The Importance of Being Earnest
Respect and Reputation Quotes
How we cite our quotes:
Lady Bracknell: What is your income?
Jack: Between seven and eight thousand a year.
Lady Bracknell: [Makes a note in her book] In land, or in investments?
Jack: In investments, chiefly.
Lady Bracknell: That is satisfactory. What between the duties expected of one during one's lifetime, and the duties exacted from one after one's death, land has ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure. It gives one position, and prevents one from keeping it up. That's all that can be said about land.
Jack: I have a country house with some land, of course, attached to it, about fifteen hundred acres, I believe; but I don't depend on that for my real income. In fact, as far as I can make out, the poachers are the only people who make anything out of it.
Lady Bracknell: A country house! How many bedrooms? Well, that point can be cleared up afterwards. You have a town house, I hope? A girl with a simple, unspoiled nature, like Gwendolen, could hardly be expected to reside in the country.
Jack: Well, I own a house in Belgrave Square, but it is let by the year to Lady Bloxham. Of course, I can get it back whenever I like, at six months' notice.
Lady Bracknell: Lady Bloxham? I don't know her.
Jack: Oh, she goes about very little. She is a lady considerably advanced in years.
Lady Bracknell: Ah, nowadays that is no guarantee of respectability of character. What number in Belgrave Square?
Lady Bracknell: [Shaking her head] The unfashionable side. I thought there was something. However, that could easily be altered.
Jack: Do you mean the fashion, or the side?
Lady Bracknell: [Sternly] Both, if necessary, I presume. (I. 184-198)
What the upper class considers respectable is wealth and style. This is shown in Lady Bracknell’s interest in Jack’s assets when considering whether or not he is a proper suitor for Gwendolen’s hand. It is also important that Jack has enough wealth to afford both a country and town house. To pass Lady Bracknell’s test, Jack must live in a fashionable area in the city. Because of her pride in her rank, Lady Bracknell assumes that Jack will gladly either relocate his house to the fashionable side or change his style to reflect the current fashionable trends.
Lady Bracknell: [….] Mr. Worthing, I confess I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to? As for the particular locality in which the hand bag was found, a cloak-room at a railway station might serve to conceal a social indiscretion – has probably, indeed, been used for that purpose before now – but it could hardly be regarded as an assured basis for a recognised position in good society. (I.200-214)
The most important criteria for respectability in Victorian England was one’s bloodlines, especially if they were aristocratic. Lady Bracknell asks whether Jack’s wealth comes from "the purple of commerce" or from "aristocracy" because the upper classes had more respect for aristocrats. That Jack has no idea who his family is, and was "found" at birth in such an unpromising place as in a hand bag at a train station immediately makes him a ridiculous prospect for marriage with Gwendolen.
Cecily: Dear Uncle Jack is so very serious! Sometimes he is so serious that I think he cannot be quite well.
Miss Prism: [Drawing herself up] Your guardian enjoys the best of health, and his gravity of demeanour is especially to be commended in one so comparatively young as he is. I know no one who has a higher sense of duty and responsibility. (II.4-5)
As an older character with a staunch sense of morality, Miss Prism admires Jack for his apparent "gravity of demeanor," especially since he is "so comparatively young" – twenty-nine years old. She admires his "sense of duty and responsibility" and espouses the same for Cecily. But young Cecily, who values pleasure and romantic love above all, sees Jack’s ‘respectability’ as tiresome and even a sign of possible illness.