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Class Relations in Victorian and early 20th Century Literature

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Social relations have been changing throughout history, forming new roles and approaches to the interaction between people and defining their positions in the social hierarchy. The significance of such relations becomes obvious in the case of tensions, which have led to numerous conflicts between different strata, as well as the development of prejudice formed as a result of those confrontations. Therefore, the analysis of relations between classes is crucial for the understanding of the current attitude of the society toward them. In terms of this research paper, the scope is narrowed to the class relations in Victorian Age, which were described by the classics of the world literature: Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. Their works Pygmalion and The Importance of Being Earnest were used for the research on class relations between the elite, educated people, and commoners. According to the obtained data and additional supportive information from academic sources, relations between classes in the Victorian Age were unequal and extremely unethical. Moreover, the satiric form of representation of such relations in both works suggests that the issue of relations between classes had a personal context for both writers. Class relations in Victorian England were strongly influenced by the place, which a person held in the social hierarchy, as well as by the level of education and belonging to the elite.

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For the research of the works of Oskar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, the method of the content analysis was used. It was narrowed to the study of qualitative patterns of representation of relations between classes in the Victorian Age. In addition, supportive sources, for example, Barris (2005) and Porten (2006), were used for supporting or refuting the obtained data.


The plot of Pygmalion is based on the Greek myth about a sculptor, Pygmalion, and his artwork, Galatea, which was brought to the historical reality of Victorian Age. The story focuses on relations between main characters, thus classes that they represent. This belonging distorts their perception of each other under pressure of the social morality. Eliza Doolittle is a young, cheerful, and brisk girl, who gets a living by selling flowers; Henry Higgins is a cynical and rugged but well-attended professor of phonetics, The two are similar in their free spirit and desire to break social norms, but different in their status and place in the social hierarchy, which changes their perception of each other (Shaw 112). Professor and his friend, Colonel Pickering, have made a bet that the first can nurture a noblewoman from a flower girl. The very event of such bet shows the unethical and humiliating attitude of the educated elite toward commoners (Porten, 72). Therefore, it can be considered an evidence of the humiliating attitude of the noble class to commoners, who, in their turn, had a similar attitude to the rich. However, because of being a representative of the socio-philosophical direction in literature and adhering to the idea that no one should depend on anyone, George Bernard Shaw was sure that the poor and the rich differ only in clothing and the ability to learn manners. He expressed this idea in the fate of Miss Doolittle. The conflict becomes especially obvious at the moment when Eliza realizes that she does not know what to do after the experiment comes to an end. She can neither return to selling flowers since her education changed her perception nor become a noblewoman since she has no required finances (Shaw 131). However, she finds the third solution and realizes that the knowledge she acquired equates her with the professor; thus, she can compete with him (Porten 74). Therefore, Pygmalion shows the unequal attitude between strata of the British society and contributes to the understanding of Shows position on the diversity as an atavism that is based on ones place in the social hierarchy.

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde presents another side of class relations in the British society of the Victorian Age. However, the main value of the text is in its satire on the hypocrisy of the noble society, which was common in Victorian Age. Oscar Wilde has written this play right before social persecutions toward him from the British society (Barris 195). In regard to this background, it becomes obvious that he had involved in this play for high class the hidden constructs, which was common for the Prince of Aesthetes and Master of Outrageous Paradoxes. First of them is the title of the play, in which he utilizes a wordplay with the name Ernest and word earnest. Furthermore, the dialogues of characters use similar artistic devices, which are supposed to draw attention to the hypocrisy of the high class of the Victorian society. However, the main idea of the play focuses on the influence of ancestry on the social status of a person. In line, all statements of Lady Bracknell about conditions of marriage with her daughter are similar to trading (Barris 198). In such a manner, she treats her child as a commodity, which should be sold with the best benefit for herself and her family. According to this information, it can be assumed that class relations in the British nobility of the time were extremely inhumane and were based on the constant hypocrisy and hiding of emotions. In addition, the behavior of two egoists, John Warding and Algernon Moncrieff, shows how common social masks were in communication with others. They preferred to hide under the name of Ernest in order to achieve their goal rather than to show their personality and earn the respect and right to get married to the woman they wanted. In addition, the description of the ceremonies during communications of the elite can be an evidence of the deceitful behavior with some hidden motives behind it (Wilde, 62). Thus, the analysis of The Importance of Being Earnest draws readers attention to the issue of the intrinsic class relations hypocritical behavior of the noble class.


The Victorian culture is more complex and diverse than the stereotyped ideas about it are. They emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries after the crisis of its value system, which was described in the proposed works. Moreover, in the 20th century, the constant reassessment of values of the Victorian society took place. It started when the sharp criticism of Victorianism and its value foundations was replaced by ideas of returning to classical values. Victorian Age is known for significant changes in the lifestyles of the whole world, manifested in the domination of the urban way of life over rural one, which used to be common for the majority of the elite of the British society. The urban space, created by the will and desire of men, forms the technology of human communication, its way of life, its value world in a new way as compared to the patriarchal, rural culture. In addition, the development of the industry and connection of British cities with railway had significantly changed social roles and relations in the Victorian society. While in the rural culture, a person inherited the lifestyle and patterns of behavior, in the urban culture, one has to adopt a new behavior in order to be successful. In line, Shaws Pygmalion demonstrates changes in the British society by opposing the talented Eliza to her teacher - Henry Higgins, who is perceived as one of the conservative British snobs. Also, the metaphoric analogy with the ancient Greek legend about sculptor Pygmalion assumes that Eliza is an analogy of Galatea, which means that she is a perfect example of the artist's skills. According to such a standpoint, it can be assumed that Shaw, who was an Irish writer that experienced social diversity during his first work experience (Porten 79), emphasizes the perfectness of the commoners, who after getting a good education can become equal to or even better than the nobles.

On the one hand, the triumph of the technological dynamism and significant social mobility lead to the passionate desire of the majority of Victorians to remain stable in possessing things that retain their value. Therefore, one of the paradoxical features of the Victorian Age is that this period is famous for a very stable and original system of spiritual and moral values, while material values and possession of things were emphasized. Therefore, on the other hand, the Victorian Age is a period of the hidden desire of the noble class to preserve their lifestyle, inherent to their society for centuries. Also, this desire to conserve all ancient traditions was supported by social norms and morality, which was similar to principals of law. However, this conservation assumes the fear of uncertainty of the British noble class in the Age of Changes, which led them to the hypocritical behavior in order to suppress and hide this fear. Exactly these issues of the in-class relations of the Victorian elite can be traced in The Importance of Being Earnest, in which all relations between characters are based on the masquerade and desire to play roles, which are expected by the society (Barris 206). Moreover, the rituals, described in this play, are the reflection of the desire to hide huge fears and complexes of the human community, which is on the verge of changes.

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Pygmalion and The Importance of Being Earnest are the works, which focus on the class relations of the Victorian Age. However, the two are different in their main ideas and descriptions. Pygmalion opposes the new personality of commoners, who were taught and became successful, and the personality of the British nobility, who perceive commoners as people of the second sort. The Importance of Being Earnest, in contrast to Pygmalion, focuses on the in-class relations of British nobles, who are playing their hypocritical roles and wearing masks for the achievement of desired goals. Both this books reflect of relations in the contemporary British society, as well as changes and conservative tendencies. Thus, relations between the social strata of the Victorian society were extremely complex and controversial; this reality was caused by social changes, urbanization, industrialization, and coming to power of the middle class.

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