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The Importance of Being Earnest | Context

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Victorian Morality

Queen Victoria's long reign over England, from 1837 to 1901, saw great political, economic, and social change. Many of these changes were driven by scientific and technological advances. For example, Britain laid 6,000 miles of railroad tracks between 1820 and 1850 alone. New printing technology let people distribute books and magazines (and the ideas in them) much more quickly. Despite these changes, however, the English claimed largely to share a set of Victorian moral ideals. One of these was sexual restraint, even prudery, in public and especially for women. Socially, the ideology that the upper class was genuinely superior still held sway, and its members were expected to behave in a way appropriate to their class.

By the time Wilde was writing The Importance of Being Earnest, however, Victorian morality was facing complications. For all that schoolmasters, ministers, and established rhetoric might champion ideals like that of the Victorian gentlemen, society had simply moved on in a kind of social evolution. Victorian ideals about gentlemen clashed with the emerging ideal (and economic reality) of the self-made man. Victorian ideals about femininity clashed with the New Woman movement, the emergence of birth control, and Socialist agitation. The result was a claim to universal values that were, in fact, disturbed at every turn, much as the audience sees in this play.

Homosexuality

The Importance of Being Earnest is about a character who takes on a false identity to hide activities that cannot be practiced openly. Although homosexuality is not explicit in the play, it played a major role in Wilde's life, and modern readers can easily find comparisons between Jack/Ernest's life and Victorian-era homosexuals. Because practicing homosexuality was a capital crime in England until 1828, and a felony throughout the 19th century, those who acted on their attraction to people of the same sex were often forced to lead double lives. A clue that Wilde likely had this context in mind is found in the word earnest; it is thought to have been a code word for homosexual, much as gay is today.

Independent of its criminal status, homosexual activity was also a contradiction of Victorian ideals: the purpose of sex was supposed to be reproduction.

The Aesthetic Movement

The 19th century was marked by the rise of the middle class and by a kind of pragmatism that emphasized hard work and practical results. With the Industrial Revolution and urbanization, much of the English landscape was destroyed; in cities slums and blight increased. Factories were crude and unsightly; workers' housing was often primitive and unsanitary. Such ugliness repelled artistic sensibilities. The art many Victorians embraced was often sentimental or practical, such as works intended to teach morality.

Starting in the 1860s, the Aesthetic Movement reversed this trend by emphasizing beauty and design. French poet Théophile Gautier gave the movement its slogan: "Art for art's sake." Starting in France with the visual arts, the movement spread across the disciplines and throughout Europe. English critic Walter Pater became a leading voice in the Aesthetic Movement. Where conventional Victorians celebrated what they thought of as objective truths and eternal values, Pater championed the sensory, the sensual, the ephemeral, and the individual. Pater influenced Wilde directly; in fact Wilde took a copy of Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance with him while he traveled and even memorized sections of it. The movement's influence is reflected in The Importance of Being Earnest's focus on performance, artifice, and epigrams, or witty and often satirical sayings.

The Decadent Movement

The Romantics had celebrated nature and folk traditions. Many Victorians valued honesty, hard work, and modesty. The Decadent Movement reversed the values of both, glorifying artifice and the artificial over the natural. The movement started in France but moved to England. The Decadent Movement was closely linked to the Aesthetic Movement and championed its values as well as its own. Wilde was a major representative of the Decadent Movement in England, which rejected the ideas that art should imitate life, have a clear moral purpose, or support shared values. Instead, decadence celebrated style, excess, and pleasure—values celebrated in The Importance of Being Earnest.

19th-Century Theater

One movement dominating 19th-century theater was the well-made play. In this highly formulaic structure, which developed in France in the 1820s, action moved within narrow boundaries, similar to those in genre fiction. Sets were limited and plots conventional. These plays tended to revolve around clear and specific problems, like romances in which a young woman must choose between two suitors. Suspense was a key element in these plays, which critics sneered at for running like machinery.

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde used the conventions of the well-made play but satirized them, exaggerating them to the point of ridicule. Jack and Gwendolen face a standard problem: they want to get married, but there are obstacles. Jack's lack of background makes him an unacceptable suitor, as does his name. These issues are completely, if ridiculously, resolved by the end of the play.
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