The society presented by Wilde in the first act of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is the late Victorian society within which he lived. This society was highly influenced by the nouveau riche and aristocracy. Wilde’s play focuses upon this sphere of social society with its drawing room setting. The late nineteenth century society was very much based upon rigid class distinctions and this comedy of the same period holds this same ideal. Evidence of the society this literature was drawn from can be seen throughout the opening act both in the reportee of the characters and its general plot line. This play is clearly linked with the critic ideal that ‘art mirrors the society it stems from’ and the distinction of the reaction from a contemporary audience as opposed to a modern audience viewing this play is further evidence of the picture Wilde creates of late Victorian society.
The opening scene of the first act introduces us to Algernon and Lane who are opposites of the social spectrum. It is clear from the stage directions that precede the first few lines that Algernon is a socialite: ‘Morning – room in Algernon’s flat in Half Moon Street’. This area of London in the time of Wilde would have held high social status and housed many members of high society, indeed this play was premiered in the same region of London. This introduces us to the setting of the play without any speech taking place. As dialogue begins between the characters it is obvious from Lane’s subservience, calling Algernon ‘sir’, that he is of lower social status and therefore a servant of Alge’s. To a contemporary audience the inclusion of a servant would not have felt alien as it maybe would to a modern audience viewing Wilde’s work. In fact, many contemporary onlookers would have housed a servant of some kind as a social status indicator. Wilde definitely portrays the rigid class distinctions found within the society of this era and this can also be seen with the inclusion of Miss Prism and Chasuable later in the play.
Marriage is a constant theme in Act One and throughout the play. Within the opening act talk of marriage forms much of the reportee between the characters. Many of the comments made are highly poignant when studying Victorian high society. Jack’s reason for visiting the city is to propose to Gwendolen and on realising this, Algernon talks of the romanticism of ‘being in love’ but the loss of romance in a ‘definite proposal.’ A social comment on Victorian perception of marriage can be seen here. Much of high society would have married within the confines of their socio – economic group and many marriages were based upon the need for, as Lady Bracknell states, ‘a recognized position in high society’. This paints a superficial picture of the society being commented upon and again emphasises the rigid class based hierarchical system of this era.
The Social Spheres Debate would have been at the forefront of social discussion during this period and Wilde picks up upon this aspect in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. The Social Spheres Debate centred upon assigning gender roles in the domestic and occupational spheres. With the entrance of Lady Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolen the protagonist assigned gender roles are quickly assumed because of the domestic setting. Lady Bracknell dominates the situation by ordering her fellow characters into place: ‘I’ll have a cup of tea and one of those nice cucumber sandwiches’. The role of Lord Bracknell has been diminished and although he is referred to it is often in passing: ‘ Your uncle would have to dine upstairs’ This could be seen as further emphasising the stereotypical domestic role of women as the public face of a marriage ‘keeping up appearances’ as it were. Through the dominance of the leading female characters and the drawing room setting Wilde has portrayed to us a stereotypical society based on the ideal of conformity.
A further theme used to convey ‘Wilde’s society’ comes in the form of truth and deception or binary opposites. Wilde has used Algernon to portray a major social issue of late Victorian society within a humorous context. ‘Bunbury’ is the product of Algernon’s deception towards the other characters. It allows him, just as Mr Hyde allowed Dr Jekyll, to lead a double life or produce as Algernon calls it ‘a false impression.’ Within late nineteenth century society ‘a high moral tone’ was expected to be taken at all times and this impression was rarely deceived. This was as Wilde sees it the meaning behind ‘Bunbury’; a character which much of contemporary society could relate too. This aspect of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ can also be linked to the Social Spheres Debate when looking at the male sphere and its obvious dual standards to a modern day audience. The ideal of truth and deception created by Wilde again portrays the superficial and trivial reality of high society during this period when ‘keeping up appearances’ meant everything in status terms.
In conclusion to this essay, Wilde creates a rigid class and status based superficial society without taking a moral standpoint. He believed in ‘art for art’s sake’ and along with literary devices and humour this is a major factor when studying how Wilde portrays late Victorian society to audiences from varied eras. The play relies upon the interaction of the audience whoever they maybe.