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How Does Oscar Wilde Present Women in 'the Importance of Being Earnest'

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Explore how Wilde presents women in The Importance of Being Earnest. You must relate your discussion to relevant contextual factors.

‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ was written at a time where English society was undergoing some huge cultural changes. During Queen Victoria’s reign, society had a very strict hierarchy – the rich, aristocratic classes at the top, and the poor, working classes at the bottom. However, one thing in common with all class systems of the time, whether rich or poor, was the belief that women were inferior to men. People believed that men and women had two separate roles, and in fact, two separate ‘spheres’ within which their lives revolved. Men dealt with business, politics and ‘serious things’, whereas women were assigned with household and domestic duties, such as raising children. Despite this very concrete way of life, the end of the Victorian period, when Wilde wrote ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, was experiencing the beginnings of what we call feminism. It is clear to see in his play the effect that the birth of Feminism had on Victorian Society, with Lady Bracknell representing the old, traditional way of thinking and the other characters representing this fresh take on the social structure.

With this in mind, we should explore Lady Bracknell’s role within the play. She is undoubtedly the most powerful character in the play, as she has the last say as to who marries who. Wilde has made this a deliberate decision and has chosen to place Lady Bracknell at the top of the hierarchy to mirror Queen Victoria. At the time ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ was first performed in 1895, the Queen would have been 76 years old, a similar age to that of Lady Bracknell. The two have similar temperaments and views of society – it has often been said that Victoria was opposed to feminism, and Wilde reflects these beliefs in Lady Bracknell. It is, therefore, ironic to put Lady Bracknell, someone who detests women in power, in the position of ultimate power. Wilde has successfully satirised the social hierarchy of the time. He does this once again when, in Act One, Lady Bracknell questions Jack before giving him permission to marry Gwendolen. Wilde uses Lady Bracknell as a literary device to mock societies ideals for what makes a good marriage. This is shown when, for example, Lady Bracknell says, “I have always been of the opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?”. When Jack tells her that he knows nothing, she is “pleased to hear it”. This displays to us the ridiculousness and backwardness of marital expectations of the time – surely any mother would prefer it if their daughter was marrying a man who knew everything as opposed to nothing? Wilde uses Lady Bracknell as a literary device to mock society one last time in Act 3, when we learn that Lady Bracknell, despite refusing to let her daughter marry a man of unknown birth, was in fact born into similar circumstances. “When I married Lord Bracknell, I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way”. Wilde presents Lady Bracknell as a hypocrite and therefore presents the traditional, ‘backwards’ views of women and their roles as hypocritical as well.

The first way in which Wilde presents this new ideology of femininity and the role of women is with the character of Gwendolen. Gwendolen is one of the first female characters we, the audience, hear about in the play. She is first mentioned in Act 1, where Algernon states that “the way [Jack flirts] with Gwendolen is almost as bad as the way Gwendolen flirts with [Jack].” Jack then tells us, “I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her”. From this, we get a sense of the type of character Gwendolen is: a flirt. Traditional Victorian Society frowned upon flirtatious women; they were considered ‘improper’ or ‘immoral’. This is shown by Wilde in the play, when Algy describes, “Mary Farquhar, who always flirts with her own husband across the dinner-table. That is not very pleasant. Indeed, it is not even decent.” Despite this, Wilde presents Gwendolen as a flirt and as a likable, yet powerful figure. Through Gwendolen, we discover another way in which Wilde presents women in this era of social change. He shows us the way in which women can have power through their ability to affect men. We understand that the simple act of Gwendolen flirting with Jack has made him fall in love with her, so much so that he wants to marry her. Wilde is suggesting that Gwendolen is perhaps an ‘enchantress’, and it is in her femininity and sexuality that her power lies. This would have been very controversial at the time. Throughout the rest of the play, Gwendolen exudes power over Jack, by instructing Jack on how he should propose to her and making him want to change his name to Ernest merely to please her. Wilde takes the social norm at the time, the concept of a woman’s purpose being to please the man, and reverses it so that the man pleases the woman instead. He goes even further with this reversion of roles later in the play, in Act 2, when Gwendolen refers to the ‘spheres’ mentioned earlier. She states, “The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man. And certainly, once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not?”. This completely turns traditional Victorian society on its head. Here, we understand that Wilde is suggesting that a man’s role is to be in the home, and if he strays from this ideal, he becomes ‘painfully effeminate’, implying that being feminine is, in fact, a negative thing. This may seem hypocritical coming from the mouth of a female, but it is here that we truly understand Wilde’s visions for Gwendolen’s character: he uses her as a metaphor to represent the roles of men and women being reversed. Gwendolen is a woman, who uses her femininity as a power in the same way that the typical Victorian man would have used his masculinity to have power over women. His intentions with this are deliberate and dangerous, as it would have been particularly scandalous to suggest such a thing as the man being inferior to the woman at the time ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ was written.

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