Monday, August 15, 2016

Little Old Ladies 5: The Aunt to End All Aunts

“…I do not approve of mercenary marriages.  When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind.  
But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way.” 
Lady Augusta Bracknell, 
The Importance of Being Earnest

I have no deep thoughts or profound themes to expound in today’s blog entry. That’s because I am laughing too hard at Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s quite possibly my favorite play, not only of Oscar Wilde, but also of all the drama I’ve ever read, including Shakespeare. 

Part Dickens, part Monty Python, part Marx Brothers, all wit and all hilarity, Earnest is a clever farce in which the boring Mr. Jack Worthing departs his dull duties in the country with the excuse that he must deal with his fun-loving and reckless brother Ernest in the city. Once in the city, though, Jack takes on the persona of this nonexistent brother in order to enjoy his young life and woo the sophisticated but naïve Gwendolen Fairfax. All the while he also keeps a secret his humdrum life—and his young ingénue ward Cecily Cardew—from his equally fun-loving and reckless friend, aesthete and idle rich Algernon Moncrieff, who happens to be Gwendolen’s cousin.

When Gwendolen’s mother, Algernon’s indefatigable Aunt Augusta, refuses to let Jack/Ernest marry her daughter, Jack/Ernest decides that it would be useless to carry on the charade, and decides to kill off his fictional brother. This, along with letting slip his actual country address, gives friend Algy a foothold into his friend’s life. Algy arrives at Jack’s home posing as “Ernest,” and of course falls for sweet Cecily. 

Of course insanity is bound to ensue when the two so-called Ernests collide…and their love interests’ paths intersect. But nothing could compare to the bombshell that Aunt Augusta drops when she drops in. 

Aunt Augusta is a parody of the stereotypical aunts like Lady Catherine de Bourgh in literature. Upper-class, powerful, rich, and in control not only of her life but of every other character in the play, she also is in an opposite position to most women of the Victorian period, both in fiction and in reality.

She’s also an embodiment of social convention, which Wilde pokes fun at as only Wilde could do.  Like Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly, Aunt Augusta is supposed to be a guardian of morality and civilization. However, she is much more interested in money and the appearance of gentility than actual goodness. Aunt Augusta serves not only as a point of conflict in the play, a sort of antagonist, but she’s also a commentary on what happens when specific people are put in power of dictating what is right and wrong in society, and are allowed to bend the rules to benefit themselves. She herself points out that they live in an age of “surfaces,” and one is left to wonder whether it really is important to be earnest.

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