"The period in which The Importance of Being Earnest appeared, the late nineteenth century, is sometimes referred to as the fin de siècle: a French term that literally means ‘end of the century’. The fin de siècle was characterized by a loss of confidence and a sense of impending doom, prompted by factors such as threats to British imperialism, economic competition from abroad, political turmoil at home and social upheaval as conventions of class and gender were challenged.
We can see these preoccupations reflected in The Importance of Being Earnest. In the ‘tea scene’ in Act Two, Cecily taunts Gwendolyn with the spectre of ‘agricultural depression’, noting: ‘I believe the aristocracy are suffering very much from it just at present’.
When Gwendolen learns of Jack and Algernon’s plans to be re-christened she praises their bravery
by exclaiming, ‘How absurd to talk of the equality of the sexes!'"
This is not to be taken seriously--it is Oscar Wilde's satirical stab at conservative thinking. He is being ironic.
"Individuals in nineteenth-century England were organized into social classes. Class was defined by occupation, family connections and access to wealth. Individuals generally remained within the class they were born into. At the top of the scale were the upper class, consisting of the aristocracy, the landed gentry and a select number of wealthy professionals and manufacturers. At the pinnacle of the upper class were the members of ‘Society’, a social enclave (district) centered around the royal court.
The middle class was represented by professionals (including doctors, lawyers and bankers), manufacturers, artists and retailers. The working classes consisted of domestic servants, tradespeople, retail workers and labourers. The poor and destitute existed outside this framework but remained visible and a significant source of anxiety.
Several classes are represented in The Importance of Being Earnest. Lane, Merriman and the footman
belong to the working class; Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble are part of the genteel middle class; and Jack, Algernon, Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell and Cecily are members of the upper class.
Wilde’s play can be read as a satire of the class system, particularly of the upper-class elite who formed ‘Society’. Society was structured around social rituals, and governed by the strict rules of etiquette. The most significant rituals were those surrounding birth, coming-of-age, marriage and death: all of which are depicted or mentioned in the play."
What are YOUR opinions about class in our own 21st century culture? Is economic class still an issue? What might be a solution to this "problem"? As a playwright, how might you represent this issue on stage?
HOMEWORK: Please hand in your short sketch based on one of Oscar Wilde's quotes (see previous post for details) today. Please complete your reading of Major Barbara). Expect a reading comprehension quiz on the play.