ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin, author, playwright and poet Oscar Wilde was a popular literary figure in late Victorian England, known for his wit and flamboyant style of writing. He graduated from Oxford University and proceeded to lecture as a poet and art critic. In 1891 he published The Picture of Dorian Grey, his only novel, which was then deemed immoral by Victorian critics, but is now considered one of his most notable works. His works as a dramatist were well received, including his satirical comedies Lady Windermere’s Fan, an Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Earnest and A Woman of No Importance.
INTRODUCTION TO THE PLAY
A Woman of No Importance is a commentary on the troubling attitudes harboured by the public towards women in the Victorian Era. It has been set in “The Present”, i.e. 1893.The play premiered on 19 April 1893 at London’s Haymarket Theatre. It has been performed on stages in Europe and North America since his death in 1900.
The plot is very simple and lacks depth, but it is the psychological interactions between the characters that reveal a darker side to the Victorian Era. Oscar Wilde explores the double standards that existed between men and women in the Victorian Era- men were forgiven for their indiscretions far more readily than women, and women were more condemned for moral failings.
In Victorian melodrama also known as “sentimental comedy,” fallen women and abandoned children of uncertain parentage are prominent and secrets from the past rise to threaten the happiness of seemingly respectable, well-meaning characters. In this very play, a similar story takes place on stage.
The main plot of the play revolves around Lord Illingworth, a successful diplomat, who hires Gerald Arbuthnot to be his private secretary. A sordid past between Mrs Arbuthnot and Lord Illingworth is revealed, with the reader getting to know that Gerald’s mother is actually unwed, and his father is Lord Illingworth himself. Illingworth refers to Mrs. Arbuthnot as “a woman of no importance”, which is quite aptly the name of the play. This phrase is important as it showcases how lowly Illingworth thinks of the women with whom he had relationships with in the past. In the end, the truth comes out, and Illingworth is banished from the lives of Mrs. Arbuthnot and her son. After the confrontation between Mrs. Arbuthnot and Illingworth in the end, the Lord leaves her house, and when asked by her son whose glove is lying on the floor, she replies by saying “A man if no importance”. Thus the story comes full circle, granting closure to Mrs Arbuthnot, and giving the plot a “happy ending” with justice for the aggrieved lady.
He is a man in his mid forties and a bachelor, and can be described as a typical British dandy. He is Mrs. Arbuthnot’s former lover and seducer and the father of Gerald Arbuthnot. He is witty and clever and a practised flirt, who knows how to make himself agreeable to women. He is convinced that no lady can resist his charms for long, as he says “I don’t think there is a woman in the world who would not be a little flattered if one made love to her”
Before Mrs. Arbuthnot arrives at Lady Hunstanton’s house to congratulate Gerald for his job offer, Lord Illingworth sees a letter from Mrs. Arbuthnot lying on the table. He recognizes her handwriting from long ago and when questioned about it, he simply says it was from ‘a woman of no importance.’ This illustrates Lord Illingworth’s irresponsible attitude towards the woman he had affairs with when he was young. Although he knows that Gerald and Hester are in love, he makes a bet with another guest, Mrs. Allonby, that he will make Hester his conquest within a week’s time. Thus, it is evident that Lord Illingworth sees and treats women in an inferior manner, revealing his misogynistic side.
Mrs. Arbuthnot is a strong, gracious woman. She adores her son and has raised him to have good morals and character, something which her lover lacked. She is frustrated, lonely, feels humiliated and ruined because Lord Illingworth did not want to marry her when she was pregnant.
Although Mrs. Arbuthnot was successful in hiding her unwed status as a mother, she represents the single woman of the Victorian Era, who could have been in a desperate situation had she not found a way out. The works of Jane Austen feature similar situations – lords who take advantage of beautiful women of lower classes and leave them when they realise the women are pregnant with their child.
At the end of the story, we see her strength and conviction, as she refuses to marry Lord Illingworth, realizing that his proposal is born out of the feeling of responsibility and shame more than love and remorse.
The illegitimate son of Mrs. Arbuthnot and Lord Illingworth, Gerald’s young and rather inexperienced character represents the desire to find a place in society, and gain high social standing. His innocence allows him to accept without questioning what society deems as proper, and his belief in honour and duty makes him persuade his mother to marry Lord Illingworth. Lady Arbuthnot has taken care of Gerald his entire life alone, and thus he respects her but at the same time, he wants her to marry Lord Illingworth to “save her honour”. This shows that almost all men during the Victorian era had twisted conceptions and double standards when it came to women.
Hester is a young Puritan American woman who is visiting Lady Jane Hunstanton, a lady who is a rich hostess. Hester holds strong opinions about the double standards meted out to women versus the men who impregnate them. Her stand is made evident when she says the following lines “If a man and woman have sinned, let them both go forth into the desert to love or loath each other there.” She represents the ‘new woman’ as she can look after herself and believes in equality between men and women. Hester is one of the strongest characters in the play, and it is through Hester that Oscar Wilde voices some of his own opinions against the prevailing attitudes of his day.
A Woman of No Importance satirizes upper-class English society at the end of the nineteenth century. It takes place, for the most part, in the homes of the rich and powerful, where Lords and Ladies socialize and gossip about their contemporaries. It primarily shows how the rich live in their own world, detached from real problems and suffering. All they seem to care about is petty gossip and flirtations. The fact that Lord Illingworth is seen with respect and is flourishing in his career despite his immoral character shows that money and muscle can influence sycophants into siding with the elite. Had Mrs. Arbuthnot been a rich lady, Lord Illingworth would have treated her in a different way and accepted her with her child without a doubt. Thus Oscar Wilde exposes the hypocrisy and shallowness of the elite in this play.
The play explores how women are treated differently than men. Men are not expected to care and support a child if accidentally created, while women are shamed and ostracised for having a child outside wedlock. This double standard wherein men are left scot-free without any consequences to their actions and women are seen as immoral and “loose” for performing the very same actions is a theme which is explored brilliantly by Wilde.
Mrs. Arbuthnot is forced to conceal the truth about her marital status due to fear of being shunned by society. Restraints placed upon an individual’s behaviour and choices by society are why Lord Illingworth refuses to marry a woman from a lower status even though she is pregnant with his child. Curbing of desires due to fear of what others in society will say has been a regular phenomenon, and the play illustrates that well throughout the story line.
The play has been set in 19th century England, when customs and etiquettes loomed paramount in the lives of the people. Everything was done as per socially accepted norms, and any person who dared to do otherwise was branded as an outcast. This mentality among the characters is shown throughout the play. Another important aspect is how the growing relations between America and England are reflected by portraying Hester- a young American woman with a modern outlook who has come to England for a short period. Women being treated unequally are a product of the time period of the play, which was then commonplace and even accepted widely.
Like many of Wilde’s plays the main theme explored is the secrets of the upper-classes. Double standards and hypocrisy, rife among the elite, are tackled by the plotline quite well. However the story seems too simple- all the events which occur are way too linear, lacking dimension. The story can easily be split into two halves- sedentary chat and sentimental melodrama. In the first two acts we listen patiently as the characters sit around Lady Hunstanton’s house and gossip. It is only when Mrs Arbuthnot and Lord Illingworth battle over ownership of their son that the chat gives way to drama. This play also suffers from another pitfall- it is way too similar to other plays written by Wilde. There is no novel concept or idea behind the plot.
Thus, A Woman of No Importance is a satire on the lives of the elite, ending in a happy fashion for the Arbuthnots- with the mother being freed from shame and guilt and the son marrying the woman of his dreams. The play, though not very famous, conveys a message that rings relevant even in today’s society.