Class and Blame in The Importance of Being Earnest

In a great deal of his pieces Wilde confronts the issue of class, and in our more recent classes we have been especially focused on how Englishness and Irishness fits into this conversation with class identity. I particularly noticed this in the way the lower classes are commented on by the upper (English) classes in The Importance of Being Earnest.” 

The plot of this play revolves around the maintenance of two identities by one man: Ernest and Jack. One of them, Ernest, a bachelor who dines expensively but “cannot pay” for such endeavors in the city and often falls ill, and Jack, who is a reserved and responsible caretaker in the countryside. 

Those who care about high English society in the play spend a good amount of time commenting on Ernest, or others of lower classes who they deem unrespectable societally. When hearing the “lax” views on marriage from Lane, Algernon comments that “They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.” (358) To Miss Prism, who cares deeply about the formation of Cecily as a refined Englishwoman, Ernest “falling ill” is a sign of bad character, despite that being something that hypothetically cannot be controlled. Lady Bracknell, even deeming Jack suitable in other areas, says that he cannot marry her daughter because of his lack of relations, and that losing both parents (something he could not control and is actually quite tragic) was a “carelessness.”

This attitude of `you get what you deserve’, or as Miss Prism puts it, “As a man sows, let him reap,” seems harsh or unfair because a lot of the things they are judging on are things that cannot be controlled by characters. In the case of Jack being barred from marrying Gwendolen, this especially shows that even if you are pretty well acclimated to the English society (you do everything “correct,”) you could still be rejected because of something you cannot control, like your birth, or your Irish identity in Wilde’s case. 

I think Wilde is intentionally poking fun or criticizing the upper classes without them noticing or provoking them too much. I think it will be interesting to see how this idea develops because at the halfway point, I would guess that the story will end with a sentiment of “it doesn’t matter where you come from,” or something along those lines, but I am not sure. Will he try to conform to the narrative of English high society (that relations matter,) or will he try to suggest something new, and in a way change the way society functions? Is he trying to fit in with this play, or stand out?

2 thoughts on “Class and Blame in The Importance of Being Earnest”

  1. I think that the point you made in the final paragraph about Wilde poking fun at the upper class is very accurate. Throughout the play, the comedy is made at the expense of the upper class characters. However, I do wonder whether Wilde’s upper class audiences didn’t realize that they were being made fun of. It seems so clear that the upper class is the butt of the jokes, and I have a hard time imagining that that’s my perspective as a young woman reading the play over a century after it was written.
    I think that comedy often is directed at and resonates with the very people it is meant to made fun of. The Colbert Report is a clear example. When it was on the air, both progressives and conservatives reported to watch and love the show. Each group thought that Colbert was making fun of the people that they disagreed with. That’s the power of really clever comedy–it crosses boundaries and resonates with people for different reasons. I wonder if people at the time thought that the play was funny precisely because it poked fun at things that were familiar to them. I wonder if audience members laughed because a character reminded them of a family member or a friend, and they didn’t see the critiques as a direct attack on themselves. Or if they did relate to a certain character or certain line, if they felt seen in a way that they enjoyed even if the joke was at their expense. One comedian that I love is Taylor Tomlinson, and her jokes that I think are funniest are the ones that make fun of things that I relate to. In a way, I am the butt of the joke, but that is funny because I find that little embarrassing parts of myself are not specific to me. I don’t think we can know for sure precisely why Victorian audiences enjoyed this play, but I’d guess that they enjoyed it, at least a little bit, because it mocked them.

  2. I think the points you raise here are especially interesting when taken into the context of our past discussions of whether or not Wilde believes in predestination. The idea that things that you cannot control, such as birth or illness, should be reflective of your character fits in very well with the ideas of predestination. However, if Wilde is truly mocking characters who support these types of views, such as Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism, what does that say about his beliefs in predestination?

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