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?

Class in “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

I am interested in what The Picture of Dorian Gray has to say about class, particularly through the eyes of Mrs. Vane and her two children.  Mrs. Vane seems to have conflicting visions of the world.  On one hand, she seems excessively practical about money and supporting her son and daughter, but on the other, she seems deeply devoted to the world of theater and how she presents herself to the world from an artistic perspective.  She feels obligated to Mr. Isaacs because of the money she owes him and how he has given them the opportunity to work.  She thinks he has treated them very well (though Sibyl disagrees with this).  She is also obsessed with the idea that her daughter’s Prince Charming might be very wealthy, in which case “there is no reason why she should not contract an alliance with him” (Wilde 60).  In Mrs. Vane’s eyes, if Dorian is a member of the aristocracy, there could be nothing wrong with him. 

Her son, James, on the other hand, seems very distrustful of Dorian and other members of the upper class.  He worries very much about his sister’s safety and reputation as she pursues a relationship with a man she hardly knows.  He thinks that Dorian’s intentions in becoming involved with a poor actress is that he “wants to enslave” Sibyl (Wilde 62).  He worries that Sibyl will share the same fate as their mother, who is now a single mother in much debt after being wronged by a “highly connected” gentleman like Dorian (Wilde 64).  Sibyl seems very naïve in her approach to Dorian, not caring about the fact that she knows nothing about him other than that he adores to watch her act.  She cares not at all for money, exclaiming, “what does money matter?  Love is more than money” (Wilde 57), and “Poor?  What does that matter?  When poverty creeps in at the door, love flies in through the window” (Wilde 62).  It will be interesting to see how her relationship with Dorian plays out, and how her family and Lord Henry affect it.