Friday, August 10, 2012

The Importance of Being Earnest

In the beginning of the Victorian Era, etiquette and domesticity were very important issues, with which people in high society would preoccupy themselves. Nonetheless, by the end of the period, these values had been declining and the new society, having now different concerns, ridiculed the old values. This satire can be clearly observed in the play The Importance of Being Earnest, where the critique begins in its title: the play depicts that what is important is having the name Earnest (appearance), rather than actually being genuinely earnest.

Oscar Wild satirizes social traditions from the early Victorian Age with great humor and intelligence throughout the play. One of these many moments is the passage quoted above, retrieved from the first act. The quote above illustrates irony about certain social rules of the time and conveys a negative concept of family, since it results in Algy being accompanied of either no women or two. The idea of having two women being family-like corroborates to the ludicrousness being exposed in the play.

Furthermore, many are the passages in the comedy that depict the mockery of the social values and manners of the initial Victorian Period. Three other passages, one from each Act of the play, were chosen to illustrate Wild’s critique. The first is a line from Algy, in Act 1, where he states: “I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them.” (Algy, Act 1). Once more, and often it is so, Algy’s words carry much of the criticism in the play through the use of senseless comments, which praise manners over reason. When Algy affirms that people who are not serious about meals are shallow, it seems straightforward the irony Wild makes use of to satirize the exaggeration of manners used by the society he lived in.

The second passage concerns a conversation between Miss Prism and Cecily, in act 2, in which they say: “Miss Prism: I know no one who has a higher sense of duty and responsibility. Cecily: I suppose this is why he often looks a little bored.” (Miss Prism and Cecily, Act 2). Again, it is possible to notice the inversion of values, where being responsible and dutiful is not seen as a positive thing. It is important to observe that Wild probably refers to the excess of those qualities, very commonly praised in the beginning of the Victorian Era.

Lastly, the third excerpt regards a remark from Lady Bracknell in Act 3, where she states: “ A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds! Miss Cardwell seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her.” (Lady Bracknell, Act 3). Once more, the idea that appearances and materialism are worth more than character is underscored in this passage. As soon as Lady Bracknell learns of Cecily’s fortune, the latter suddenly becomes fit to marry Lady Bracknell’s nephew, despite Cecily’s character – yet unknown to the Lady. 

Silly novels by Lady novelists

An essay is a brief composition, usually subjective, containing much of the author’s personal view about a subject. Nonetheless, even comprehending the author’s viewpoint, essays usually provide the readership with logical arguments to ground their statements. This is especially true for some of the Victorian prose writers, but on the contrary, other Victorian essayists aimed at stirring the reader’s feelings along with convincing them of their views, this way approaching Romantic traits.

Most of the subjects in the Victorian non-fiction prose dealt with polemic topics in the scope of religion, politics, moral issues, and aesthetic philosophies. The main ambition of the Victorian non-fiction prose was to instruct and inform people. There is where the importance of the essays in this period rests on. On essays, writers exposed their ideas and concerns about social and moral issues, sometimes denouncing inhuman situations, thus calling attention to the matter. They also claimed room for literature in a world where science and materialism ruled. Important authors of the period who wrote essays include Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, William Morris, Matthew Arnold, and George Eliot.

In one of the most famous essays by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans’s pseudonym), “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists”, she discusses the novels written by her contemporary female writers in a tone of irony, humor, and sometimes, even aggressiveness. She satirizes the trivial topics broached by women novelists in her days as well as the inaccuracy of other topics and realities they addressed due to their unfamiliarity to them. To do so, George Eliot mentions many issues she notices in these novels and brings examples to ground her statements. Some of the most important critiques made by Eliot will be broached below.

She begins by affirming that the children depicted in those novels are not realistic because they do not speak like actual children do, but on the contrary, much more eloquently. Then, the “oracular species-novels”, as she entitles them, are criticized. They would consist of novels that expose the writers’ religious, philosophical or moral ideas- which in Eliot’s opinion are quite uninformed. Another important matter she calls the readers’ attention to, is the excessively refined language used in such novels. She writes a sentence using an objective language and then another very flowery to indicate the difference to the reader. She makes herself clear.

Finally, another question criticized is that of women wanting to boast about their scholarliness and talk about environments and situations that, it seems to Eliot the writers are ignorant about. As a last remark, it is interesting to wonder about the author’s intentions with the essay. It is difficult to affirm just by reading the essay that Eliot is implying a critique about women’s education beneath the criticism about the works written by the women in her days. However, it seems reasonable to argue that had women had the proper education they lacked, they would be able to write novels that were truly intellectual and meaningful.