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on 11 November 2013

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By Iman Bakhsh, Nafisa Saeed and Minahil Nawaz

"A Woman of No Importance" by Oscar Wilde reveals troubling attitudes towards the roles and expectations of women in the Victorian Era. The main plot of the play revolves around Lord Illingworth, a successful diplomat, who hires Gerald Arbuthnot to be his private secretary, and finds out that he is his illegitimate son. A sordid past between Mrs Arbuthnot and Lord Illingworth is revealed. Gerald declines the position with Lord Illingworth, and marries the American puritan Miss Hester Worsley. Lord Illingworth is banished from the affections of Gerald and Mrs Arbuthnot forever.
Through our exploration of the characters in this play, we will also unfold the plot. The plot is very simple and does not have a lot of depth to it, but it is the psychological interactions between the characters that reveal a darker side to the Victorian Era. Oscar Wilde explores the double standards that existed between men and women in the Victorian Era. Men were forgiven for their indiscretions far more readily than women, and women were more condemned for moral failings. Women had few rights, as well. The following themes should be studied:
1. Moral Responsibility verses Personal Pleasure
2. Inequality between men and women
3. Consequences to our actions

The idea of societal restraints is mocked by Wilde. IWilde thinks that 19th century British society is too restrictive and thus he is using paradoxes and contradictions to demonstrate his negative opinion upon Victorian societal restraints and traditions
Reversal of gender roles is also mocked by Wilde. Such role reversals also go against accepted social norms during the 19th century Victorian era as men were supposed to be controlling and women compliant, thus revealing that marriages and the social lives that both genders are confined to can lead to unhappiness and discontent. The idea of manners and superficiality being valued over a person’s morals is also prevalent.
Herbert Beerbohm Tree, actor-manager of London's Haymarket Theatre, asked Oscar Wilde to write him a play following the success of Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan. Thus Wilde wrote this play while staying at a farmhouse with his lover Lord Alfred Douglas while his wife and sons stayed elsewhere.
After the success of Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance also enjoyed great success. It proved to be an artistic breakthrough for Wilde, something between self-parody and a deceptively flippant commentary on the dramatic genre in which Wilde had already had so much success.
In Wilde’s hands, the form of Victorian melodrama became something else entirely. In victorian melodrama also known as “sentimental comedy,” fallen women and abandoned children of uncertain parentage figure prominently, letters cross and recross the stage, and dark secrets from the past rise to threaten the happiness of seemingly respectable, well-meaning characters. In this very play, a similar story takes place on stage.
Lord Illingworth:
Lord Illingworth was a young man when Gerald was conceived, and one would hope he had changed. It is clear that he is still flirtatious and indecent, though he still manages to keep up appearances. Before Mrs. Arbuthnot arrives at Lady Hunstanton's house to congratuate Gerald for his job offer, Lord Illingworth sees a letter from Mrs. Arbuthnot lying on the table. He recognizes her handwriting from long ago. When questioned about it, he simply says it was from 'a woman of no importance.' This illustrates Lord Illingworth's irresponsible attitude towards the woman he had affairs with when he was young. Although he knows that Gerald and Hester are in love, he makes a bet with another guest, Mrs. Allonby, that he will make Hester his conquest within a week's time.
Mrs. Arbuthnot
Although everyone believes that Mrs. Arbuthnot is a widow, she actually was an unwed mother during a time when it was absolutely scandalous to have a child out of wedlock. Her son, Gerald, has recently been offered a job by the man who is his father, Lord Illingworth. Mrs. Arbuthnot has a wonderful reputation in the community.
Gerald Arbuthnot:
Gerald is a naive young man who loves an American woman, Hester, whom he plans to marry. Gerald has recently been offered a job from a man he respects, Lord Illingworth, though he is unaware that the man is his father until later in the play, when his mother reveals it. Lady Arbuthnot has taken care of Gerald his entire life alone, and thus he respects her but at the same time, he wants her to marry Lord Illingworth to save her honour.
Hester Worsley:
Hester is a young American woman who is visiting Lady Jane Huntstanton. Hester has very strong opinions about the double standard towards scorned women versus the men who impregnate them. Women are left with obvious evidence of their indiscretions when they become pregnant, but men can deny anything. Hester is one of the strongest characters in the play, and it is through Hester that Oscar Wilde voices some of his own opinions about, and even indictments against, some of the attitudes of his day.
Lady Hunstanton:
Lady Hunstanton is very enthusiastic and throughout the whole story she compliments everybody. Everything is great and nice with and about her though she rarely ever has an idea of what she is talking about, but she just wants to talk and comment on everything. In comparison to Lady Caroline she is to be trusted and will never find herself in the position of a bad host. Excluding the last act the whole play takes place at her place within twenty-four hours.
Lady Caroline Pontefract
Lady Caroline is very self convinced and thinks she knows everything better than anybody else. She is always treating John, her husband, like a child, telling him what to do, say or wear. She believes to know her husband better than he himself would possibly do. Besides she is always criticizing anybody absent, especially Hester, and everybody and everything else. If somebody asks her an uncomfortable question she will immedialtely change the topic or turn towards another person. She judes a person on what class he or she belongs to, their names and their possessions.
Other Minor Characters:
Archdeacon Daubeny: He is seen as the 'ultimate priest' with his willingness to 'sacrifice' his free time for the benefit of his wife who is seen as an invalid of dramatic proportions. He also blatantly shows his discomfort at being within the upper-class social circle.

Lady Stutfield: A naive and intellectually restricted character that shows her lack of vocabulary with constant repetitions such as her use of the phrase, "Quite, Quite". She is helplessly committed to the other people’s games because she doesn’t have her own personal opinion and is to be influenced very easily.

Mr. Kelvil, M.P.: A stuffily and thoroughly modern progressive moralist, he earnestly wishes to improve society and in particular the lot of the lower classes, but seems to lack the charisma and charm to succeed.

Lord Alfred Rufford: A stereotypically lazy aristocrat who is constantly in debt with no intentions of paying back his debtors due to him spending other peoples money on luxury items such as jewelry.

Sir John Pontefract: Husband to Lady Caroline Pontefract, he is a quiet man who allows his wife to control their relationship. He seems weary of his wife's behaviour, constantly correcting her mispronunciation of Mr. Kelvil's name.

Mrs. Daubeny: Her character represents comic relief throughout the play. While she never physically appears in the play, she is talked about a lot and presented as an invalid who was struck with a dreadful disease.

Mrs. Allonby: Mrs. Allonby only knows life in security and safety because nothing from outside comes near to her. She represents the point of view that danger is so rare now-a-days. This shows how far she is from reality in her golden upper class cage. Besides she thinks women lead a better life than men do.
Like its predecessor, A Woman of No Importance deals with scandals affecting upper class society such as illegitimacy. The drama of the play hinges on shameful secrets that must be painfully suppressed. Underlying this drama is a tone and mood that questions whether society is too harsh in its morality.
Wilde couples these dramatic themes of dark secrets and the too censorious nature of society with his witty and often surreal epigrammatic style. The whole first act is entirely devoted to this type of witty banter between the characters, with no intimation of the plot that is finally to emerge half way through the second act.
In his play “A Woman of No Importance”, Wilde portrays the thoughts and values of the upper Victorian society as direct contradictions to what were considered the values of the aristocrats at the time. This can perhaps suggest that he is mocking such values of the members of such a society and showing them to be exactly the opposite of what they say they are. Paradoxes, aphorisms and irony are a few of the literary devices used in the play which effectively convey Wilde’s message.
Wordplay and wit: Lady Hunstanton: ‘I am told that, nowadays, all the married men live like bachelors, and all the bachelors like married men.’
Hypocrisy: Kelvil: ‘Woman is the intellectual helpmeet of man in public as in private life.'/ ‘My wife is at the seaside with the children, Lady Caroline.’
Hiding the truth: Lord Illingworth: ‘You fence divinely. But the button has come off your foil.’ / Mrs Allonby ‘I have still the mask.’
Dramatic irony: Lord Illingworth: ‘I am old enough to be your father, Gerald.’ / Gerald: ‘I don’t remember my father; he died years ago.’
Attitudes to marriage: Lord Illingworth: ‘Men marry because they are tired; women because they are curious. Both are disappointed.’
Act 1 – Mrs Allonby gives Lord Illingworth, a challenge for him to kiss Hester: ‘It is an arrow shot into the air.’

Act 2 – Hester begins her argument against Victorian double standards, unaware that Mrs Arbuthnot has entered at the back of the stage:
‘If a man and woman have sinned, let them both go forth into the desert to love or loath each other there.’

Act 3 – Mrs Arbuthnot struggles to tell Gerald the truth of his paternity, building on suspense created earlier when she failed to do this:
(Gerald sits down beside his mother. She runs her fingers through his hair, and strokes his hands) ‘Gerald, there was a girl once, she was very young…’

Act 4 – Wilde creates dramatic irony and humour for the audience when Lady Hunstanton unwillingly , but correctly, criticises Mrs Allonby and praises Mrs Arbuthnot in her conversation with these two characters:
‘Most women in London, nowadays, seem to furnish their rooms with nothing but orchids, foreigners, and French novels. But here we have the room of a sweet saint.’

Like many of Wilde's plays the main theme is the secrets of the upper-classes. The irony of reversal is the most frequent comic device and it constitutes witty remarks, retorts and repartees. In many of Wilde’s plays, witty statements are tinged with apparent naivety and are produced seemingly inadvertently. Thus, these plays are a sentimental drama based on the melodramatic pattern, with the real issue actually being the attempt to rationalize the theme of the individualist’s position in a conformist and hypocritical society.
Society’s moral code:
- Portrayal of Mrs. Arbuthnot as a Fallen Woman
- Gerald’s reactions to Mrs. Arbuthnot – stereotypical of society
- Wilde as an outcast - homosexuality

Role of men and women:
- Lord Illingworth’s misogynistic ideas concerning Mrs. Allonby.
- Lady Stutfield as an ideal woman?
- Lord Illingworth’s attitude towards Mrs. Arbuthnot.
- Kelvil – women in politics.

Superficiality of upper-class Victorian society:
- Use of epigrams to communicate superficiality of society.
- Lady Hunstanton in her role as ‘hostess’
- The way that Hester is used to highlight this superficiality.
- Wilde as an individualist.

Role of women and men in Victorian England:
- Male superiority
- Kelvil – women in politics
- Differences between England and America – Hester.
Behaviour of women in play:
- Wilde’s presentation of ‘larger than life’ female characters, e.g. Lady Caroline, Mrs. Allonby.
- Role of women in relationships in play – Lady Caroline – role reversal
- Mrs. Allonby’s flirtaciousness.

Moral code of society:
- Society’s treatment of outcasts – Mrs. Arbuthnot
- The way society treated Wilde as an outcast.

Class boundaries and restraints:
- Lady Caroline’s attitude to Gerald becoming Lord Illingworth’s secretary
– Migration between classes not general accepted.
- The idea that a man worth knowing does not work for his living.
- Views on politics and the right of the working class to vote.
- Wilde’s views on socialism and individualism.

Difference between England and America:
- Hester’s condemnation of English values and class restraints.
- Hester’s outspokenness.
Audience’s can note some sort of pattern in the way that Wilde structures his acts. Although each act becomes more exciting, and tenser as the play goes on, with Wilde introducing more stunning revelations and conflict, Wilde outlines each of his acts in similar ways.
The balance of Wilde’s two styles used in this play, comedy of manners and melodrama is integral to the structure of the play. Wilde carefully balances the two, alternating scenes of intense melodrama, usually at the end of acts, with less concentrated scenes of comedy of manners which provides light relief for the audience, and prevents the play from becoming too overloaded with tension.
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