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Spectacle and Artifice: Victorian Advertisement and its Impact on The Importance of Being Earnest

Ian Thomson

Ian Thomson (class of 2015) is from Toms River, New Jersey. Though he is currently undecided in his major, he hopes to pursue a combination of Political Science, English, and Theatre through the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. He is also interested in work with non-profits, and participated in the Stapleton-Davidson Summer Internship, interning at the Urban Ministry Center in Charlotte. At Davidson, he is a tour guide, an actor in the theatre department’s productions, a member of the Nuances, and a brother of Phi Gamma Delta. Ian’s work comes from Professor Onita Vaz-Hooper’s English 220: Literary Analysis.

At first glance, the women portrayed in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest appear to be vain, myopic, and hedonistic characters as their desires do not extend beyond the superficial. The three women live in an era of great advances in advertising, particularly advertisements promoting the glamor and envy of commodities. Advertisements of the times showed the masses what was to be desired, what they should strive for, what their lives should be like, and the women of the play follow such guidelines reverently. Cecily, Gwendolen, and Lady Bracknell view themselves through the lens of the mass media of the day, becoming so consumed with consumerism that they begin to live life as if it were publicity, as if it were “art.” Their insistence on following the fluctuating tastes dictated by advertising’s ideals leads them to live commodified and artificial lives of spectacle. However, though they may seem willingly to create the artifice of their lives, they are in reality victims of the overwhelming and prevailing expectations imposed on them by the advertising industry of the day.

The social attitude that would have dominated the lives of the women in The Importance of Being Earnest can be seen through Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class.  According to Veblen, consumerism in Victorian society developed from victorian-fashion1-150x150 Spectacle and Artifice: Victorian Advertisement and its Impact on The Importance of Being Earnestour primitive ancestors and the primacy of property ownership.1 As our ancestors fought for subsistence, property and ownership became clear signs of their strength, and goods soon became associated with honor and power, as only the most adept in society could amass great property.2 Property’s association with power and status has been ingrained in the human consciousness in Veblen’s view, and has led to a shift in he basis of ownership: “The motive that lies at the root of ownership is emulation.”3 The idea that those in power and with strength possess more than the weak has followed the evolution of humans, and possession has now become a point of envy among people: those will less envy those with more.

Cecily, Gwendolen, and Lady Bracknell view themselves through the lens of the mass media of the day, becoming so consumed with consumerism that they begin to live life as if it were publicity, as if it were “art.”

Emulation plays out in modern consumer culture, as Veblen later argues: “With the growth of settled industry. . .the possession of wealth gains in relative importance and effectiveness as a customary basis of repute and esteem.”4 Veblen believes that although we no longer fight each other for survival in the wilderness, an instinct of envy and a desire for possession drives humans to want to acquire yet greater wealth. We hope that by attaining more goods, we will rise up above others in status and, in turn, become the envied. This is the idea of conspicuous consumption, or the drive to acquire property to elevate social standing, a system very much in place in Victorian England.

As conspicuous consumerism took hold, manufacturers in nineteenth-century England began to notice the trend: consumers wanted goods no longer for survival but rather to raise their social status, often approaching the level of Victorian aristocracy. Advertisers recognized this desire and began to churn out publicity to tap the insecurity plaguing consumers. Victorian aristocrats idealized leisure, a concept abstract to the general working masses. As Lori Anne Loeb points out in Consuming Angels, “the reduction of toil was the implicit and explicit promise of many commercial products.”5 She continues, “In the commercial world leisure is. . . the privilege of the very rich.”6 Advertisers were no longer selling products as commodities, but rather the very values of the aristocracy.

With conspicuous consumption, competition, and status-seeking so prevalent, Wilde’s Cecily, Gwendolen, and Lady Bracknell enter the scene. These women are not simply characters in Wilde’s play; they are direct actors in the consumer culture of their moment. They are elites of the aristocracy. Having vaulted to significant social standing, they enjoy an expansive country estate, formal education, and vast amounts of ornamental property. Theirs are lives emulated by the masses: leisure and riches being the ultimate goals of Victorian consumerist ideology. Each woman obeys the stereotypes and expectations of aristocratic women portrayed in Victorian advertising.

One such value was that of the vain, narcissistic woman. According to Loeb, “these advertisements suggest that the ideal woman was self-absorbed and pleasure-oriented enough to delight in her own reflection.” (Loeb, Consuming Angels, 42.)) and her “assumptions [of an individual’s character] were inevitably based on appearances.”7  Women were thought to hold looks and superficial in such high esteem that achievement in both became a chief mechanism for judging oneself and others. Both vanity and shallow judgment mark the lives of the women in The Importance of Being Earnest.  In Act Three, Lady Bracknell must decide whether or not she will allow Algernon to marry Cecily. While one might expect Lady Bracknell to question their love, she instead proclaims: “We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces.”8 and proceeds to scrutinize Cecily’s physical features. She explains, “Pretty child! your dress is sadly simple, and your hair seems almost as Nature might have left it [but] there are distinct social possibilities in your profile.”9  Lady Bracknell elevates her judgment of Cecily’s looks as key to the potentiality of her marriage to Algernon, instantiating the troubling ideal of judging others based solely on appearance.

Cecily and Gwendolen also activate this ideal at their initial meeting. Within seconds of being introduced to one another, Gwendolen asks her new friend, “do you mind my looking at you through my glasses?” to which Cecily readily responds: “Oh! not at all, Gwendolen. I am very fond of being looked at”10 As Gwendolen proceeds to examine Cecily through her lorgnette, it is clear that both women value surface: Gwendolen’s first response at meeting Cecily is to explore her outer appearance and render judgment, while Cecily displays her narcissism and shameless vanity by enjoining Gwendolen to proceed with her investigation. After her scrupulous inquiry, Gwendolen concludes that, indeed, Cecily might be too  pretty: “Well, to speak with perfect candour, Cecily, I wish that you were a full forty-two, and more than usually plain for your age.”11 Gwendolen realizes that in an era of ostentation, Cecily’s youthfulness and beauty threaten her courtship with Ernest.  Though Gwendolen herself may be pretty, she compares her beauty to that of Cecily and finds flaws that sponsor insecurity and envy. In this way, the two women highlight exteriority and its impact on Victorian women’s self-worth.

Loeb indicates that roman love was a common theme in many advertistements of the day. The personal satisfaction gained through such love was a draw, guaranteeing that commodities could facilitate gratification.12 “Saccharine images of courtship celebrate the self-indulgent satisfactions of romanticvictorian-fashion1-150x150 Spectacle and Artifice: Victorian Advertisement and its Impact on The Importance of Being Earnest love and the thrilling prospects of elopement, even though they do ultimately respect community boundaries.”13 Advertisers preyed on the idealism of romantic love, and propagated images of women pining for their lovers, longing for the contact and emotional thrill of passion. Such a lovesick woman is exemplified by an advertisement for Brandauer pens, found in the Illustrated London News in 1886.  In this image, “A woman sits at her writing desk, staring dreamily into space. One hand is raised to her face to indicate langorous, slight embarrassment, even sensual touch….She writes a love letter, inspired by winged cupids….In the absence of physical contact, passion is communicated through the discrete literary symbol of cupid. Her love letter is engaging, but essentially conventional.”14 The image of the lovesick writer is almost eerily brought to life through the character of Cecily. With her fictional romance with Ernest, Cecily comes to exemplify the infatuated woman of Victorian advertisements depicted by Loeb. She longs for a romance full of passion and love, but also one that remains within the boundaries of propriety and convention, much like the woman in the Brandauer advertisement. When she learns of her Uncle Jack’s wild brother Ernest, Cecily concocts an imaginary romance through love letters full of her musings, and pines away for Ernest’s love. Upon meeting “Ernest,” Cecily explains that she had fallen in love with him through Uncle Jack’s stories, and had agreed to marry him three months prior to any real encounter. She then reminisces, “I remember only too well that I was forced to write your letters for you. I wrote always three times a week, and sometimes oftener.”15

Cecily, Gwendolen, and Lady Bracknell appear to be the success stories of which marketers dream: they serve as prime examples of the images and ideals sold through the publicity of commodities in England. As Veblen points out, “In any community where goods are held in severalty, it is necessary, in order for his own peace of mind, that an individual should possess as large a portion of goods as other with whom he is accustomed to class himself; and it is extremely gratifying to possess something more than others.”16 The class distinctions that arose with certain amounts of wealth forced men and women in society to reevaluate their own worth against those who had similar wealth. By measuring social worth based on wealth, the women of the play have created a constant need to compete with one another for increased commodities, additional luxuries, and more property—advertising has led them to believe they were worth nothing without more.

As a consequence of their avaricious nature, the women are only able to examine themselves through the lens of marketing at the time; they abandon their own values and substitute them with the prevailing consumerist ideology. Their lives have become commodified. They have become objects that bend to the whims of fashion, and can be manipulated to purchase whatever fashion requires. As John Berger argues, “[Publicity] proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more.”17 He further explains, “Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour.”18 Gwendolen, Cecily, and Lady Bracknell’s need continuously to maintain their enviable status stems from this same principle: they must continue to be envied in order to maintain a fashionable lifestyle.

Yet the value these women latch onto most fervently is Berger’s notion regarding the use of high art in publicity images.  As he reminds us, “a work of art also suggests a cultural authority, a form of dignity, even of wisdom, which is superior to any vulgar material interest.”19 Ironically, the women in Wilde’s play maintain cultural authority and dignity by becoming “works of art” themselves. The women transform their lives into commodities of art and spectacle. They have not simply adhered to what manufacturers advertise; they have become walking advertistements themselves.  Their overwhelming desire to amass consumer goods, to climb the social ladder, and remain envied drives them to slavishly adhere to the trends of the moment, and in doing so, forsake their own personal goals for the expectations of captialism. Lady Bracknell’s insistence on style, etiquette, and superficiality stems from her desire to remain envied and elevate herself above the masses. As she warns Algernon, “Never speak ill of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that.”20  Cecily goes so far as to offer her writing (and, by extension, herself) as a textual commodity when she remarks about her diary: “You see, it is simply a very young girl’s record of her own thought and impressions, and consequently meant for publication.”21

The women are mere actors in the broad spectacle of Victorian consumption. The prevailing social attitudes stemming from our primal need to acquire propel them to submit their lives to the fancies of advertising, becoming pawns for marketers to prey upon. While the characters of The Importance of Being Earnest are extreme examples of commodification, they serve as a warning to contemporary readers. As advertisers bombard us with images in print and digital midea, we  continue to consume according to their dictates. As Berger succinctly puts this, “Everything publicity shows is there awaiting acquisition.”22 In order to maintain our more substantive identities, we must separate our abiding values from those maintained in publicity lest we transform, along with Cecily, Gwendolen, and Lady Bracknell, into players in the spectacle of excess.

Bibliography

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin, 1972.

Loeb, Lori Anne. Consuming Angels: Advertising and Victorian Women. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Veblen, Thorstein. The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Viking, 1931.

Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

 

  1. Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (New York: Viking, 1931), 22. []
  2. Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 24. []
  3. Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 26. []
  4. Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class, 28. []
  5. Lori Anne Loeb. Consuming Angels: Advertising and Victorian Women (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 170. []
  6. Loeb, Consuming Angels, 171. []
  7. Loeb, Consuming Angels, 120. []
  8. Oscar Wilde, The Imporance of Being Earnest (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), 51. []
  9. Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest 51. []
  10. Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, 39. []
  11. Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, 39. []
  12. Loeb, Consuming Angels, 132. []
  13. Loeb, Consuming Angels, 157. []
  14. Loeb, Consuming Angels, 133. []
  15. Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, 36. []
  16. Veblen, The Theory of the Working Class, 31. []
  17. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 1972) 131. []
  18. Berger, Ways of Seeing, 131. []
  19. Berger, Ways of Seeing, 135. []
  20. Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, 51. []
  21. Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, 35. []
  22. Ways of Seeing, 153. []
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