Wilde’s Female Characters

We saw a variety and depth in the female characters in Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, specifically through Lady Chiltern and Mrs. Cheveley,but I did not find this to be the case in The Importance of Being Earnest. Granted, Mrs. Cheveley and Lady Chiltern drive much of the plot in their play, the supporting characters of Cecily and Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest, are one-dimensional. Cecily and Gwendolen are the beautiful love interests of Algernon and Jack, respectively. Cecily is arguably developed more than Gwendolen, particularly in the scenes where she describes her diary entries about her engagement to Algernon, or ‘Earnest’. When he proposes to her, she exclaims, “Oh you have made me make a blot! And yours is the only real proposal I have ever had in all my life. I should like to have it entered neatly” (394). She takes her diary very seriously, but this aptitude for writing serves to emphasize her foolishness and absurdity. Both Cecily and Gwendolen are easily placated by their fiancé’s justifications for lying to them, and eventually come to call each other “sister,” like Jack predicted earlier on.

            A similarity between the women in the two plays is how they praise men. Specifically, Cecily exclaims, “How absurd to talk of the equality of the sexes! Where questions of self-sacrifice are concerned, men are infinitely beyond us,” to which Cecily replies, “They have moments of physical courage of which we women know absolutely nothing” (407). These lines reminded me of when Lady Chiltern finally accepts her husband’s role in the government and talks about how men’s lives are more valuable than women’s. Maybe my perspective as a modern reader is clouding my approach to these texts, but it seems ridiculous how these female characters praise the obviously flawed male characters, specifically in instances where they have wronged them. Is Wilde once again poking fun at the dynamics of the upper classes of society, particularly where women are involved, or does he subscribe to the idea that women are truly the inferior sex? I would also be interested as to what others think of Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism. How do they resist or uphold the gender dynamics presented by the other characters?

2 thoughts on “Wilde’s Female Characters”

  1. I find it hard to argue that any of the Women in The Importance of Being Earnest are not one-dimensional, but I do believe it is worth noting the power they hold in the story. This power is, of course, best seen in Aunt Augusta, who seems to believe that the Sun ought to not get up in the morning without her say so. It is her than Jack/Ernest must impress enough to grant him Gwendolen’s hand in marriage, thus she holds an intimidating power over the play’s main (?) character. What’s more, the other ladies in the play also hold a large amount of power over the men, as both central male characters, Algy and Jack/Ernest, are willing to change their names in order to suit their love interests’ respective (and identical) tastes. So while it may be true that the women in the play have almost zero depth of character, it is they who ultimately drive the plot of the story forward.

  2. I have similar questions about the women in Wilde’s works – how much of is his representations of women and their relationships with men specifically social critique and how much is resonant of something darker to our modern sensibilities, and representative of a more broad dismissal of women on Wilde’s part. Miss Prism is particularly interesting to think about, as she sits socially outside of the upper classes Wilde’s play were directed at and even the other characters in the play. Situating her on the outside then makes the dismissal in the text of her writing, by the other female characters in particular, suggestive of a more general dismissal of women and their attempts to do anything other than marry and get entangled in marriage plots. But I still don’t know, is the ridiculousness of it all enough to bely any real sort of investment in marriage as only and final end for women? Do we discount all the things the upper-class characters say, such that the opposite is what should be true? I just don’t know.

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