The Importance of Being Earnest Context


The Aesthetic Movement

Art for arts sake. Wilde was a leader in promoting the movement. Art was not meant to instruct and should not concern itself with social, political or moral guidance. The characterisation of the upper class in TIOBE shows that they do and say things just for the sake of social and political reasoning, but Wilde was against this.

1 of 15

The New Woman

The New Woman threatened conventional ideas about ideal Victorian womanhood; she was free-spirited, independent, educated and uninterested in children and marriage. There was an increasing amount of opportunities available for women during the turn of the century. Educational and work opportunities meant marriage and children was no longer the only option for women. Although still a controversial topic, sexual desire was becoming increasingly relevant in the search for new experiences. More focus was put on the double standards of Victorian marriage (that women had to be chaste and men did not).

2 of 15

Courtship and Marriage

Victorian values were perpetuated through courtship and marriage, both of which had their own rules and rituals. Marriage was a careful selection process. Fortune was especially important, as well as family, politics and housing. Duty rather than joy, love or passion was far more impotant when marrying. Marriage is presented by Wilde as a legal contract between consenting families of similar backgrounds.

3 of 15


Wilde uses the character of Chasuble to symbolise religious thought. Chasuble's interchangeable sermons and his passion for Miss Prism demonstrates how little some Victorians were beginning to concern themselves with religion. England was becoming an increasingly secular society, though still very much religious. So long as one appeared religious, it didn't matter if they actually believed in God or followed Christian teachings. 

4 of 15

Duty and Respectability

Aristocratic Victorians valued duty and respectability above all else - hence the name Oscar Wilde"Earnest". A person could have a secret life, a child out of wedlock or have an affair outside of marriage so long as they kept up appearances of respectability. Wilde questions whether more serious issues in Victorian society were overlooked in favour of trivial concerns about appearance. Everything must be done properly.

5 of 15

Secret Lives

Victorian norms were extremely restrictive and people often constructed secret lives to escape this. Marriage was seen by many bachelors as the end of freedom, pleasure and wickedness, and the beginning of duty and respectability.

6 of 15

Class Conflict

Aristocratic Victorians saw their attitudes as the virtuous high ground an the lower classes should have seen the error of their ways. To the Victorians, reform meant keeping the current social and economic system in place by perpetuating upper class values.

7 of 15


Education is not for learning to think, it is for mindlessly following convention. Lady Bracknell approves of ignorance. Thinking causes discontent, and discontent leads to social revolution. Rich children were mainly educated by a governess, and after a certain age the boys would go onto a public school and the girls would learn skills such as sewing and cooking. Teaching was mainly a job for unmarried women, such as Miss Prism. Sunday schools were introduced in 1831 and were mostly attended by poor children.

8 of 15

Oscar Wilde

Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854 to a father who was a surgeon with several illegitimate children and a mother who fought for women's rights. Wilde was educated at Oxford and was extremely well educated and witty. Wilde married in 1884 and had two sons. He also had a homosexual relationship with the son of a Marquis, and was eventually imprisoned because of this.

9 of 15

Gender Roles

The Victorian era developed the idea of the 'separate spheres'. Men dominated the public sphere of work and politics whilst women stayed in the private sphere of the home where they did domestic chores and looked after children. Women were not usually well educated as it was seen as a 'man's world' and that it was unnecessary for their domestic duties. Some even believed education was damaging to women's reproductive organs. The traditional view of women in Victorian society can be seen in the figure of the 'Angel in the House' from Patmore's poem of the same name. Women were supposed to be devoted to their husband and children and had no sexual desires.

10 of 15

Passion and Morality

Various characters in the play allude to passion, sex and moral looseness. Eating and writing in diaries were acceptable venues for passion, but Victorians had to show morality in all of their actions. Wilde's characters allude to another life beneath the surface of Victorian morality.

11 of 15

The Absence of Compassion

Victorians showed little compassion at illness and death. Everyone was too worried about their own lives to worry about others. Wilde seems to be presenting a social class which thinks only of itself and no compassion for the less fortunate.

12 of 15

Popular Culture

Victorians believed nothing good came from France, especially after the overthrow of the aristocracy in the French Revolution. Literary criticism and books are also criticised. Wilde demonstrates many examples of popular thought, revealing bias, social bigotry, thoughtlessness and blind assumptions. The three volume novel became very popular in the 19th century, and could often only be afforded by the extremely rich. A variety of writers seem to associate the three-volume novel with what seem like the values of a caricatured mid-Victorian middle class: conventionality, regularity, propriety, and dubious pretensions of endurance.

13 of 15

The Upper Class

Victorian class system, in which members of the same class marry one another, perpetuates the gulf between the upper, middle and lower classes. Snobbish aristocratic attitudes further preserved the distance between these groups. The French Revolution was used as an example of what happened when the lower class questions their 'betters'.

14 of 15

The Dandy

The Dandy was a man who payed lots of attention to his appearance, dress and lifestyle to the point of excess. He used his wit and charm to point out society's hypocrisy and double standards. The Dandy symbolises self-indulgence as well as the revelation of truth. The Dandy also threatened the accepted view of masculinity and only sought pleasure.

15 of 15


No comments have yet been made

Similar English Literature resources:

See all English Literature resources »See all The Importance of Being Earnest resources »