A Woman of No Importance

“The one advantage of playing with fire, Lady Caroline, is that one never gets even singed. It is the people who don’t know how to play with it who get burned up.”

In Oscar Wilde’s play “A Woman of No Importance,” young Gerald Arbuthnot is offered a position as a secretary for Lord Illingworth. Gerald is excited to rise in society, but the opportunity generates conflict when his mother and Illingworth meet for what is supposed to be the first time. The main theme in the play is purity–an ideal his characters either defend, mock, or change to fit their personal definitions.

Wilde employs witty commentary to amuse the audience and question societal values. Oftentimes his remarks make little sense if left unanalyzed. For example, Lord Alfred mentions (when speaking about gold-tipped cigarettes) that “They are awfully expensive. I can only afford them when I’m in debt.” This statement seems odd at first, but looking closer it can be determined that Lord Alfred really means is that when he is not in debt, people expect him to pay for his cigarettes, while when he is in debt, he can put off paying for them until later or just take them from friends. Other times Wilde uses his rhetoric more seriously; one of the most famous lines from the play is “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”

Yet this banter is reserved for specific characters, and, as the play continues, the most amusing people are removed from the action. In the end, the more boring, serious people (such as Hester Worsley, a devoted Puritan, and Mrs. Arbuthnot, Gerald’s antisocial mother) are left to carry out the climax. The only comic relief that remains is Lord Illingworth, but even he is less humorous towards the end.

Reading Wilde is always enjoyable, and although this is not his best work, it is certainly worthwhile. I would suggest “The Importance of Being Earnest” before this one. Wilde is best read by someone who enjoys intellectual humor and has at least a little understanding of what was acceptable in British society in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

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