The Role of Food in The Importance Earnest

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Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is a play with elements of satire, farce and a comedy of manners set during the fin de siècle. Here, Wilde utilizes food as a motif to present the conflicts of the Victorian upper class through the ‘manners’ that they culturally invested in. This reflects the play’s subtitle: ‘a trivial comedy for serious people’ and Wilde’s purpose to question Victorian society. Firstly, food is used to distinctly satirize Victorian rituals of eating in Act II. The scene near the end of Act II, is set at afternoon tea where the women’s initial cordiality disintegrates to bitter rivalry evident by Cecily having ‘filled my [Gwendolen’s] tea with lumps of sugar, and though I [she] asked most distinctly for bread and butter, you [Cecily] have given me cake’. The comedy of this exchange arises from two practiced members of polite society, being unable to explicitly vent their spleen in self-evident insult. Rather, they are forced to insult each other periphrastically without any true expression.

Here, the sickening sweetness of the tea could symbolise the sickening politeness that the upper-class practice which allows the Victorian audience to question their attitudes. Also, Gwendolen’s decided desire for bread and butter to establish her social superiority was because afternoon tea was a pastime for the idle rich. However, Wilde could satirize this intention for superiority because in the Victorian Era, the exotic ingredients for the cake would only have been accessible to the rich and ‘fashionable’, but bread and butter would have been more common – so Wilde has subverted the audience’s expectations to question why mundane events like afternoon tea determine your social standing. Not just through actions, but also through dialogue there is duality of language; Gwendolen expresses that she is ‘so sorry, dear Cecily’, however the subtext of this suggests her lack of belief in her apology. This is supported by sibilance which during performance could have an artificial and almost-sinister register. To further, this scene reinforces not only unyielding Victorian conventions but also the underlying codes of behaviour applicable to the women, as before the servants (lower class) arrived the respectable women exchanged in repartee with Cecily deeming that ‘the shallow mask of manners’ had slipped and ‘when I see a spade I call it a spade’. This indicates, plain speaking however this would defy societal expectations as it involves a failure of the upper-class strict morality which is translated to their manners. Furthermore, when the servants are setting the table Gwendolen reverts to the address of ‘Miss Cardew’ as the use of forenames was renounced in polite society – it was the family name that mattered – because it indicated your social standing which would be consequential.

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Furthermore, Wilde’s motif of food helps to establish characters, this is true especially for characters like Algernon (Algy) who is far from caricature, yet he is self-interested and bears a parodic relationship to the aristocracy of Wilde’s time. This is depicted, in the first scene of the play through Algy’s free interaction with Lane, his manservant, where he has no ‘mask of manners’. Instead, he reveals his selfishness and gluttony as he ‘takes two’ of ‘the cucumber sandwiches cut for Lady Bracknell’. The nonchalance of this scene is mirrored to later when Algy ‘picks up the plate in horror’, here Wilde presents the insincerity of the upper class. Moreover, Algy’s constant consumption could stem from his idle nature because food psychology suggests that being bored creates a lack of attention in your present situation and in life. As, state boredom generates gluttony to distract from unpleasant self-awareness associated with a lack of meaning in life – clearly Algy’s life lacks purpose and direction.

Also, this boredom establishes Algy’s character as a dandy which Lady Bracknell, in Act III sums as ‘he has nothing’. However, at the end of Act II, Algy ‘still continues eating’ even with a dejected, deceived Cecily which exemplifies that Wilde uses food to suggest that Algy (and who he represents) is the primary site of moral reversals. As at the end of the play, he is not punished for deceit, but rewarded for it with Cecily's hand in marriage. Therefore, Algy’s purpose is to show the amoral upper class where wrong-doings aren’t punished rather it is honourable. Lastly, Wilde could use food as a metaphor for supressed emotion in his strictly conservative society. Again, this is seen with Algy who is a notorious Bunburyist – he relies on a fictional invalid to escape unwanted situations – like dining ‘with one’s own relatives’. This connotes Algy’s sexual desire – he wants to escape this tedious dinner with Lady Bracknell, a stock character who is excluded from the world of love and lust of the young couples, so to experience freedom of emotion he resorts to bunburying. Moreover, Victorian morality stemmed from religious and societal repression. Before Queen Victoria, Puritan and Liberal leaders had influenced society, so during the Victorian period the divide between high cultural morals and low vulgarity were strongly embedded in British culture to change the negative perceptions of the monarchy.

Also, the Church demanded obedience to God through yielding and acceptance with the goal of succumbing to the will of the Church. Consequently, Wilde suggests that such restriction leads to duality in men, seen through Algy’s and Jack’s double life, which questions Victorian hypocrisy. Furthermore, the gluttony of the male characters could symbolise supressed sexual desire. As, at the end of Act II, during the farcical scene of the fiancés’ rejection and return to the house, Algy is ‘calmly eating muffins’ and Jack ‘may eat his own muffins’ – an incongruous action. In Act I, this idea is reflected by Jack ‘helping himself’ to bread and butter as ‘Gwendolen is devoted’ to it. To the audience, recognition that this play is a comedy of manners provides understanding that food, representing a desire for freedom of sexuality is Wildean because he desired sexual freedom as he wrote ‘the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it’. However, this led to his imprisonment on the 25th of May 1895 for gross indecency where he was advised to forget his sexual identity, but he believed that ‘only by realising what I am that I have found comfort’ – which presents his sexual freedom.

In conclusion, the appearance of food in this play is not an oversight because as demonstrated above, in this comedy of manners, food helps the social hierarchy to be manifested, it reinforces the cosmetic appearance of Victorian morality and establishes character.

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