Wilde uses Lady Bracknell’s interview of Jack to make fun of the values of London society, which put a higher premium on social connections than on character or goodness. More disquieting than the questions themselves is the order in which Lady Bracknell asks them. Before she even gets to such matters as income and family, she wants to know if Jack smokes, and she is pleased to hear that he does, since she considers smoking an antidote to idleness. Such trivial questions suggest the vacuity of London society, where more weighty issues are of secondary importance. The questions about Jack’s family background, however, reveal Lady Bracknell’s darker side. When Jack admits he has “lost” both his parents, Lady Bracknell replies with an elaborate pun: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Like so many of Lady Bracknell’s pronouncements, this one is funny because it’s absurd. However, the statement also reflects a heartlessness that’s very real and not funny at all. Lady Bracknell responded in an equally callous way to Bunbury’s lingering illness when she remarked, “I must say . . . that I think it is high time that Mr. Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die. This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd.” In pronouncements such as these, Lady Bracknell reveals an unsettling notion that colored every aspect of Victorian life: poverty and misfortune are, to some extent, an outcome of moral unworthiness.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, conventional morality operates on two levels of hypocrisy. On one level is the portrait Algernon paints of what he sees as conventional married bliss, in which husband and wife appear faithful but either one or the other is carrying on behind the other one’s back. He tells Jack that, in a marriage, either husband or wife will certainly want to know Bunbury, and that “in married life three is company and two is none.” Confronted with a man who is “Ernest in town and Jack in the country,” a conventional Victorian audience would probably have seen some reference to heterosexual infidelity. However, Wilde’s audience must also have been full of people to whom “Ernest in town and Jack in the country” meant something quite different, something that had to be buried far below the surface of the dialogue. When Lady Bracknell says that “a cloakroom at a railway station might serve to conceal a social indiscretion—has probably, indeed, been used for that purpose before now,” a twenty-first-century reader or audience member most likely will imagine another kind of life that Victorian hypocrisy required one to hide: the secret life of homosexuals, for which Wilde himself was condemned.
All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.