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 is Wilde trying to tell us?

Many of the writings of Wilde that we have read so far have all been rather straightforward in their praise of decadent ideas about morality and social life. The dialogues especially (“The Decay of Lying” and “The Critic as Artist”) make it clear that they are trying to convince you of a decadent ideal; it is their sole purpose. Because of this, it is very easy to read Wilde as a staunch defender of decadence and no more. However, The Picture of Dorian Gray complicates that idea.

Although the text is awash with decadent ideas (the worship of male beauty, the simultaneous rejection and desire for education and learnedness, the carefree attitudes towards social order), it does not seem to be defending those ideas. As Dorian grows more and more decadent, the painting of him grows more and more corrupted. His relationship with Lord Henry is seen as corrupting in the novel, much like Wilde’s relationship with Bosie was seen as by the public.

But the decadent ideals are not completely slandered either. To some extent, Dorian Gray is getting what he wants. He lives a life of luxury, enjoys whatever he likes, and is hardly even touched by the public’s perception of him. And if there are similarities between the relationships of Dorian and Lord Henry and Wilde and Bosie, then it is hard to believe that Wilde would view his own relationship as pure corruption.

All of this is to say that I have been grappling with the question of whether or not The Picture of Dorian Gray has some deeper moral or social message, and what that message might be. I have not found an answer yet, and Wilde is so slippery, I’m not sure I will. The one thing I am reasonably sure about is that this text feels deeply personal in a way that his other works have not.

Dorian’s Immobility and Mobility

Our discussion today had me thinking a lot about the philosophies that Wilde is portraying through his characters, as well as how Wilde himself fits into the narrative of his own novel, but then I started thinking about the physical world in The Picture of Dorian Gray. I brought up the point in class that the whole reason for Basil’s downfall becomes his trust in Lord Henry. He believes that Dorian will become influenced by Henry, and “the influence would be bad” (26). At the end of chapter six, Basil mourns the “strange sense of loss” of Dorian becoming influenced by Henry and then states that “life had come between them” (70). I’m not going to be focusing on the word strange and the homoerotic implications it has in this blog post (although it’d be cool if somebody commented on it!), but rather I want to talk about how we can understand the relationships through their physicality and mobility. I find it interesting that at the beginning of the novel, when first introduced to Basil and Dorian’s relationship, the artist and the art, Dorian is physically immobile. He stays confined and seems satisfied simply being inside his studio. There is a part after where Dorian goes out to the garden because he is impatient with posing, but it happens after he meets Lord Henry. After Lord Henry, Dorian cannot be confined to the studio anymore, as a subject of art. He creates the subjects now; he goes from dinners to outings to the theater with Lord Henry, who makes Dorian into somebody physically a part of the world, somebody that can move around unlike when Basil confined him to the art studio. This makes sense with the line that “life had come between” Basil and Dorian, and life is Henry personified because Henry is integrating Dorian into all of the societal outings and sensory experiences that life has to offer over the studio.

            I’m not quite sure what to make of this argument as well as the level of nuance that Basil is creating backdrops and environments in the portrait that are not a part of the physical realm since they are birthed from his artistry and his mind, which is also an interesting perspective to consider. I think that the material and physical world will start to tell us some things about the contradictory philosophies we are reading that come from all the characters. What does it mean that Basil is “confining” Dorian? Is it a bad thing to become integrated into the society of dinners, outings, and theater? How does Basil’s trust become his downfall; what does it say about him?