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?
I’ve had an interest in the life and works of Oscar Wilde for a while, but I had never read any of his works until taking this class. I found the essays of the Decadent writers to be challenging, yet interesting, and I appreciate the wit and humor of the works of Wilde we’ve read so far. However, there’s a common feature in the Decadent writers’ and Wilde’s works that bothers me immensely: the blatant classism.
I didn’t think that classism and elitism would be such a common occurrence in these writings, but it is such a glaring feature in some of these writings that it sours my opinion on the work as a whole, even if the work manages to make some good points in other places. For instance, in Arthur Symons’ “The Decadent Movement in Literature,” he speaks highly of the French poet Mallarmé and his style of writing. Symons also speaks of how Mallarmé “always looked with intense disdain on the indiscriminate accident of universal suffrage. He has wished neither to be read nor to be understood by the bourgeois intelligence, and it is with some deliberateness of intention that he has made both issues impossible.” In this statement, Symons makes it seem as if only the aristocracy are worthy of comprehending Mallarmé’s works, and that the intelligence of the middle class will always be lacking. This is such an annoying sentiment to me. It just seems ridiculous to deliberately make your writing more complicated so that people you arbitrarily deem unworthy can’t understand it. It also seems like a way to shield yourself from criticism because if someone were to critique your writing for being difficult and overwrought, you can just say that they’re just too pedestrian to truly get it.
This classism is also glaring in “The Critic as Artist.” In the dialogue, Gilbert states, “Since the introduction of printing, and the fatal development of the habit of reading amongst the lower and middle classes of this country, there has been a tendency in literature to appeal more to the eye, and less and less to the ear.” The use of the words “fatal development” in regards to literacy becoming more widespread is particularly egregious to me. The entirety of this work centers around the importance of the impression of art on the viewer. However, since middle and lower class people reading is apparently a “fatal development,” this work makes it seem like only people whose opinion on art matters are members of the aristocracy.
“The Critic as Artist” posits that art will stagnate if it’s created without criticism, however, I would also like to add that art will stagnate if only the elite are allowed to create and critique art. Letting a variety of different people with different opinions create and critique art is beneficial for its development.