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The Importance of Being Earnest: Close Reading a Trivial Comedy for Serious People
The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People is largely regarded as one of the funniest plays in the English language. However, it is not merely a “trivial comedy,” as its title suggests, but also a biting satire criticizing the conventions of Victorian society, particularly the upper class. Much of Wilde’s social commentary is conveyed through the speech of the tyrannical Lady Bracknell, who represents Victorian upper class conventions. Having risen to her present high social status through an advantageous marriage with Lord Bracknell, she fiercely defends her prestigious place in society. Immovable in her convictions, Lady Bracknell disapproves of education as “a serious danger to the upper classes” and accuses Jack of “carelessness” for “losing” his parents, necessary family connections if he wishes to marry her daughter (1894-1895).
In keeping with her jealous defense of her own high status, Lady Bracknell insists that the members of her family, including her daughter Gwendolen and nephew Algernon, marry for social and financial security rather than love, thus becoming the source of the play’s chief conflicts. Presented as overbearing from her first “Wagnerian” ringing of his doorbell, Algy’s Aunt Augusta first becomes a major obstacle when she interrupts protagonist Jack Worthing’s proposal to Gwendolen with an amusing degree formality and indignation, demanding that he “Rise, sir, from this semi-recumbent posture. It is most indecorous” (1893). When Gwendolen protests at her mother’s intrusion, insisting that she and Jack are engaged, Lady Bracknell continues to thwart the lovers’ plans in a short speech that firmly establishes her character as rigid and commanding and her relationship with her daughter as one of absolute authority. The speech also serves to satirize Victorian marital conventions, specifically, the lack of significance placed on the desires of the couple to be married.
“Pardon me,” Lady Bracknell begins, “you are not engaged to anyone. When you do become engaged to some one, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact” (1893). As before, she speaks with a great deal of formality, beginning with a courtesy phrase, “Pardon me.” However, this formality is not expressed in eloquent, flowery language. Rather, it is a stiff and unbending formality, reflecting Lady Bracknell’s stiff and unbending disallowance of Jack and Gwendolen’s engagement. Her sentences are fairly short, and divided by commas, producing an effect that, if not choppy, is certainly not smooth. Her speech is curt, businesslike, and unembellished. She uses only three adjectives in the space of the paragraph, “engaged,” “pleasant,” and “unpleasant,” and absolutely no figurative language of any kind (1893).
Also, with the exception of the imperative, “Pardon me,” Lady Bracknell speaks entirely in declaratory sentences, making sure, firm statements in lieu of questions or demands. This lack of grammatically imperative language, however, does not mean that her speech does not often take the effect of a command. Rather, Lady Bracknell is so firm in her desires and certain that they will be fulfilled that she expresses them as statements rather than commands. “You will wait for me below in the carriage,” she tells Gwendolen at the end of the paragraph (1893). Rather than making an interrogative request, asking Gwendolen to wait, or even an imperative command, telling her to wait, Lady Bracknell says that she will wait, in the language of a plain, simple statement. By phrasing her commands as statements rather than demands, Lady Bracknell eliminates the possibility of refusal. Requests and commands can be denied; declared facts simply are, and to Lady Bracknell, obedience to her wishes simply is, a stateable fact.
Lady Bracknell treats manythings as stateable facts and is certain and absolute in her language, leaving no room for ambiguity or contestation. Among the verbs she uses are “are not,” “will inform,” “should come,” and “will wait.” Words like “will” and “should” lack the flexibility of less rigid counterparts like “may” and “could.” Lady Bracknell states absolutely the course of events that “will” occur and the way that society “should” be. “You will wait for me below in the carriage,” she says, and “An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be” (1893). To Lady Bracknell’s mind, there is one course of action that should be taken, one way of going about an engagement, which should be followed at all times, regardless of the wants of the couple. “Will” and “should” are each loaded terms, with “will” expressing inevitability and fact and “should” expressing a value judgment and a correct way of doing things.
The somewhat more flexible terms “may” and “could” are also used once each, but “may” in the previously mentioned sentence, “An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be,” refers to Gwendolen’s feelings about her future engagement. “May” is used in this situation because, to Lady Bracknell, emotions are irrelevant to the situation. Thus they “may” be either positive or negative, to no consequence. “Could” is used in the sentence that follows, “It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself” (1893). “Could” is a word that expresses possibility and is thus more open than most of the other, more absolute verbs that Lady Bracknell uses, but it is negated and, in fact, reversed by the word “hardly.” It is an impossibility rather than a possibility that Lady Bracknell is trying to express. Engagement is not a matter that a girl could arrange for herself, according to Lady Bracknell, who seems to dismiss the idea as absurd, ironically drawing the audience to think on the subject and determine whether or not such a decision is indeed something that a girl could “hardly be allowed to arrange for herself.” The conclusion of the play, which shows Gwendolen actually engaged to Jack, with her mother’s consent, seems to refute the statement, as Gwendolen does indeed ultimately arrange her own engagement.
In addition to flatly stating that Gwendolen’s arranging her own engagement is out of the question, Lady Bracknell portrays her daughter as completely lacking in any kind of agency. Not only are decisions made without her consent and even against her protestations, but she is referred to as a passive object, acted upon rather than acting. “An engagement should comeon a young girl,” Lady Bracknell says (1893). She also refers to Gwendolen “becoming” engaged (1893). In both of these cases, engagement seems to be an inevitable force of nature and not a choice, something that happens to Gwendolen rather than something that she participates in. The phrasing that an engagement should “come on” a young woman is especially sinister, picturing marriage as something that comes over a girl, a force that acts on her regardless of her own feelings.
Lady Bracknell is likewise unsympathetic towards Jack, whom she formally refers to as “Mr Worthing,” announcing that she has “a few questions to put to you” (1893). She does not ask if she may interview him or advise an interview. Instead, she announces that she will commence one, much as she announces that Gwendolyn will wait for her in the carriage. She also chooses a curiously aggressive set of words, “put to you,” rather than “ask you.” To “put” questions “to” a person sounds vaguely like an attack, and it is true that their interview following the passage is difficult and unpredictable, and also filled with the further social commentary. In it, Lady Bracknell further reveals her desire for social and financial security in her daughter’s marriage, rather than love.
Lady Bracknell is an extremely interesting character, quotable, larger-than-life, and a tool of conflict and satire. Rigid, unyielding, and jealously defensive of her high social status, Lady Bracknell firmly upholds the ideals of Victorian society, particularly the upper class, often to the point of absurdity. She speaks in simple, concise, yet formal language. Assuming her word to be law, which it usually is, she phrases commands merely as statements of what “will” be done. This is only one example of the kind of certainty and absoluteness reflected in her speech, which is full of declaratory sentences, and strong words like “will” and “should” that make predictions and value judgments. The absolute language in which she speaks and her own unbending, unreasonable nature call the audience to question the ideals she communicates, including the social powerlessness of young women, and much of her dialogue may be taken ironically.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. The Longman Anthology of British Literature. Vol. 2B. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc., 2003. 1885-1924.