Assessing Women’s Roles in The Importance of Being Earnest

Last Updated: 26 Apr 2023
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The Importance Of Being Earnest “Women’s roles are often tokenistic in dramatic comedy” To what extent do you believe this to be the case in relation to the play you have been studying? In dramatic comedy it can often be said that women’s roles are ‘tokenistic’ which essentially means: that women are there to serve a little more than the minimum, or may not serve much of a purpose at all, they may also follow social stereotypes during the era of this literary piece.

In this essay I will be assessing this statement and come to a final decision by looking at both sides of the argument and looking for secondary sources/opinions to prove some points that will be made. I believe that women are not tokenistic in terms of comedy in The Importance of being earnest because they do serve a purpose and add to the humour but on the other hand they may only do the very minimum within the story line and many of the female characters follow social stereotypes strongly.

Wilde often uses characters within his plays and pieces as an opportunity to discuss or highlight certain contemporary issues, and may sometimes mock them through satire and farce. An example of this is the character of Gwendolen who is used to create humour; Oscar does this by presenting her as an inversion of the traditional female during the era Importance of Being Earnest was written.

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In the third act Gwendolen Says “But we will not be the first to speak” and then instantly contradicts her statement and addresses Algernon straight away after saying so, this would be found rather humorous by contemporary audiences because women were traditionally meant to be quiet and should ‘speak when spoken to’ Gwendolen recognises this, but yet she does speak first, and this is a break of a social stereotype.

This is an example of a women’s role within The Importance of Being Earnest as un-tokenistic because she serves a purpose in creating humour, and also the language used in that line suggests that she is leading the conversation and in turn leading Cecily, that is because the plural “we” in the quote indicates both herself and Cecily, should both conform to her statement, she is in a sense telling Cecily what to do. Also linked to this, after the later quote she then begins to interrogate Algernon and Jack, and she is the first to do so.

This shows that she is accustomed to being in a position of power, so to conclude this point: how can Gwendolen truely be tokenistic if she serves a purpose in terms of comedy and is in a position of power within the stated conversation/section. On the other hand Gwendolen seems to support the typical patriarchal society which is present in The Importance of Being Earnest’s era. It is shown by this quote – “How absurd to talk of the equality of the sexes! ” And “men are infinitely beyond us” Both in Act 3 also the use of the word infinitely emphasises this driving Gwendolen’s further.

Gwendolen indirectly mocks the idea of ‘new women’ which was a feminist ideal that emerged in the late 19th century and had a profound influence on feminism well into the twentieth century as well. It can be said that her role knocks back equality, which then leads to us thinking she is indeed tokenistic. But her role and this particular quote draws attention to the unfairness and importance of the issue at hand. This could be another example of Wilde using characters and satirical mocking to highlight certain issues, so therefore she again does indeed serve a purpose and an important one at that, so she may be un-tokenistic.

Another example of roles of women serving a purpose is Lady Bracknell – “The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square” on page 20 act 1. This is an example of Oscar Wilde’s satirical mocking technique, directed towards the upper classes and the education system, through characters such as lady Bracknell and Gwendolen.

Also the use of language and words such as ‘radically’ and ‘theory’ emphasises the satire because they are fairly emotive or serious words, contrasting with the absurd bigoted point. “Lady Bracknell is the main character to portray this satirical technique, as she believes the upper class to be much more educated than the lower class, purely because of social status” - hubpages. com/education, this point taken from an online website agrees with the idea that Wilde uses characters as a way to highlight issues and mock them. This is shown in the wording.

And in turn this point suggests that if characters used to mock and highlight issues within society, then they are serving a purpose and are important to aspects of comedy within the play, examples of such characters are, Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen. So how can they be tokenistic if they are doing so? This shows that they are un-tokenistic. On the other hand Oscar Wilde often uses stock characters to enhance comedy and have no real purpose. “A stock character is a fictional character that relies heavily on cultural types or stereotypes for its personality, manner of speech, and other characteristics” – Fritzfreiheit. om, this shows that characters following stereotypes could be considered tokenistic, such as Lady Bracknell, who is described as “a symbol of Victorian earnestness and the unhappiness it brings as a result. She is powerful, arrogant, ruthless to the extreme, conservative, and proper. In many ways, she represents Wilde's opinion of Victorian upper-class negativity, conservative/repressive values, and power” – Cliffnotes. com, this shows that Lady Bracknell follows contemporary social stereotypes and only serves a minimum purpose and that is to make the audience laugh.

So she may well be tokenistic. Also many other stock characters are considered to be tokenistic because they are only used to enhance comedy, not to add to the story or to highlight issues. Examples of a stock character with a minimal role is Miss Prism she is an example of a stereotype of an aspiring romantic novelist, she is the typical woman of the time with a dream that is suppressed. This means she both abides by contemporary social stereotypes and in no way highlights issues as much as Gwendolen or other characters may.

So this could be suggested that indeed she is tokenistic due to the later points made. In conclusion I believe that female characters in Oscar Wilde’s Importance of being earnest such as Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell both serve a purpose in terms of comedy by enhancing it with the use of; farce, satire, and mocking. Linked to this he also uses the humour created by these characters as well as the actually characters themselves as an opportunity to mock or highlight issues and ideals, for example Lady Bracknell and the upper class.

But on the other hand it could be said that any female characters are stock characters which follow stereotypes and therefore produce a minimum affect, examples of this are Miss Prism and Lady Bracknell who has proven to be most contradictory and can be used by both sides of the argument because she does serve an important purpose. Over all I believe the large majority of female roles within The Importance of being earnest are not tokenistic because they most serve a purpose and enhance comedy.

By James Rae Bibliography – Importance of Being Earnest * http://rachira. hubpages. com/hub/The-Importance-of-Being-Earnest-Mocking-Education - Author: RachiRa (username) - Date of citation: 14/3/13 * http://fritzfreiheit. com/wiki/Stock_character - Author: Fritz Freiheit - Date of citation: 14/3/13 * http://www. cliffsnotes. com/study_guide/literature/importance-of-being-earnest/character-analysis/rev-chasuble-miss-prism. html - Author: Susan Van Kirk - Date of citation: 14/3/13

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Assessing Women’s Roles in The Importance of Being Earnest. (2017, Apr 04). Retrieved from

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