Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
The society was so attached to the fake ideals of earnestness that it was ready to pay any price for it. This frenzied and frantic thrust towards the ideals pressurized individuals to live a double life. People became double dealers in an attempt to live life earnestly. The late nineteenth century British people gradually became hypocritical in their fashionable and faddish struggle to obtain the ideals of earnestness. This line of rush for the earnest life made people compromise with anything. Ugly, selfishness, unnecessary pride, false sense of self-worth and dangerous haughtiness developed as evils which corroded the simple charm and unspoiled nature of people. The Victorian society was outwardly flowery. It was artificial and hollow within.
The upper middle class haughty and arrogance nature is critiqued by Wilde. Lady Bracknell arrogantly dismisses Jack's proposal to Gwendolen. Her haughty manner makes an appearance when she interrogates Jack whether he is really qualified to be her son in law or not. To the utter shame of the readers, she had kept all the bio-data and testimonials of those who dared to propose to Gwendolen, but proved unqualified suitors for her daughter. It is really unbecoming of lady Bracknell to take such a complete control over her daughter's right to choose a suitable life friend. This haughty trend available in the upper middle class people is critically exposed by Wilde in this play.
In the play two characters are shown putting the virtue of earnestness on the pedestal. Jack Worthing and Algernon are those characters who are obsessed with the name earnestness. Jack lives in a country house. He knows it clearly that modern Victorian lady in urban society falls quickly in love with a man named Earnest. But he had a country name Jack. So to arrest the love of an urban lady Jack took another fictitious name Earnest and went to London. This kind of hypocritical life of Jack is an example of double life. Why Jack took the name Earnest? The answer is an urban lady loves only those whose names are Earnest. Because Victorian society permitted youths to lead a double life, Jack chose that name. The faddish cult of living an earnest life was on the rise in the Victorian society. Therefore Jack engaged in the cult of Bunburying. With the name Earnest Jack went to town to meet his friend, Algernon. He met Gwendolen. Gwendolen knew his name was Earnest. She fell in love with him on the spot. From Gwendole’s behavior, readers come to know how ridiculous the Victorian society had become. What can be more ludicrous than the statement of Gwendolen, who says, “I love you because your name is Ernest?” What kind of love, it is whose foundation is not devotion on the part of lower but a mere verbal charm of name? What does the society get from those people who fall in love out of the magical, charm of name only? Jack, and Gwendolen alone are not accountable for the shallowness and artificiality that degrades the society. It is the then Victorian society which made room for youths to run after a depthless and essence-less life. Her mad thirst for love based on the charming name earnest made Gwendolen's love substance-less. Jack's hypocritical style of living in town by the fictitious name earnest made him a double dealer. Jack became liar in the process of living an earnest life. He told his ward, Cecily that his brother named Earnest lives in town, he falls sick, so he has to visit him in town.
In the same and a similar way, Algernon took a false name earnest, and went to the village to earn the love of Cecily. Algernon had known that Cecily loves Jack’s fictitious brother named Earnest. So Algernon went to meet her under the impression that he is Jack's brother.
Both man and woman became the victims of hypocrisy, and the vice of double dealing. These evils persisted in Victorian society. Particularly, the upper middle classes were encumbered by the folly of rushing for the hollow ideals of earnestness. Both Jack and Algernon represent the upper middle class. Their lives were full of vices and follies.
Oscar Wilde has attacked the Victorian age for its attachment to loveless life. The love defined by the Victorian society was devoid of love. In the play Wilde shows Jack and Algernon are being in loveless love with Gwendolen and Cecily respectively. Even Gwendolen and Cecily love their respective lovers for their noble names Ernest only and not for them. We are ashamed to hear such a declaration of love. Love for the name of beloved and not for him/her become the driving principle of youth. This love devoid of emotional depth is satirized by Wilde in the play.
In the play we find Gwendolen following the dictates of the fashions. In this direction of obeying the sovereign tyranny of the fashion she lost even a remnant of courage to assert her will. This ludicrous plight of Gwendolen can be seen in her submissive reactions to every word of her mother.
The Victorian morality is slightly hinted at by Wilde in a satirical manner. Dr. Chasuble's relaxed concentration on Sermon reveals his loose preoccupation with moral consciousness. The moral consciousness of the Victorian people can be known a bit from the religious commitment of Dr. Chasuble. Chasuble is the sort of priest who gives sermons repeatedly with a view to satisfy the moods of the attendants. Instable moral consciousness of Dr. Chasuble reflects from his surrender to the affections of Mrs. Prism. From Chasuble's moral predicament readers come across the satirical standpoint of the dramatist regarding the wavering moral faith in the Victorian society. Life in Victorian society was full of hustle and bustle. People were anxious. Much more business kept people confined in their own privacy. The deeply hidden anxiety made Victorian people absent-minded. Miss Prism is a victim of Victorian absent-mindedness.