A Woman of No Importance by Oscar Wilde: Summary & Characters

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  • 0:02 Themes
  • 0:45 Main Characters
  • 3:37 Parental Confrontation
  • 5:24 Conflict Resolution
  • 6:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
Oscar Wilde lived during the Victorian era, a time in which women had very few rights compared to men. In the play 'A Woman of No Importance,' the characters wrestle with some of the double standards of the 1800s.


In the play A Woman of No Importance, Oscar Wilde explores the double standards that existed between men and women in the Victorian era. Men were forgiven for their indiscretions far more readily than women, and women were more condemned for moral failings. Women had few rights, as well.

Through our exploration of the characters in this play, we will also unfold the plot. The plot is very simple, but it is the psychological interactions between the characters that reveal a darker side to the Victorian era. The theme of this story really is that a double standard existed for women and men during this time period. Women were not treated equally.

Main Characters

Mrs. Arbuthnot: Although everyone believes that she is a widow, Mrs. Arbuthnot was actually an unwed mother during a time when it was absolutely scandalous to have a child out of wedlock. Her son, Gerald, has recently been offered a job by the man who is his father, Lord Illingworth. Mrs. Arbuthnot has a wonderful reputation in the community.

Gerald Arbuthnot: Gerald is a naive young man who plans to marry Hester, an American woman. Gerald has recently been offered a job from a man he respects, Lord Illingworth, though he is unaware that the man is his father until later in the play, when his mother reveals it. We will get to that later.

Hester Worsley: Hester is a young American woman who is visiting Lady Jane Huntstanton. Hester has very strong opinions about the double standard towards scorned women versus the men who impregnate them. Women are left with obvious evidence of their indiscretions when they become pregnant, but men can deny anything. Hester doesn't believe women should get off without blame, though, and says:

'It is right that they should be punished, but don't let them be the only ones to suffer. If a man and woman have sinned, let them both go forth into the desert to love or loathe each other there. Let them both be branded. Set a mark, if you wish, on each, but don't punish the one and let the other go free. Don't have one law for men and another for women.'

Hester is one of the strongest characters in the play, and it is through Hester that Oscar Wilde voices some of his own opinions about, and even indictments against, some of the attitudes of his day.

Lord George Illingworth: Lord Illingworth was a young man when Gerald was conceived, and one would hope he had changed. It is clear that he is still flirtatious and indecent, though he manages to keep up appearances. Before Mrs. Arbuthnot arrives at Lady Hunstanton's house to congratulate Gerald on his job offer, Lord Illingworth sees a letter from Mrs. Arbuthnot lying on the table. He recognizes her handwriting from long ago. When questioned about it, he simply says it was from 'a woman of no importance.' This illustrates Lord Illingworth's irresponsible attitude towards the woman he slept with when he was young. Although he knows that Gerald and Hester are in love, he makes a bet with another guest, Mrs. Allonby, that he will make Hester his conquest within a week's time.

Lady Hunstanton: Lady Hunstanton is a wealthy woman who has a large enough home to host guests. She is of the upper class and gossips about people with her friends. She doesn't seem to be a strong judge of character, as she likes Lord Illingworth.

Parental Confrontation

Mrs. Arbuthnot arrives to congratulate Gerald on his new position. She plans to spend the night, as she has traveled far from her home. At this point, she doesn't know that Gerald has been offered a job by his own father. We can imagine how awkward this first meeting is, and Mrs. Arbuthnot is definitely opposed to Gerald working for the man who had refused to marry her when he learned she was pregnant long ago. When she is alone with Lord Illingworth, she says, 'George, don't take my son away from me. I have had twenty years of sorrow, and I have only had one thing to love me, only one thing to love. You have had a life of joy, and pleasure, and success.' However, Mrs. Arbuthnot leaves the final choice to Gerald.

After his discussion with Mrs. Arbuthnot, Lord Illingworth further reveals his corrupt character by coaching Gerald about the foibles and craftiness of women. He hints that extramarital affairs bring more fulfillment than marital love. Remember that Gerald is very naive, and at this point, he appears to soak up Lord Illingworth's advice like a sponge.

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