The Relationship between The Importance of Being Earnest and The Time Machine
When at first thinking of the Victorian texts, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) by Oscar Wilde and The Time Machine (1895) by H.G. Wells, I had a difficult time imagining what these two could possibly share together. It was easier to deduce the differences between the two texts; however, by critically thinking and close reading into the themes and characters of the stories, I have learned even more about Victorian life and culture. Although The Importance of Being Earnest and The Time Machine have very different settings and overall plots, by analyzing the overarching themes and complex set of characters, readers of Victorian literature are able to determine more cultural patterns throughout the Victorian era time period.
From the 1880s to the 1890s, there was a boom of interest in the topic of time travel. In 1888, H.G. Wells was working on “The Chronic Argonauts”, the unfinished serial in The Royal College of Science magazine, that ultimately led him to complete his novella, The Time Machine in 1895, the same year as Oscar Wilde’s infamous trials. Everyone seemed to show curiosity in the topic of time travel, not surprisingly near the turn of the century. This controversial time in history helps contextualize the relationship between the two texts. One similarity between The Importance of Being Earnest and The Time Machine is the fact that in the Victorian time setting of Wilde’s play, the list of main, aristocratic characters (Algernon, Jack, Cecily, Gwendolen, and Lady Bracknell) act very useless and robotic in their way of life. This is comparable to the characters of The Time Machine. The Eloi are a frail, beautiful species which can be compared to the aristocratic group of Victorian people, opposed to the strong, animal-like Morlocks. Also, the characters in The Importance of Being Earnest have a more serious, blase attitude towards life, while the character the time traveler in The Time Machine has a very optimistic outlook of seeking what the future holds.
I took special interest in the relationship of the two texts and what they extrapolate about the culture and future of Great Britain. Like I previously mentioned, I like to view the Eloi as the characters of The Importance of Being Earnest, but I also like to imagine the Morlocks as the kind of people responsible for evolving Great Britain, especially London. The Jack the Ripper murders were occurring around this time in history and it is known that London was a very scary place, also portrayed through Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde published in 1886 where the invention of street lamps were emphasized. With the Morlocks living underground, afraid and sensitive to light, and eating carnivorously, they have adapted to live this monstrous way of life, with others fearing them. I argue that this can be made as a commentary of how Great Britain was evolving: from the fancy Victorian culture of cucumber sandwiches and tea to the dark, mysterious side. This can even be seen in The Importance of Being Earnest in a few scenes. For example when Cecily and Gwendolen both display that they are engaged to the same man, Ernest. Gwendolen states, “I am known for the gentleness of my disposition, and the extraordinary sweetness of my nature, but I warn you, Miss Cardew, you may go too far” (Wilde, Act II). One could also argue that the Morlocks could be seen as the working class people of Great Britain, starving and working most of the day in horrible conditions, while the other half of society did not even have concerns. Wells mentions this: “The Upperworld people might once have been the favoured aristocracy, and the Morlocks their mechanical servants: but that had long since passed away” (Chapter 7). The part when the time traveler saves Weena also shows the existence of Victorian chivalry norms as well, however with the time traveler leaving and with the reader not knowing what happens next could be the assumption that the gentleman-like culture is something of the past.
Just when I thought that two literary texts seem to have nothing in common with each other, I have learned a great deal about how The Importance of Being Earnest and The Time Machine have intertwined their themes and characters into a commentary criticism of what Great Britain was evolving into during a controversial time in history. This was a very fun and interesting learning experience!
The Time Machine: https://www.fourmilab.ch/etexts/www/wells/timemach/html/
The Importance of Being Earnest: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E850003-002/