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The Importance of Being Earnest: Social Differences

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Rachel Nagley

on 24 December 2012

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Transcript of The Importance of Being Earnest: Social Differences

The Importance of Being Earnest: Exploring the attitudes of the rich towards the poor and of the poor towards the rich. Rachel Nagley
Mr. Behm's 1st Period
Pre-AP English 10
December 23,2012 In the 19th century, the working class comprised at least 80% of England's population. Considering that the rich (the upper 20%) were the employers of the poor, most of this 80% viewed the rich with envy and fear. Those able to form the most accurate opinion of the upper class were the domestic servants. They were the ones that served the rich their tea and sweets, overheard the rich discuss their fancy parties, and watched the rich raise their children into ladies and gentlemen. All the while, most servants ate the food of the working class- bread, butter, and potatoes- and removed their children from school at an early age to send them to work, as this was the time of the industrial revolution. The great contrast between the daily lives of the rich and the poor in addition to the strict guidelines that the poor servants were expected to follow resulted in a harsh attitude toward and a low opinion of the rich. No wonder theft was such a common crime at this time. The Upper Class in Victorian (late 19th century) England lived in the lap of luxury- they were accustomed to large houses, extravagant furniture and tapestries, meals at least three times a day, and servants to wait on them hand and foot. In fact, servants in the late 19th century were viewed as a symbol of wealth, just like fancy clothing or indoor plumbing. The only difference between a servant and a fur coat was that the fur coat was probably given more respect. In the mind of a rich individual, servants were not people, but tools used to maintain that individual's position in society. Generally, the rich regarded the poor with disdain, viewing them unworthy of their intellect and sophistication. Due to this opinion, interaction among different classes was strongly discouraged by the rich in the 19th century. In the Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde highlights the attitude of the poor towards the rich through characters such as the servants Lane and Merriman. Lane's attitude in the beginning of the play is not what is to be expected of a servant based on historical evidence. Instead of fearing Algernon (his boss), he dares to take advantage of him. On the first page of act one, Lane blatantly states that he drank some of the champagne paid for by Algernon to give to his guests . Lane does this because he thinks/knows that his boss, like most rich people, is careless. Other than this one contradiction, the members of the working class act in a way that is to be expected of 19th century servants. Jack's butler, Merriman, for example, only has fourteen lines in the entire play, most of them either being "Yes, Miss." or "Yes, Sir (Wilde 24, 30) ." Merriman's lack of words demonstrates his fear of being considered disrespectful by offering his opinion too often (and losing his position because of it) as well as his resignation towards the behavior of the rich- he has given up on trying to figure out their motives. Wilde uses a large part, if not all of The Importance of Being Earnest, to examine and mock the rich and their beliefs. One of these key beliefs noted by Wilde is that the poor are inferior to the rich. A definite, condescending attitude towards the is poor best exhibited by the women in the play. One prime example is a line spoken by Miss Prism: "I have often spoken to the poorer class on the subject (christenings). But they don't seem to know what thrift is (Wilde 27)." From this line, it may at first be interpreted that Miss Prism is trying to look out for the poor by telling them not to use their limited funds on christenings for their children. However, she is really criticizing the "wastefulness" of the poor and basically saying that a christening for them does not have the same value as a christening for a member of the upper class. In act three, Lady Bracknell says to her nephew, "Never speak disrespectfully of society, Algernon. Only people who can't get into it do that (Wilde 47)." This shows the extreme measures taken by the upper class to separate themselves from the lower, working class. Even acting in a manner perceived as "poor" is condemned by the rich. Davis, Kristen. "Servants in Victoian England." College of Liberal Arts and Sciences | The University of Florida. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2012. <http://www.clas.ufl.edu>.

Lambert, Tim. "Life in the 19th Century." A World History Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2012. <http://www.localhistories.org>.

Matt, and Leela Probert. "Domestic Servants." Probert Encyclopaedia - English Dictionary, Free Online Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2012. <http://probertencyclopaedia.com>.

Bell, Miriam. "Working Life for Domestic Servants in 19th Century Britain." HC Online. N.p., 28 Sept. 2012. Web. 19 Dec. 2012. <www.hcamag.com/article/working-life-for-domestic-servants-in-19th-century-britain-144137.aspx>.

Kirchoff. "Victorian England." Shelbyville Central Schools - Shelbyville, IN. N.p., 30 Aug. 2012. Web. 19 Dec. 2012. <http://www.shelbycs.org/ms/media%20center/victorian%20england/>. Bibliography As previously stated, Wilde's main purpose for writing The Importance of Being Ernest was to mock the rich. Based on this observation, it can be concluded that he was also mocking the conflict created by the rich between themselves and the poor. He thought that it was silly and immature for the rich to not associate with the working class solely because of their low income and inability to afford a luxurious lifestyle.
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