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This section sets the tone for the rest of the play, which is very satirical. It is also the exposition. Wilde cleverly harnesses characterization and dialogue to convey the absurdities of Victorian London “society.” Wilde establishes, here, his major themes for the duration of the play: absurdity of society, marriage as a superficial contract, and his satirical wit. This play can be considered as a comedy of manners, because it uses an ironic tone while observing upper class society, whose members seem to value the wrong things. Because of this, the play is humorous
In the very beginning Wilde presents an interaction between Algernon, a man of status, and Lane, his manservant. Algernon asks Lane if he has heard him playing the piano. When Lane responds that he has not, Algernon thinks it a pity because he plays with “wonderful expression,” if not accurately. One can take this as an example of Wilde’s support of the Aesthetic movement, which valued art for art’s sake. This philosophy did not require art to instruct or handle political issues. Unconcerned with the accuracy of his music, and in appreciation of its artistic value, Algernon can, here, be viewed s an aesthete.
Algernon and Lane discuss the institution of marriage an, ironically, consider it demoralizing. This is unusual because Victorian society held marriage in high esteem. Consistently, throughout this play, Wilde will repeat this satirical view of marriage. Finally, in another surprising moment, Algernon states that he believes it is the job of the lower classes to set an example for the upper classes. This is interesting, because it re-situates the hierarchical nature of society, which assumes richer to be better.
Lacy Bracknell is an interesting character because she is of high society and acts seemingly irrationally. Her decision to not allow Gwendolen to marry Jack, based on his being found in a cloakroom as a baby, seems ridiculous. She disregards love as a basis for marriage. Wilde uses her to display the superficiality of the upper class. Interestingly, he also portrays Gwendolen as shallow when she says that she could not love Ernest if he had another name.