Study Guide

The Importance of Being Earnest Society and Class

By Oscar Wilde

Society and Class

Algernon: Lane's views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility. (I.17)

In an inversion of conventional thinking, Algernon thinks lower classes should set a moral example for the upper classes like the aristocracy. Apparently, he thinks the higher classes are corrupt, but it seems as though he has no problem with its hypocrisy.

Lady Bracknell: I'm sorry if we are a little late, Algernon, but I was obliged to call on dear Lady Harbury. I hadn't been there since her poor husband's death. I never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger. (I.111)

Lady Bracknell’s need to mention that Lady Harbury "looks quite twenty years young" "since her poor husband’s death" reveals the ridiculous need to gossip.

Lady Bracknell: I'm sure the programme will be delightful, after a few expurgations. French songs I cannot possibly allow. People always seem to think that they are improper, and either look shocked, which is vulgar, or laugh, which is worse. But German sounds a thoroughly respectable language, and indeed, I believe is so. (I.132)

After French Revolution, the English aristocracy was afraid of the same thing happening at home. So the English did everything in their power to suppress French influence. For Lady Bracknell, this includes omitting French music from her party programs.

Her move has nothing to do with the respectability of the French language or the aesthetic value of French music—although she tries to make it sound like it does—but with the political implications that anything French carries with it.

Algernon: I love hearing my relations abused. It is the only thing that makes me put up with them at all. Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven't got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die. (I.222)

Algernon’s dislike of his familial relations can be seen as a comment on how the British inheritance system functions. Algernon exaggerates the aristocratic greed for money. If his older siblings would die, Algernon could legally inherit all his father’s financial assets.

Miss Prism: [Calling] Cecily, Cecily! Surely such a utilitarian occupation as the watering of flowers is rather Moulton's duty than yours? Especially at a moment when intellectual pleasures await you. Your German grammar is on the table. (II.1)

Education differentiates the higher classes from lower ones. Miss Prism insists that Cecily leave menial work to servants while concentrating on her lessons. The idea is that the more educated Cecily is, the more she will impress important men in the future and possibly improve her prospects in marriage. She could potentially marry into an aristocratic family and better her current position.

Cecily: May I offer you some tea, Miss Fairfax?

Gwendolen: [With elaborate politeness] Thank you. [Aside] Detestable girl! But I require tea!

Cecily: [Sweetly] Sugar?

Gwendolen: [Superciliously] No, thank you. Sugar is not fashionable any more. [Cecily looks angrily at her, takes up the tongs and puts four lumps of sugar into the cup.]

Cecily: [Severely] Cake or bread and butter?

Gwendolen: [In a bored manner] Bread and butter, please. Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays.

Cecily: [Cuts a very large slice of cake, and puts it on the tray.] Hand that to Miss Fairfax. (II.308-314)

Cecily takes advantage of the aristocratic Gwendolen’s comic obsession with fashion. To most people, it doesn’t matter whether or not one puts sugar in her tea or eats bread and butter instead of cake. But to Gwendolen, these choices are important statements on one’s stylishness and, ultimately, one's reputation among peers. Here, Cecily takes advantage of her lower birth to insult Gwendolen.

Lady Bracknell [to Gwendolen]: Sit down immediately. Hesitation of any kind is a sign of mental decay in the young, of physical weakness in the old. (III.44)

In Lady Bracknell’s circle, the authority of elders is well-established in upholding social class. Because parents decide every aspect of their children’s lives, any disobedience on a child’s part can be read as a sign of rebellion—something that could destroy the aristocracy. Compare this with Jack’s reaction to Cecily’s indiscretions; he doesn’t freak out about them. He rarely orders her to let go of Algernon’s hand or commands her to go back to her lessons.

Lady Bracknell: Mr. Worthing, is Miss Cardew at all connected with any of the larger railway stations in London? I merely desire information. Until yesterday I had no idea that there were any families or persons whose origin was a Terminus. [Jack looks perfectly furious, but restrains himself.] (III.61)

As a noblewoman, Lady Bracknell insults Jack—mocking his lack of knowledge about his family—to highlight the difference in their social ranks. To her, Gwendolen’s marriage to Jack would result in a dead end—or a "terminus." In a clever pun, "terminus" also means a station or stop along a railroad line, so Lady Bracknell simultaneously insults Jack’s social origins.

Lady Bracknell: As a matter of form, Mr. Worthing, I had better ask you if Miss Cardew has any little fortune?

Jack: Oh! about a hundred and thirty thousand pounds in the Funds. That is all. Goodbye, Lady Bracknell. So pleased to have seen you.

Lady Bracknell: [Sitting down again] A moment, Mr. Worthing. A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her. (III.69-71)

Jack’s substantial assets, which make Cecily akin to a millionaire, force Lady Bracknell to swallow her previous insults and consider Cecily as a match for her penniless, but aristocratic nephew, Algernon.

Jack: Then I was christened! That is settled. Now, what name was I given? Let me know the worst.

Lady Bracknell: Being the eldest son you were naturally christened after your father. (III.162-163)

In the Victorian era, it was appropriate for the eldest son of a family to be named after his father. This shows how important bloodlines are. By keeping his father’s first and last name, a son ensured the survival and continuation of his family name. Keep in mind that the family name is the only claim that a son has to all the wealth and rights of the aristocracy.

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