"A Woman of No Importance"

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The flamboyant and talented Irish playwright Oscar Wilde never fails to enlighten and amuse in equal volumes. In this article, I will further explore the winning elements of his stylistic approach; reveal his views on the multitudinous faults of the nineteenth century upper class, and explore in greater depth the significance of his stock figure, the dandy. All of this I hope to achieve through a commentary and analysis of his well-known, highly successful play “A Woman of No Importance,” composed during the summer of 1892 and first performed in April 1893.

Submitted: January 03, 2012

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Submitted: January 03, 2012

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A Woman of No Importance

A Play by Oscar Wilde

 

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Read the play here: http://emotionalliteracyeducation.com/classic_books_online/awoni10.htm

 

Critique by Niamh Jiménez.

 

“A Woman of No Importance” is a vibrant, well-devised exemplum of the radicalisation of conventional nineteenth century drama or the French model of the “well-made play”. Wilde achieves this revitalisation through his stock figure of the dandy, satirises the hypocrisies of aristocratic society, and questions their canting morality.  One of the appeals of these comedies of manners is the deceiving levity of the upper class’ remarks, many of them subtle lamentations of the stale, circumscribed lives in which they find themselves.

Wilde’s models of the well-bred, wealthy woman regret the hazardless nature of their lives, lives devoid of any real action, excitement or stimulation. The unfortunate elopement of Lady Belton, most likely the result of her oppressive environment, is fodder for idle women who delight in picking up the smallest morsel of gossip. Mrs Allonby, an outspoken, frustrated wife, perceives Lady Belton’s unconventional stratagem as a “cowardly” act of avoidance, for, in her own mind, what sensible woman would “run away from danger”? It is unanimously agreed amongst her companions that “playing with fire” should be the modern woman’s sole preoccupation, in light of the deplorable lack of threat which plagues their detached lives. While the ladies’ conversation is inane and seemingly inconsequential on the surface, their words could also be interpreted as a denunciation of their sterilised world. There are no hazards to overcome and their lives are so thoroughly insulated from the harsh realities of poverty, crime or dereliction. Part of Wilde’s paradox is his revelation of a whole other species of iniquities which torment lives brimming with idle refinement: perpetual dissatisfaction, perverted interpretations of politics and morality, and the absence of logic, fostering a propensity to the most irrational ideas. Mrs Allonby, for instance, complains of her husband’s dull and uninspiring conversation, and yet she affirms that she never listens to him. She also laments his appalling declaration that she is the only woman he has ever loved, as it points to his woeful lack of experience.

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Lord Illingworth is Wilde’s flamboyant dandy, who entices the honourable Gerald Arbuthnot with the prospect of a reputable position as his secretary. The dandy’s unconventional, outrageous views on life are the reverse of his society’s codified Victorian morality; he rejects the age’s hypocrisies and proprieties, and instead espouses the purely aesthetic by proselytising the philosophy of the superficial. The essence of his comic appeal is his mutation of this society’s popular, conventional philosophies, proclaiming absurdities like “Nothing is serious except passion” and “A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life”. Lord Illingworth’s aristocratic social circle, who admires him as the epitome of wickedness, delights in evading the evils of “a good reputation”. His appointment of Gerald Arbuthnot to an illustrious post, despite his lack of credentials, arises from his undisclosed identity as Gerald’s father. In his youth, Illingworth disgraced Mrs Arbuthnot by refusing to marry her and thus leaving his son Gerald without a name. Wilde exposes the prolonged mental anguish and despair Mrs Arbuthnot suffered, arising from the loss of her irretrievable virtue and the irrevocability of the stain which her youthful foibles have left on her soul. It seems she has lived a life of total abstinence, renouncing every pleasure and affecting a painful detachment from society, in order to save her son from her own degradation and the canker of impeachment.

This play is interesting as it expounds upon the idea that woman can be subjected to the harshest of punishments, while man walks away untarnished; both parties may be equally culpable, and yet, man evades spiritual and social contamination on the grounds of his supposed male superiority. Elements of this play are undoubtedly fine fodder for the feminists, as it contains references to women as “playthings”, as well as Lord Illingworth’s arrogant assumption that he possesses the power to defile the purest of women, Hester Worsley, by kissing her. Lord Illingworth fails to besmirch Hester’s character, or intercept her staunch conformity to the ideals of moral conduct; this is a triumph for the self-possessed, independent woman, who exercises her own morality and acts independently of man.

Hester Worsley is a credit to her sex, but she is, as Wilde wittily points out, an uncommon aberration beside her hypocritical upper class counterparts. She is the embodiment of chaste, unsullied virtue. She confidently upbraids her English hosts and exposes their inverted morality through such sincere assertions as: “You shut out from your society the gentle and the good” and “You laugh at the simple and the pure.” She criticises their contempt of self-sacrifice and their habit of “throwing bread” at the poor, not to alleviate their sufferings, but merely to quell their discontented murmurings and prevent the public disturbance that could threaten the unity of their hierarchies. She perceives that they appreciate only the tangible beauties, “touchable” beauty which they destroy through their rapacity, but are blind to the subtler attractions of a “higher life”, governed by true, artless morality. Their shallowness and lack of discrimination prevents them from discerning the beauty of sacrifice, genuine purity or charity for the sake of charity. Her allusion to their derision of the “simple and pure” may refer to their own concealment behind the linguistic devices of paradoxes, periphrases, and epigrams. They delight in the superficial architecture of meaningless rhetoric, lacking the essence of true insight or thought. Hester’s unostentatious, artless mode of discourse has no pretensions to their kind of frippery; they, unlike this American Puritan, are well-schooled in the art of foolish, affected elegance. Hester Worsley and Mrs Arbuthnot are the play’s only true symbols of sincere morality, showing an admirable immunity to their contemporaries’ shallow exhibitionism and perverted mores.

Wilde’s criticism of the upper class is wildly entertaining in this comedy of manners, containing some traces of farce.  He is particularly successful in portraying the triviality of the women’s conversation and conduct. Lady Caroline is tyrannical in her marriage to Sir John, as she treats him as if he were an infant, depriving him of any entitlement to independent thought or competence:

“John, you should have your muffler.

...I think I had better look after John.”

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The women’s inclination to compete with their fellows and the overly zealous vigilance paid to other women’s looks exposes a shallowness, insecurity, and almost self-deprecatory belief that physical attractiveness is woman’s sole qualification. Lady Pagden dismisses her pulchritudinous governess upon the pretext that she is “too good-looking to be in any respectable household.” Lady Caroline scorns Miss Worsley simply because she deems her “far too pretty”. On one level, these women seem to lament the patriarchal nature of their society, as, according to Lady Stutfield, “the world was made for men and not for women.”However, their irrationality, their sophistic arguments and their excessive preoccupation with physical appearance seems to verify, if not corroborate, man’s opinion of their relative inferiority and their being ill-adapted for logical, intellectual thought. Ms. Worsley and Mrs Arbuthnot show a capacity to reason, to understand and to resist the superficialities of their contemporaries.

Other elements of this high society’s perversion of common sense, reason and morality are their impractical solutions to poverty, their intrinsic xenophobia, and their pious affectation of being concerned with subjects such as Puritanism and English “home life.” According to Kelvil, Lord Illingworth’s aberrant views on politics and disparagement of purity show that he does not “appreciate the beauty of our English home-life.” The term “home life” is quite ambiguous and when compared with other more pressing political issues such as poverty or the decadence of the higher orders, it seems relatively inconsequential. If we are to infer that this term, so characteristic of the insincere, grandiloquent language used by his society, refers to the opulent domestic environment of the upper class, their “home life” is anything but beautiful. Kelvil even proclaims that this is the “mainstay of our moral system”, something which exposes the instability of their morality’s foundations. Wilde may subtly suggest that this class’ inverted morals are based upon a superficial, affected ideal of their lavish domestic life, which is entirely cut off from the harsh realities of the real world, and thus disconnected from any real system of moral conduct. Their absurd and whimsical ideals affirm the pre-eminence of imagination and dramatics in their confined lives, which are unacquainted with reason or reality.

Kelvil’s seeks to express his highest principles by proclaiming that he has “great sympathy” for the poor, a sentiment which does little to alleviate the afflictions of this impoverished class, but rather feeds his own false sense of moral rectitude. The dandy exposes Kelvil’s pretence by pinning his sympathies down as a “special vice”; his own maxim is instead to sympathise with life’s sources of gratification, and that which is pleasing to the senses. While Lord Illingworth may not be what one might call an honourable man, he at least does not affect any false pretensions to virtue of any kind; in fact, he openly spurns the good and the profound, publically embracing all that is superficial, depthless and purely aesthetic. He rejects intellect as a mere trifle and proclaims “passion” to be the only serious thing; but in his diminishment of the value of intellect, he rejects the one trait which separates man from the lower animals, thus aligning himself with the fundamentals of hedonism: a life in which the sole source of good is derived from the gratification of purely bestial impulses.

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By the end of the play, Mrs Arbuthnot and the American, Miss Worsley, choose to disassociate themselves entirely from the false pretensions and perverted mores of this upper class society. Miss Worsley and Gerald Arbuthnot are united in their love for one another: a pure, unalloyed attachment uncorrupted by prejudice or imposture.  



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