The page aims to introduce the New Women features in Osacr Wilde's play "The Importance of Being Earnest"

New women in the play编辑

Upon reading the play The Importance of Being Earnest, we often draw our attention on Bunbury trick that Jack and Algernon plays, or the ridiculous marriages bounded by the superstition in a name. While we look on Wilde’s witty language or philosophy on truth and false, the reversion of the sex role in The Importance provides us with abundant materials to study on the idea of “New Women”, which rises in the late-Victorian England. The essay will first review on the definition and its history in literature of the term “New Women”, then discuss the features of New Women found in the play.

Definition of New Women编辑

The term “New Women” is first proposed in 1894 England . Though the use of the term appeared at the same with the term “feminist”. “New Women” represents a broader meaning of women who “had particular cause”, while “feminist” are women with several causes. Different from feminists who fight against the system of society, New Women tries to seek the revolutionary difference with traditional values and practices remaining .

New Women in Literature编辑

Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll’s House released in 1879 openly presents the debate over women’s sovereignty v. women’s role in household on stage. It is considered to be the significant event which pushes forward the frontier of New Women issues. However, it is often thought that British writer somewhat behind their continental counterpart not until 1880. In England, 1888, Mona Caird published her article entitled “Marriage” in West Minister. Caird argues that marriage as a bondage to women which men uses as an institution for their own purposes. However, her intention is not to initiate the abolishment of marriage but a reform to marriage by broader threshold on divorce. She believes by proper divorce, it will lead to marriages based on “friendship and love” rather that a sense of duty. All walks of lives in England send their opinion on Daily Telegraph responding the work. The heated debate then draws more attention to New Women.

Features of New Women in The Importance of Being Earnest编辑

Though the dictation created by Wilde are aimed to make ironic and sarcastic effect. The essay tries to draw on the possibility of social phenomenon on New Women the play tells. We can examine the protagonist’s performance as new women in the following aspects :


As education has been more opened to women, New Women gain more access to education institutions. From Lady Bracknell’s speech, it shows that Gwendolen has received education from some kind of “University Extension Scheme.” Cecily on the other hand, though showing reluctance to German study, she enjoys opportunities to intellectual life that makes her capable of writing journals of her fantasy. It proves that education also brings New Women authorship at the time. As in the second act, Cecily and Miss Prism talks about novel writing. Education provides New Women not only kind of leisure like writing journal but accessibility to intellectual jobs.

Economy Independence编辑

Another feature of New Women is their independence on economy. As Marilyn Yalom argues and we can perceive throughout the centuries; women with higher economic status can have more opportunities as well as flexibility of their own life style. In the play, Cecily who inherited with a hundred and thirty thousand pounds in the Funds can have her way of living and contemplating upon things in regardless the economic pressure girls without economic independence have to bear.

New Women and Family编辑

As one of the traits of Yalom mentioned about New Women is her tendency to flaunt on her traditional family values, which Gwendolen can be taken as an example. The speeches Gwendolen made in the play are appeared to be much longer than Cecily and sometimes Jack and Algernon. Besides the reversed role of women’s preaching speech, the content of the speech often surrounded on her point of view toward traditional family value. In second act, Wilde plays sarcastically on Gwendolen’s point of view on family value:

GWENDOLEN Outside the family circle, papa. I am glad to say, is entirely unknown. I think that is quite as it should be. The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man. And certainly painfully effeminate, does he not?

Besides New Women’s tendency of flaunting traditional family value, they also grow a more independence attitude when being with their parenthoods. In the first act, Gwendolen talks about her mother Lady Bracknell’s interruption as if advising children instead of obeying what parents did.

Rejecting the Idea of being an Angel in the House编辑

The debate over new women being unacceptable in some conservatives’ eyes is actually rooted in “anxiety over the future of the wife” Both Gwendolen and Cecily performs a different nature from Angel in the House which Victorians expected of. In the first act, Gwendolen refuses to be the perfect image that Jack comments.

GWENDOLEN Oh! I hope I am not that. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions.

Same as Gwendolen, Cecily comments in against philanthropic work, in contrast with the classic Victorian benevolent image :

CECILY …I don’t quite like women who are interested in philanthropic work. I think forward of them.

More, in the third act, Cecily shows no patience toward her engagement with Algy, which is considered to be the women virtue:

CECILY Yes, I felt it instinctively, but I couldn't wait all that time. I hate waiting even five minutes for anybody. It always makes me rather cross. I am not punctual myself, I know, but I do like punctuality in others, and waiting, even to be married, is quite out of the question.

Ideas Toward Marriage and Free love编辑

Though to review the whole script, it is not difficult to find the plot is under the assumption of marriage which New Women is also in question of, we can still interestingly find protagonists’ different attitude and expectation to marriage.

The idea of “free love” rises during late-Victorian British, in contrast with the idea that marriage a kind of alliances of families. The example of “free love” in The Importance is when Gwendolen confesses her love toward Jack:

GWENDOLEN …But although she may prevent us from becoming man and wife, and I may marry someone else, and marry often, nothing that she can possibly do can alter my eternal devotion to you.

Besides the idea of “free love” New Women strive for, in answering the women questions, New Women answers by taking initiative in a relationship. In the second act, when Cecily recounts her fancy romance with Algy; in contrast with the conventional role, Cecily becomes the one who buy ring and write love letters (though in diary only) to Algy. She is also the one who takes initiatives in breaking off the first engagement with Algy and confesses her second engagement with Algy to Lady Bracknell. Finally, when both Gwendolen and Cecily misunderstand each others’ fiancée as the same Jack, they both responses in the way of “rescuing” or “saving” their men from the other’s hand; it also reverse the conventional idea which female often remains passive in a relationship.