The Importance of Being a Parent

One of the most quotable lines from “The Importance of Being Earnest” is spoken by Lady Bracknell: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune… to lose both seems like carelessness” (369). While this line is mostly known for being fun and ridiculous, I would argue that the play is discussing parenthood or guardianship and its role in society. The main way this comes into play, of course, is the parent’s role of giving consent for their child to enter into an engagement. We see this when Lady Bracknell refuses to give her consent for Gwendolyn to marry Jack and when Jack refuses to give his consent for Cecily to marry Algernon. This lack of consent is one of the main conflicts in the play but is also mocked by Algernon’s several attempts to revoke his consent for Jack and Gwendolyn’s marriage. Algernon is Gwendolyn’s cousin but isn’t a guardian figure in her life. His remarks then come off as very reactionary, an attempt to leverage what he wants from the situation. In this situation, Wilde makes a mockery of these traditional familial engagement practices, and to some extent, parent-child relations in general.

This is seen all over the play, from Lady Bracknell’s stand-offish relationship with the other characters to Jack’s remark that “Mothers, of course, are all right. They pay a chap’s bills and don’t bother him. But fathers bother a chap and never pay his bills. I don’t know a single chap at the club who speaks to his father.” (371). I find this theme in the play extremely interesting, especially considering Wilde’s relationship with his own parents compared to other Victorians. I know we have only briefly discussed this in class, but it sounds as if Wilde was much closer to his mother than his father, and I am interested in how these relationships might have shaped Wilde’s own views on parenthood.

One thought on “The Importance of Being a Parent”

  1. This is a great post, Mary, and I had not thought deeply about parenthood when I first read the play. Your opening quote from Lady Bracknell reminded me of how she later advises Jack to “try and acquire some relations as soon as possible, and to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over” (370). I agree that Wilde mocks the traditional family relationships, specifically in the context of marriage. However, Wilde juxtaposes this mockery with the seriousness of how ones’ parents and childhood shape the rest of their lives. Jack’s case is particularly interesting because he is impacted by his lack of parents in his early life, but comes to realize his true relations by the end of the poem.
    These threads of parenthood also remind me of our discussion of Freud last week, particularly Algernon’s line, “all women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his” (371). Mothers are given a more positive representation than fathers in the dialogue of the play, yet Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism completely fail as surrogate mothers through their actions. I mean, they lose an entire baby. I think this is an interesting way to approach your final question as to how to Wilde’s own parents may be reflected in this story, especially after what we learned about the questionable behavior of Sir William Wilde in the reading from Toibin’s book. Which is worse? An absent parent or a morally corrupt present parent?

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