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The Minor and Principle Characters Contribute Equally to the Form of 'the Importance of Being Earnest'. How Far Do You Agree with This Statement?

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The minor and principle characters contribute equally to the form of 'The Importance of Being Earnest'. How far do you agree with this statement?

A comedy of manners is categorically associated with and elaborate and scandalous plot, a joyous ending and using wit and inversions throughout. Throughout the play “The Importance of Being Earnest”, the conventions of a comedy of manners are clearly demonstrated by both the principle characters and the minor characters. However due to Oscar Wilde’s ideology of empowering the minorities and the ideas of reform in a Victorian society, it can be argued that the minor characters contribute more significantly.

The first convention of a ‘Comedy of Manners’ that the characters contribute to is an elaborate plot. Unexpectedly, due to her insignificance in previous scenes and portrayal as a minor character, Miss Prism makes the most significant contribution to this. As she is the one who concludes the mystery of where Jack came from and in turn leads him to learn his name is Ernest, which therefore resolves the problem he had with Gwendolen over his name. This then also concludes the play as Lady Bracknell eventually grants permission for them to marry as she realises that he is the son of her “poor sister, Mrs Moncreiff, and consequently Algernon’s elder brother”. Nonetheless, the principle characters all make a significant contribution to the elaborative plot. A forewarning of such plot developing is first hinted by the principle characters Jack and Algernon when Jack says “my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the county”. This defines the double life that the character Jack lives and in turn suggests an elaborative plot as leading a double life is very complicated in design and planning. Furthermore leading a double life implies lies and deceit and therefore scandal, which is also a convention of a ‘Comedy of Manners’. In addition such life is defined by Algernon as “bunburying” which is a way of life these two characters have created as a way of escaping the conventions of an upper class Victorian society. This then creates the intention of a ‘Comedy of Manners’ which primarily is to entertain the audience as through the use of satire they are exposing the vices and follies of a Victorian society in a comedic way. On the other hand, Miss Prisms pre-play actions can be seen as the cause of the principle characters contribution to the plot. As, by her leaving Jack at the station, she completely changed his life as he would of grown up as Algernon’s elder brother and the need to lead a double life probably wouldn’t exist as neither would “Jack in the country”. Meaning her contribution can be seen as most significant as she is the cause and answer to the mystery that this play reveals.

Another convention of a “Comedy of Manners” that the characters contribute to is the use of verbal wit to create humour. This is demonstrated by the minor character Lane when he replies “I didn’t think it polite to listen, sir” when asked by Algernon if he heard his music. This demonstrates how witty Lane can be as he quickly recognised the boundaries concerning status, emphasised by the use of the word “sir”, and replied with a respectful comment, despite the absurdness as music is there to be listened to. This he continues to do throughout the scene, with another example being him saying “No, sir, it is not a very interesting subject” when Algernon says he is not interested in Lane’s family life, which shows him still upholding the boundaries, with the continuity of the word “sir” and agreement to Algernon, despite his rudeness. In addition this demonstrates the aspects of the Victorian era, as people are less likely to have a relationship like this with their servants today. On the other hand, the character Lane only appears in Act 1, unlike the principle character Algernon. An example of his wit is shown when he turns the cliché saying ‘marriages are made in heaven’ into ‘divorces are made in heaven’. This has a satirical effect as he mocking the vices and follies concerned with the importance of marriage in the Victorian era in a comedic way. Which although won’t be satirical to a modern audience, it would still be funny as the constitute of marriage isn’t taken as seriously anymore. However Lane’s contribution pushes the boundaries of exposing the morals of a Victorian society by using sexual connotations disguised by food. With an example being he “went down twice” to get the “cucumbers”. This creates a comical, almost satirical effect as a Victorian audience would have recognised the discretion and mocked their social boundaries because unlike today, people were less likely to make sexual comments in public. Therefore his part can be argued as being stronger. A final comedic feature the characters in the play contribute to is the use of inversions. The minor character Chasuble demonstrates a very strong inversion when he says “Were I fortunate enough to be Miss Prism’s pupil, I would hang upon her lips” as he presents a religious man using sexual innuendos and metaphors. This controversial inversion would have been recognised in a Victorian society and in a modern one as the behaviours of someone who is highly religious are well known. Although the principle character Lady Bracknell also demonstrates an inversion, as she has adapted to be the more dominant, higher status figure in the family as oppose to Lord Bracknell and continues to do so throughout the play. This role inversion is seen when Lady Bracknell says “Fortunately he is accustomed to that” when considering Lord Bracknell might have to dine upstairs. This therefore shows that she considers Lord Bracknell to have no importance and that it wouldn’t matter if he was there or not. This opinion is emphasised by the use of the word “accustomed” as this shows that this happens on a regular basis and is emphasised by the fact that Lord Bracknell doesn’t appear in the play. Also linking back to Lady Bracknell’s contribution to the elaborative plot, she is the one who interviews Jack to determine his eligibility, although this traditionally is seen as something a father would do. In addition this could link to the separate spheres debate which present men and women as different spheres, with the men being in the public sphere and the women having a domestic, home-life sphere. This is clearly inversed by Lady Bracknell as she has taken it upon herself to be in the public sphere. However, all of the minor characters actions can be seen as inversions on the conventions of society. For example Miss Prism is a low status woman who plays the most significant part in creating the elaborate plot and Lane is a servant who makes the most significant contribution to the wit and pushes the boundaries by using sexual connotations. Furthermore, Chasuble’s and Miss Prism’s relationship was the only one that would have really continued to exist whether the plays mystery would have been revealed or not. This then would lead to, for them, a joyous ending which is also a convention of a “Comedy of Manners“.

In conclusion, although the principle characters do make a significant contribution to the convention of a “Comedy of Manners” as they are very dominant in each play, the minor characters contribute more so. The reason being Wilde’s ideology of empowering the minorities as through the use of wit and inversions they expose the morals of society in a comedic way.

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