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The Importance of Being Earnest: Mocking Education
First performed in 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest is a play written by Oscar Wilde. Though on the surface, the play was merely a frivolous comedy, its deeper meanings directly attacked the basis of Victorian society. Many different aspects of literature were portrayed in the play, helping aid in the comedy. The play was a horatian satire, and criticized characteristics of England at the time in areas such class, countryside, marriage, love, women, and education. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde mocks education in the upper Victorian society using satirical elements such as juxtaposition, extension, tone of mock seriousness, and irony.
Through the comparison of education of nobles and peasants, juxtaposition is woven throughout the play. Lady Bracknell is the main character to portray this satirical technique, as she believes the upper class to be much more educated than the lower class, purely because of social status. “The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.” [p. 13] Her saying this shows how she thinks the peasants should stay uneducated, for if they did receive an education, they would try to overtake the upper class, which, in her mind, are educated. Through the play though, the reader comes to understand that Lady Bracknell herself does not possess the intellect or knowledge to be considered “educated,” which leads them to see that the discrepancy in education between the upper and lower class is rather small, if there is any at all. Following Lady Bracknell’s beliefs, those of the lower class should lack the intellect of the upper class. Instead, a member of the lower class, Miss Prism, is portrayed as being quite intelligent compared to those around them. Miss Prism, a governess, has her knowledge credited by her student, Cecily: “You know German, and geology, and things of that kind influence a man very much.” [p. 22] Miss Prism’s vocabulary is also larger than all of the other characters in the novel, commonly using words such as “misanthrope” and “vacillating.” This comparison between what Lady Bracknell says and Miss Prism’s nature, makes Lady Bracknell look badly and dim-witted. This is further proven by Cecily, a girl of higher class, who does not want anything to do with learning. From these comparisons, between the characters, Wilde tries to show us that the upper class is ignorant, and not educated through juxtaposition.
Extension and tone of mock seriousness are important to satirizing education in this play. Again, this quote can be used to portray another aspect of educational satire: “The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.” [p. 13] When Lady Bracknell says this, it is over exaggerated and blown out of proportion. Stating that education does absolutely nothing for England, is a very bold statement; one that is hard to believe. It most likely would be having some effect, just not an incredible amount. Claiming that by merely being educated, a revolt would begin to stir, also gives off a ridiculous air. When read, this statement makes the reader feel as though Lady Bracknell is just being illogical and not thinking clearly. Oscar Wilde meant for the reader to feel like Lady Bracknell was being absurd, which in turn would make them feel as though education was a good idea, and that it would help England. It also uses the tone of mock seriousness. When Lady Bracknell talks about education, she is completely serious, but Oscar Wilde’s voice shines through as well. Because Lady Bracknell sounds so serious about such ridiculous statements, it gives the impression that Wilde is making fun of her. She believes so strongly in preposterous ideas, that it undermines the whole subject.
Irony is important in portraying the satire of education in The Importance of Being Earnest. A key example of this is how, despite the assertion that the lower class is much less educated than the upper class, some of the lower class has been shown to have much more intellect than the upper class. Throughout the play, both Lady Bracknell and Cecily have been shown to be uneducated and unintelligent, even though they should be “smart.” Cecily does not even want or like to learn, as she states during the play. “Horrid Political Economy! Horrid Geography! Horrid, horrid German!” [p. 23] On the other hand, Miss Prism far exceeds their knowledge, even though she is of the lower class. It is ironic that Lady Bracknell would hold such strong views on the subject, when, as an upper classman, she wasn’t educated herself and Miss Prism of the lower class was smarter than her. Another piece of irony is when Lady Bracknell contradicts her beliefs. She states, “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.” She says that ignorance is a blessing, but still believes herself to be smart. It is from this irony, that Oscar Wilde further makes fun of education offered during his time.
From the satire, appearing in the form of juxtaposition, extension, tone of mock seriousness, and irony, Oscar Wilde successfully undermines education during the time of Victorian England in The Importance of Being Earnest. Lady Bracknell from which most of the satirical elements originated, due to her strong ideas that the upper class were more educated than the lower class. Juxtaposition was present by comparing her to Cecily and Miss Prism in the play. Her statements are exaggerated and ridiculous, showing both extension and tone of mock seriousness. Irony is shown when her views are countered by Miss Prism, Cecily, and even herself. This play exposed the flaws of Victorian England through comedy and horatian satire.