A Woman of No Importance satirizes upper-class English society at the end of the nineteenth century. It takes place, for the most part, in the homes of the rich and powerful, where Lord, Ladies, and Archdeacons socialize and gossip about their contemporaries. The play opens in the garden of the Hunstanton estate, where Lady Caroline Pontefract, an overbearing snob, is holding court and patronizing Hester Worsley, a wealthy young American visiting England for the first time. As Hester reveals her admiration of Gerald Arbuthnot, a young clerk, he enters excitedly to tell them that he has been made Lord Illingworth’s secretary. Lady Hunstanton is pleased for Gerald and invites his mother to join their party at the estate. A witty and flirtatious man of means, Lord Illingworth flirts with the quick-witted Mrs. Allonby and accepts her challenge to make Hester fall in love with him. However when Gerald’s mother, Mrs. Arbuthnot, enters, Lord Illingworth is shocked to discover that she is his ex-lover. It is revealed that Lord Illingworth seduced Mrs. Arbuthnot when they were both young but refused to marry her when she fell pregnant with Gerald. Gerald is frustrated with his mother’s obvious dislike of Lord Illingworth and his job offer, but she refuses to disclose the reasons for her feelings. Knowing that her son is in love with Hester, but also knowing Hester’s puritan views on the sin of an unmarried mother, Mrs. Arbuthnot decides to subtly reveal the story of Gerald’s conception in the third person. When Hester rushes to tell Gerald that Lord Illingworth tried to kiss her, Gerald threatens to attack his new employer, until Mrs. Arbuthnot declares that Lord Illingworth is, in fact, his father. In shock the next day, Gerald writes a letter to his father, asking him to marry his mother. He has also decided to turn down Lord Illingworth’s offer to become his secretary. However, Mrs. Arbuthnot tells Gerald that she will not make a mockery of her life by marrying Lord Illingworth now. Hester overhears their conversation and, realizing that the law of God is love above all things, supports Mrs. Arbuthnot’s decision. She also tells Gerald and his mother that she wants to use her wealth to look after them both. When Lord Illingworth arrives, he offers to marry Mrs. Arbuthnot and accept Gerald as his son, but he is quickly rebuffed by his former lover. Instead, Mrs. Arbuthnot tells him that she hates him and could never marry him. Lord Illingworth acknowledges that their former relationship meant nothing to him, flippantly calling Mrs. Arbuthnot his mistress and causing her to slap him with his own glove. Left alone, Mrs. Arbuthnot calls for Gerald and Hester and asks her future daughter-in-law to accept her as a mother. Gerald sees the glove on the floor and asks who just visited, but his mother merely replies, “a man of no importance”.
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