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The Victorian Truth: Oscar Wilde’s Revelations Of The Aristocratic Lifestyle

1667 words - 7 pages

While it is widely understood now that Victorian society was one of excess and frivolity, it most certainly seemed legitimate to members of high society at the time. However, this was not the case with Oscar Wilde, who in his final play made mockery of his countrymen by satirizing the way in which they lived. This play, entitled The Importance of Being Earnest, follows the courtship of two young girls and exaggerates the absurd formalities of such a process in high society. The characters are shallow and delusional as a result of their upbringing, and collectively their words bring harsh criticism to the British upper class. These characters can be split into two clear categories. The majority, which is comprised of characters raised as orthodox aristocrats, is completely engrained with its ideals, primarily that of aesthetics over morals. These characters are in many ways like machines; so thorough is their connection with high society that they cannot function as individuals. In the other group, the minority, are those characters who would be referred to as “dandies” in Wilde’s time. They have retained their individuality, and use it seek their own slice of aristocratic influence. But by becoming so involved with high society they subject themselves to its triviality, and ultimately become as mechanical as their peers. In this way Wilde shows Victorian life to be corrupting rather than beneficial. Rather than a leading group in society, it’s obsession with luxury twists the upper class into meaningless robots. It is true that the aristocracy hold money and power, but there is an emptiness present that far outweighs the gains.
Surely the members of the aristocracy who are the most empty are those who have been raised as members of the upper class. Having been born into the most powerful social class, they have no aspiration, and have developed no sense of right and wrong. They have developed fictional occupations of their time, and are numbed as individuals that it has become a source of comedy. While the majority of characters fit this mold, Wilde creates a mother-daughter pair of Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen who serve as the ultimate stereotype of inherited class. Entering the play in a grand entrance, they quickly display to the audience a lack of individuality. Gwendolen’s first line sums up her position in society, when she insists that to be perfect would “leave no room for developments,” and that she “intends to develop in many directions” (Wilde 12). Blistering with irony, Wilde immediately shows his audience a character who has a lot say and very little idea of what she is talking about. Socially, Gwendolen probably cannot develop at all, and though the audience may not be aware of it at the time, personal development is “preoccupied with fashionable diversions,” and has “no legal, economic, or military aspects whatever” (Paglia 135). Even in her entrance, Gwendolen’s speech is as good as filler. Her mother...

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