Written in 1895, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is one of English literature’s most important plays, as it provides a scathing social satire of Victorian era traditions. The play is set in London, which, at the time, was undergoing a struggle between a need for wide spread change and a desire to hold on to traditional values. This can be seen through the main characters of John Worthing, Algernon Moncrieff, and Miss Prism; however, through the female characters of Lady Bracknell, Gwendolyn Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, Oscar Wilde reveals the three different female viewpoints to the rules of proper society, representing the upper class in Victorian London.
Lady Bracknell represents the old Victorian ways. That is, she believes that being proper and stylish should be valued over the actual qualities of a person. She also believes in a strict enforcement of class and social hierarchies, as well as that wealth is paramount. This is shown in the way she treats others, as she controls who gets married to who and by the way she acts as a tyrant to dominate others. For example, she tries to stop her daughter from marrying Jack because he was born into a lower class. This character represents the old social order that beginning to crumble as the Victorian era draws to a close.
Gwendolyn Fairfax represents those people that are caught in the middle of the changes happening in London. On one hand, she feels obligated to be a part of the traditional society, but, on the other hand, she is beginning to pull away. As Lady Bracknell’s daughter, she is subservient to her and her Victorian ways, but she still has a rebellious spark, representing those that are beginning to challenge the social order, as was beginning to happen in London at the time. This is shown is the way she rebels in private when no one is around to see and when she agrees to marry Jack, even though this is against her mother’s wishes. This character demonstrates those that willingly to change away from Victorian ideals, but are still constrained by those around them.
Cecily Cardew represents those that were never a part of or have already broken away from the traditional, Victorian social order. As a child of only 18, she has a free spirit and is very aware of how she is being held back by Miss Prism, who is her tutor. She lives outside of London on Jack’s estate, and she is not part of the normal London society, making her a bit unaware. At one point in the play she even declares that she wants to meet a wicked man, which demonstrates her desire to break the rules and live a life of that is more free. This character represents the ideals people at the time were pushing for, such as freedom to choose, freedom to marry, etc., all of which were constrained under Victorian society.
Overall, this play is a representation of the social change happening in London, as the old Victorian system was beginning to break down, being replaced by a system that allowed for more freedom. This is especially true for the women of London because they had the most restraints put on them. The three women above represent this, each a different kind of woman with a different viewpoint on the current state of social change. This kind of social satire like this is what makes this play timeless and Oscar Wilde one of the great playwrights.