Thursday 8 December 2011
Devouring Books: A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde
In my 40p charity shop copy, someone has written in the back the issues that they think (or have been told) are the most important in the play. These are: the place of women, concept of duty, social class, romantic love, marriage, suffering and the individual in society. Jealous as I am that they got to read this for educational purposes (it's really great, and much better than a lot of the plays I had to read at school and college) some of these things sound dreary to discuss so I'm choosing to ignore them. Suffering and the place of women are two things that interest me though, so maybe I'll talk about them. Possibly. We'll see.
So basically, this play is a lot of rich people sitting around and being awful and decadent and unaccepting of any way of life but their own, and also being extremely mean about Americans (sample: Lady Hunstanton: What are American dry goods? Lord Illingsworth: American novels. And also, "All Americans do dress well. They get their clothes in Paris." OUCH!) They're all such terrible terrible people, and yet they're kind of aware of this and they don't really care. They're all invested in a kind of nihilism that only the rich can afford to have- nothing really matters, earnestness and believing in things is pointless, and so they might as well just do whatever they like when they can (which, I'm pretty sure, means just generally all having sex with each other and sitting around being mildly witty and awful!)
Contrasted with this awful cast of rich people who see no meaning in anything, are the American, Miss Hester Worsley, her English betrothed Gerald Arbuthnot, and his mother, Mrs Arbuthnot- the 'woman of no importance' of the title. If you're bright, it quickly becomes apparent that,*SPOILER* although Mrs Arbuthnot purports to be a widow, she's actually a disgraced woman, and the father of her child is Lord Illingsworth, who, before this fact comes to the forefront, has already been basically the most nihilistic of all the characters, and, to me, the frigging worst. *END OF SPOILER. KIND OF* What this all means though, is that, while Lord Illingsworth gets to go on living exactly as he always has, without shame or responsibility, Mrs Arbuthnot has been weighted down with, not the burden of her son, but with the guilt and shame of what she's done, or rather what she has allowed Lord Illingsworth to do.
And here's where I get a bit confused about what Wilde's views on all this actually are, because the disproportionate guilt that Mrs Arbuthnot carries with her (and the self-flaggelation she continues to inflict on herself [not literally]) doesn't seem like the right way to live, but the nihilistic upper classes views surely can't be it, either? I think that the ending offers some kind of a middle way to all this: *ANOTHER SPOILER. ISH* While Gerald wants his mother and father to get married so that his mother doesn't have to deal with the shame anymore and his father has to be punished, Mrs Arbuthnot absolutely refuses to do this, since she can never love the man and it would just be a forced arrangement on top of all the suffering she has already done. At this point, Hester, who has been called a puritan the whole way through, says, of marrying Lord Illingsworth: "That would be real dishonour, the first you have ever known. That would be real disgrace, the first to touch you." And I think that leads us down some middle moral ground, where you don't necessarily have to do 'the right thing' but, really, 'the thing you can live with yourself with.'*END OF SPOILERATION* And so I think that Wilde is on the Arbuthnots' side. Sort of. Maybe.
Because, according to Wikipedia (totally reputable source), Wilde described Lord Illingsworth as himself. Which kind of makes me think either 1) he was consumed with self loathing and stuff and wanted to make a character who was like him as nauseating as possible, or 2) I totally hate the upper classes too much, and they're the people we're supposed to be listening to in this whole situation. If it's 1 then, you know, sad, but if it's two then I just don't know what to do with this play and I can't really cope with the upper classes being right. Like, I want Mrs Arbuthnot to stop hating herself and being ashamed and stuff as much as anyone, but not at the expense of, oh, I don't know, her SOUL! So now I don't know what I'm thinking. Other than, if this really is "the weakest of the plays Wilde wrote in the nineties," then boy do I need to read more Wilde plays!