Lady Bracknell: Character in The Importance of Being Earnest

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      In the play, The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell is Algernon's snobbish, mercenary, and domineering aunt and Gwendolen's mother. Lady Bracknell married well, and her primary goal in life is to see her daughter do the same. She has a list of "eligible young men" and a prepared interview she gives to potential suitors. Like her nephew, Lady Bracknell is given to making hilarious pronouncements, but where Algernon means to be witty, the humor in Lady Bracknell's speeches is unintentional. Through the figure of Lady Bracknell, Wilde manages to satirize the hypocrisy and stupidity of the British aristocracy. Lady Bracknell values ignorance, which she sees as "a delicate exotic fruit." When she gives a dinner party, she prefers her husband to eat downstairs with the servants. She is cunning, narrow-minded, authoritarian, and possibly the most quotable character in the play.

      Lady Bracknell is a remarkable comic creation, the paragon of the highfalutin Victorian lady who stresses good breeding above all other matters. But she is far from a boring stereotype. Critics believe she is one of the greatest creations in Wilde's plays.

      Nevertheless her quirky comments and pompousness connot make her unconvincing though the plot seems highly improbable. She is dominating by nature and possesses an intimidating personality. The character has been introduced in Act I and Act III. She does not appear in Act II. However, into spite of her absence in Act II, her presence can be felt. Because of her distinguished characteristic she stands out among others. Her idiosyncrasies make her an interesting character.

A Fastidious and Fashionable Lady

      Like most of the ladies of higher class of Victorian society, Lady Bracknell is very fashion conscious. She is well conversant with carrying out her dresses, how to hold skirt, pad at hip, tighten the lace or reveal ankles. She knots her luxuriant hair up with combs and expensive hair-pins. She has a taste for fine music. Her character is marked by her snobbery. She feels proud of her superior social status and judges every individual from that perspective.

Paradox in Her Attitude

      Paradox in her nature lies in her hypocrisy while treating her husband. Though she gives lectures on being attentive to husband's needs, she herself behaves very irresponsibly with her husband. What she professes does not seem lo match with her own altitude.

      Some of Lady Bracknell's comments are brilliant in witty and paradoxical qualities. Her opinion about country-side as an inappropriate place for simple, unspoiled Gwendolen to live in contradicts the general view that the serene, unspoiled environment of country-side suits most the woman of such plain nature, whereas busy and complicated city life goes well with the clever, materialistic - minded women. Another is her view upon the practice of long engagement which she opines that it brings the two individuals too close so that nothing remains secret and everything gets exposed before marriage spoiling their relationship. However, common belief is quite different that recommends well-acquaintance between the partners ensure happy marriage. Strange enough is her description of Algernon. They are shockingly paradoxical. She describes her nephew in the following lines:

"He has nothing but he looks everything. What more can one desire?"

and

"He has nothing but his debts to depend on."

      There are also other paradoxical observations that she makes on London society. She comments on the pretension of the society-ladies who feign to remain young for ever. She jokingly tells that their ages stop at thirty-five. Another such comment is an educational system in London that has successfully retained the natural ignorance otherwise, she fears, the upper-class society will be under serious threat leading to outburst of violence in Governor Square.

Her Unsympathetic Nature

      Lady Bracknell possesses a mercenary outlook. Self-interest dictates her life's course. Nothing can sway her mind except personal gain. Naturally this particular quality makes her unsympathetic towards Bunbury, a ficlilions invalid friend of Algernon and passes a comical comment in this regard: "I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die this shilly-shallying I with the question is absurd. Nor do I in any way approve of the modern sympathy with invalids. I consider it morbid. Illness of any kind is hardly a thing to be encouraged in others. Health is the primary duty of life. I am always telling that to you poor uncle, but he never seems to take much notice as far as improvement in his ailment goes."

A Social Climber

      Her opinions and mannerisms betray a careful and calculated speaking pattern. She is able to go round for round with the other characters on witty epigrams and social repartee. Despite her current position, Lady Bracknell was not always a member of the upper class; she was a social climber bent on marrying into the aristocracy. As a former member of the lower class, she represents the righteousness of the formerly excluded. Because she is now Lady Bracknell, she has opinions on society, marriage, religion, money, illness, death, and respectability. She is another of Wilde's inventions to present his satire on these subjects.

      As a ruthless social climber and spokesperson for the status quo, Lady Bracknell's behaviour enforces social discrimination and excludes those who do not fit into her new class. Her daughter's unsuitable marriage is an excellent example of how she flexes her muscles. She sees marriage as an alliance for property and social security; love or passion is not part of the mix. She bends the rulers to suit her pleasure because she can. Jack will be placed on her list of eligible suitors only if he can pass her unpredictable and difficult test. She gives him ruthlessly "correct," but immoral, advice on his parents. "I would strongly advise you, Mr. Worthing, to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible, and to make definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over." It matters not how Jack finds parent(s), just that he do it, following the requirements for acceptability.

Her Authoritative Manners

      Lady Bracknell's authority and power are extended over every character in the play. Her decision about the suitability of both marriages provides the conflict of the story. She tells her daughter quite explicitly, "Padon me, you are not engaged to anyone. When you do become engaged to someone, I or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact." Donez decided, finished. She interrogates both Jack and Cecily, bribes Gwendolen's maid, and looks down her nose at both Chasuble and Prism.

Her Witty and Paradoxical Remarks

      Like other characters in the play her remarks are equally poignant and witty in tone. She refutes Gwendolen's decision to marry Jack on the charge of his unknown parentage. Humour in her comment is noteworthy in this regard:

      "You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter - a girl brought up with the utmost care - to marry into a cloak-room and form an alliance with a parcel." Another interesting paradoxical comment of her on Algernon is: "he has nothing, but his debts to depend on."

      Her witty comments comprise a major source of laughter. However, even through her witty remarks the ruthlessness of her character gets exposed. She shows no sympathy for Algernon's invalid friend Bunbury. Instead she comments sardonically that Mr. Bunbury should think over whether to live or to die. She criticises the modern trend of showing sympathy with the invalids that makes them morbid. When she is informed that Mr. Bunbury is dead she appreciates his decision. For some queer reason she blames Jack for losing her parents. Being exasperated when Jack tells her that he possesses all the certificates of Cecily's birth, baptism, whooping cough, registration, vaccination and the measles, Lady Bracknell retorts that life seems to be too exciting for Cecily which is crowded with incident’ though she does not approve of such premature experiences. Equally hilarious when disapproves of Jack's gallan like posture of kneeling down before Gwendolen as "semi-recumbent, indecorous posture". She is horrified by the idea of Gwendolen being married "into a cloak-room and form'an alliance with a parcel" alluding to Jack's unknown parentage and he being found in a railway cloak room when he was an infant.

Her Weakness far Cucumber Sandwich

      In the opening act we come to know that Lady Bracknell has special liking for cucumber sandwich. This is the reason why Lane, the man servant of Algernon, prepares cucumber sandwich on the accession of Lady Bracknell's visit to her nephew's (i.e. Algernon's) house.

Her Fondness for Music and Affection for Algernon

      The opening act also reveals her liking for music. It was a Victorian trench to arrange for some music at parties and Lady Bracknell in the true spirit of a Victorian lady loves to show off her liking for music. So, it is doubtful whether her liking is genuine or another farm of her flamboyance. Her conversation with Algernon suggests that she values his opinion. She seeks his help to select the appropriate music for the party she is going
to throw. She is also disheartened when Algernon tells his inability to be present at her party for he has another compulsion to meet his ailing friend Bunbury, a fictitious character that Algernon has invented, to escape such boring social gathering.

Her Mercenary Attitude

      Lady Bracknell's instinct is always guided by some financial gain. She is a social-climber and fervently follows the trends of society. It is because of her snobbish outlook she cross-questions Jack to assess his suitability as her son-in-low. Through her character Wilde has jested about the institution of marriage that in the conception of a person like Lady Bracknell becomes a financial contract.

      Her snobbery and class-consciousness take a funny turn when she suspiciously wants to know the number of bedrooms that Jack's country-house has the disclosure of Jack's unknown parentage startles her. Lady Bracknell interprets this improbable incident of jack being found in a handbag as an aftermath of French Revolution. The comment is unique for its quaint idiosyncrasy. Equally social is her proposed solution to Jack to promote himself as an eligible suitor of Gwendolen. She advises him to present any relative as early as possible and a parent of either sex before the season is over. It is for her austerity and her extreme fastidiousness Jack calls her privately a "Gorgon" and a "monster without being a myth."

Representative of Victorian Upper-class Society

      Lady Bracknell is the advocate of Victorian upper-class norms and traditions. After coming to know Algernon's decision to marry Cecily, she verifies Cecily's legacy. The huge amount of fortune that Cecily will inherit satisfies her criterion for a suitable bride and she is also pleased to find one of the partners of the solicitor firm appointed by Cecily's family is a known figure in the upper social circle. Her attitude towards Cecily excites our laughter for the hypocrisy associated with it. Though she disapproves of Cecily's plain simplicity she gives her consent to Algernon's decision to marry Cecily based on financial gain. In this context she remarks that her lack of dowry never comes in the way to her successful marriage with Lord Bracknell. It is noteworthy to see her vanity in turning her incapability of bringing a huge amount of dowry to her credit. Her Bossing Nature
Lastly Bracknell possesses a strong authoritative personality. She has a firm hold over her daughter as exposed by the way she refutes Gwendolen's announcement of her being engaged to Jack. She also declares that it is her or her husband's responsibility to decide on Gwendolen's engagement. Also from her dialogue it is revealed that her influence over her husband is equally strong.

Conclusion

      The most memorable character and one who has a tremendous impact on the audience is Lady Augusta Bracknell. Wilde's audience would have identified most with her titled position and bearing. Wilde humorously makes her the tool of the conflict, and much of the satire. For the play to end as a comedy, her objections and obstacles must be dealt with and overcome.

      Lady Bracknell is first and foremost a symbol of Victorian earnestness and the unhappiness it brings as a result. She is powerful, arrogant, ruthless to the extreme, conservative, and proper. In many ways, she represents Wilde's opinion of Victorian upper-class negativity, conservative and repressive values, and power.

      Wilde has created, with Augusta Bracknell, a memorable instrument of his satiric wit, questioning all he sees in Victorian upper-class society.

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