Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ and Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’ both predominantly portray aspects of female characters which reflect the patriarchal societies of Victorian and 1930s England. The importance of centuries of tradition and social conditioning created an ideal for women to act in a certain way, and as such controlling them. It is shown in much literature that female characters who transgress society’s expectations are presented in a negative light. From the seemingly willful and childlike Anne of Green Gables (I’m such a troublesome person’), to Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair (‘I have brains…almost all the rest of the world are fools’), to the young, feisty female Scarlet O’Hara (‘Marriage, fun? Fiddle-dee-dee-Fun for men you mean’), to even the aged meddlesome sleuth Miss Marple (‘She’s a rotted corpse and there’s no one to kiss her awake.
‘). Wilde uses satire to parody social aspects of Victorian society. Which includes his views of women being controlled by the expectations of marriage.
He controversially subverts the ideals of marriage by undermining the concept as a whole. A critic explains ‘Wilde’s characters have been striving… to construct an idealised world which satisfies their wishes’. This though can be used to show the lack of independence of the women in the play, as they are constantly striving to marry a man called Earnest. In a Handful of Dust, some may believe women can be seen as independent through the character of Brenda. However many would view Brenda as selfish rather than independent.
A critic, Christopher Hitchens regards Waugh as a ‘celebrated misanthropist’ and an ‘obvious misogynist’. He believes that in a Handful of Dust, women are portrayed as ‘heinous individuals’ who control the male figures and ‘make men women’. In this way we can present men such as Tony as dependent on the stronger female counterpart of Brenda, just as it can be argued Shakespeare penalised feminine males such as Othello who succumbs to tears and jealousy with the destruction of his world.
Women’s independence in literature is therefore not always seen as positive to society and Wilde and Waugh largely seem to support this view.From the beginning Waughs vixen-like Brenda can be seen. She begins to manipulate Tony in order to get what she wants. This is shown when Tony asks, “Am I not going to see you?” and Brenda replies, “Not today I’m afraid.”. Tony not only accepts this but praises it by replying, “I see.
You are an angel to be so sweet”. Already the power hierarchy in their relationship is asserted. Brenda, has been gone for weeks at a time and Tony isn’t suspicious in the slightest. She is portrayed as sly and manipulative in this aspect as she seems to have foreshadowed that manoeuvring Tony to believe anything and submit to her would be very simple. She is presented as selfish, always putting her needs before others. Her future therefore was her main priority so she would have considered Tony’s obtuse ways as a positive.
As this meant he would ask few questions unless it involved Hetton. Tony can be seen to lack male characteristics such as being possessive or protective over Brenda. Tony realises this is one of his downfalls as he explains “He had gotten into a habit of loving and trusting Brenda”. Brenda took advantage of Tony’s trust, knowing she could cheat without Tony even noticing. This again presents Brenda as manipulative, using Tony’s weakness and his loving trust for her against him. Highlighting that she is willing to do anything in order to achieve her desires, even if it hurts others in the process.
Tony is seen as a victim of vixen-like Brenda due to his naive and obtuse ways. Tony Last can be seen as a quixotic figure, he was foolishly idealistic when it came to Brenda. In this way a parallel between ‘A Handful of Dust’ and ‘The Great Gatsby’ can be seen as they both highlight ‘the costs of idealism and the futility of nostalgia’. Both characters, Tony and Gatsby strive to achieve their ideals in a similar way. Both have little awareness of their masculine realities. Waugh presented Tony as weaker than his female counterpart Brenda. Perhaps highlighting how traditional patriarchal values are no longer in practice in the increasingly modern world.
Tony can be seen as weak when he drinks when being denied of seeing Brenda in London. Indicating his escape to be through substance abuse rather than reality. Like this Gatsby can be seen to use illusion versus reality- as notesTony can also be seen as similar to Antony in Waugh’s novel ‘Antony, Who Sought Things That Were Lost’. Like Antony, Tony is clinging to a love that is lost. Tony was deeply in love with Brenda, much like Antony with Elizabeth. However both women reject this love for men of lower social standing, forcing Tony and Antony to search for a love that was lost and a past that was gone.
However it can be seen that Tony was striving for Hetton rather than Brenda, which ultimately results in the failure of his marriage. Tony’s admiration of Hetton can be seen in aspects such as “the ecclesiastical gloom of the great hall … was a source of constant delight and great exultation to Tony; things of tender memory and proud possession”. Tony ‘had a clear picture of it in his mind. It was Gothic in character, all vanes and pinnacles, gargoyles, battlements, groining and tracery, pavilions and terraces, a transfigured Hetton’. Tony saw Hetton as a part of himself, in order to be whole he needed Hetton to be restored to what it once was. This is furthered by the description that “There was not a glazed brick or encaustic tile that was not dear to Tony’s Heart”.
His futile efforts to restore his beloved Hetton ended when Todd stranded him and Tony was imprisoned in the books of Dickens. A comparison between Mr. Todd and Tony can be drawn as the books of Dickens had the same value for Todd as Hetton for Tony. They were incapable of living in present and so prefered to live in past. Tony therefore is seen as weaker than female counterpart Brenda. Brenda begins to spend more time away from Hetton while Tony who once spent time in France and Italy, now finds that he is never happy away from Hetton.
Hetton clearly the most important thing to Tony. This becomes his downfall as this is where he loses his independence, as he is controlled by his romantic view of Hetton. Tony sacrifices some of his funds needed to improve Hetton in order to provide his wife with a place to stay while she pursues her studies in economics. In reality the flat becomes the location of her infidelities. Brenda can be seen to live her own life and follow her dreams in economics, therefore living as an independent being. Meanwhile Tony lets his wife ruin his plans to improve Hetton- that which was most important to him.
Women in both texts can be shown to be striving for status through marriage, highlighting a lack of independence. The 1930s London was suffering from The Great Depression however Brendas flat in Belgravia is a fashionable residential district centred on Belgrave square. Highlighting Brenda’s independence as she always strives for the best. However this is acquired through Tony’s money therefore he is still reliant on males. Similarly, we see that status is extremely important to Lady Bracknell when she meets with Jack. Instead of asking Jack if he loves Gwendolen, the materialistic side; his status, is more important to her. She questions Jack about his address, highlighting its importance to her. This exemplifies the alignment between social class and residence for Lady Bracknell.
She explains Jacks house in the town is ‘unfashionable’, highlighting her disapproval and his country estate to be neither a ‘profit or a pleasure’. Throughout this conversation we see Lady Bracknell’s dominance over Jack, as though she is superior to him. The setting of this meeting is reflective of an interview, highlighting its importance to Lady Bracknell. This highlights the view in Victorian society that women need males in order to pursue their goals therefore they cannot be seen as independent beings.In a similar way Jack can presented as not independent due to the expectation of society which he cannot fulfil. He can be seen as an established member of society, however he is not presented as a noble because he was found in a handbag at a train station.
This has always been problematic to him, as he could not present an aristocratic background. The world of nobility expected this in order for him to marry Gwendolen. This portrays the traditional views of the Victorian society whereby all aristocracy was formed through right of birth. Jack is unable to achieve his goals until Lady Bracknell finds out the truth.
Brenda pursues her goals by any means necessary. Even by living a dual life in London and in the country in order to have an affair. This is similar to Wildes Jack, as he uses the city as an escape from the country in order to escape social conventions.
Brenda is the contrast of a stereotypical nurturing mother. She is presented as selfish with all characters throughout. This indicates the extent of her selfish ways, she puts her own needs before everyone; even her own child. In this way she is presented in a negative light, as she shows very little sensitivity to the situation.
In response to her son’s death she cries ‘John…John, Andrew…I…oh thank God’. Relieved when she realises it’s her son; Andrew, as she initially believes her lover has died. According to Mcdonnelle mother figures are ‘inhuman’ in Waugh’s fiction, this quote furthers this perspective. However this presentation of Brenda could be used to create a feminist character where she is free to pursue her own happiness. Women in many of Waugh’s novels, such as Brenda can be seen to have a non reproductive sexual desire.
Clitoridectomy; the surgical removal of the clitoris, is perceived as a ‘symbolic effacement of women’s non reproductive sexual desire as a way of reproducing patriarchal dominance’. By enjoying sex, Brenda is fighting the patriarchal views that a woman’s sole purpose of sex was to reproduce, not to enjoy. Indicating that Wauvian women, mostly the western colonial women, remain reluctant to the traditional role of motherhood.
The only nurturing female character is the nanny. Reflecting Waughs feelings of adoration towards his nanny. However John Andrew constantly disrespects her, portraying how deep Waughs misogynistic views run. A young boy in the novel is still able to assert dominance over the female characters reflecting the omnipresence and inevitability of patriarchy. In contrast Wilde adheres to the stereotype of a nurturing mother with Lady Bracknell. In the first line of her speech she says ‘I hope you are behaving well’.
This significant difference between Lady Bracknell and Brenda highlights the difference between a women who is presented as an independent being compared to a selfish, manipulating woman. However unlike Waughs positive presentation of the nanny like figure in a Handful of Dust, Mrs Prism mistaking a manuscript for a baby pokes fun at changing ideas of motherhood. The misplaced baby symbolised what critics saw as a confusion of gender roles, when women entered the male dominated world of intellect they would fail, even at typically feminine roles. Waugh commonly uses a piece of architecture to inform one of his characters’ personalities. Balzac explains “The events in human life, either public or private, are so innately connected with the architecture that most observers could reconstruct nations or individuals in all the verity of their habits, basing their notions on what remains of their domestic existence.”.
This could explain why Waugh uses this in many of his novels. Waugh does this with Tony Last, he creates the impression that Tony and the Neo-Gothic manor; Hetton, are synonymous and almost the same person. This is shown when Mrs Beaver asks ‘where are you going for the weekend?’ and John answers ‘Hetton’, she then enquires ‘who’s that?’ and he replies ‘Tony Last.
‘. She does not ask who does Hetton belong to, just ‘Who’s that?’, emphasising how Tony is not depicted as an independent being as he is linked to Hetton, a manor that desperately needs restoring, much like his relationship with Brenda. In addition, each room in Hetton is named after a character in an Arthurian legend. Brenda and Tony are described as sleeping in separate rooms, perhaps highlighting their marital issues. Brenda’s room is named ‘Guinevere’, in the Arthurian legend there is a woman named Guinevere notorious for her infidelity. This foreshadows Brenda’s infidelities to come in the novel.
Portraying Brenda as selfish to the core with little room for change, as it is a part of a woman’s most private sanctuary, her bedroom. Gwendolyn and Cecily should be able to be independent beings, since they are both well educated. However, they are presented as childlike and narrow minded through their idealisation of the name “Ernest”, this could be a result of a very protected childhood. Both Gwendolen and Cecily strive to have a husband called “Ernest.”, placing emphasis on trivial matters such as a name. Jack attempts to tell Gwendolen that his name is “Jack” and not “Ernest” however she replies saying, “Jack”..
. No, there is very little music in the name Jack, if any at all, indeed.” The only real safe name is Ernest.’. Similarly, Cecily states to Algernon, “There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence. I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest.”. In this way Wilde is not only satirising the institution of marriage but also the younger women in the novel.
Due to their protected childhood because of their social class, they are unable to become independent being, regardless of their high education because they are constantly obsessing over the male characters. However some aspects of Gwendolyn can portray a strong female character. Although she portrays a predominantly female persona, such as how she wanted the proper engagement. By making Jack propose formally, she can be seen to dominate Jack with her assertive nature. Gwendolyn is clearly becoming more and more like her mother as she matures, we see Algernon mention this when he says a girl’s worst flaw is that ‘they will end up just like their mothers’. Showing she has potential to become a fully independent being, perhaps after marriage like Lady Bracknell; who clearly is superior to her husband.
In addition, in some aspects Cecily are presented in a similar way. When Algernon proposes to Cecily and she replies with “we have been engaged for the past three months”. Algernon being in London, was unaware of this situation. This creates comedy because again it is a female dominating a male character and announcing their engagement, when it is traditionally a man’s role to propose.Gwendolen is still controlled by Lady Bracknell.
THis can be seen when she is unable to defend herself about wanting to marry Jack when he proposes to her. Lady Bracknell dominates saying, “Pardon me, you are not engaged to anyone. When you do become engaged to someone, I, or your father, will inform you.” Lady Bracknell is portrayed as a forceful character who leaves no room for opposition. Even though Gwendolen wants to oppose her, she hasn’t the strength to do so.
Lady Bracknell represents women of the Victorian upper class society that believe those of high class should be the ones in power. She has very little opinion of those with no title, or money and views the upper class society as being a ‘closed club.’ She appears as a guardian of society in that she forcefully dictates who should marry who in the play. She represents the archetypal aristocrat who forces the concept of a marriage based on wealth or status rather than love. Through farce and exaggeration, Wilde satirically reveals the foolish and trivial matters that the upper class society looks upon as being important.Lady Bracknell also comments on education “education produces no effect” as women wouldn’t have had the same right to education as men would have done, she is arguing it has little effect.
In order to continue the view that women can be as powerful as men. Moreover Lady Bracknell makes a remark on politics “oh they count as Tories they dine with us or come in the evening” this shows her masculine qualities, as women at the time did not have the right to vote. This makes her seem as though she is putting on a facade; pretending to know about politics, to exercise her power.Wilde presented Lady Bracknell talking about the position of men. She says, that the house is the proper place for man.
Role reversal in the Importance of being Earnest satirises patriarchal society as women are in control within the play. From a feminist perspective this could be seen as highlighting the need to change in the late 19th centuries patriarchal society. Wilde inverts the gender roles in the Victorian society in order to show reflections upon social life, particularly with Lady Bracknell, who embodies the British Victorian aristocracy. It is through Lady Bracknell that the inversion of gender roles is highlighted as she is arguably the most dominant figure in the play obtaining the most authority over every other character.
It is clear from Gwendolen’s and Lady Bracknell’s comments that Lord Bracknell, who remains absent in the play, appears to be passive in the female orientated household. Gwendolen remarks that her father is ‘entirely unknown’ outside their family circle, and reflects, ‘the home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man’ and speaks of a man’s ‘domestic duties’. Therefore on the surface Lady Bracknell can be seen as an independent being.
However under closer inspection, as this is a comic inversion of the stereotypical expectation in Victorian times, Wilde is showing that a woman’s role was in the home; therefore not an independent being.Women have the urge to move freely in the occupational world. However Wilde could also be seen to be poking fun at this side of the feminist movement. Wilde used Miss Prism as an awakened woman who serves as a governess of Cecily, and writes novels. Perhaps Wilde too wanted to see the limitations of the movement of feminism.
The feministically awakened and educated woman had to cling to the job of governess. They had to write fictions. Accept this pursuit and job of governess Miss Prism didn’t get a significant male role. The governess of the Victorian Age is usually single, earns her own living and has quite a difficult and ambiguous social position. She is part of the family while at the same time being a servant. The governess’ role is taken by Miss Prism, whose name is said by some critics to be a combination of ‘prim’, ‘prissy’ and ‘prison’.prim-feeling or showing disapproval of anything regarded as improper; stiffly correct. Or purse (the mouth or lips) into a prim expression.
prissy-caring too much about behaving and dressing in a way that is considered correctand that does not shock:Prison- entrapped She initially appears as a stereotype of the Victorian governess, although she is able to write a novel: ” I had also with me a somewhat old, but capacious hand-bag in which I had intended to place the manuscript of a work of fiction that I had written during my few unoccupied hours. ” In a minute of inattention while looking after the baby, she placed the manuscript in the perambulator and put the baby in the handbag instead. Prism’s confusion between a baby and a manuscript pokes fun at changing ideas about motherhood.
The misplaced baby symbolised what critics saw as a confusion of gender roles, when women entered the they are similarly portrayed by Wilde. Both women lead a very sheltered life, which in turn takes away from their educations. The women are far from stupid, but they are not well informed with the ways of the world, foremost the ways of the society they live in. The symbolic nature of names in literature is used within both texts. The name Gwendoline could be a reference to the illegitimate daughter of King Arthur; Gyneth, in ‘The Bridal of Triermain’.
She was doomed by Merlin to sleep inside a magic castle, the enchantment could only be broken by a rescuer both brave and noble enough to overcome the temptations used successively to distract and overcome prospective suitors, such as fear, wealth, pleasure and pride. However it could also be reference to Queen Gwendolen, a ruler of ancient Britain. She defeated her husband in battle to take leadership of Britons, becoming their first Queen. The name Brenda can comes from the Old Nordic male name Brandr, meaning torch and sword. – dominance