A Woman of No Importance: Analysis & Themes

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  • 0:39 The Unwed Victorian Mother
  • 1:19 Mrs. Arbuthnot's Character
  • 2:19 Lord Illingworth
  • 3:29 Gerald Arbuthnot
  • 3:55 Themes
  • 4:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
In this lesson, we will analyze the play, ''A Woman of No Importance'', by Oscar Wilde, and examine some of the themes. The roles and expectations of women were far different in the Victorian Age than they are today.

Synopsis of A Woman of No Importance

A Woman of No Importance is a play by Oscar Wilde that reveals troubling attitudes towards the role and expectations of women in the Victorian Era. The main plot of the play revolves around a woman, Mrs. Arbuthnot, who is an unwed mother with one grown son. People believe she is a widow. In a strange turn of events, her son, Gerald, is offered a job by his biological father, Lord Illingworth, a scrupulous, unprincipled man. Gerald has to make a choice whether to take the job his father offers or remain loyal to his mother who raised him alone.

The Unwed Victorian Mother

Although Mrs. Arbuthnot was able to hide her unwed status as a mother, she represents the single woman of the Victorian Era, who could have been in a desperate situation had she not had help. Even in the works of Jane Austen, we see similar situations - lords who take advantage of beautiful women of lower classes and leave them destitute when they realize the women are pregnant. In the British poor laws of the 19th century, there was a Bastardly Clause that let men off the hook while punishing unwed mothers by not allowing them to receive help from the government. There was a thought that this law would teach women to be more moral.

Mrs. Arbuthnot's Character

Mrs. Arbuthnot is a strong, gracious woman. She adores her son and has raised him to have good morals and character. Although she no doubt needed child support in the past, she is able to raise her son on her own. By English law, an unwed woman had full charge of her child until he was 16. She does not even tell her son that his father is living and she is in an awkward place when she realizes that the man who has offered Gerald such a good position is his own father, Lord Illingworth.

At the end of the story, we see her strength, as she refuses to marry Lord Illingworth, realizing that his proposal has nothing to do with love; she, of all people, knows what kind of man Lord Illingworth has turned out to be. When he departs, Lord Illingworth accidentally leaves a glove behind and when Gerald asks about it, Mrs. Arbuthnot says it was left by a ''man of no importance.'' Touche!

Lord Illingworth

In a passing conversation with Mrs. Allonby, a woman who knows full-well what Lord Illingworth is like, he sees a letter sitting on a table and he recognizes it as Mrs. Arbuthnot's. When questioned about it, he responds by saying, ''Oh! No one. No one in particular. A woman of no importance.'' This is his attitude toward the mother of his son. Obviously, he does not have any concern for either Mrs. Arbuthnot or Gerald up to this point in the play.

How easy it was for Lord Illingworth, who knew full well that he had a son, to try to enter Gerald's life as his father and employer. Gerald respects Lord Illingworth and is a bit star struck. But, foolishly, Lord Illingworth goes as far as to try and seduce Hester Worsley, Gerald's fiancé, and in this act, he loses his son. However, at the end of the story, Gerald writes a letter to his father asking him to marry Mrs. Arbuthnot and make things right. Lord Illingworth attempts to have a relationship with Gerald at this point, but Mrs. Arbuthnot makes it clear that she and Gerald want nothing to do with him.

Gerald Arbuthnot

Gerald is a naive young man who believes that anyone can change, even his irresponsible father. Much to his credit, he tries to see the good in people, but does not realize how hurtful it would be to include his father in his life until the end of the story. For Gerald, this play is a time of coming of age. Gerald must grow up and take responsibility for caring for the mother who sacrificed so much for him.

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