Wilde’s The Importance of being Earnest is presented as being a traditional comedy, displaying notable features of slapstick, farce and wit to create humour. But modern audiences also read into it sub-themes of social reform. There is a template for Comedy by which we can judge whether it meets the first qualifications.
In traditional comedies or romances, the protagonist is often a young girl or servant who is missing at least one parent and is being brought up by a close family member or social superior. Generally, she encounters an old man with a stick, often a foolish figure, who orientates her to a comic nemesis, opening up the basic plot of the story, but his advice or input is often comedically exaggerated in some way. The protagonist is often scarred, wounded or otherwise damaged in some light or laughable way, and usually meets a male companion, an older character with particular characteristics, who often becomes a love interest.
The protagonist often has a shadow - a character similar in many ways to the protagonist but often an opposite. In Comedies, a war between 'good' and 'evil' is taking place as a backdrop to the story but the battle is played out as a farce and eventually, the protagonist comes to some kind of resolution, often marrying and thus rejoining the society in which she lives.
Thousands of examples of such comedies exist: in Shakespeare, or as Restoration farces, comedies of manners, television sit-coms, and so on. And so we find the template applying to Wilde’s play too.
Wilde's character of Gwendolen, for example, is portrayed as a very powerful women, unlike the classical lady of the Victorian era; she ‘restrains’ Jack from rising, for instance, representing not only the physical power she has over a man but also her control over the relationship. This idea of Gwendolen having a substantial amount of power over a man effectively challenges Victorian standards - women were given absolutely no power as it was thought they could not manage it: they were denied the vote until 1918, as it was thought that men and women were to have separate spheres, women domestically and men socially. But that is exactly why the play works as a comedy. Wilde creates humour in a contemporary context by showing a strong woman having physical power over a weaker man and additionally handling such power confidently. Though such a topic may have sparked controversy amongst an 1895 audience, it would also have provoked laughter.
At the time the play was written a woman of the aristocracy, as of any class in society, was expected to do as she was told without complaint. Gwendolen repeatedly challenges this idea and defies her mother’s wishes by travelling to the country, and when she quite categorically tells her that she is ‘not engaged to anyone’, in order to pursue her marriage. Wilde, in presenting women through the character of Gwendolen defying the traditional gender roles, through defying her mother, and handling the power she has better than the men in the play, may seem as though he is challenging gender stereotypes - with the power of hindsight, he was merely creating a ‘juxtaposition of the unexpected’, the primary mechanism of effective comedy.
Comedy is also derived from Gwendolen as the audience are able to recognise how she acts as an immoral character, according to the standards of a Victorian society. However, she is presented as not being in full control as a consequence of still being under her parent’s authority, in terms of choosing her a suitor. Gwendolen cannot choose whom she wishes to marry as her mother believes ‘an engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise’. The word ‘surprise’ emphasises how the daughters had no say in who they wished to marry, moreover, emphasising how little power they had in society - but it is a comic exaggeration, playing on the social convention by taking it to an extreme. This choice of language almost trivialises the idea of marriage and thus creates a comic effect to a contemporary audience, where marriage was seen to be of importance. Many women would marry very young to older, richer men, some of whom they had never met, simply because their parents had chosen them as an ideal suitor. Gwendolen can therefore be seen as conforming to traditional gender roles as she is subject to the views of Victorian society, allowing the play to not overstep the contemporary gender roles and remain within the bounds of a light-hearted comedy; had this been otherwise, had the superiority of the parent been challenged or dismissed in some way, Wilde’s play may have crossed the line into an Irony or at best a much darker Comedy.
Gwendolen increases the comic effect by emphasising the view that women should not have any power or influence. Once both Cecily and Gwendolen detect they have both been ill-treated by their beloved Ernests they realise they now hold a significant power in their relationships, which they then need to determine how to handle - but neither know what to do with it; they claim they ‘will not be first to speak’ yet immediately after announce their problems. Their portrayal suggests that women do in fact have no idea how to deal with power, but this is a comic portrayal which serves to lightly highlight the absurdity of the social convention at the time, as does most of the play.
Wilde therefore permits The Importance of Being Earnest to be interpreted as a light-hearted comedy in which gender roles remain unchallenged, allowing the Victorian audience to receive the play as a comedy. However, to a modern audience such ideas subvert the idea of the play being a perceived as a comedy as in society now the position of women is very different.
Just as Gwendolen defies the traditional gender roles for comic effect, Cecily does not neatly conform to the ideal women of the Victorian era; she is sexual, powerful and through Jack’s desires, educated; uncommon for a lady of wealth, who was usually only expected to know how to make polite conversation over tea and not know ‘history’ and ‘German’. Cecily here, through her education, presents potential evidence of the New Woman, an idea which was developing around the time the play was written, who educated themselves and presented a feminist ideal - but the suggestion that Wilde is commenting on the growing power and status of women, a topic of which would have not been taken as a light-hearted comment by Wilde’s audience, and presenting the play as a challenge to traditional female roles, overlooks how Cecily is seen in the context of the play. She gives up her studies and does not place value on her education, conforming in the end to the ideal of the traditional woman. Comedy, to be successful as comedy, must conform to convention in the end, no matter how wayward is its route there.
It is with a comic effect in mind that Wilde has Cecily too confidently exert her power over Algernon, dictating details of their ‘engagement’ which, unknowingly to Algernon, has been going on ‘for the last three months.’ This power in the relationship creates humour as it completely goes against the expectations of society: Algernon is being utterly controlled by a younger woman of lower status, which, to a Victorian audience, is funny precisely because it would have been viewed as totally unbelievable.
Cecily’s character also presents hidden sexual innuendoes, describing Algernon as ‘wicked’ and privately conversing with him about a ‘pink rose.’ On stage, Wilde could just about get away with the sexual imagery, though these things are quickly brushed-over. In reality, for a women to talk of such matters was regarded as unladylike and distasteful, but context makes them funny. That Wilde is challenging the social ideas of how a lady should behave, perhaps commenting on the obscurity of the double standard of behaviour for it to be remarkably unacceptable for one sex but not the other, is perhaps true, but he does so with an eye to making the audience laugh rather than to engender social reform.
Cecily is presented in context as a ‘sweet refined’ and ‘sensible’ girl, features of the traditional stereotypical women of the era. ’Sweet’ and ‘refined’ suggest immaturity and purity, as though women are fragile, like children, to be protected. She is presented as having ‘girlish dreams’ of marrying a man, similar to Gwendolen, of the name Ernest, dreams which, to the audience, would be considered ridiculous and small minded. Although coming across as authoritative, Cecily is still restrained by her superior, a man, who has the final say in her marriage, further implying that men are the truly the dominant sex and settling the play into a conformist context.
The Importance of Being Earnest can be viewed as a light-hearted comedy, displaying features of comedy of manners, wit, satire and for a Victorian audience presenting unlikely situations in order to create comedy. In hindsight, while a modern audience may feel that it is discerning Wilde challenging traditional gender roles through including controversial topics of the era, and giving the women a substantial amount of power, this is all in order to generate laughter.