Gender Roles Within Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest | An Academic Essay

Within the play The Importance of Being Ernest the male and female characters are fulfilling stereotypical Victorian-era gender roles superficially. Jack who is also known as Ernest in his second life portray bachelors who live the privileged life while Gwendolen is the prime example of “perfect” femininity. I will dissect the gender roles between men and women with an emphasis on the relationship between Jack and Gwendolen along with Algernon and Cecily and how they adhere and steer away from their gender and expected roles.

 

Marriage and Social Status

As it is shown many times within the play the patriarchal system was normal along with arranged marriages and it was not looked highly of if a woman arranged her own marriage. This is because women were supposed to be more emotional and weaker than men and therefore they cannot do things themselves.

Gwendolen is a perfect example of a stereotypical Victorian lady because she is elegant, charming, fragile, and well mannered. Jack even mentions this about Gwendolen’s by stating “… If I marry a charming girl like Gwendolen, and she is the only girl I ever saw in my life that I would marry,…” (Wilde 1.1.222-223). And even though she is more talkative than quiet and tries to choose whom she wants to marry, she still maintains a perfect form of femininity on the outside. In conclusion, Gwendolen foretells how females presented themselves on the outside, but what they long for is inside. The inside being represented as Gwendolen’s rebellion to the modern day values which included many things emphasizing marriage since social status was vastly important. The values in the Victorian era were traditional and it is concluded and confirmed by Lady Bracknell’s reaction towards Gwendolen’s engagement. She is horrified and believes that Gwendolen arranging her own marriage is not her responsibility, especially to someone of a lower class ranking. She says “Pardon me, you are not engaged to anyone. When you do become engaged to someone, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself..”(Wilde 1.1.391-395). Again, the patriarchal system believed that women were not allowed to make their own choices.

Another instance to prove further that women were not able to make their own choices would be how Cecily needs to get approval from Jack regards to anything since he is her guardian. An example of this would be how Jack prevents the marriage between her Algernon because he has to ability to not give his consent. Jack states “I beg your pardon for interrupting you, Lady Bracknell, but this engagement is quite out of the question. I am Miss Cardew’s guardian, and she cannot marry without my consent until she comes of age. That consent I absolutely decline to give” (3.1.181-184).

Jack also controls Cecily’s education because even though Cecily does not want to learn German she is pressured by Jack to keep learning and improving on the language (2.1.6-12).

 

MISS PRISM: Cecily, Cecily! Surely such a utilitarian occupation as the watering of flowers is rather Moulton’s duty than yours? Especially at a moment when intellectual pleasures await you. Your German grammar is on the table. Pray open it at page fifteen. We will repeat yesterday’s lesson.

 

CECILY: But I don’t like German. It isn’t at all a becoming language. I know perfectly well that I look quite plain after my German lesson.

 

MISS PRISM: Child, you know how anxious your guardian is that you should improve yourself in every way. He laid particular stress on your German, as he was leaving for town yesterday. Indeed, he always lays stress on your German when he is leaving for town.

 

From a patriarchal viewpoint,  A woman’s duty in life was to marry well and were discouraged from remaining unmarried. Gwendolen pleads to Jack “ Ernest, we may never be married. From the expression on mamma’s face, I fear we never shall. Few parents nowadays pay any regard to what their children say to them. The old-fashioned respect for the young is fast dying out. Whatever influence I ever had over mamma, I lost at the age of three. But although she may prevent us from becoming man and wife, and I may marry someone else, and marry often, nothing that she can possibly do can alter my eternal devotion to you” (Wilde 2.1.597-603). From what Gwendolyn says is important because she mentions about marrying multiple men or marrying often. This shows that women were expected to marry and it gives light to the privilege wealthy women accumulated since divorce was looked down upon and was difficult to obtain unless the woman was wealthy.

The wealth and privilege the genders experience depended greatly on their socioeconomic status. In the beginning, it is shown that Jack, a male stud, lives a double life without being ridiculed. This is factual because Algernon knows that Jack is leading a double life since he is also leading one as well. In act I, scene I, lines 188 through 194, Algernon explains that his second life consists of caring for a fictional person named Bunbury whose is in terrible health in order to go to the countryside whenever he pleases. It was not uncommon for men to have a secret agenda in the Victorian era.

Jack is able to have plenty of freedom until he is not able to marry the love of his life, Gwendolen. All because he grew up as an orphan. Jack experiences the oppression, restriction, and unfairness women felt at the time since he was denied about something he was born into and cannot control. Jack states “Oh, Gwendolen is as right as a trivet. As far as she is concerned, we are engaged. Her mother is perfectly unbearable. Never met such a Gorgon… I don’t really know what a Gorgon is like, but I am quite sure that Lady Bracknell is one. In any case, she is a monster, without being a myth, which is rather unfair…I beg your pardon, Algy, I suppose I shouldn’t talk about your own aunt in that way before you” (Wilde 1.1.511-516).

In addition Jack does this to Algernon as well and prevents Algernon to marry Cecily. It seems as if there is a circle of characters oppressing each other. Jack to Cecily, Algernon to Jack, and Lady Bracknell to Gwendolen. Wilde shows the spectrum of oppression between women and men, but in a different context since the social statues are included.

 

Positions of Power

Wilde gives an alternative thought about positions of power during the Victorian era. He does this with the character Lady Bracknell as she is dominant and is not the classic Victorian woman.  She is more outspoken and becomes an authoritative figure when it comes to her daughter’s judgment about marriage. To illustrate, when Gwendolen announces that she is engaged to Jack, Lady Bracknell does not approve and expresses to Jack that he is not on her list of eligible young men (Wilde 1.1.390-406). Although she obtains what would have been a manly position during the time, she still possesses some of the stereotypical Victorian woman traits by acting unintelligent and naive.

For example, Lady Bracknell questions Jack about how Algernon could be dishonest since he has good looks and went to Oxford University; a prestigious school.

 

LADY BRACKNELL: Upon what grounds may I ask? Algernon is an extremely, I may almost say an ostentatiously, eligible young man. He has nothing, but he looks everything. What more can one desire?

 

JACK: It pains me very much to have to speak frankly to you, Lady Bracknell, about your nephew, but the fact is that I do not approve at all of his moral character. I suspect him of being untruthful.

 

[ALGERNON and CECILY look at him in indignant amazement]

 

LADY BRACKNELL: Untruthful! My nephew Algernon? Impossible! He is an

Oxonian.

 

During the Victorian era, men were valued for their intelligence and judgments and Wilde broke this stereotype showing that men can be irresponsible and make bad decisions as well, with the characters Jack and Algernon. Even though the two men show many acts of immaturity and lack of judgment, the prime example of this would be how both men booked an immediate Christening in hoping to obtain the name, Ernest.

 

Conclusion

Overall, Oscar Wilde shows a great controversy within his play The Importance of Being Ernest due to the gender roles and social constructs that have been broken. Wilde gave readers examples of this through relationships. The courtship between Gwendolen and Jack Wilde showed that people can marry for love and not just social or economic gain. Wilde also hinted that all genders can be intelligent or unintelligent sometimes and that a prestigious school does not determine how much someone knows or their worth. Women are also capable of making decisions on their own as well as being leaders.

The most important aspect was that this play was relatable. It was relatable back in the Victorian era and in the present day.  People can relate to wanting to speak their mind and wanting to feel valid about their gender, ranking, and decisions. The Importance of Being Ernest is a groundbreaking play giving light to alternative thoughts that people had during the era and did not want to speak of.

 

 

Works Cited

Wilde, Oscar, The Importance of Being Ernest. The Norton Anthology of Drama. Vol. 2 J Ellen Gainor et. al. W.W. Norton & Company, 2018. 266-308

Kathryn is a freelance writer and blogger who enjoys the creative writing realm and is currently pursuing a degree in psychology and minoring in creative writing

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

 

Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam

Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam writes prose fiction and creative non-fiction. She is the founder of creativewritingnews.com. Her first novella, Finding Love Again was published by Ankara Press. Her second novella, The Heiress' Bodyguard was shortlisted for the Saraba Manuscript Awards. She currently works as content marketer for various online businesses. You can follow her at @cwritingnws.

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