"A Woman of No Importance" Essay
An outspoken criticizer of the Victorian society, Oscar Wilde 1893 A Woman of No Importance may be very well defined as another milestone in the author’s line of social comedies. Aiming directly at some of his contemporaries’ manners and values (most notably family values), A Woman of No Importance does not only mocks and criticizes society, but also makes quite a few points on the nature of people, which explain why those values are wrong. In order to do so, Wilde discusses family roles and the role of family in society, as well as how revelations and outside pressures have little influence of the natural course relationships within families.
This paper examines the play’s nature as a comedy of manners from three main aspects. First it contrasts Wilde’s model of parenthood to what seems to be his contemporaries’ conventional view. Secondly, it shows how Rachel Arbuthnot demonstrates the enormous price of being loyal to the values of Victorian society. Finally, it discusses Wilde’s use of humor to help conveying his messages.
Parents and Children
Growing up to a respected father who nevertheless had illegitimate children possibly brought Wilde to consider how the parenthood of infidel parents affect the relationships with their children. Moreover, it is possible to notice from Wilde’s work that throughout time, negative aspects of such relationships may develop and become more intense. That is, time is not necessarily a cure for anger and dismay among children.
In his 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, Wilde notes that “Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them1.” Three years later, however, the author sharpens his view on the subject matter, as Lord Illingworth (who may share some biographical similarities with Wilde’s father) teaches a lesson on what the upbringing of ‘a good man’ in Victorian sense causes. Literally, Lord Illingworth claims that puritan upbringing does not only turn children into their parents’ judges, but also to merciless ones: “Children begin by loving their parents. After a time they judge them. Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.”
Since Lord Illingworth support and even strengthen an argument previously made by Wilde (as the audience and critics of A Woman of No Importance may have already knew at the time), it might be the case that the author uses Lord Illingworth to state his views on family and parenthood. And judging from the text, these views are quite straightforwardly gloomy as for the results of Victorian education and family relations. Furthermore, the latter are presented by Wilde as a product of the Victorian era’s system of strict social expectations and ‘superior’ moral codes. Therefore, it is important to understand that the author shifts the burden of responsibility to the characters’ behavior from the latter to the codes to which they are expected to confirm.
Rachel Arbuthnot: The Price of Social Conformity
In A Woman of No Importance, Oscar Wilde does not concludes his comedy by showing the irrationality of many Victorian values, but also shows how adhering to them may actually be disastrous for individuals. This notion is best conveyed through the character of Rachel Arbuthnot, whose determination to remain a good woman but receives a backlash from society. The sin she committed as a young woman hunts her both internally (most notably in the sense of her self perception) and externally (the prospective social costs of getting exposed). Since she seems dedicated to the social values and even tried to educate her son to follow them, Mrs Arbuthnot will remain an outsider of the society she adheres to.
It should be noted, however, that Rachel is not naïve as for the true nature of Victorian society. Throughout the play Rachel’s character is balanced by very clear and critical views of society, including such injustices as inequality between the sexes and the shallowness of Victorian aristocracy. Eventually she departs from England in the hope for getting accepted in a more open culture. But despite all these, Mrs Arbuthnot’s submissive and confirmative attitude have led her son Gerald to judge her unfavorably, just as most other characters (with the exception of Hester) see her as simply ‘fallen woman.’
The Bitter Comedy
Throughout most of his literary career, Oscar Wilde was known for expressing harsh critics of many aspects of Victorian society. A Woman of No Importance is an example to the author’s unique ability to stressing the ridiculous sides of society along with the evils of its norms. Besides clear examples such as the silly-to-mean behavior of Mrs Allonby and Lady Caroline, Lord Illingworth’s witty and razor-sharp lines allow Wilde to ‘sweeten the pill’ of his critique. As a result of this choice, A Woman of No Importance requires quite a degree of cognitive dissonance to balance between Lord Illingworth’s manners and the content of his lines3.
Although it prescribes some remedies to the illnesses of Victorian society, A Woman of No Importance is first and foremost a comedy of manners with clear targets and outspoken agenda. Wilde attacks both the values of Victorian society and the people who lead them, namely his contemporary aristocracy. The plot focuses on these values’ influence on the individual and the family, but also offers a view from the side and leaves some room for optimism in regard to the future of late 19th century Britons. As we know today, only a radical shift out of the hypocrisy of the Victorian moral code allowed to create a just and more rational society.