Explore the Role of the New Woman
In his masterpiece play, The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde uses the exchange between the two female characters, Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, to explore the role and attitude of the “New Woman” near the turn of the century. This New Woman was a progressive attitude of independence and equality for women, challenging the traditional, more conservative social view towards women.
Wilde uses the witty banter between Gwendolen and Cecily to show two both admirable and comical traits of the New Woman. Initially, the two women are confrontational to one another, driven by their mutual affections for the same man. Yet, when they discover they are both mistresses of the same false identity, they immediately form an unconventional bond based on mutual understanding and respect. This friendship between two young women who would normally be considered competitors reflects the progressive attitude of the New Woman, who was beginning to rise up against the status quo.
The two also represent the New Woman in their confidence and self-determination. They have both taken agency over their own lives, actively pursuing relationships that are out of the traditional scope of marriage. They demonstrate an unusual level of independence and assertiveness despite their young ages.
Finally, Wilde uses the exchange between Gwendolen and Cecily to demonstrate the complexity of this progressive attitude. As characters, both ladies can come off as comically shallow and petty, but their dialogue also reveals a refreshing level of self-awareness and wisdom that can be attributed to the New Woman. Wilde is poking fun at the traditional notions of femininity, while simultaneously paying homage to the New Woman and her complexity.
Overall, Wilde’s clever use of exchange between Gwendolen and Cecily reveals the perplexity and complexity of the New Woman of the early 1900s. Through this light-hearted yet purposeful dialogue, we can see the full spectrum of independent ideas and attitudes that women of this time had begun to explore.