A comedy of manners is a descriptive term applied to a play whose comedy comes from social habits of a specified society. The play normally bases on the dominant members of the society. The social habits involve the manners and the morals practiced in the specified society. The play normally features the conduct and social status of the upper classes in a given society and how they interact with the lower classes. In most cases, the lower classes interact with the upper classes by taking roles as servants, trade people and other responsibilities as such. Therefore, I think this play can only act in a hierarchical society with a population of different classes and social status.
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The importance of being earnest is referred to as a comedy of manners because it ironically describes the conduct of the Victorian upper class. The play describes their behavior in a hypocritical manner. The play seems to be making fun of them. The upper class individuals are described as money minded, superficial as well as artificial. The play uses satirical language to turn their values upside down and make us laugh considering the way they judge things by appearance. A language that is funny and witty has also been used to describe the upper class of the Victorian society. The main themes that the play bases on are love, identity, marriage as well as money. Wilde who is the author of the play had an intention of exposing the norms and values of the upper class individuals of the Victorian society and to prove them as shame. The fact is that besides the society stressing on values like respectability, decency and seriousness, its practices are totally different from these values. In order for any marriage to take place, the involved parties must be certified in terms of wealth as well as family background. From the play, we find that lady Bracknell rejected the marriage between Gewendolin and Jack simply because Jack was foundling. During her conversation with Jack, the lady gave priority to the family background without considering the education and other abilities that Jack had. She even did not consider the love that existed between Jack and Gewendolin. When she notices that Cecily’s account has a lot of money, she predicts that the cash must have come from her boyfriend Algernon and stands ready to support their marriage. Therefore, it is the beauty of the boyfriend’s name that makes him qualify as a candidate for marriage other than his qualities and abilities. Both Cecily and Gewendolin are ready to marry their boyfriends only because of their name “earnest” as opposed to what they feel for them. They seem to be driven by the notion that has long existed in their society which requires them to be married by men from capable and financially stable backgrounds. To them, wealth is a key requirement for marriage. “The play describes them as people who find everything in the name and love for name” (Wilde 84).
On the other hand, the men prefer to be associated with the name earnest but they seem to lack seriousness. The play bases on this to mock the upper class society that only values the surfaces and the appearances but not what is contained inside. They believe that everything that glitters is gold. This is very hypocritical. Considering the dialogue used in the play, we find it to be very witty and funny. If you consider the surface conversation between the characters, you will find it to be very beautiful and sweet but the inside is very hollow. The level to which the author has used paradox and irony in description of the conduct and behavior of the Victorian upper class society really tells us a lot about the pretensions and the artificiality of this kind of class. “Therefore, The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy of manners because it employs light hearted language to evoke laughter at the false values of the Victorian upper society” (Wilde 97).This demonstrates a great level of discrimination against class and social status and this is one of the reasons why the play can only act in a hierarchical society with a population of different classes and social status.
Considering world historical contexts of this play to show continuities and changes over time, the importance of earnest is a comedy of manners that is derived much less in a specified history. There are several historical contexts that support the above underlined thesis of this play. The play views several historical contemporary events that demonstrate a troubled hierarchical society that has similar characters just like the ones portrayed in the play itself.
Considering some of the mentioned topics in the play, we can relate them to some of the world political issues that have been incorporated into history and still prevails today. One of them is the issue of Ireland home rule. In the year 1986, it was noted that William Gladstone came up with a great controversy where by he led the British Liberal party while under the frame work of the British Empire to back up support for the self rule form of governance. Since this home rule bill was contentious, the House of Lords later suppressed it by refusing to vote for its approval and enactment. This historical context happened only some few years before the play was released. Of course the main reason why the House of Lords failed to pass the bill was because the bill was meant to bring freedom to the less privileged members of the society. Being the upper class of this society, the House of Lords intentionally had to suppress the bill so that the lower class members remain servants to them. This was to cut any interaction as well as freedom links that might crop up. This type of behaviors is same as that of some characters in the play like lady Bracknell. She believes that ladies from the Victorian upper society are only supposed to be married by earnest men but not any other man. She does everything possible to make sure that there is no interaction between the upper and lower classes of the Victorian society just like the House of Lords did in Ireland when a home rule was to be enacted.
Considering a historical event like US civil rights movements, you will find that the political policies that were enacted discriminated against the blacks. In this context, the whites considered themselves as the upper class part of the American society. They treated the blacks as the lower class members of the same society. The whites enhanced laws on racial segregation which gave them freedom to publicly discriminate the blacks. Considering the transit system, the blacks were forced to occupy the back seats while the whites occupy the front seats. The blacks were denied some of their rights including leadership and voting. Therefore, the upper class did not allow any form of association with the lower class. They wanted the blacks to play a role as their servants. This is the same thing that was happening in the play. The upper class society did not encourage any marriage relationship with people whose background was not same as theirs. They abolished any links that could associate them with the lower class individuals. This historial context also proves that this play can only act in a hierarchical society where there is a division between the upper and the lower class. The play will make fun of their behavior since satire is the only tool to fight a loosing battle (“Historical Background” 1).
The main reason why the characters in the play get so upset with politics is because it tends to destruct the comfort and the hierarchical lifestyle that they are used to in the society. They see politics as a threat that can bring revolution and continuity change just like the French revolution that continuously hanged over the British society. When lady Bracknell hears of the sudden death of imaginary Bunbury who died in the explosion, she says that she was not aware that he was a victim of revolutionary outrage. She says that this was a fair punishment for him for being involved in the social legislation. This demonstrates the fear of social unrest that the upper class Victorian society had following any sign of revolution and social legislation that might see the rights of the poor respected.
Lastly, as the 19th century was coming to an end, England was one of the countries that witnessed cultural and artistic change considering the values that were in place during the reign of Queen Victoria. There was wide touting of values like self help and respectability during the boom times of 1860s and 1870s. When the farming practices underwent a change, the whole society was affected and very few people could help themselves. The farmers suffered a lot after the wheat fields had been converted to cattle pastures. As the farmers were struggling, the upper class society members who were industrialists enjoyed a lot by gaining lots of profits from their factories and employing the lower class individuals at cheap wages. These factory owners and some businessmen formed links to come up as middle class. As they did this, they raised their social status by settling in the country side just to imitate the aristocracy. They did this so that their social status can be recognized and bring some form of hierarchy within the society just like the Victorian society in the play (“Historical Context” 1). Indeed this play can only act in a hierarchical society with a population of different classes and social status.
“Historical Background.” The Importance of Being Earnest. 15th Sep. 2007. 9th Feb 2010.
“Historical Context.” The importance of being earnest. 28th Mar 2008. 15th Apr 2010.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. Thomson: Filiquarian publishers, 2007.
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