Between 1837 and 1901, Britain experienced a period where the way activities were carried out was experiencing a big change; this period of time was known as the Industrial Revolution. However, the moral values and social customs remained the way they were and everyone strictly followed these values. In ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’, the main characters are all people from the upper class and therefore it is very important for them to abide by these rules in order for them to be seen as pure and have a high social status. In this essay, I will be discussing the norms of Victorian behavior and customs of Victorian marriage rituals and romance; and will be relating this to the events at the end of Act I of Victorians took the issue of romance, courtship, engagement and marriage very seriously and strictly followed a set of rules in which a man can interact with a woman. The rules of the Victorian era regarding the interaction of a man and a woman were that a man and a woman were not allowed to communicate with each other unless introduced by a mutual friend or a family member. A woman was only allowed to talk to a man if another older woman was around.
No physical contact was allowed between a man and a woman unless they were engaged. A woman was not allowed to flirt with a man through the use of words, but flirting with a fan was acceptable. These were one of the few rules that were set at the time. Towards the end of Act I, we will see many examples of where these rules are violated and examples where these rules were followed by the main characters of Act I (Gwendolen, Jack and Lady Bracknell). Towards the end of Act I, where the conversation between Gwendolen and Jack are going against the norms of Victorian behavior as the flirty language exchanged between the two can be identified. The quote “Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else” suggests that Gwendolen acknowledges the attempts of Jack trying to flirt with her, but instead of following the norms of Victorian behavior, and ignoring the flirtation…Gwendolen is seen flirting back, the quote: “And I often wish that in public, at any rate, you had been more demonstrative” displays this. However, as the conversation progresses the relationship between Gwendolen and Jack changes from friends, to lovers as they both admit their affection for one another; this is shown when Jack says: “You really love me Gwendolen?” to which Gwendolen replies: “Passionately”.
We can also see that Jack is aware of the Victorian customs as he talks about getting christened again to change his name from jack to Ernest: “I am being christened this afternoon”. This not only displays Jack’s awareness about Victorian traditions but also shows his unjustifiable affection for Gwendolen. Later on, we can see that Jack officially proposes to Gwendolen: “Gwendolen, will you marry me?” to which Gwendolen replies “Of course I will, my darling”; but they are cut short by Lady Bracknell’s sudden arrival from the room. This part is quite bizarre as it follows the norms and customs of the marriage process, but also goes against the norms of Victorian behavior, as the proposal, although accepted by Gwendolen was denied by Lady Bracknell. The audience can see that Lady Bracknell is a strict follower of the rules as she says: “When you do become engaged to someone, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you”; suggests that she is well aware of the rules and strictly abides by it. The act of openly discussing both the families’ wealth and the open house discussion is also displayed in this act; this is shown when Lady Bracknell interviews Jack. In Victorian days, this meeting was what would determine if a marriage would take place or not…and in The Importance of Being Ernest, the meeting was an unsuccessful one for Jack and Lady Bracknell calls the engagement off due to the fact that Jack “lost both” his parents.
Although the interview was going well at the start, the fact that Jack was found in a cloak-room at a railway station; ruins the reputation of his character in the eyes of Lady Bracknell, and therefore, she labels jack as unworthy of her daughter. We can say that the decision was a right one, as it would damage the reputation of Lady Bracknell’s family and all of the properties that are entitled to Gwendolen would become Jack’s upon marriage. Therefore, women had to be very subjective in who they pick to be married with. Coming to a conclusion we can say that the rules, norms and customs of Victorian marriage and behavior are violated by most of the characters in the play like Gwendolen and Jack; but one strict follower of the rules is Lady Bracknell. Following these rules was considered very important at those times and violation of any of those rules by an upper-class person would make them seem impure; which could affect their social status in society. Gwendolen does not follow the rules and norms of Victorian behavior at all. She openly flirts with Jack and engages in physical contact with him before being engaged.
Jack sometimes follows the rules but sometimes goes against the norms of Victorian behavior. He also openly flirts and engages in physical contact with Gwendolen before marriage, but he is follows the norm as he proposes to Gwendolen and attends the family meeting that was set by Lady Bracknell. Lady Bracknell is seen as the strictest follower of the rules as she calls of the engagement due to the fact that it was not permitted by herself or Gwendolen’s father. She also suggests the meeting and is strict about her choice of an eligible husband for Gwendolen, shows the typical mother of the Victorian era.