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Duality in the Victorian Era

Every one of us is an expert dualist, society forces it upon us. Oppressive standards and
morals push us to create multiple identities in order to survive in a society where being socially
accepted is a necessity. By examining Oscar Wilde’s work, readers can enter the Victorian Era
and learn that:“ he who lives more lives than one, more deaths than one must die” (Reading of
Gaol III). Oscar Wilde had first hand experience with dualism in his own life because he faced
hypocrisy due to his challenge of societal norms at the time, making him an expert on the
subject. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde uses Victorian morals and ideas to exploit
the hypocrisy of Victorian society and the duality that it creates.
Oscar Wilde’s personal life is reflected in The Importance of Being Earnest through the
criticism of the societal morals that he was oppressed by. Wilde showed his personal life by
poking fun at society’s values, even going as far as to directly attack the audience, some say that
Wilde “criticized his audience while he entertained it” (Hall). This criticism was not taken well
by many critics since the critics often represented traditional Victorian society. Since they felt
personally attacked, they didn’t buy into Wilde’s sense of humor. Critics weren’t pleased by
Wilde’s use of satire since the critics tended to decide what is popular and acceptable in
entertainment; if they deemed it offensive, it was offensive. Wilde did this to such an extent that
some said, “to disagree with three fourths of all England on all points of view is one of the first
elements of sanity” (Norton 1720). Aside from being disregarded for his critical opinions, many
started to question his sanity for disagreeing with the rest of society on so many topics.
Wilde was also a significant dualist in the way that he regularly interacted with high
society with many different personas: “He was at the same time a colonized Irishman and a
socialite, a husband and a homosexual, a successful playwright accepted in high society and a
socialist” (Fridell 2). Next, like the antagonist of any high-school movie, Wilde turned around
and began to criticise his peers. Wilde truly understood the importance and complication of
duality, since he faced significant duality in his own life via his personal relationships. Living a
double life is very complicated, and Wilde was no stranger to this concept: “Some said my life
was a lie but I always knew it to be the truth; for like the truth it was rarely pure and never
simple” (Wilde qtd. in Holland 3). It seems that Wilde saw life and duality as two mutually
exclusive topics, making life impossible without multiple identities, which, to be fair, was
heavily supported by Victorian Society. Since life is so complicated by nature, how could it have
been a false truth to steer into the complication of duality? Wilde became even more personally
connected with how complicated duality is when he was sentenced to two years hard labor for
sodemy due to his relations with Lord Alfred. This double life as a monogamous heterosexual
and someone who had extracurricular non-hetero relations makes Wilde a true dualist. As a
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response to this experience, the relationship between Algernon and Earnest presents homoerotic
subtext in The Importance of Being Earnest. This understanding is reflected in Wilde’s poem,
“The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, as Wilde expands on the consequences of duality and society’s
view of dualism and corrupt lives: “those who live more lives than one / more deaths than one
must ” (Reading of Gaol III). Wilde was publicly ridiculed for his duality and had to “die” in
society as well as in his closer personal circles with his family. Wilde criticized society heavily
because the morals and ideologies of the Victorian Era were very oppressive and he was a direct
victim of the oppression.
An offshoot of Wilde’s dualism was that “While Wilde’s art was later branded as
corrupt, his works received considerable critical acclaim and remained very popular across all
social classes until the day of his arrest” (Adut 214). In Wilde’s personal life, his relationships
were publicly criticized, his relationship with Sir Alfred Douglas was outed and due to
oppressive Victorian society, Wilde was jailed for two years of hard labor. It was partially due to
this oppression that Wilde was able to criticize through his work.
Wilde highlights the issues of dualism and multiple identities by constantly criticizing
his society by exploring popular Victorian topics. One topic of criticism is the Victorian Era’s
disapproval of homosexuality: “The victorians held homosexuality in horror, and Britain stood
out at the turn of the 20th century as the only country in Western Europe that criminalized all
male homosexual acts” (Adut 214). Due to his personal relationships, Wilde was a victim to
discrimination. This discrimination led him to include criticism of the societal oppression by
including homoerotic subtext between Jack and Algernon. One example of this is the use of food
to convey sexuality and indulgence between the two:
“The use of this and other food in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest may
seem inadvertent and innocent, but it is carefully and cleverly placed throughout the play
to highlight the ridiculousness of aristocratic excess and to juxtapose indulgence and lack
of restraint with the stuffy social adherences of the Victorian aristocratic lifestyle. Its
function is to mock falsity and point out the very lack of earnestness' in Victorian life,
which is the implication of this comedy of manners” (Davidge).
First, during the Victorian Era, the word “Earnest” meant “honest, good, etc” but it was also
occasionally used to reference homosexuality. Perhaps the use of Earnest has a double identity
of its own, to show honestness and to highlight the homosexual subtext put forth by Wilde as a
result of his personal life. Secondly, in the introductory scene, Algernon and Jack have a debate
about what they can and cannot eat. This scene sets setting literal and social adherences for
themselves and what is reserved for high society, portrayed by Aunt Augusta. Yet, since the
restrictions and Aunt Augusta are portrayed as absurd, Wilde is showing how absurd societal
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adherences are.
In order to point out the hypocrisy of Victorian society, Wilde focuses on the theme of
dualism in The Importance of Being Earnest by expanding upon the dualistic ways of his own
characters. By careful analysis of Wilde’s characters and their actions, readers can find the
critical points that Wilde protested. Jack and Algy set up the idea of Bunburying and double
identities very early in the play, and although the idea is initially received as comical to the
audience, it is indirectly criticised by Aunt Augusta: “This Mr. Bunbury seems to suffer from
curiously bad health. . . Well, I must say, Algernon, that I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury
made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die” (Earnest 39). This disapproval makes a
lot of sense because Aunt Augusta is meant to reflect what Victorian society was supposed to be,
obsessed with proper decorum and not too concerned with what is morally “right”, but what
looks good to others. Aunt Augusta is also seen as a social climber, as that was truly what
Victorian society is all about: “When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind. But
I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way” (Earnest 98). Even though
she is supposed to represent proper decorum, she is really just another Victorian woman who
wants status and money. Aunt Augusta’s duality as a Proper Victorian Woman and an Immoral
Social Climber expose how these two identities often came into conflict in upper class Victorian
society, whether people at the time admitted it or not. Cecily is portrayed as a flower child,
growing up in the country, far away from many of the constraints of high society. Cecily is seen
as pure and innocent and she finds corresponding ways to entertain herself, she tells people, “I
keep a diary in order to enter the wonderful secrets of my life” (Earnest 57). Even though Cecily
is a country flower child, she lives a double life in her diary by, just like Gwendolen. Cecily
creates a fantasy romance in her diary in order to have a more exciting life. Cecily’s character
shows that even the most pure Victorians couldn’t escape the complicated life of duality. By
placing duality in each of his characters, Wilde is able to exploit the very morals that these
characters display by their actions and language.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde use epigrams and other literary devices to
expand on his criticism of Victorian Era morals and expose its hypocrisy. First, epigrams, a
trademark of Wilde’s, are used as a tool of criticism to point out societal flaws. An epigram is
meant to be a quick one-liner to bring a bit of humor without a large set-up. A popular example
from The Importance of Being Earnest comes from Gwendolen: “I never travel without my
diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train” (Earnest 81). This
epigram is meant to address how ridiculous Victorian expectations of life were. Gwendolen is so
obsessed with her own life that she recorded every detail in a diary and then reread the diary to
relive her “sensational” life. Gwendolen’s shallow, self absorbed behavior is exactly what Wilde
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saw and aimed to criticize in Victorian society. Oscar Wilde also used quite a bit of satire to
exploit misplaced morals: “Wilde’s basic formula for satire is their assumption of a code of
behavior that represents the reality Victorian convention pretends to ignore” (Reinert 15). Satire
is generally determined as poking fun or dramatizing events to make a situation seem humorous.
Wilde would often pen a phrase or saying that had a mundane delivery to emphasize the
absurdity of the statement. In The Importance of Being Earnest, satire is used to criticize and
dramatize Victorian ideals such as insensitivity. Lady Bracknell blames Lord Bunbury for his
illness and suggest that he might as well “[make] up his mind whether he was going to live or to
die” (Earnest 39). Aunt Augusta is a bit insensitive, which showed how people in the Victorian
Era were unsympathetic towards suffering people, like the sick. Her attitude seems to suggest
that a life focused on proper decorum and pleasing society doesn’t allow for being empathetic
towards your fellow man. The uses of satire and these literary devices allowed Wilde to criticize
Victorian society in an artistic and meaningful way.
An ideal of Victorian Society that Wilde exploited is the society's views on marriage.
Wilde’s marriage became a sham, a joke, and this is reflected in the beginning of The
Importance of Being Earnest when Algernon categorizes marriage as “immoral and degrading”
(Yunwei 2). Even when Algernon gives in to the societal norms later in the play and proposes to
Cecily, the situation turns fairly satiric as Cecily begins to explain their imaginative whirlwind
romance that has been happening in her head (and her diary) for several months:
“Algernon. My letters! But, my own sweet Cecily, I have never written you any letters.
Cecily. You need hardly remind me of that, Ernest. I remember only too well that I was
forced to write your letters for you. I wrote always three times a week, and sometimes
oftener” (Earnest 75).
The absurdity of Cecily’s claim illuminates the absurdity of the Victorian Era’s view of
marriage because she has created a great deal of fuss and drama out of absolutely nothing. In
Wilde’s life, his marriage became a public spectacle when Wilde was incarcerated due to his
relationship with Sir Alfred Douglas while still married to his wife, Constance Lloyd.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde uses Victorian morals and ideas like dualism
to exploit the hypocrisy of Victorian society. Society is notoriously overly critical, making the
human response of dualism relatively understandable. Before we give into our dualistic vices,
we must take a look at ourselves through the eyes of Oscar Wilde and remember that “those
who lives more lives than one / more deaths than one must die” (Reading of Gaol III).