The Importance of Being Earnest

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“There are only two kinds of people who are really fascinating: people who know absolutely everything, and people who know absolutely nothing.” The above is a quote by Oscar Wilde, author of The Importance of Being Earnest, which is a social satire regarding society and upper class attitudes about certain institutes, including marriage and education. For people who know everything are considered the upper class. They are wealthy, pompous, have a stuck-up attitude and feel as if the lower class should be grateful to them for various odds and ends. People who know nothing are the lower class, the commoners who are viewed as guinea pigs when it comes to marriage and education. Many upper class people feel as if educating the lower class is a disaster waiting to happen; they also feel that if the lower class don’t set a better example for marriage, then what good are they there for? There are many satires that Wilde satirizes but mainly upon marriage and education.

When it comes to the idea of marriage for her daughter and the education of her daughter’s future husband, no one has more unnecessary commentary than Lady Bracknell, who is the aunt of Algernon Moncrieff and a person of high standards in society. When Lady Bracknell finds out that her daughter Gwendolen Fairfax has arranged for her own engagement to Ernest, she balks at the indecency. “An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be.” (pg 44) This comes about as a set of assumptions about the nature and purpose of marriage. When Lady Bracknell then interviews Jack for his eligibility as Gwendolen’s husband, her questions reflect the conventional assumptions of Victorian respectability '' social position, income and character. She only thinks of marriage in the sense of making her standings higher in society and not about Gwendolen’s feelings in a marriage. One of Lady Bracknell’s questions for Jack is whether he knows everything or nothing. Jack responds that he knows nothing. “I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance…The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes…” (pg 45) With this line, we can clearly tell that Lady Bracknell views education of the lower classes or education in general to be a threat to the respectability of modern society. When she found out that Algernon was engaged to Cecily Cardew, Jack’s ward, she made a snide remark of how “some preliminary inquiry on my park would not be out of place” (pg 96) as if everything that went on in their family was of her business. The conversation between Jack and Lady Bracknell about the future of Cecily and Algernon’s marriage made a turning point when Jack mentioned that Cecily was to inherit “about a hundred and thirty thousand pounds in the Funds.” (pg 97) The possibility of wealth and fortune made Lady Bracknell see Cecily in a new light. Lady Bracknell didn’t care about the feelings of the couples, as long as her rank in society was boosted by wealth and fortune. “To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.” (pg 99) This final phrase shows how shallow she is and that she only cares about money. Finding out a person’s character allows for the two people to be compatible, yet she only considers whether the marriage is advantageous to her standings in society and if she’s seen as a wealthy and prosperous woman. She is a character that Wilde uses to satirize the hypocrisy and stupidity of the British aristocracy. Wilde uses her because she is the most quotable character in the play, for while she tries to be cunning, she ends up giving hilarious pronouncements that make her seem the fool of the play.

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