The Victorian society in which Wilde lived was concerned with wealth, family status, and moral character, especially when it came to marriage. Lady Bracknell’s interrogation of Jack’s proposal to marry Gwendolen demonstrates the three “Cs”—cash, class, and character. First she asks him about his finances and then his family relations, a measure of his class. That Jack has none—no family relations, or family name, reflects poorly on his character. Upon finding that Jack has no “relations” she exclaims, “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune…to lose both seems like carelessness,” (as if were Jack’s fault for being an orphan.)
In the Victorian world one’s name was the measure of one’s social capital, so the fact that Jack doesn’t have any family is an insurmountable obstacle to his marrying Gwendolen, a daughter of the titled gentry. According to Lady Bracknell’s marriage standards, Jack has the cash, but he doesn’t have the class, so his character comes into question. (Although of all three “Cs,” character is probably the least important of Lady Bracknell’s criteria, since income and family take precedence in her line of questioning over Jack’s actual intentions for her daughter, which might more accurately reflect the content of his character).
Nonetheless, Lady Bracknell’s scrutiny of Jack’s socioeconomic status is reflective of the Victorian world in which she was created. Her evaluation of cash, class, and character is one that Wilde interrogates throughout The Importance of Being Earnest, especially through the relations between classes. In Act I Algernon comments to Lane that the lower classes should set a “good example” of “moral responsibility” for the upper classes, otherwise they are of little “use.” Algernon’s statement is odd precisely because he seems more concerned with the morality of his servants than with his own moral compass. Meanwhile he continues to lead a deceptive and excessive lifestyle, never bothering to question the ethical implications of such a life. Algernon’s fixation on the morality of his subordinates actually reveals the shortsighted outlook of the aristocratic class. This class scrutinizes the behavior of others so much that it fails to examine its own flaws and foibles. By pointing attention to Algernon’s lack of self-examination, Wilde further undermines the Victorians’ criteria for character by suggesting that it is inherently faulty.
Cash, Class, and Character ThemeTracker
Cash, Class, and Character Quotes in The Importance of Being Earnest
Lane’s views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.”
To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune…to lose both seems like carelessness.
You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter—a girl brought up with the utmost care—to marry into a cloak-room and form an alliance with a parcel.
[Christening is], I regret to say, one of the Rector's most constant duties in this parish. I have often spoken to the poorer classes on the subject. But they don't seem to know what thrift is.
My duty as a gentleman has never interfered with my pleasures in the smallest degree.
Your Christian names are still an insuperable barrier. That is all!
Mr. Worthing, is Miss Cardew at all connected with any of the larger railway stations in London? I merely desire information. Until yesterday I had no idea that there were any families or persons whose origin was a Terminus.