Meaning behind Food in the Importance of Being Earnest
In the play The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde describes the eternal struggle of people for love, life, and satisfaction of their needs. The main characters claim themselves to be named Ernest, however, never being earnest about anything but food. It appears to be a source and cause of conflict throughout the play. The food is an integral constituent of every human’s living and this symbol is often more powerful than words. The men and women fight over food as if all their lives depend on what they consume. Furthermore, they take it seriously rejecting earnest attention to other human values as love and truth. The author reveals the imperfection of the upper-class society by means of food and people’s attitude to it. Although, the food is one of the motifs in The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde portrays it both as a weapon and a symbol of power since his characters turn to it throughout the play.
While the author uses food as a central motif of the story, he devotes a large part of the play to the expression of tastes and emotions of the main characters. And so, he reveals the lifestyles, attitudes, and personal qualities using the food as a metaphor. Throughout the plot, the food occupies a strong place highlighting the manners and extravagance of the consumers. The author depicts the lifestyle and of the Victorian society as well as social constraints by means of food. The Act I show the readers Algernon, who ordered the cucumber sandwiches for Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen whom he is waiting at high noon. The tiny sandwiches represent the aristocracy and politeness of the upper class. However, Algernon eats them without waiting for his guests. Hence, the good manners and aristocratic lifestyle turn to be unwanted together with the values of the Victorian epoch. Furthermore, Jack joins him consuming the bread and butter as if he wanted not only to nourish but to satisfy his sexual appetite and getting married to Gwendolen was agreed. It shows the selfishness and carelessness of the both men who thought only about personal well-being and satisfaction. Besides, the food distinguishes the upper class from the middle class since the cucumber sandwiches and bread and butter were prepared and available for the certain representatives accordingly.
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Even though, Oscar Wilde depicts Algernon as a gourmand for whom the food and drinks are deeply important. Jack mentions that Algy’s main occupation is eating, and he often sees his friend consuming something. Moreover, the readers get acquainted with his appetite from the very beginning of the story and can observe and analyze until the end. Thus, he does not mask his manners and gluttonous reputation and is evidently proud of his indulgence in food. People cannot live without eating and, thus, the food demonstrates the power of those who own it. The person who has food is powerful since the food gives power to its owners. Besides, Algernon tries to satisfy his hunger for love, life and wealth and eating much he aims to get that all.
Interestingly, the author shows how the attitude towards food interchanged the morality and seriousness of the entire society. Algernon says, “I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them”. For him, his alter ego and false morality are shallow things while the food is trivial and serious. Thus, he dignifies food consumption and links it with “sensual pleasure and intellectual delight”. Nevertheless, the both men are utterly preoccupied with food highlighting the falsity of aristocratic manners and the upper-class values. The author created the scenes with the cucumber sandwiches and English muffins with a specific purpose to reveal the characters of the heroes and underline the foolishness of what the society suggests to be serious. So, the food motif depicts the artificial values of the Victorian epoch as well as false fashion beliefs.
Furthermore, the delicate use of food allows the author to give his characters the dominance and power over others. Hence, polite and kind in the countryside, Jack is disruptive in the city. The frequent visitor of the London restaurants, he leaves the huge bills unpaid despite he can do that. He feels his power and the food highlights it differentiating Jack among others. Thus, the motif of food and hunger undermines the seriousness and Victorian customs causing a comic reaction. Moreover, the hunger is natural for the elite as well as lower social classes and makes people equal in volition to have a decent meal. Hence, the established high-class society appears to be no better than average people when it comes to food consumption.
Additionally, Lady Bracknell expresses her social level by means of planning dinners, and the food plays a crucial role here. The good taste in dishes combines with the cultural tastes of the upper-class society. Consequently, such dinners were traditional at the wealthy houses where young ladies found husbands and vice versa. Since, the food is an efficient tool in finding the way to the men’s hearts one should not underestimate its power. Besides, the trivial dinners with the same people and actions were just masks hiding the actual state of Victorian aristocracy.
Besides, in the Act III the food occupies a place of weapon and social differentiator when Gwendolen and Cecily argue over the tea. However, they do not tell anything that is out of good manners the food allows them to insult each other. Thus, the language of food overcomes the strong behavior patterns forbidding the untactful words and actions. The country girl Cecily offers Gwendolen some sugar and cake, but the latter refuses. She, as a city dweller, denotes that is not fashionable anymore, and one can hardly see it at the best aristocratic houses. Gwendolen wants to show her superiority in the food tastes and underline her aristocracy. However, Cecily puts sugar into her cup and a piece of cake into her plate. It means that she is not going to give up and will defend her relations with her men. This showdown between the ladies over the dinner table was actually the demonstration of their power and irresistible will.
However, when the women find out that none of them is Ernest and go to the house expecting the men to chase them, the food occupies their place. Algernon and Jack start fighting over the muffins since the tasty eating could solely console them in trouble. The both men were too self-centered and aimed to find a short-term satisfaction and happiness. They do not think about the women who are upset and try to distress by eating. Therefore, a food could bring them pleasure and distract from the problems they created. One more comic point is that the girl’s politeness over the tea is followed by the childish manners of the two men.
It might seem that, the author devoted the central motif to the lack of seriousness and triviality in the English society. The food was just an obsession that emphasized the foolishness of the upper-class and collapse of the aristocratic values. The two men fighting over muffins had to fight over their women instead. However, they fail to realize the real values and think only about their personal satisfaction. Furthermore, overeating may speak about the lack of power when Jack eats the bread and butter prepared for Gwendolen. He would better think about her and leave something for the prospected wife. Instead, he devours everything as if he can fulfill his sex appetite by means of eating. Nevertheless, the food is a powerful instrument of expressing people’s characters and manners that often speaks much more than words.
Eventually, in the play The Importance of Being Earnest Oscar Wilde gives readers the opportunity to estimate the lives and behaviors of the characters by means of the food motif. The entire story is filled with various foods and products and their consumption. Therefore, the author shows the power of the heroes since the food as an indispensable constituent of the healthy every-day live is a symbol of power. Oscar Wilde uses it to show the manners and values of the Victorian society since the trivial behavior appeared to be artificial and mock. The men and women in a play apply food as a weapon fighting over the dishes and expressing their tastes. Evidently, those who have better tastes and have high-mannered eating habits take precedence over others. Accordingly, the overeating and greedy devour of the dishes demonstrate the power of the food over the people as well as their selfishness and arrogance. Hence, the play offers a good food for thought and its meanings are hidden in the food motif. The author’s choice is not occasional as far as every person would estimate what the food says of him personally and may be change his or her life for better.
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