Unlock the more straightforward side of A Woman of No Importance with this concise and insightful summary and analysis!
This engaging summary presents an analysis of A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde, which tells the story of Gerald Arbuthnot, who has just been offered a job by the renowned dandy Lord Illingworth. However, his mother, who presents herself as a respectable churchgoing widow, strongly objects when she discovers his intentions, though she is reluctant to reveal the reason why; namely, that Lord Illingworth is actually Gerald’s father. Oscar Wilde was one of the most fascinating authors of the 19th century, known as much for his witticisms as for his writing. His most notable works include the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and the comic plays An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest.
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IRISH PLAYWRIGHT, POET AND WITBorn in Dublin in 1854.Died in Paris in 1900.Notable works:The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), novelThe Importance of Being Earnest (1895), playThe Ballad of Reading Goal (1898), poem
Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin to Anglo-Irish parents. He moved to England in 1874 to study at Oxford University, where his tutors included Walter Pater (English essayist, 1839-1894) and John Ruskin (English art critic, 1819-1900). Through them, Wilde became interested in the philosophy of aestheticism, or ‘art for art’s sake’. After university he moved to London, where he became a leading figure in high society known for his decadence, fashion and wit. He wrote numerous plays and poems during this period and toured the USA giving lectures on aestheticism. In 1884, he married Constance Lloyd (1859-1898), though he had many relationships with men during their marriage, including Robert Ross (Canadian journalist, 1869-1918) and Wilde’s great love Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas (British writer, 1870-1945). In 1895, he was arrested on charges of ‘gross indecency’ (homosexuality) and sentenced to two years in Reading Gaol. He was released in 1897. With his reputation in tatters he moved to Paris, where he lived in poverty until his death in 1900.
MANNERS, MELODRAMA AND UPPER-CLASS MORALITYGenre: playReference edition: Wilde, O. (2015) A Woman of No Importance. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.1stedition: 1894 (first performance 1893)Themes: English society, the fallen woman, gender inequality and double standards, class privilege, secrets, love
Part comedy of manners, part melodrama, and part social commentary, A Woman of No Importance tackles gender inequality and late Victorian mores with typical Wildean wit. Gerald, a naive but ambitious young man, has just been appointed secretary to Lord Illingworth: a renowned dandy, leading social light, and infamous flirt. While Illingworth is celebrated in high-society circles, Gerald’s mother, Mrs Arbuthnot, whom Illingworth once seduced and abandoned, is a social pariah and has spent the last 20 years as a single mother (with all the attendant stigma that entails). Gerald is unaware of his parentage, just as his mother is unaware of his new position as his own father’s secretary. When Mrs Arbuthnot arrives at a party where both men are also in attendance, however, familial secrets are revealed and Gerald must choose between his mother and his future.
A Woman of No Importance was first performed at the Haymarket Theatre in 1893 and published the following year. It was well received in both London and New York (where it had a small trial run of performances). Popular demand was so great that it was due to go on tour in England and America, but Wilde’s public arrest and trial meant that these plans were cancelled.
The play opens at a high-society party at Lady Hunstanton’s country estate. Lady Caroline, an archetypal English aristocrat, and Hester, an innocent American heiress, exchange small talk and social gossip. Lady Caroline implies that Gerald Arbuthnot, a young man who, unlike the rest of the guests, must work for his living, is not of the correct class to be present at the party and notes that Lady Hunstanton is “sometimes a little lax about the people she invites down here” (p. 6). Hester, however, is fond of Gerald and admires how “simple” and “sincere” he is (p. 8). Shortly afterwards Gerald himself enters and declares that he has just been offered a job as secretary to the renowned dandy-turned-diplomat Lord Illingworth. Lady Hunstanton is delighted and suggests that they invite Gerald’s mother Mrs Arbuthnot to the estate to celebrate the good news with them. She sends an invitation via footman, and Gerald and Hester take a walk together, leaving the other guests to debate the issue of “purity” in public and private life (p. 13). Conversation turns quickly to Lord Illingworth, who, though a respected public figure, is also known for his amorality and flirtation. Illingworth enters in the midst of his own character assassination and playfully joins in, confirming his reputation as a dandy and a rake. He also implies that he had ulterior motives for hiring Gerald as his secretary. His chemistry with Mrs Allonby (in many ways his female counterpart) is obvious and the two engage in witty, contrary conversation that goes over the heads of the rest of the guests, before retiring together to the conservatory.
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