Women Characters in The Importance of Being Earnest

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Introduction

      Both Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew provide Wilde with opportunities to discuss ideas and tout the New Woman near the turn of the century. They are curiously similar in many ways, but as the writer's tools, they have their differences.

Both of them are Smart Lady

      Both women are smart, persistent and in pursuit of goals in which they take the initiative. Gwendolen follows Jack to the country—an atmosphere rather then to her experiences, and Cecily pursues Algernon from the moment she lays eyes on him. Both women are perfectly capable of outwitting their jailers. Gwendolen escapes from her dominating mother, Lady Bracknell; Cecily outwits Jack by arranging for Algernon to stay, and she also manages to escape Miss Prism to carry on a tryst with her future fiance. The first moment Cecily meets Algernon, she firmly explains her identity with a no-nonsense reaction to his patronizing comment.

Appearance and Style Matter to Theme

      For both women, appearances and style are important. Gwendolen must have the perfect proposal performed in the correct manner and must marry a man named Ernest simply because of the name's connotations. Cecily also craves appearance and style. She believes Jack's brother is a wicked man, and though she has never met such a man, she thinks the idea sounds romantic. She toys with rebelliously and romantically pursuing the "wicked brother," but she has full intentions of reforming him to the correct and appropriate appearance. The respectable name of Ernest for a husband is important to her. Both women, despite their differences, are products of a world in which how one does something is more important than why.

Worldly Gwendolen: A Foil to Ingenuous Cecily

      Cecily and Gwendolen are dissimilar in some aspects of their personalities and backgrounds. Gwendolen, on one hand, is confident, worldly, and at home in the big city of London. While her mother has taught her to be shortsighted like the lorgnette through which Gwendolen peers at the world, she has also brought her daughter up in a traditional family, the only such family in the entire play. On the other hand, Cecily is introduced in a garden setting, the child of a more sheltered, natural, and less-sophisticated environment. She has no mother figure other than the grim Miss Prism, and she has a guardian instead of a parent.

Both of them are Mouthpiece of Wilde's Ideas

      Gwendolen provides Wilde with the opportunity to discuss marriage, courtship and the absurdities of life. Her pronouncements on trivialities and her total contradictions of what she said two lines earlier make her the perfect instrument for Wilde to provide humour and to comment on inane Victorian attitudes. Cecily provides Wilde with an opportunity to discuss dull and boring education, Victorian values, money and security, and the repression of passion. More sheltered than Gwendolen, Cecily is still expected to learn her boring lessons and make a good marriage.

Both of them are Ideally Matched

      Both women seem ideally matched to their finances. Gwendolen is very no-nonsense and straightforward like Jack. She believes in appearances, upper-class snobbery, correct behaviour, and the ability to discuss, ad nauseam, the trivial. Jack too is practical and takes his responsibilities quite seriously. While he has a sense of humor, he also realizes—especially in the country—that he must maintain a proper image and pay his bills. Cecily and Algernon are both guided by passion and immediate gratification. More emotional than their counterparts, they pursue life with a vengeance, aiming for what they desire and oblivious to the consequences. Both couples indulge in witty epigrams and are perfectly matched.

The Character of Lady Bracknell

      Algernon's snobbish, mercenary, and domineering aunt and Gwendolen's mother Lady Bracknell is 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.

The Character of Miss Prism

      Through the character of Miss Prism Wilde jests about the stringent educational system and affected morality of Victorian society. The complicacy in the play springs from her forgetfulness. In keeping with the farcical tone of the play her oblivious nature is extended out of proportion and Wilde invents the improbable story of replacing books in a handbag with an infant that she left in a cloak-room in railway station. Even Miss Prism, the strict advocate of Victorian mannerisms, shows a romantic inclination to Dr. Chasuble and a parallel love-affair crops up along with two major love-affairs.

Conclusion

      While Wilde spends most of his play satirizing Victorian ideals of courtship and marriage, he gets the last laugh with his female characters. Despite their positions in society as victims of the machinations of men, marriage contracts and property, the women are the strong characters who are firmly in control. Wilde provides two female characters who lack Lady Bracknell's ruthlessness, but who have the strength and practical sense that the men lack.

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