The Importance of Being Earnest, a play written by Oscar Wilde, allows its audience to dive into the everyday Victorian lifestyle and adds twist of comedy and humor along the way. It focuses on two main characters, Jack and Algernon, who are bachelors who take on the role of double lives to seemingly feel accepted in society’s various forms.
Jack and Algernon are heavily bonded because their friendship ties into their chaotic love interests. Jack falls in love with Gwendolen, Algernon’s cousin, and Algernon falls for Cecily, Jack’s ward. What makes their relationships so twisted is the disapproval of Jack and Gwendolyn’s engagement from Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother.
The play’s entirety focuses on their love situations, and in doing so, the women are much more appreciated and noticed by the audience. Much of the scenes emphasize the social roles of the women rather than the men. Together, Lady Bracknell, Gwendolyn, and Cecily show they have a higher power and a greater role in their Victorian society throughout their social interactions and reactions to different situations among the men.
Lady Bracknell is a narrow-minded character in Wilde’s play. She does not tolerate other people’s ideas, views, or feelings, therefore, she only focuses on herself and what she believes is best for Gwendolen. From the beginning, the audience understands that Lady Bracknell has had a successful life with a steady marriage, and all she desires is for her daughter’s future to end up in the same way. At the start of Act III, she discovers that Jack and Gwendolen are officially engaged to be married, even though she is the reason that their original plans fall through in the first place.
Upon hearing the news, she replies with: “Her unhappy father is, I am glad to say, under the impression that she is attending a more than usually lengthy lecture by the University Extension Scheme on the Influence of a Permanent Income on Thought. I do not propose to undeceive him. Indeed I have never undeceived him on any question. I would consider it wrong” (45). Lady Bracknell reveals her inner power by revealing her dishonesty with her husband, Lord Bracknell. He is rarely mentioned through a majority of the play, but his small role only places a greater influence on her superiority.
By stating her decision, Lady Bracknell shows her self- absorbed side and how she manages to work to find solutions on her own. In an average Old Victorian society, men have the upper hand, and women constantly serve them under their command. However, Wilde puts a twist on his play writing and goes against the norms of their ways of life. He allows Lady Bracknell to take complete control; she is a dictator of matrimony who determines who can marry whom.
Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell’s daughter, resembles a number of her mother’s characteristics as The Importance of Being Earnest progresses. She tends to focus on self- improvement. She is determined to live a satisfying life, and she has her own thoughts and ideas to keep herself motivated. She is similarly strong-minded and she has authority over what she thinks and believes (i.e. her taste in men and in integrity itself).
Although it is clearly shown that she and Lady Bracknell are related, Gwendolen stands out in the play because she is the woman who emphasizes the importance of womanhood. In the end of Act II, she and Cecily are caught in a conflict when they realize that they are both engaged to be married to Ernest, the fictitious brother who Jack originally makes up to impress the women. Gwendolen informs Cecily that her husband-to-be is actually named Jack, while Cecily tells her that hers is named Algernon. Together, they are appalled by this discovery and they are angered that the bachelors would go to such an extent just to get what they desire. They run off together to talk it all over elsewhere, but then they notice changes in the men upon their return:
GWENDOLEN: [After a pause] They don’t seem to notice us at all. Couldn’t you cough?
CECILY: But I haven’t got a cough.
GWENDOLEN: They’re looking at us. What effrontery!
CECILY: They’re approaching. That’s very forward of them (43).
Jack and Algernon have seemingly insulting attitudes toward the women in this scene. This awkward moment occurs between people who have honest love for each other, but it results in the women taking their own side. It emphasizes their strength in that they can easily turn away from those who love them, which gives them a sense of empowerment.
What was once a frenemy situation between Gwendolen and Cecily (due to engagement confusion) has suddenly become an alliance of powerful women. By coming together, thinking in the same manner, and making a single decision, Gwendolen and Cecily show that they are the ones who control their relationships with the men. They ultimately set the tone for how different situations level out within them in Wilde’s play.
Lastly, the alliance between Cecily and Gwendolen is not the only scenario that shows Cecily’s strength and individuality in the The Importance of Being Earnest. She is nothing short of a fantasist. She records imaginary stories in her diary that represent her desire to be married to Algernon, and she isn’t afraid to speak her mind about what she daydreams about. Cecily shows her true colors when she ultimately admits her feelings for Algernon and “reminds” him that they are engaged:
ALGERNON: Oh, I don’t care about Jack. I don’t care for anybody in the whole world but you. I love you, Cecily. You will marry me, won’t you?
CECILY: You silly boy! Of course. Why, we have been engaged for the last three months.
ALGERNON: For the last three months?
CECILY: Yes, it will be exactly three months on Thursday.
ALGERNON: But how did we become engaged?
CECILY: Well, ever since dear Uncle Jack first confessed to us that he had a younger brother who was very wicked and bad, you of course have formed the chief topic of conversation between myself and Miss Prism. And of course a man who is much talked about is always very attractive. One feels there must be something in him after all. I daresay it was foolish of me, but I fell in love with you, Ernest.
Cecily takes control of her relationships with other people by turning her fantasy connection with Algernon into a reality. By making her decision to be with him on her own, she shows that she has little care in what anyone else says or thinks about her.
Oscar Wilde flips the gender roles of Victorian society in The Importance of Being Earnest. He changes the way readers look at our own world by giving the women masculine characteristics within a certain time period. Lady Bracknell only wants what she believes is best for her daughter, Gwendolen, so she lies to her husband to keep her decision of Gwendolen’s engagement to herself. She takes the upper hand in matrimony and puts it all under her control.
Meanwhile, Gwendolen makes her own choices on how to handle difficult situations between herself and the man she loves. She is confident in her conscience to step away when she feels the need to, and she forms an alliance with Cecily as her form of support in such twisted times. Last, but not least, Cecily is not afraid to speak her mind or tell people of her fantasies and desires to marry Algernon, no matter how shocking her feelings may seem to some people. Overall, the switch between the gender roles has made the play what it is today. The social interactions and individuality made each of the scenes come together, therefore, the more important social roles of women have the greatest impact of it all.