In the Victorian Era, being earnest was viewed as the pinnacle of human societal achievement. Earnestness, defined most basically as being very serious, was a behavior or at least affect that plagued the Victorian era to a fault. As Oscar Wilde displayed in his theatrical evisceration of the value, it was mostly a pretense of severity to disguise the same human failures that had existed since the dawn of humanity. The importance of earnestness stemmed out of an attempt to bring the lower classes into the folds of strong religious values. Christianity was taken very seriously by the upper class of society but there was a fear that the lower classes of people, the working class of industrious but debt-ridden peasants was not as serious about God and therefore not as serious about life in general. Victorian ideals responded to this by promoting earnestness in its every form, no matter how ridiculous, leading to an era where fun was abhorred and seriousness was celebrated. The importance of earnestness in Victorian era meant valuing being very serious and people did this through relationships, through their submission to the patriarchy, and through their personal interactions.
One of the ways the importance of earnestness was meted out upon civilization was through relationships. Relationships were to be created through serious courtship. These courtships were to end in marriage and the groom’s true goal during the process was to impress the parents and the bride by displaying his severity, his dedication, and his utter inability to be fazed by such a commonplace thing as humor. Again, this is perhaps most recognized through Oscar Wilde’s satire of the behavior and in many ways, people understand the satirical teasing of these values more than they understand the values themselves. This is because Oscar Wilde’s theater production on earnestness and triviality in Victorian society became very famous and expertly highlighted the pretense and hypocrisy that pervaded the societal values.
Being earnest in Victorian society also meant subjugating oneself to the patriarchal rule within the family. In general, this meant that a man seeking courtship with a woman would first approach her father. Similarly, it meant that in this already very serious society, all looked to the father or patriarch for leadership towards this goal. The image of the jovial father, laughing with his head tilted back would not have been a fitting image for the timeframe. Instead men were very severe in their business dealings and recreational endeavors. Homosexuality, trans-sexuality, and other non-patriarchal norms were swiftly eschewed, or so buried they were never even brought into society to be denied.
Finally, the importance of being earnest meant that personal interactions were primarily about serious conversation and never about witticism, puns, or humor. This is perhaps the most obvious element of Victorian era societal demands satirized in The Importance of Being Earnest. Oscar Wilde dedicates the entire play to making fun of the extremely severe attitudes, emotions, and resolves of Victorian era people. Personal interactions were not meant to be flirty or fun, laughing was considered in poor taste, and true sophistication was marked by one’s dedication to serious study and humorlessness. Oscar Wilde was of course a comedian by nature and therefore was very capable of satirizing this by using deft humor matched by recognition of the society’s dedication to being serious.
The importance of being earnest meant having a severe resolve. Society as a whole, over time, developed a very serious culture. In this society, humor became a lost cause, as laughing at it was considered base or low class. Oscar Wilde, a blatant homosexual and theatrically minded writer, did not mind the pariah social status he was inviting with his cutting remarks about such a society. The importance of earnestness was that society had, as a whole, determined it was the mark of truly good society. Ironically, it meant that people hid their personalities in public to keep from embarrassment and led to personal interactions and relationships that were clearly stifled, thereby creating a society easily satirized by a brave writer like Wilde.