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?

What makes a good book?

After finishing The Picture of Dorian Gray, one of the questions I am thinking about is the question of what makes a good book, which relates to some ideas we’ve been exploring in “Victorian Literature” as we read Aurora Leigh by Elizabeth Barret Browning.  In this narrative poem, the narrator is an avid reader and talks about how books and poetry have influenced her life and her own work.  She says she read books “Without considering whether they were fit / To do me good,” believing that it is when “We gloriously forget ourselves and plunge / Soul-forward, headlong, into a book’s profound, / Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth” that we get the good from a book (Browning 701-2, 706-8).  In these lines, it seems as though her ideas align with the notion that it is the reader’s disposition and commitment to literature that contributes to what they get out of reading, not necessarily the content of the book itself.  The way the reader approaches the book has an impact on their reading experience and the lessons they take away from it.  With these ideas in mind, we can consider Dorian’s approach to the poisonous book he receives from Lord Henry.  He approaches it with a mindset already leaning towards corruption.  Dorian “never sought to free himself” from the influence of the book, believing that it contained “the story of his own life, written before he had lived it” (Wilde 102).  The sins he sees lived out in the book are sins he chooses to enact.  He actively chooses his way of life, and though he blames the book for his actions, he actively chooses to take what he does from the book and connect it so closely to his life.  If we question the power of the book as a corrupting force in Dorian’s life, we may also consider the power of Lord Henry over Dorian, and question whether it was Lord Henry’s influence that changed Dorian, or whether Dorian, perhaps inspired by Lord Henry, chose to follow a path of corruption farther than Lord Henry had ever followed it.

Wilde and Thackeray

I am interested in Wilde’s idea in The Decay of Lying that Art imitates Life, rather than Life imitating Art.  In his essay, he claims that “Life is Art’s best, Art’s only pupil” (Wilde 983), and provides several fictitious examples of this.  The example I found most humorous was his reference to Becky Sharp of Vanity Fair, which was written by “great sentimentalist” William Makepeace Thackeray and originally published in 1848 (Wilde 984).  Wilde’s character Vivian describes that well after Vanity Fair was published, the governess who was a loose inspiration for Becky’s character “ran away with the nephew of the lady with whom she was living, and for a short time made a great splash in society, quite in Mrs. Rawdon Crawley’s style, and entirely by Mrs. Rawdon Crawley’s methods” (Wilde 984), following the exact trajectory of Becky after her disastrous marriage to Rawdon Crawley.  I find Wilde’s reference to Becky interesting because she was the ultimate liar.  A vicious social climber, she is cunning and seductive, and uses her intelligence to take advantage of wealthy men.  If art is lying, Thackeray’s biting satire is evidence of this.  It presents heavily exaggerated characters and weaves together their stories in a ridiculous manner. 

It is interesting to consider, then, how writers of Wilde’s time were turning away from Victorian literature.  Certainly, Vanity Fair is not an example of art for art’s sake, but Becky’s interest in all things beautiful and her desire to live a pleasure-filled life seems to align with the code of the Decadents.  Becky put on a show in society, masking her true background and creating a glamorous façade.  She reminds me of some of the characters in Wilde’s short stories, particularly Lord Arthur Savile and the Canterville ghost.  Lord Arthur creatively plots several murder attempts to maintain his position and relationship to his fiancée, creating a life based on deception and crime.  The Canterville ghost initially is interested in putting on masks to terrorize the Otis family and maintain his fear-based position of power in the household.  Their scheming and cunning for the sake of comfort cause them to act similarly to Thackeray’s Becky.