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Feminism in The Importance of Being Earnest
In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde uses his writing to explore gender roles in the Victorian period and how they affected the people’s lives in that time.
The question of each gender’s role in society often centers on power. In the Victorian world men had greater influence than women. Men made the decisions for their families, while women worked around the house. Wilde raises interesting questions about gender roles by putting women in positions of power and by showing that men can be irresponsible and bad at decision-making. The traditional view of gender relations in the Victorian society was that men were active, manly, assertive and economically independent, while women were assumed to be passive, pliant, and dependent. Wilde challenges these roles deliberately to make humor out of these characteristics and to make fun of the conventional roles of the society. The two main male characters, Jack and Algy, should not be regarded as masculine, or they would not fit in Wilde’s idea of making fun of the average Victorian man.
Algy and Jack’s ungentlemanly behavior and trivial pursuits can be seen as comic and deliberate in making men seem less powerful and serious. Algy being overly concerned with fashion also makes him seem less masculine. It can be seen when Algy criticizes Jack by saying that he had “never known anyone to put so much effort into to dressing and to produce so little effect.” Algernon also says in Act 2 that he wouldn’t trust Jack to buy his outfits as he has “no taste in neck ties.” Algy is dandy, making him unmasculine and a joke in the eyes of the Victorian audience. A time in the play when women are seen as having more power than men is in the character Lady Bracknell. She is strong and blunt, even coming across as intimidating. Algy created a fake friend to avoid the harsh repercussions that Lady Bracknell would have given him had he refused to join her at dinner.
Another strong female character seen is Gwendolyn. She is feminine in some aspects such as how she wanted a proper engagement to a man named Ernest, but at the same time she can be seen as more dominant than Jack because she is more assertive. Gwendolyn is also breaking stereotypes when she refuses to obey direct orders from her mother to get in the carriage. In this time period, most young women would never dare disobey their mothers. Although Gwendolyn may defy her mother, the audience is shown that she will slowly become more and more like her. Algy mentions this when he states that a girl’s worst flaw is that “they will end up just like their mothers.”
Her mother, Lady Bracknell, is the most masculine character in the play. She is pompous and the most assertive of all characters. She has the power to stop Jack from marrying Gwendolyn and has the ability to boss the male characters of the play around. Lady Bracknell’s masculinity is humorous because it is almost absurd. She is seen as lacking some more feministic traits such as sympathy. She has no sympathy for Bunbury who she believes “should just make up his mind whether he is going to live or die.” She gives Jack no condolences when he tells her he has lost both his parents. And she seems shocked and outraged to hear he was found in a handbag, giving the appearance that she has control over the situation and not Jack.
Lady Bracknell has an upper hand over all of the characters in the play. After the examination of the female characters it can be concluded that they are not typical Victorian women just as the men are not typical Victorian men. Oscar Wilde created characters that challenged the Victorian idea of gender roles and succeeded in finding the humor in the situations.

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