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With his great success The Importance of being Earnest, the Irish born Oscar Wilde created with his last work a masterpiece of modern comedy. In a perfect way of satirizing the Victorian norms, he criticizes the style of living in those days. In the play’s subtitle A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, he directly addresses the mainly upper class audience of his time. Therefore his intention was to make people think more deeply of the serious and the trivial things in life. But not only Wilde criticized others styles of life, he also has been criticized. Some of his works are addressing Victorian taboos for example handling with the theme of homosexuality and the coupled dandyism. Also he has been outlawed for his behavior in real life. His double life attitude, while having a family, leading a life of homosexuality, and his scandals with having sex with male prostitutes, brought him into prison.
In the following I am going to depict the Victorian perception of art, as well as the Victorian norms and attitudes and the social behavior in the Victorian Age. Furthermore I will show in a detailed way the two main characters of the play Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, who are living a double life, seeming to be very funny and absurd. After that I am going to define the word ‘Bunburying’ which is an expression that is one of the main points in the play. In the end I am going to show in which situations the main characters are using this method of leading a double life, proofed with examples of the play, showing at the two persons separately.
2 The Victorian Age
2.1 The Victorian perception of art
Before I will start with the main part of my seminar paper, the analyzing of the method of Bunburying in Oscar Wilde´s The Importance of being Earnest, I will give a short overview over the Victorian perception of art and the Victorian Norms in the upper class.
The Victorian Age in which Oscar Wilde lived was a time of change. The strict Victorian norms were still present, but leisurely new streams began to rise up. Also the appreciation of art changed slowly, aestheticism and art for its own sake, came more and more into the forth ground. Art for its own sake, or also called “l’art pour l’art”, is a figure of speech that was used by many writers, especially those associated with Aestheticism. It expresses that art needs no certification, art only exists for its own reason. The same idea lies in Wilde´s statement, that all art is quite useless. This brief statement in the preface of his great success “The Picture of Dorian Gray” expresses the same aspect: that all art shouldn’t have another aim than being art.
2.2 The Victorian Norms
The Victorian era in the 19th century was a time of norms and duties. The great expansion of wealth and culture, built a class that forced itself in a society, ruled by do´s and don’t´s. The upper classes´ attitude changed from simply hereditary aristocracy to a nobility and an emerging wealthy commercial class. Furthermore it was a time of wide extremes: gracious living and in contrast grinding poverty. The fear of social ostracism was a condition that was present in one´s whole life. To behave faultless and quite perfect in the society was unmissable. For women, the established career was merely to become a good wife. The qualities of a gentleman should be, that he should be able to unite gentleness with firmness of mind, is never arrogant and never week, and commands with authority.
Generally the Victorian age was a time of Religion, Morality, Elitism, Industrialism and Improvement. Values were set on sexual restraint, low tolerance of crime and a strict social code of conduct. Homosexuality was absolutely taboo. It was illegal and homosexuals were regarded as abominations and were isolated out of the society. One of the most important homosexual literary figure was Oscar Wilde, who got publicly ruined in sensational sex scandals.
Consequently it isn’t really surprising that some of the most emphasized features in the Victorian literature were hypocrisy and double lifes. For instance Wilde´s comedy The Importance of being Earnest satirizes the Victorian norms, its culture and the society. Wilde attacks the Victorian upper class’ lifestyle and makes fun about their seriousness. The two main characters of the play are using a technique, called ‘Bunburying’, meaning that they live a - for the Victorian period typical - double life, in which they try to avoid social duties. Furthermore there is the mockery of Victorian conventions, for example that a marriage often only follows the intention of marrying into a rich family or getting into a social higher position, instead of marrying because of love. For instance you can take Lady Bracknell who is confronted with the fact that her nephew Algernon is engaged to a young woman called Cecily, who does not seem to be from the highest social level. Lady Bracknell first of all does not give her agreement to the marriage, but as she finally finds out how wealthy and what family the bride is a member of, she does not want anything more, than having Cecily in her family:
 Cf. Gagnier, Regina: Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public., Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1986, pp. 3-7
 Cf. Miller, Ilana: “The Victorian Era” http://www.victoriaspast.com/FrontPorch/victorianera.htm (08.11.2010)
 Cf. n.e.: “Qualities of a Gentleman”: http://www.victorianstation.com/ettiqgentle.htm (08.11.2010)
 Cf. n.e.: “Victorian Age” http://encyclopedia.jrank.org/articles/pages/834/Victorian-Age.html (08.11.2010)