In The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell says about Algernon in Act 3, “He has nothing, but he looks everything. What more can one desire?” (Wilde, 1899, p. 2332) She seems to be saying that looks (or appearances) are more important than reality; in other words, it’s a desirable quality for a person to be able to fool someone else into thinking he/she has more than it appears. How does Wilde use this concept in the play to satirize the “proper” and “moral” emphasis the Victorians are known for?
The Importance of Being Ernest is one of the finest humorous plays to have premiered at the turn of twentieth century. One of the last works by Oscar Wilde it gained admirers through its farcical humor and witty dialogue. Reviewers of the play, then and now, have universally classified it as a ‘farce’ and a ‘social satire’. And this assessment is quite accurate. The focus of the play on street-smart humor was so pronounced that critics objected to its lack of seriousness and social message. This was unusual at the time, for plays were expected to carry some seriousness. Outwardly, this seems to be true, for the play is meant as a pure light-hearted entertainment. But if we look closely, there is social commentary to be found. (Raby, 1997) The author’s preoccupation was not about weighty political and social issues of the day. But by basing the play on the idiosyncrasies of Victorian social mores, there is subtle criticism of society although it is garbed in humor. In this vein, Lady Bracknell’s quote “He has nothing, but he looks everything. What more can one desire?” (Wilde, 1899, p.2332) can be interpreted as an expose on superficiality that had come to dominate Victoria social life. In other words, Wilde seems to be saying, through the uttering of various characters in the play that things like fashion, style and charm have come to replace values such as honesty, sincerity and courage in evaluating people.
Added to this mix are the age-old class biases and prejudices that are integral to the Victorian British consciousness. Throughout the play, Lady Bracknell shows her obsession with social status and class. When Gwendolyn is wooed by John Worthing (‘Earnest’), Lady Bracknell disapproves of the suitor on the basis of his class background. But she is strongly persuaded otherwise when she learns that Earnest is in charge of his niece who is set to inherit great wealth. Hence, the strong will of Lady Bracknell’s demand for class is strongly tested with a hint of money. This shows how superficial and unprincipled people of high status in Victorian England can be. While Lady Bracknell puts down John Worthing on grounds of his lack of wealth, she does not apply the same standard in considering Algernon. Though not wealthy himself, she promotes him as a candidate for Gwendolyn’s hand by pointing to his appearances. It is in this context that she says “He has nothing, but he looks everything. What more can one desire?” (Wilde, 1899, p.2332) Once again, superficiality and lack of worthy values is writ large in Lady Bracknell’s evaluation. Her mentality is a fair reflection of tendencies in Victorian society, where style was often placed over and above substance. (Beckson, 1970)
The title of the play gives it an air of seriousness, which the plot and narrative go on to disprove. This is another way for the author to satirize the pretentiousness of Victorian notions of propriety and morality. But this was made mostly for comic effect without any real insight into real life. There is a subtle pun implied in the title, for the unfolding action mocks the manners and norms of late Victorian England. The rechristened name of ‘Earnest’ for the central character John Worthing is a euphemism, for lying and deception are integral to how he goes about life. Irony and self-aggrandizement are other strategies for humor adopted by Wilde. (Beckson, 1970)
In sum, Oscar Wilde uses his pen as a sword against bringing down cherished Victorian virtues and values. In what constitute a social commentary, Wilde points to flaws inherent in the late Victorian society through the medium of humor. Even the overboard respect in the names he assigns to characters – The Honorary Gwendolen Fairfax, The Reverend Canon Chasuble, Mr. Algernon Moncrieff (with a deliberate choice of aristocratic sounding surnames) – is a comment and criticism both at once. The play reveals the simple mindedness, lack of moral fortitude and lack of seriousness of most of the lead characters, as they go about to achieve their own petty self-interests. This is especially applicable to John Worthing (Ernest), Algernon Moncrieff, Gwendolen Fairfax, Lady Bracknell and Merriman. The deceptive second identities assumed by both Worthing and Moncrieff illustrate the lack of integrity in their thoughts, actions and characters.
Raby, Peter, ed. (1997). The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. London: Cambridge University Press.
Beckson, Karl E., ed. (1970). Oscar Wilde: the critical heritage, Volume 1970, Part 2, London:Routledge.