Sir John, Lady Caroline’s husband, plays an intriguing role within the exposition as he seems to be passive and submissive towards Lady Caroline and her struggle for power. This is a clear role reversal, as this is not what men would have been seen as in the Victorian era.
Men had to be seen as the clearly dominant sex, with a woman just as an object to have and use for their needs only. Through Sir John Wilde is once again expressing his feelings towards women’s equality, a trait that would not have been thought highly of between men of his social class in the 19th century.
Kelvil is a major character in the exposition of the play, he shows how politicians are corrupt and shows that they are not as morally sound as they would like the general public to believe. Kelvil tells of how he thinks he knows what the poor really need in their battle for survival, as in the 19th century there were extremely high mortality rates.
Whilst the likes of Lady Caroline believes that all the poor needed was coal and blankets, Kelvil takes a much more philosophical approach, ‘I find that the poorer classes of the country display a marked desire for a higher ethical standard’. Kelvil clearly shows that he thinks he is better than the rest of society and shows this by stating that without English home life ‘we would become like our neighbours’.
By neighbours Kelvil means America, showing his disapproval towards the way in which Americans live their lives, this is highly hypercritical as Kelvil seems to like Miss Worsley a lot, once again emphasising the hypocrisy in the society which the characters, and Wilde, lived in.
Through Lord Illingworth we are shown the extent of dislike towards America from England. Illingworth regards women as merely a ‘toy’ and thinks that ‘women have become too brilliant’. Lord Illingworth is very similar to Lord Henry from ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, who constantly speaks in epigrams and aphorisms. Illingworth makes a biting comment, ‘it is the problem of slavery’.
This epigram shows the naivety that filled the world of the upper-classes during the 19th century and it shows how people of such high social class could call such a pressing issue, a ‘problem’. ‘Lords are never in touch with public opinion. That makes us a civilised body’. This comment is a blunt summary of how Lord Illingworth views the English society – uncivilised and not worthy of mixing with the higher classes.
As through the exposition many characters are being introduced, including Lady Allonby, Gerald Arbuthnot and Lady Hunstanton, the subtext allows the reader to gain a deeper understanding of the true nature of the characters. The play shows the audience the faï¿½ade that upper-classes, during the 19th century, had to endure to meet with social expectations. Therefore Wilde is successful in introducing the characters within the first act and the reader can deduce Wilde’s deeper meaning and distress towards the society in which he had to live in.