‘In dramatic comedy women are typically presented in a less favourable way than men.’ To what extent do you agree with this view in relation to ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’? In Victorian society, the male role would be to rule, protect and provide for his family. Men were always making the political decisions and women had the job of wife, mother and domestic manager. When married, it was men who owned all properties of the women, and she must be faithful to her husband. Divorce led to shame only on females and loss of the right to see their children. In this patriarchal society, men were clearly dominant over women, however, this is not entirely the case in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. The play portrays particular female characters in very different and unexpected manners, some less favourable than others. A way that Wilde challenges the typical Victorian society is by the way he presents women similarly to men.
The female characters in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, Lady Bracknell in particular, are much more dominant than expected for the time and tend to take control over most situations. Within the Bracknell household, Lord Bracknell is known to be ‘under the thumb’ of the women and Gwendolen even remarks that “Outside the family circle, papa, I am glad to say, is entirely unknown. I think that is quite as it should be” (Act 2). Here, Gwendolen shows reversing the traditional roles of men and women. Gwendolen challenges the conventional idea that women should be the ones at home cooking, cleaning, and raising children. Wilde overtly shows that woman can occupy positions of power and usurp the traditional gender roles. He uses the comedic device of role reversal to highlight the importance of traditional roles in Victorian society. The humour comes from the ridiculousness of women being the dominant gender and taking charge of others, when it is well known this was not the case at the time.
The role that you would expect to be played by Lord Bracknell is actually played by his wife, Lady Bracknell. Throughout ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ it becomes quite clear that she is a very dominant character who loves to have power and control over everyone else, female or male. A very strong example of this role reversal is in Act 1 of the play where Lady Bracknell interrogates Jack about his eligibility as a suitor for her daughter, Gwendolen’s hand. This is an unusual role for a women to adopt, purely because at the time it was the man’s job to ensure that whoever was to marry into his family was suitable, based mainly on social class and financial matters. At the start of Jack’s ‘interview’, Lady Bracknell immediately demonstrates her dominance by saying “You can take a seat, Mr Worthing.” The imperative is commanding and, as he has little choice if he wishes to marry Gwendolen, Jack obeys, showing the power is entirely in her hands. She controls the whole conversation. Jack says very little in comparison to her long speeches, rarely expanding on answers.
This could partially be due to his fear to say something wrong and ruin his chances to marry her daughter, and partially due to his fear to appear more dominant than Lady Bracknell, giving a bad impression and leading to her disapproval. Jack is very careful what to say around her, considering his answers. The stage direction: ‘After some hesitation’ placed before one of Jack’s responses shows that good impression is vital to him. It implies that Jack finds Lady Bracknell’s approval to be of high importance and that saying the right thing to please her is crucial. Lady Bracknell has masculine power, whereas Jack appears comparatively effeminate, creating part of the play’s social satire. Wilde uses this satire to attack the Victorian society and its moral values. The comedic view on this situation is not only the way Lady Bracknell overpowers Jack, but also the way Jack treats this role reversal as totally natural, as if women in Victorian society would actually act in that way. Another way that Wilde presents women less favourable than men is through deception.
The character of Lord Bracknell never actually appears in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ so takes no part in the decisions made by Lady Bracknell. The reasoning for her husband’s absence is revealed in Act 3 of the play when she says he was under the impression that Gwendolen was attending a lecture by the “University Extension Scheme on the Influence of a permanent income on Thought.” She then claims later on “I have never undeceived him on any question”, which is quite obviously untrue being that Gwendolen is actually in the country and not at a lecture. This contrasts with the Victorian sex society and how deception often occurred within a marriage. Married men of the upper class were deceiving as most kept a mistress, hidden out of site from the wife. Married women however, because of their lack of power, were faithful to their husbands. Lady Bracknell, the woman of the family, is actually the one who deceives in her marriage, not Lord Bracknell. In this relationship, Lady Bracknell appears less favourable as at the time of the play, women would never deceive their husband and that misleading action could be seen as disrespectful or rude.
The fact that Lord Bracknell is entirely ‘out of the loop’ with what is happening, due to Lady Bracknell’s attempt to ‘protect’ him from the truth, actually shows how manipulative she can be to get things to work in her favour. His absence allows her to make all decisions on her own, like the approval of Jack and Gwendolen’s marriage for example, which is so completely unexpected from a women it’s almost laughable. Wilde presents the characters of Gwendolen and Cecily as shallow. The reason they come across as this is mainly due to the fact they accepted the proposals from Jack and Algernon almost purely on the grounds that their names were Ernest. In Act 1, Gwendolen reveals to Jack that it has always been her dream to marry a man with that name due to the confidence it represents: “There is something in the name that inspires absolute confidence.” She tells Jack how from the moment she heard his name, she was “destined to love” him.
This suggests Gwendolen is a very low women as she has no interest in Jack’s personality or background, just in a fake label Jack gave himself. The comedic dramatic irony is that, at that point in the play, the audience knows Jack’s name isn’t actually Ernest, which further emphasises how ridiculous and even childish Gwendolen is. In the second act, both Jack and Algernon are caught out and their real names are discovered by Gwendolen and Cecily. This, in the minds of the women, changes everything and they declare the engagement off: “it is quite clear, Cecily, that neither of us is engaged to be married to anyone.” This again highlights the silliness of marriage being down to just a name but also shows disrespect towards the men over a very simple matter, which in reality should not make any difference in whether one marries someone or not.
This rude, shallow behaviour of the female characters significantly lowers their favourability, especially when in contrast to the great amount of effort the men go to, for example the calling of Doctor Chasuble for immediate baptism, in order to have their hands in marriage. ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ was written by Oscar Wilde as a comedy of manners, making fun of the behaviours of Victorian aristocracy and satirising them. He creates absurd situations and characters whose lack of insight causes them to respond to these situations in inappropriate ways. For example, Lady Bracknell’s preoccupation with her own parties and lack of sympathy for invalids makes her react to the news of Bunbury’s illness in a hyperbolically cold manner: “I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die.”
Lady Bracknell shows no consideration for Bunbury or his health but almost frustration, as if illness could be helped and he was not in a life-and-death struggle. The carelessness in what she is saying in her speech is quite a masculine trait, this along with manipulation, deception and dominance, also seen in women throughout the play. Although the men of the play also express some of these traits, for example the deception around the name of Ernest, this kind of behaviour was expected and so does not make them look any worse than anticipated. At the time, women had very insignificant roles, but the change that Wilde gives them very obviously puts them in a bad lighting and devalues them entirely. They act totally in the opposite way to which you would expect and come across very unfavourable, much less so than men.