page 7). In his response, Algernon says with certainty that if Jack will not want to know another girl, then his wife will want to know another man. Algernon says that in married life, three is company and two is none. Wilde mocks the Victorian society where marriage was held sacred. Married people were not allowed to have sexual affairs outside their marriage. However, Algernon confirms that people seek for romance outside marriage because of getting tired of each other. Algernon states that if the husband does not look for romance elsewhere, the wife will. From Algernon’s perspective, one can deduce that he is not married, but gets romance. Algernon represents men in the Victorian society who preyed on other people’s wives despite the existence of high moral and ethical codes.
Wilde satirizes the aspect of social status in marriage in Victorian society. In Victorian society, marriage plays a vital role in determining a woman’s social status. If a woman gets married to a man from low socioeconomic background, she assumes the low social status of the husband. On the other hand, if a woman gets married to a man from high socioeconomic background, she assumes the high social status of the husband. Therefore, women were careful with the choice of the suitor. The daughter’s parents could send investigators to investigate the socioeconomic background of the man. The process was done during courtship, which is a period in which the man and woman get to know each other and separates wheat from chaff. Surprisingly, if a woman was from a high social status and the man from a low social status, the woman still assumed the low social status of the man. This is because the woman’s high social status was ascribed to the woman because of her father. However, after getting married she assumed the social status of her husband.
Wilde satirizes the role of wealth in marriage. In the Victorian society, wealth is important in marriage because it shows that the couple will live a comfortable life. From the dialogue between Lady Bracknell and Jack, the question regarding wealth stands out. Lady Bracknell wants to ensure that Jack has enough money to support her daughter. For example, Lady Bracknell interviews Jack to determine his socioeconomic status. She asks, “What is your income?” Jack answers, “Between seven and eight hundred thousand in a year.” (ACT 1, Page 13). Lady Bracknell proceeds to ask if the income is in form of land or investments and Jack says chiefly investments. Lady Bracknell expresses her satisfaction in Jack’s answers and disapproves the idea of holding income in land. However, she is pleased that Jack holds his wealth in investments. Wilde satirizes the importance of wealth in marriage. The dialogue between Lady Bracknell and Jack shows that marriage relies on money such that only the wealthy can afford to get married. The perception of money in marriage goes against romantic feelings for each other. The Victorian society believes marriage is a sacred union between the husband and wife, but goes ahead to discredit the sacredness by attaching the union on wealth.
In addition to the question of wealth, Wilde satirizes marriage by mocking the issue of a sense of belonging. In the Victorian society, people got their wealth through belonging. For example, if one belongs to wealthy parents, he becomes wealthy by default. Conversely, if belongs to poor parents, he becomes poor and will have to word extra hard or possess unique talents to create wealth. In the play, Lady Bracknell refuses Jack’s proposal because Jack she could not ascertain his belonging. In ACT 1, page 15 Bracknell mocks Jack when she says that she would not dream of allowing their only daughter to marry a person who does not have a belonging. Therefore, Wilde mocks marriage by presenting the issue of wealth.
All in all, Wilde satirizes marriage in Victorian society through perspectives on gender, social status, and wealth. The marriage satire in the book revolves around socioeconomic status. Men from high social status do not have challenges when they want to get married because many women will be willing to accept a marriage proposal. Also, there is a relationship between wealth and socioeconomic status. High social status is ascribed to man with wealth or a person born of wealthy parents. Low social status is ascribed to a poor man or a person born of poor parents. The attachment of wealth to marriage is satire because the Victorian society emphasized high moral and ethical codes. However, the play unveils the ugly monster that affects the institution of marriage. Instead of looking for other someone’s attributes such as integrity and hard work, the Victorian society reduced marriage to an issue of trade whereby parents cannot allow their daughter to get married to a poor man. The parents forget that the poor man may have other admirable qualities such as working hard and integrity, which can help one to acquire legitimate wealth. Also, the parents fail to realize that not all wealthy people have an upright character. They may have acquired wealth through dubious schemes, which may affect their daughter’s well-being in the future. Therefore, Oscar Wilde effectively satirizes marriage in Victorian society through perspectives on gender, social status, and wealth.
Delaney, Lesley. “Little Women, Good Wives: Victorian Constructions of Womanhood in the Girl’s Own Annual 1927.” Children’s Literature in Education, vol. 34, no. 1, Mar. 2003, pp. 29–45. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1023/A:1022555732357.
Hammerton, A.James. “Victorian Marriage and the Law of Matrimonial Cruelty.” Victorian Studies, vol. 33, no. 2, Winter 1990, p. 269.
Klein, Michele. “The Anglo-Jewish Identity of a Victorian Middle-Class Woman: A Case Study of Mrs. B.M. Merton (1816–1898).” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues, no. 33, Fall 2018, pp. 38–63. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2979/nashim.33.1.03.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest: by Oscar Wilde. MobileReference.com, 2008.