It is no exaggeration to say that “Importance of Being Earnest” is a social satire. Oscar Wilde targeted the Victorian Society of England in his own language. A lot of symbols are there in this play, which in hidden meanings, referring to something to the audience. Every word, each dialogue and all characters of the play satirize Victorian society. Oscar Wilde, through this play, tries to cover each and every aspect and manner of life, spent by people of his own era. Notwithstanding, he primarily focuses on the elite class and shows us that if a society has no morality then it would not survive. Oscar Wilde is aware of the general principle that it is the prime duty of every artist to satirise society in case it is crossing its limits. As a result, he has written this play to give some morality to the audience. From “Importance of Being Earnest”, it seems that Oscar Wilde has fulfilled his duty. It is undeniable fact that “Importance of Being Earnest” is a social satire.
Why “Importance of Being Earnest” is a social satire?
Some poets, writers, and dramatists consider their responsibility to satirise society through their work. Thus, the first reason is that Oscar Wilde, like other dramatists, considered that it is his responsibility to aware people of their snobbish attitude. In doing so, he tries to correct the absurd behaviour of people. The second reason is that Victorian Society used to flee away from its responsibilities. It used to focus only on appearances. Showing off was their prime purpose. Not only Oscar Wilde but also many other writers tried their best to speak against it. In a usual manner, “Importance of Being Earnest” is a direct attack on Victorian Society.
To exemplify, Earnest flees from his house and enjoys the luxuries of life. Similarly, a person can have children besides wedlock and no one is going to question him if his apparent image is maintained. Thus, that society was far away from morality. These reasons force Oscar Wilde to do social satire in form of “Importance of Being Earnest”.
How “Importance of Being Earnest” is a Social satire?
There are a lot of examples in the play which prove that the play is a mockery of Victorian Society. Lady Bracknell’s character is important in this context. She being representative of upper class/Victorian Society performs a negative role. She is a greedy and fashion-conscious lady. In that age, when people become wise, Lady Bracknell has become foolish. However, she knows the importance of money. She has prepared a list of people, who are wealthy and is going to interview them to select a rich husband for Gwendoline. She rejects Jack because his parentage is unknown. In her eyes, if her daughter solemnises marriage to Jack, it would disrespect her. She is a narrow-minded, conservative, and ruthless woman.
It seems that Oscar Wilde presented her in the play to create humour but it is also true that her primary purpose is to tell people about the foolishness of Victorian Society.
Algernon Moncrieff’s Lavish Lifestyle:
The character of Algernon Moncrieff is also of the same kind. He also belongs to the same class. The life of Algernon Moncrieff is comfortable but his bills are overdue. He has nothing to eat but his dresses are up-to-date. For a living, he does nothing. Even in poor condition, he shows off. He has created a fictional character named “Bunbury” to save himself from obligations and duties. Lady Bracknell utters an important dialogue, which is worth referring to here. She says, “Algernon has nothing but his debts to depend upon”. He has no worries. He has nothing to do with responsibility. His attitude is evident in his actions. For instance, he tears his letters, which are actually bills, because he cannot pay them. His own dialogue is also
“Half of the chaps who get into the Bankruptcy court are called Algernon.”Importance of Being Earnest
To summarize, Algernon’s actions also prove that “Importance of Being Earnest” is a social satire.
The word Earnest:
The title of the play “Importance of Being Earnest” itself is a social satire. The word earnest is loveable. Both the girls of this play are in love with the person named “Earnest” instead of his moralistic qualities. In Miss Gwendolen Fairfax’s eyes, this word has music of its own. It is not the person who is charming but the name itself. It is the case with Miss Cecily Cardew. She writes letters to Earnest and imagines him in her dreams without knowing him. Oscar Wild through this character wants to prove that the typical girls of Victorian society have created their ideals and they live with them in imaginary worlds. Moreover, they focus on self-improvement.
The tea ceremony scene in Act 2 is fully satirical. Gwendoline and Miss Cecily start a foolish war while serving tea. Servants become just spectators of it. Both these ladies are representative of young girls of Wilde’s era. The audience can watch and laugh at their unwise behaviours. It also moralises the audience and compels them to think twice about their attitude in case the audience belongs to the upper class. Thus, these incidents also prove that “Importance of Being Earnest” is a social satire.
Religious Satire as Part of Social Satire in “Importance of Being Earnest”:
Canon Chasuble maybe is the minor character of this play but his role is important. He belongs to the religious class and is supposed to be a serious person but he surprises us through his dialogue. Indeed, his dialogues directly come from the mouth of Oscar Wilde and he has deliberately written them to prove that not only the elite class is corrupt but also the religious class. Religious people like Dr Chasuble also take part in corrupting society. Both moral and physical corruption have been shown in the play. Remarks of Canon Chasuble about Miss Prism are full of sexuality. He always praises her physical body. Somewhere he talks about her lips and somewhere about her hair. For instance, in a dialogue, he says:
“Were I fortunate enough to be Miss Prism’s pupil, I would hang upon her lips.”
Although he, in the next dialogue, tries to cover his wish by declaring his statement as a metaphor yet the audience knows that he is morally and physically corrupt.
Apart from it, many other incidents are there in “Importance of Being Earnest” which demonstrate that the play was written for the purpose of social satire. The dramatist has presented the upper class and has shown their snobbery. Through farcical comedy, he has exposed the reality of so-called upper-class Victorian society. Perhaps, the only purpose of “Importance of Being Earnest” was to uncover the stupidity of society. In order to achieve his goal, Oscar Wilde freely uses artistic techniques like epigrams, humour, and paradoxes. In an interesting manner, he, in hidden words, says those things which can never be said directly to people. He conveyed his message to his own people and showed them the mirror. The play is full of witty dialogue. Every dialogue and each action reveals the hidden talent of Oscar Wilde. It also strengthens the grip of the poet on the “use of satire”.