18 Jun ‘Til Depth Do Us Part: Oscar Wilde’s Critique of Shallow Love in The Importance of Being Earnest, By Ella Blondin
Victorian society was riddled with harsh social constructs that dictated how people interacted and behaved, often exclusively for the sake of achieving or maintaining social status. In particular, romantic interactions were characterized by a consistent prioritization of external appearances and social class over internal qualities such as kindness or intelligence. The Victorian author Oscar Wilde draws attention to this hollow notion of romantic relationships in his written works. His characters and plots, which are often satirical, capture how the Victorian era’s rigid emphasis on propriety and reputation shaped both the class system and romantic relations. Much of Wilde’s writing examines how the implications of love and marriage are reinforced by these extremely confining societal values and behaviours. In his play The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde captures the socially restrictive ideals of the Victorian era by satirizing the fickle and superficial understanding of romantic love and marriage in this period. Within the respective conflicts between Gwendolen and Cecily and between Jack Worthing and Lady Bracknell, love and marriage are shown to be founded on superficial attraction, and are valued primarily because of their social utility.
Wilde’s critique of Victorian society is rendered all the more scathing with careful consideration of the context in which the play was produced. To fully comprehend Wilde’s critique, it is imperative to have a fundamental understanding of Victorian social values in this time period. In her book Romance’s Rival: Familiar Marriage in Victorian Fiction, Talia Schaffer states that Victorian marriage serves the purpose of exposing a woman to “larger social relations,” which will consequently allow her to be “oriented to a wider world” (200). In particular, Schaffer states that wives were expected to provide “a larger usefulness to the world” (200), which included upholding constant composure to appear adequate to others. Although the premise of broadening friendships and forging social connections appears beneficial on the surface, the drastic and widespread adoption of this mindset in society often meant that one’s social class and reputation were among their most valuable assets when attempting to seek out a marriage partner. In many Victorian romantic pursuits, then, an individual’s authenticity and personality could be rendered irrelevant; what often mattered instead were economic and superficial qualities, including one’s perceived levels of propriety and status.
Wilde, who was imprisoned for homosexuality and died in exile from England, directly experienced the debilitating romantic confines of the Victorian era. With firsthand exposure to the harm of this “intolerant society” (Foldy X), Wilde’s qualifications to criticize Victorian England’s shallow social norms are undeniable. Wilde’s claim in his collection of essays Intentions captures the values held by this society succinctly: “to those who are preoccupied with the beauty of form nothing else seems of much importance” (57). Clearly, Victorian society’s emphasis on superficial qualities in marriage left little to no room for alternative forms of love, or for love that sought to look beyond “the beauty of form.” In Victorian England, many individuals were thus restrained by a system that encouraged and permitted romance to transpire for the exclusive purpose of building social reputation. The characters in The Importance of Being Earnest capture this restraint and its implications by engaging in conflicts concerning love and marriage that critique the inevitable lack of romantic depth in the Victorian period. These conflicts involve matters that, in choosing a romantic partner, are ultimately trivial, such as diary entries, one’s family background, or physical attractiveness. By placing these topics at the centre of the play’s romantic conflicts, however, Wilde implies that romance in the Victorian period is scarce of earnestness and depth. Through the satirical plot of the play, Wilde suggests that these presently lacking qualities are what love should actually be founded upon.
First, the conflict between Gwendolen and Cecily demonstrates the ways in which Victorian women fulfill their roles as conductors of shallow romance. Gwendolen and Cecily’s romantic competition represents the aesthetic focus of Victorian marriage. When the two women argue over which one of them is engaged to Ernest Worthing, they both employ superficial evidence including diary entries and their appearances to attempt to prove the righteousness of their claims. For instance, Cecily accuses Gwendolen of being “under some misconception” about their engagement to Ernest, as she presents her diary entry as chronological proof that Ernest proposed to her, and not Gwendolen, “exactly ten minutes ago” (2.585). In response, Gwendolen justifies her belief that Ernest proposed to her first by using her own “sensational” (2.589) diary entry to prove that “she has the prior claim” (2.590). Evidently, Gwendolen and Cecily believe their personal diary entries are valuable and impactful pieces of evidence. However, as a personal and subjective piece of writing, diary entries have the potential to be fabricated, “sensationalized,” and based entirely on opinion. In particular, Gwendolen’s own reference to her diary entry as “sensational” reflects the Victorian propensity to place an unwarranted amount of value on ostentatious, yet ultimately trivial, aesthetic features. In both cases, superficial evidence and traits are regarded as more “sensational” and significant than they really are. Ultimately, Gwendolen and Cecily’s use of their diary entries to support the legitimacy of their engagements further characterizes the shallow understanding of love they seem to share.
Envy of one another’s physical beauty also contributes significantly to the tension between the two women, further demonstrating that Wilde’s play is concerned with satirizing the superficial nature of love in the Victorian period. Gwendolen’s jealousy is made apparent when she wishes Cecily was “just a little older than [she] seems to be – and not quite so very alluring in appearance (2.549). It is alarmingly clear that Gwendolen believes that visual appearance and age are major factors in what renders a woman deserving of a husband. Shortly after Gwendolen’s remark about Cecily’s beauty, Cecily expresses her concern that Gwendolen’s confusion surrounding the engagement has caused the older woman “physical anguish” (2.561). Clearly, Cecily is aware that her youth and beauty are a source of envy for Gwendolen. Cecily’s response subtly highlights the fact that she is younger than Gwendolen through feigned concern for her “physical” well-being. Therefore, the ostensible conflict of who is Ernest Worthing’s true future bride represents the inherent shallowness of romance in this time period. On a symbolic level, Wilde uses this interaction to represent the conflict of whether love should be based upon superficial attractiveness, or upon factors that suggest greater depth, such as personality. The fact that Gwendolen and Cecily’s rivalry is founded primarily on mere diary entries and external qualities over which they have no control portrays the lack of emotional depth associated with their supposed engagements, as well as their disinterest in examining what qualities may actually make either woman a good candidate for Ernest’s love beyond physical features or economic status. Through this conflict, Wilde comments on the lack of foundational integrity in Victorian marriages.
Further, the dispute between Jack Worthing and Lady Bracknell depicts the insincere and superficial values that drive Victorian pursuits of romance. When Jack states that he wishes to propose to Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell assesses his quality as a suitor. Lady Bracknell believes that Jack is undeserving of her daughter’s love, as demonstrated when she remarks that Jack has not earned a place on her “list of eligible young men, although [she has] the same list as the Dear Duchess of Bolton” (1.414). This belief is based solely on Lady Bracknell’s superficial assessment of Jack rather than her judgment of his character or morality. Lady Bracknell’s possession of a “list of eligible young men” for her daughter, along with the fact it is shared with an acquaintance, implies that individuals in the period take a shallow and inauthentic approach to romantic affairs, and that the qualities that make a man “eligible” remain static regardless of the potential object of his affection. Upon discovering Jack’s background as an orphan abandoned at a train station, Lady Bracknell informs him, “you can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter … to marry into a cloakroom, and form an alliance with a parcel?” (1.514). Lady Bracknell’s commentary demonstrates that she regards him as an unsuitable husband based primarily on extraneous factors such as his family history. She is concerned that his perceived lack of social standing would harm Gwendolen’s reputation if the two were to be married, and reductively objectifies Jack in the process. In response, Jack states that he would do “anything in the world to ensure Gwendolen’s happiness” (1.503). Clearly, values such as compassion and happiness are not compulsory criteria in Lady Bracknell’s assessment of Jack’s suitability. Instead, she uses questions about his family background and social activities to determine whether he is a worthy husband or not. It is on these grounds that she labels Jack as an ineligible suitor. Much like the conflict between Gwendolen and Cecily, the symbolic meaning of the argument between Jack and Lady Bracknell underscores the quandary of whether love should be founded on superficial aspects of selfhood or a sense of one’s true decency. In the exchange between Jack and Lady Bracknell, Wilde’s equation of marriage to an assessment based on social factors such as reputation effectively satirizes and critiques the materialistic conception of love in the Victorian period.
Through resoundingly frivolous yet undeniably significant disputes concerning love and marriage, Oscar Wilde critiques Victorian society’s inherent shallowness as well as its adherence to a seemingly arbitrary and static set of social confines. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde employs the literary element of conflict to represent the misconstrued nature of romance in this era. When bickering about who is truly engaged to Ernest, Gwendolen and Cecily centre their argument around meaningless diary entries and physical beauty. Additionally, Lady Bracknell refuses to condone Jack Worthing’s marriage to her daughter simply because of his social standing. Both the jealous argument between Gwendolen and Cecily, as well as the disagreement between Lady Bracknell and Jack Worthing, symbolize some of the true motivations for romance in Victorian England: social status and reputation. To assert that love should not be based on social status is a bold statement in defiance of the Victorian period’s rigid values, but that does not hinder Wilde’s intention to satirize the fallacies of true love in his era.
Foldy, Michael. Preface. The Trials of Oscar Wilde: Deviance, Morality, and Late-Victorian Society. Yale University Press, 1997.
Schaffer, Talia. Romance’s Rival: Familiar Marriage in Victorian Fiction. Oxford University Press, 2016, 200-215. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190465094.001.0001. Accessed 18 March 2021.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. The Broadview Introduction to Literature: Drama, edited by Lisa Chaylkoff et al., Broadview Press, 2013, PDF File, (1-55). Accessed 29 November, 2019.
Wilde, Oscar. Intentions. 14th ed., Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1999.