Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Masking Unpleasant Emotions Through Food

In Oscar Wilde’s, The Importance of Being Earnest, satire is used to emphasize the triviality and absurdity of certain conventions within Victorian society. The play’s main characters epitomize Victorian high society; thus, the criticism that arises from Wilde’s exaggeration extends further than the play itself. Specifically, Wilde exaggerates the consumption of food, a seemingly normal non-event. However, Wilde presents such a typically mundane event as an emotionally moving experience. Each time food is introduced into a scene, a character is also feeling an emotion that is unconventional for the time.

During the 19th century, it was considered impolite for members of the upper levels of society to reveal conflicting and personal feelings. In public, any kind of overbearing emotion needed to be suppressed in order to maintain proper decorum. Responding to these societal rules, Wilde uses the Victorians’ exaggeration of their food intake to represent the emotions that they are unable to show. By using food to mask and stifle unpleasant sentiments like lust, aggression, and stress, Wilde conveys the Victorian Era’s aversion towards public displays of such emotions.

Discussing one’s feelings of lust and sexual desire defied the doctrinal rules of polite conversation which were of utmost importance to Victorian society; Wilde represents these emotions and their repression by disguising them with a large appetite. In the play, there are many barriers between the men and the women they love. Jack, in particular, is madly in love with Gwendolyn and plans to marry her. However, issues such as Gwendolyn’s domineering mother and Jack’s alternate identity stand in the way of the couple’s union. Without an official marriage, the two are unable to consummate their love, ultimately leaving Jack riddled with sexual desire. Prior to his proposal to Gwendolyn, Jack confesses his plan to Algernon; one can only imagine the lust Jack is feeling towards his possible wife. At this point, Jack’s relationship with Gwendolyn has not surpassed flirting, leaving him sexually frustrated. As a member of high society, Jack cannot out rightly tell Algernon of his desires, as they would be perceived as less than respectable. Instead, Jack directs his frustration towards the provided food and seeks to sustain his appetite. After being denied the cucumber sandwiches, Algernon suggests that Jack eat some of “the bread and butter [that] is for Gwendolyn” (3). Jack then proceeds to eat in a ravenous manner that causes Algernon to comment, “you need not eat as if you were going to eat it all” (3). Algernon claims that Jack is “behav[ing] as if [he] were married to [Gwendolyn] already”, ultimately implying that Jack’s eager consumption of the bread mirrors a husband’s willingness to pursue sexual relations with a wife (3). Thus, Jack’s appetite to eat the bread and butter is a manifestation of his sexual desire for Gwendolyn; the rapidness of its consumption correlates with the lustful feelings that arise from the conversation.

Wilde further mocks the Victorian convention that prohibits individuals of the upper class from openly discussing lust by applying this frustration to the simple act of eating. During this time, members the upper class were expected to maintain in public a kind disposition, despite any angry sentiments an individual may be feeling. To accurately reflect the era’s conventions, Wilde stifles the characters’ aggression through redirecting it towards food. In Act II, Gwendolyn’s arrival at Jack’s country house creates conflicts that incite aggression. Upon introduction, Gwendolyn takes a fondness to Cecily, causing her to even say, “we are going to be great friends” (32). However, after a misunderstanding that causes Gwendolyn and Cecily to believe that “Earnest” had proposed to them both, the two quickly develop antipathy towards one another. Earlier in the play, each girl had claimed to be deeply in love with her own “Earnest”; therefore, the thought of someone threatening that love understandably incites some aggression. Despite their anger, they are unable to openly express their feelings, as doing so was not acceptable in society. Instead, the two sit down for tea and subtly direct their anger towards one another’s food. Cecily, compelled as a hostess, offers Gwendolyn sugar for her tea and a choice of cake or bread and butter. Gwendolyn, unable to directly criticize her hostess as a person, resorts to insulting Cecily’s preference, stating that, “sugar is not fashionable anymore [… and] cake is rarely seen at the best houses” (38). In retaliation, Cecily puts four sugar lumps into Gwendolyn’s tea and cuts her a slice of cake; society does not permit a direct reply from Cecily, so she resorts to directing her anger towards the food.

Wilde further emphasizes the consumption of food to illustrate the feelings of stress that members of high society were required to subdue. The play’s elaborate plot provides many conflicts, causing each character to undergo a large amount of stress. The end of Act II is particularly stressful, as deceit is discovered and relationships are damaged. After Gwendolyn and Cecily discover Jack and Algernon’s true identities, they storm back to the house. Jack and Algernon are left dejected by their true loves, and uncertain if there will be an opportunity to amend the situation. Though Jack is initially outwardly conflicted about the circumstances, he soon becomes distracted by Algernon’s ingestion of muffins. Algernon rejects the sentiment of stress by claiming that he “can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner”: though this is said humorously, it illustrates his tendency to deemphasize important sentiments such as stress and emphasize trivial acts like eating. Because society discourages them from expressing feelings of stress, Algernon resorts to “eating [,as it] is the only thing that consoles [him]” (41). Wilde then dedicates a large portion of dialogue between the two to emphasizing greediness in regards to food. Rather than discussing the situation at hand and their mutual stress, they focus their attention upon the distribution of food. They refer to each other’s intake as “greedy” and seek to convince the other to eat teacake instead (41). Both men desire the muffins and want them as their own, calling to mind their feelings toward the name Earnest. However, the barriers of society prevent them from directly discussing the more prevalent, but stressful issue; thus, the two are left redirecting their stress onto the muffins instead.

By covering the characters’ emotions with exaggerated attention to and interaction with food, Wilde illustrates the farcical extent that the upper class went to in order to preserve a pleasant image. Members of high society were obsessed with maintaining an image of perfection according to which one only practiced proper behavior in public. Any sentiments able to cause tension were deemed unpleasant and unrespectable. However unpleasant these feelings may be, it is human nature to regard them as serious, as every person has experienced them. Due to the serious nature of these feelings, applying them towards food and eating, rather trivial matters relative to an individual’s emotional well-being, appears quite comical to the reader. Wilde illuminates the ridiculousness in relating the expression of one’s emotions to being improper and mocks the practice; by doing so, he conveys his disapproval of the importance placed on maintaining a pleasant front. Wilde’s use of food as a mask illustrates how confining and stifling it was to be among the upper class in the Victorian era.

An Age of Surfaces: Oscar Wilde’s Society Above and Below the Surface

“We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces” (2257). So the character of Lady Bracknell observes at the conclusion of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. The play as a whole is one firmly preoccupied with the idea of surfaces and their importance in Victorian society, where it must have often seemed (especially to someone as flamboyant as Wilde) that appearance mattered more than anything else. Wilde uses this play to unveil some of the flaws of a superficial society—by first exaggerating frivolity’s influence, then making it absurd, and lastly unfolding some of its logic to make it both more understandable and more reprehensible. In so doing he exposes the unnaturalness, even the danger, of a world where exteriors have completely replaced interiors and the surface is all that remains—which is as much a menace today as it was during Wilde’s own time. Lady Bracknell’s inquisition of Jack, her daughter’s suitor, in Act I serves as a telling prototype. Having already questioned Jack about his income, knowledge, and personal habits, Lady Bracknell now turns to “minor matters”: his background (2232). Her first of many reproaches on this score is a fine example of the baseless social appraisal that Wilde critiques so cleverly throughout the play. When Jack informs Lady Bracknell that he has “lost” both of his parents, her reaction is not one of sympathy or even curiosity, but instead of consternation. “Both?” she says. “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune—to lose both looks like carelessness” (2232). Lady Bracknell is unabashedly blaming Jack not for being a smoker, or having no politics, or knowing nothing, as her interrogation just prior to this passage has revealed, but for losing his parents—a shortcoming that, unlike all the others, has arisen entirely by chance and through no fault of Jack’s. It is significant that Lady Bracknell uses the word “look” to say that having no parents “looks like carelessness” (in some editions the word is “seems”), because it brings the focus quite literally to the idea of superficial appearances. The Victorian tendency to judge a person’s worth by their lineage may have ostensibly been based on a vague idea of inner worth as hereditary, but Wilde here exposes this convention as one based on outer presentation alone. For as Lady Bracknell’s command for Jack to produce some parents—or rather, she implies, any parents–later shows, she is interested only in someone who looks worthwhile, based on arbitrary standards that can be satisfied while entirely overlooking a person’s real character. She wants Jack to be someone like her nephew Algernon—who, as she says later in the play, “has nothing, but he looks everything. What more can one desire?” (2258). If this much seems ridiculous, Lady Bracknell’s next accusation is even more so. Ernest reveals that he is not only a foundling, but was found inside of a handbag—to which Lady Bracknell replies that “to be born, or at any rate, bred in a handbag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution” (2233). Obviously her blaming Jack for being “bred” in a handbag is completely ridiculous, in some ways even more than her disdain for his having lost his parents. For while before we initially knew only that Jack had lost contact with his parents, at whatever age and for whatever reason, here we know immediately that in this instance of alleged culpability, Jack was actually an infant. Perhaps the only way to make Lady Bracknell’s annoyance more absurd at this point is to direct it towards a newborn child—one who is blamed for, of all things, being placed in a handbag. The faintly-traceable syllogism of her logic is still present here, in the sense that there is some rhetorical connection at least between an “ordinary handbag,” as Jack calls it, and the ordinary people behind such upheavals as the French Revolution (2233). And the sheer bizarreness of being found in a handbag is in some ways in opposition to “the ordinary decencies of family life” (2233). It is interesting that we see this word “ordinary” come up again, here in a positive context as opposed to the negative one used just before. [“In what locality did this Mr. James, or Thomas, Cardew come across this ordinary handbag?” asks Lady Bracknell just before (2233).] Lady Bracknell’s hypocritical refashioning of the word is just one of many subtle hints Wilde sends to the reader about the consistency, or rather inconsistency, of her logic. Yet Wilde is not so simplistic as to suggest that she has no logic at all, which is one of the reasons this passage—and the play as a whole—is so compelling. Lady Bracknell is extremely logical in some of the details she dismisses in this case—such as the line of the cloak room in which the bag was found or whether or not the bag had handles. The language she uses to brush off such absurdly random details is often uncommon in its directness; “The line is immaterial,” for instance, is just about as simple and as short as her usually orotund sentences get (2233). In this way Wilde is able to present these moments as instances of plain, direct common sense—which is probably how Lady Bracknell looks at them herself. This makes them all the more confounding and hilarious for the pure improbability of these phrases’ actual content. Nothing could be less relevant to Jack’s character than the line of the handbag’s cloakroom, or the presence or absence of handles; points like these are in fact so wide of the mark that no coherent person would ever bother to point out how trivial they are. The fact that Lady Bracknell admits that these things don’t matter, but others that are equally inane somehow do [i.e. the fact that Jack was found in a handbag, or the fact that the handbag was in a cloak room that “might serve to conceal a social indiscretion” (2233)] cause her to appear simultaneously more and less ridiculous, an impressive feat. On the one hand it is encouraging to see that she has some sound judgment at least, but on the other it is disturbing to find that an apparently rational person can follow this judgment to such a misdirected conclusion. Lady Bracknell’s use of the word “seems” to describe her impressions [“seems to me to display a contempt” (2233)] like her previous choice of the word “look”, ultimately ties this deconstruction of logic back in with the idea of surface and appearances. The reasoning Lady Bracknell uses here is completely arbitrary; there is no earthly reason why the fact of a handbag should be any more or less important than whether or not it has handles. By highlighting the ridiculousness of such gradations, Wilde suggests that any focus on mere appearance alone is in fact equally arbitrary—that a person shouldn’t be blamed for their family any more than an infant should be blamed for a handbag, and exteriors are only significant if they are clearly distinguished from interiors. In exactly this spirit, The Importance of Being Earnest strives not to create a realistic representation of an outer reality, but an artistic summation of an inner one. In the context of aestheticism Wilde compiles the most ridiculous parts of human nature and places them on stage–so that even today when his spectators laugh, they do so with the dim sentience that in a play seemingly all about surfaces, he’s deriding the innermost part of themselves.

The Institution of Marriage in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” and Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles”

Oscar Wilde vigorously attacks the institution of heterosexual marriage in his play “The Importance of Being Earnest” by employing light comedy in order to portray characters that are shallow, immature, and oblivious about the commitment into which they are about to enter. Marriage is also harshly critiqued in Susan Glaspell’s play “Trifles,” a play that explores the hardships that women must face within the institution of marriage and the tragedy that befalls one woman pushed past her breaking point. Both plays are harshly critical of the institution of marriage, one through light satirical comedy and the other through a tragic story about a failed marriage. However, the somber impact of the more realistic story within “Trifles” provides a more harsh understanding of the institution of marriage than does the comedy, which its audience can easily laugh off. In Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” the characters treat marriage as something frivolous. What they do treat as important are esoteric social norms, connotations of names, and trivial details. Cecily and Gwendolyn only want to marry Algernon and Jack because they believe that their names are Ernest. As Gwendolyn says to Jack early in the play, “…My ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you” (10). In another part of the play, Cecily meets Algernon for the first time and believes he is Jack’s brother Ernest. She confesses her love for him and tells him all about how they’ve been engaged; she bought a ring for herself in his name, and wrote herself love letters pretending they were from him (32). The women base their love entirely on the belief that the men are named Ernest, which reveals their naivety regarding marriage. The frivolity with which these women fall in love suggests that relationships, too, are frivolous.Jack and Algernon diminish the institution of marriage in another way. During an early conversation about marriage proposals, Algernon says: “I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If I ever get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact” (3). This dialogue indicates that Algernon believes commitment is something that ruins romance and perhaps, by extension, love – hardly a resounding endorsement of marriage.Lady Bracknell’s idea of marriage is equally cynical. When Gwendolyn and Jack tell her they are engaged, Lady Bracknell tells Gwendolyn that “An engagement should come to a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she should be allowed to arrange for herself…” (12). She then interrogates Jack about his upbringing, property, and family to learn whether he is suitable for her daughter and society. Lady Bracknell does not see love in marriage; rather, marriage is an institution that must sustain wealth and social class. Although Wilde’s play offers a very negative view of the institution of marriage, it does so in a lighthearted way. The characters are laughably extreme in their behaviors, and so Wilde’s criticism of marriage can be laughed off. Susan Glaspell’s play “Trifles” takes the opposite approach. Although it is not primarily about marriage, it does deal with the negative effects of marriage on women. The play is a tragic story about how Mrs. Wright may have murdered her husband. The emotional impact of the play forces its audience to take its subject matter seriously. Unlike “The Importance of Being Earnest,” “Trifles” isn’t directly about marriage – the topic of marriage is subtly hinted at by devices in the dialogue and setting rather than overtly flaunted by the characters’ mannerisms. The audience learns about Mrs. Wright as they see Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale going through her house, recognize the symbolism of Mrs. Wright’s things, and hear the comments the men make to the women in the play. When the party first arrives at the house, the pans under the sink are unwashed, there’s a loaf of bread sitting out, and things around the house are unfinished. The disorder of Mrs. Wright’s housework seems to indicate disorder in her life. When Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters are looking at her quilt Mrs. Hale observes, “Here, this is the one she was working on, and look at the sewing! All the rest of it has been so nice and even. And look at this! It’s all over the place! Why, it looks as if she didn’t know what she was on about!”(1679). Mrs. Hale starts to pull it out and re-stitch it and then she asks, “What do you suppose she was so nervous about?” The implication there is that something was happening in that moment when her stitching faltered – maybe that her husband was being verbally abusive or aggressive at that time. Also, the women find a broken birdcage and Mrs. Wright’s dead bird in her sewing basket. The bird’s neck had been wrung, and Mrs. Hale believes that Mr. Wright did it. The bird was beloved by Mrs. Wright – Mrs. Hale deduces that she was going to bury it in the “pretty box” they found it in (1681). If Mr. Wright did indeed wring the bird’s neck, it could be an indication of abuse. The bird can be considered a symbol of Mrs. Wright herself; indeed, Mrs. Hale refers to her as a “songbird” early in the play. Mr. Wright’s murder of the bird thus suggests suffocation of Mrs. Wright socially and mentally as well. The bird’s murder motivates Mrs. Wright to kill her husband and confirms that their marriage was a failed one. The dialogue between the women also helps us paint a portrait of the kind of marriage Mr. and Mrs. Wright had, and also of their own understandings of the difficulties of marriage for women in that place and time. Mrs. Hale describes Mr. Wright as having been a “hard man” (1680) – she tells the court attorney that she hasn’t been over Mrs. Wright’s house in a year because it “never seemed a very cheerful place” and that “…I don’t think a place’d be any cheerfuller for John Wright’s being in it” (1676). She also expresses guilt for not coming over to see Mrs. Wright because it was so un-cheerful in the house. She expresses her empathy for the way Mrs. Wright must have felt: “I might have known she needed help! I know how things can be – for women. I tell you, it’s queer, Mrs. Peters. We live close together and we live far apart. We all go through the same things – it’s all just a different kind of the same thing” (1682). Mrs. Peters expresses similar sentiments when they discover Mrs. Wright’s dead bird. She talks about when her first baby died, and how she “knows what stillness is” (1682). Through this dialogue, we learn of the serious trials of marriage that women had to endure – the problems are true to life and utterly believable, and the dialogue has a heavy emotional impact. Its somber tone, realistic subject matter, heavy symbolism and believable characters make “Trifles” a more scathing indictment of marriage than “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The heavy emotional impact left by the former is more likely to leave an audience thinking about the problems in marriage than will a light-hearted comedy about a group of young, petty people who have very naïve ideas about what marriage should be. “Trifles” is harsher for another reason – it deals with blunt reality of married life rather than just making fun of the kind of people who get married. Wilde’s frivolous characters might cause one to laugh at marriage, but Glaspell’s force an audience to really consider the institution and its potential costs.

Structural Stereotypes of the Characters in The Importance of Being Earnest

Names play a pivotal role in Oscar Wilde’s drama “The Importance of Being Earnest.” The naming of the characters is deliberate and well thought-out. Their name alludes to the pigeonhole for each of their characters. A name is a typecast and in Victorian times, when this play was written, a name would have determined whether you were to become a prince or a pauper. It is ironic that a child is at the mercy of its parents for its name just like the characters in this play were predetermined by Wilde. An expectation for the way in which society is run is also a label and Oscar Wilde sets out to prove the triviality of these brands through his characters use of wit, irony, and humor. The stereotypes of the five main characters in this play help to reveal societal masks through comedic timing.The comic creation of Lady Bracknell is a marvelous outlet for the actions of the plot and to obtain a glimpse into the ideals of the Victorian Era2E Lady Bracknell is the quintessential matronly elite who stresses good breeding above all else. Some of Wilde’s funniest lines are played out through her character. Also, it is Lady Bracknell that introduces Wilde’s views on marriage and how it falls short of the romantic ideal. When Lady Bracknell is interviewing Jack to be a candidate for marrying her daughter, Gwendolyn, her physical and linguistic actions illustrate that she is disturbed by Jack’s disreputable background. For Instance, when Jack tells her he was found in a handbag at the train station in the Brighton line, she states that, “The Line is immaterial.” (Act I p.1439). This shows how greatly Jacks lack of a material background distresses her. Lady Bracknell is a stereotype for the importance in Victorian culture of a good upbringing and family name.Gwendolyn is Lady Bracknell’s daughter and is the reason for Lady Bracknell’s snobbery towards Jack. Gwendolyn is in love with Jack whom she knows as Ernest. Her frivolity is stereotypical of the time period in regards to thoughts about marriage. For example, she says she was destined to love Ernest because of his name (Act I p.1435). This displays her obsession with her fantasy for the ideal romance. But, many of the epigrams in the play denote the ironic fact that Wilde felt there was a cruel reality to marriage.Much like Gwendolyn is Cecily, in as much as they are both set on their romantic fantasies about marriage. She even holds the same opinion about the name Ernest being the essence of perfection. Cecily has even gone as far as to write love letters to herself and to imagine a proposal from Algernon (Ernest) before she has even met him (Act III p.1452-3). It is amusing that she would not trust her fianc to write them on his own which is a hint at the fact he would never be able to write something on his own that would fulfill all of her expectations. Cecily is also the one to unequivocally assert the theme of the play when she says, “I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.” (Act III p.1445). Both Cecily and Gwendolyn are obviously aroused by the dangerousness of a man’s character. Wilde has reversed his intent in a comedic manner because what he was alluding to is the people who pretend to be moral all the time but in reality live corruptly. He is commenting on the fact that society compels people to wear a mask.Algernon is a symbol of the upper crust British bachelor. Wilde even leads into the play by illustrating that Algernon enjoys the finer things in life, (dining, artistic culture, and music) through his conversation with Lane about his piano playing (Act I p.1427). Algernon is also depicted as over-indulgent through the visually comical expression of always eating. His opinions about love and marriage are hilariously contradictory. This is exemplified in the line, “If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.” (Act I p.1429). It would be completely improbable that someone would forget that they are married. Algernon is a typical pseudo-intellectual, creating witty phrases about life that have little value.Jack, or Ernest, is similar to Algernon because they both live the life of Victorian over-indulgent Victorian bachelors. They live their lives like works of art, in as much as they are playing grounds that they can manipulate to their pleasing. This is part of Jack’s comedic charm. He is the vessel for the entire play because it is his lying that creates the humorous conflict of morals. It is also his name that creates the pun for the drama. Jack treats solemn events with casual abandon and yet he becomes stressed over trifles. For Instance, when Cecily comes outside to tell Jack that Ernest is in the living room, after just having told, Miss Prism and Chasuble that he was dead, he just rolls with the punches and acts completely unaffected yet; he bothers Scotland Yard over the loss of his cigarette case (Act III p.1449 and Act I p.1429).The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy of manners that ridicules social stereotypes and breaks down societal masks. The five main characters help to highlight the differences between men and women and to poke fun at their beliefs about love and marriage. Through Wilde’s comedy and wit it becomes apparent that this drama is as much a microcosm of our ideals in the present as in his time. The message through the humor of Lady Bracknell, Algernon, Jack, Gwendolyn, and Cecily is to appreciate the beauty in life and to let go of the confused sense of values and stereotypes that society imposes.

Sincere Triviality: The Comedy of Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde creates a successful, complex comedy by maintaining consistent conflict and contradiction in the action, dialogue, and characters of The Importance of Being Ernest. Dramatic or comedic action is essentially exaggerated conflict. Wilde preserves the conflict between what is and what should be important in every interaction. That which is most trivial is treated with the most sincerity, and vice versa. This reversal is his greatest contradiction and fundamental tool as a writer of comedies. By portraying the upper class, a group of people characteristically trivial in their social conventions, his exaggerations are close enough to reality to be convincing. Etiquette places importance on petty details that seem even sillier when they replace more important concerns. This does not mean, however, that his play is restricted to social commentary. He is using the inherent triviality of social intercourse as a dramatic vehicle.In the first meeting of Cecily and Gwendolen, the conversation and stage directions provide both contradiction and conflict. It is when they should be the most emotional that they are the most restrained. When the two women discover that they are both engaged to Ernest Worthing, Gwendolen responds “quite politely, rising” and Cecily follows “very politely, rising.” They speak “meditatively,” or “thoughtfully and sadly,” about becoming enemies and being lied to by their shared lover. They remain within the boundaries of politesse, becoming more polite as they get increasingly angry, referring to each other as “Miss Cardew” and “Miss Fairfax.” Just when it seems there will be an emotional confrontation, tea is served and calmly shared. What is important when Cecily offers tea is that Gwendolen hates her now, calling her “detestable girl!” However, it is clear that what she feels should be important to her is her social obligation, as she says “but I require tea!” (1655)After Jack and Algernon have confessed their crimes, and lost their engagements, they calmly discuss the disaster they have caused. They argue mildly about “Bunburying,” and criticize each other briefly. What sparks any significant emotion or action is not the loss of love, but the loss of muffins! Most of the conversation is dominated by arguments over the proper time and way to eat. Although Jack says “I wanted to be engaged to Gwendolen…I love her,” (1657) he does not budge at her departure. Immediately after, he is moved to rise and “[take] muffins” from Algernon, who in response rises and “seizes the muffin dish from Jack.” (1658) Their conversation about any significant turn of events, such as their christenings or the women they’ve lost, is cold and reasonable. The issues of tea cake and muffins, however, are marked by action as they rise and fight over a dish!The play moves forward in a series of parallel situations, each equally similar and opposite. Parallelism and repetition make blatant contradiction more obvious by simplifying any situation. The parallelism is in the identical series of statements or ideas in dialogue and action. Opposite ideas are more clearly opposite when presented in exactly the same words or actions. Characters constantly say exactly the same thing back and forth, a clear remark upon the conflict inherent in language. Two people can use or interpret the same thing differently, and this provides a typical comic effect. Repetition reveals the boundaries and complexities of language and interaction, and provides for obvious contradictions.Cecily and Gwendolen repeat things both individually and between each other. In the beginning of the scene, Gwendolen proclaims: “Something tells me that we are going to be great friends. I like you already more than I can say. My first impressions of people are never wrong.” (1653) Moments later, after Cecily has threatened her engagement, she contradicts herself with utter sincerity, as she says “from the moment I saw you I distrusted you. I felt that you were false and deceitful. I am never deceived in such matters. My first impressions of people are invariable right.” (1656) This reduces her statements to a silly and comedic level. They repeat whole phrases back and forth in conversation as though each were unique. When Gwendolen rises and says “I think there must be some slight error. Mr. Ernest Worthing is engaged to me,” Cecily responds by rising and saying “I am afraid you must be under some misconception. Ernest proposed to me exactly ten minutes ago.” (1654)Repetition is more excessive in scene two as the two men interact for lines at a time using the same words and phrases as questions and answers, attacks and defense, or simple conversation. Their entire mode of discourse is based in echoing each other in utter seriousness. One example is the initial discussion of muffin-eating. “Eat [or eating] muffins” is repeated five times in four lines of dialogue. (1658) Wilde chooses words that are especially trite, and in themselves sound funny to repeat. He even creates words with a silly ring, such as “Bunbury,” for this effect. Note the serious treatment and excessive repetition of the nonsense word in these few lines:JACK: This ghastly state of things is what you call Bunburying, I suppose?ALGERNON: Yes, and a perfectly wonderful Bunbury it is. The most wonderful Bunbury I have ever had in my life.JACK: Well, you’ve no right whatsoever to Bunbury here.ALGERNON: That is absurd. One has a right to Bunbury anywhere one chooses. Every serious Bunburyist knows that.JACK: Serious Bunburyist! Good Heavens!ALGERNON: …I happen to be serious about Bunburying.JACK: …your friend Bunbury is quite exploded. (1657)Wilde has taken an imagined name and made it into a functional noun and verb. What adds to the comedy is the absolute sincerity of this conversation. This inappropriate tone adds yet more contradiction and is thus extremely successful as a comic effect.As a writer of comedies, Wilde also uses typical comedic tools to keep the story funny. His use of language is witty, and he often relies on wordplay for humor. When Gwendolen says “[p]ersonally I cannot understand how anybody manages to exist in the country…[t]he country always bores me to death,” it seems a simple and common statement. It becomes funny with a play on words when Cecily responds “[a]h! This is what the newspapers call agricultural depression, is it not? I believe the aristocracy are suffering very much from it just at present.” As the footnote explains, the epidemic of “agricultural depression” she is referring to was that “landowners (including aristocrats) had been suffering severe losses because of adverse economic conditions.” (1655) The audience thus reconsiders the line before in a more humorous light, and the comedy is increased through wordplay.Pacing is aided by the constant sense of approaching disaster. The play moves forward as the characters steadily realize crucial information already supplied to the audience. The action speeds up with a sense of suspense, as these inevitable revelations are stalled. The meeting of Gwendolen and Cecily is one of many highly anticipated situations. Both have been separately introduced and simultaneously deceived. This will bring them together and force them apart, conflicting in its role in the story and creating a comic effect by causing confusion. From the moment they begin to talk, one is waiting for someone to say “Ernest.” Cecily first refers to Jack as “Mr.Worthing,” and Gwendolen’s disaster is avoided. (1653) It is Gwendolen who finally refers to “Ernest” in praising the man who is actually Jack. As expected, Cecily notices and replies “I beg your pardon, Gwendolen, did you say Ernest?…Oh, but it is not Mr. Ernest Worthing who is my guardian. It is his brother ­ his elder brother.” Wilde continues to delay the inevitable, as Gwendolen remarks “Ernest never mentioned to me that he had a brother,” sparking a discussion about these nonexistent brothers. She even projects the next turn of events in saying “It would have been terrible if any cloud had come across a friendship like ours.” (1654) Soon after, the long-awaited discovery of parallel deception occurs and is more effective due to its delay.Beyond the witty use of language and pacing, Wilde understands the importance of visual comedy. He uses action and props to punctuate his jokes and to develop characters. With only three acts and therefore limited change of scene, Wilde must create action on stage. But his understanding of visual communication goes well beyond simple necessity. He is able to make subtle distinctions using certain movements on stage. The physical behavior of the women and the men is very different. While the two women seem slightly frustrated in their restrained movement, the men are surprisingly childish and spontaneous. If one considers only the events of each scene, it would seem that the men have more control in their ability to deceive the women. Their physical interaction proves just the opposite.The two women are constantly sitting and rising, one character following another or both acting simultaneously. Sitting accompanies the delay of action. Comfortable in a state of ignorance, Cecily and Gwendolen repose. They “both sit down together” upon deciding that they are friends. (1653) Sitting is also a form of restraint, forced just when they want to be active, and creating a conflict between the image and events of a scene. Rising accompanies progress or emotion, as when Gwendolen reacts to the news of Cecily’s engagement. (1654) The frustration of senseless convention is apparent in their discomfort during tea. Just when “Cecily is about to retort,” she is reminded of convention by the entrance of servants. It is clear that the “presence of servants exercises a restraining influence, under which both girls chafe,” since they obviously should be standing. This conflict is reinforced when “Gwendolen bites her lip, and beats her foot nervously with her parasol,” and Cecily rebels with “elaborate politeness,” asking the proper questions both “sweetly” and “severely.” Gwendolen finally “rises in indignation,” unable to bear the discomfort, and followed immediately by Cecily. (1655)The action in the second scene surrounds the muffin dish. The two men resemble little boys in their stubborn competition. The muffins go back and forth, objectifying the power struggle in their petty conversation. This scene comes soon after the womens’ tea, and is a direct contrast of gender characteristics. Gwendolen avoided commenting on obviously inappropriate action, displaying her capacity for patience and restraint. But Jack complains the moment Algernon’s actions offend his sensibility. Immediately after Algernon “begins to eat muffins,” (1657) Jack remarks upon his inappropriate behavior, and they proceed to discuss the action occurring on stage.Action is a crucial tool among many in Wilde’s characterization. In his characters he continues to present the conflict of convention and reality. In the second scene, during conversation, the men actually describe the assumed characteristics of each woman. Jack refers to Cecily as the “sweet, simple, innocent girl,” one would expect to find in the country. Algernon describes the urban Gwendolen as a “brilliant, clever, [and] thoroughly experienced young lady.” (1657) However, when considering their behavior in the first scene, it would appear that neither woman fits her stereotype. The comparison of country and city yields unconventional results, once again contradicting expectation and normalcy. This is revealed in Cecily’s ability to triumph over convention. She uses the tools of her restriction, revolting with tea and cake. Despite the shared language and behavior, Algernon and Jack are clearly distinguished in their scene. It becomes clear that Algernon is more childish, but extremely witty. Jack seems more sincere and mature, almost as a scolding adult with phrases such as “good heavens! I suppose a man may eat his own muffins in his own garden,” and “Algernon! I have already told you to go. I don’t want you here. Why don’t you go!” (1658)The Importance of Being Ernest is not simply a social commentary or amusing satire. Its message is more complex. Wilde’s treatment of characters interacting and experiencing inner conflict in a humorous way presents a distinct vision of morality. The Importance of Being Ernest is more than a descriptive title. It is at the core of his perception of human interaction. The word “ernest,” has obvious significance in its meaning. The fundamental sincerity with which each character plays into ridiculous and humiliating situations is more than a comic strategy. It is Wilde’s interpretation of human nature.

Paradox through Pacing in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”

In the closing lines of the first act of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” Algernon remarks, “I love scrapes. They are the only things that are never serious,” to which Jack responds, “Oh, that’s nonsense Algy. You never talk about anything but nonsense.” Algernon caps off this exchange with a proclamation of the purpose of the whole work: “Nobody ever does” (1642). Wilde never allows anything in the work to conclude on a serious note. While Wilde repeatedly proclaims this direction for the play through his characters, he does not tell us the motivation for this direction. He never explains why there is this avoidance of earnestness. The most apparent answer lies in the veiled criticism of Victorian society contained at each level of the play. The quick paradoxical epigrams that form the core of the conversational comedy are pointed at Victorian society. Wilde also abuses the concept of characterization with paradox to create comical characters that expose Victorian deficiencies. Each of these criticisms relies upon the paradoxes that Wilde sets up on successively larger scales within the play. It is, in fact, this tool of humor, not the object of ridicule that truly defines this work. While each paradox is pointed at Victorian society, the individual paradoxes each take on a different element of Victorian society, thereby diminishing the pointedness of the overall criticism. The use of paradox allows Wilde to take this play beyond its narrow and somewhat scattered critique of Victorian society. The underpinning element then, is not Victorian society, but instead the paradox, the concept of dual, irreconcilable elements. This more lasting topic is, not coincidentally, the one that defined Wilde’s own life. In his own struggle to cope with the deficiencies of prudish Victorian society, he was forced to create multiple identities to mask his homosexuality. While Wilde’s ironic look at nineteenth-century Victorian England is funny, it is on the higher, abstract level that Wilde’s work is unified and gains lasting and a-historical significance. The paradox is not something that is easily sustained or drawn out because of its inherent contradiction. Wilde relies upon fine tuned pacing to sustain his use of paradox and to allow for a vehicle between paradox. Wilde’s use of these techniques is especially exaggerated in the first scenes of the first and third acts, where the characters of Jack and Lady Bracknell (Aunt Augusta) are particularly utilized by Wilde.The most fundamental element of Wilde’s use of paradox lies in the paradoxical epigrams that pepper the work. In the first act we immediately see these in use. Jack tells Algernon that when he is in the country he amuses his neighbors, but then volunteers, “[I] Never speak to one of them,” to which Alegernon responds, “How immensely you must amuse them” (1630). The idea of amusing someone to whom you do not even talk is quickly dismissed as Wilde moves on. A few minutes later in the action, Algernon warns Jack to take care in his marital plans: “Well, in the first place girls never marry the men they flirt with. Girls don’t think it right.” Before answering who exactly it is that girls do marry, Wilde moves the characters to a new scenario that brings Algernon to quip, “More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read” (1631). This last paradox is especially apparent in its criticism of Victorian society, but at the root of each of the other paradoxes lies some facet of this society that Wilde puts up for hyperbolic ridicule. Lady Bracknell’s use of paradox is even more subversive because she is make to be a model of high Victorian society (this will be discussed further later). In her most immediately stinging paradox, she admonishes Algernon, “Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that” (1662). Augusta delivers lines akin to this one, that take Victorian values and practices to absurd lengths, throughout the work.Wilde sustains his use of these paradoxes by quick movement between them. In the varied subject matter of the above paradoxes, along with the page numbers that accompany each one, the rollicking nature of the dialogue can be seen. Wilde constructs his paradoxes so that they can be easily escaped without resolution. Algernon’s remark about flirting girls is prefaced by, “In the first place,” an opening that signifies his intention to discuss more than one aspect of eligible females. The second point he makes, however, is of negligible comic and ironic value. Wilde (as Algernon) chooses to first deliver the scandalous remark – “girls never marry the men they flirt with. Girls don’t think it right first”‹with the mechanism for escaping this paradox (the option to move to a second point) already in place. When Lane questions Algernon’s paradox, he replies, “It accounts for the extraordinary number of bachelors that one sees all over the place. In the second place I don’t give my consent.” The first sentence of this reply merely affirms Algernon’s faith in the paradox, and does not explain it. In the second sentence Algernon takes advantage of the escape mechanism (the second point) to shift to a new topic with, “In the second place.” The paradoxes of Lady Bracknell meet little resistance from the other characters. Lady Bracknell’s phrases are so scandalous and twisted that it would be hard to object to them without the whole structure crumbling. Therefore Wilde uses Lady Bracknell’s garrulousness to sustain the paradox, and to provide a vehicle between paradoxes and foolish statements. When she first enters the scene she delivers a rather long-winded diatribe aimed at the recently engaged couples. Towards the end of this, immediately after declaring her husband’s belief, she says, “I do not propose to undecieve him. Indeed I have never undecieved him on any question. I would consider it wrong.” The morally misguided nature of this statement is not questioned because Wilde immediately moves Augusta to a new topic in her diatribe, “But, of course you will clearly understand that all communication between yourself and my daughter must cease immediately from this moment” (1660). Her propensity for long-winded monologues allows Augusta to deliver her most absurd lines in the midst of monologues so that she can escape into the surrounding topics.Wilde’s quick movement from paradox to paradox serves two purposes. This construction allows him to move on before the old paradox is exposed. The comic effect of the paradoxes would be diminished significantly if each one were exposed. Wilde’s quick movement also serves a larger purpose, which will be discussed later. The quick movement also works because Wilde sets the reader up to expect a paradox to be exposed. Occasionally he goes so far as to have someone within the play question a paradox, engendering great hope that the paradox will be exposed. Jack says, “Oh, that is nonsense” to Algernon’s quip about flirting girls, allowing the reader to believe that the paradox may be brought to the light. Fictional characters can always evade the reader’s questions, but it is harder to evade the questions of characters in the play. Even when characters do not question the paradoxes, there is a sense that the paradoxes should be exposed. Wilde’s escape mechanisms allow him to escape, but not before he has brought the reader to believe that the paradoxes will be exposed. When he quickly moves to a new subject and paradox this expectation is stunned. New and thought provoking elements are introduced before the old are brought to any conclusion. This makes for a welcoming dearth of dull moments, and increases the sense of speed, and movement. The abrupt transitions create a sense of tumbling through subjects one after another with little respite. This quick movement brings a levity that dwelling on topics would kill. Wilde’s pacing, then, is essential for the maintenance of the humor.On first glance it seems that Wilde’s sardonic paradoxical epigrams define the work. But these small paradoxes are but a metaphor for the larger clashing of two irreconcilable elements: namely the multiple identities of the characters. The characters multiple identities are cast next to each other in much the same way that the disparate elements of a paradox are set next to each other. The misfit of the two elements creates a comic effect, both in the epigrams, and in the characters dual identities.Jack and Algernon both have an obvious outward identity crisis that fuels much of the action. In the beginning of the first act Jack explains, “Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country” (1632). This is immediately followed by Algernon’s explanation that, “I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose” (1633). Through the play we learn that in fact both men would like to be known as Ernest so as to impress their prospective wives. In presenting characters who have not a shred of seriousness in them with the title Ernest, Wilde takes an obvious stab at the Victorian society which valued earnestness so dearly. This superficial identity crisis, as seen through the names, explains much of the action. But this identity crisis has worked its way inward, particularly with Jack. This is never more apparent than in the opening scene with Jack and Algernon. When Jack enters the room his first comments evince his alignment with the absurdity already displayed by Lane and Algernon in the opening scene of the play. His first line, as a response to the question of what has brought him to Algernon’s house, is, “Oh pleasure, pleasure! What else should bring one anywhere?” (1630). This jesting attitude continues as he disparages the Divorce Court. But a dramatic break provided by the entry and exit of Lane allows Jack to suddenly slip into an earnest persona. For a succession of three lines Jack maintains a staid attitude. He first says, “Do you mean to say that you have had my cigarette case all this time? I wish to goodness you had let me know.” Jack then moves to correct another of Algernon’s foolish statements by saying, “There is no good offering a large reward now that the thing is found.” Lane then enters and exits the room‹not coincidentally some of the only prescribed physical action in the scene – thereby prolonging the sense of Jack’s earnestness. Jack then answers Algernon’s query as to the ownership of the cigarette case, “Of course it’s mine. You have seen me with it a hundred times, and you have no right whatsoever to read what is written inside. It is a very ungentlemanly thing to read a private cigarette case” (1631). All of what he says seems very reasonable and in the last line even dignified, particularly when laid next to Algernon’s practically hyperbolic jesting. This sense is exaggerated by the unusually long lines, and breaks for action.But after selling us so successfully on this persona of Jack, Wilde quickly drags him back into the jesting quagmire that Algernon wallows in. The subject over which Jack is earnest, his defense of what is written inside the cigarette case, is just that which exposes his ultimate jest, his dual identity. The earnest exchange leads directly to his admission that he is at times Jack, and at times Ernest. Looking back to the moments of earnestness it becomes apparent that Wilde prolonged the appearance of Jack’s earnestness by Algernon’s quote in the midst of the scene: “Now that I look at the inscription inside, I find that the thing isn’t yours at all” (1631). This creates a situation of questioning, but not one in which the earnestness of Jack is brought into question. Wilde could have easily brought up the question of Jack’s questionable use of two names here, but instead Wilde chooses to allow us to believe in Jack’s earnest identity for that much longer, making it that much more surprising and revealing when Jack’s absurd side is revealed again. Wilde’s pacing, again, maintains the dual, contradictory nature of the play.Even Lady Bracknell – one of the characters who does not outwardly profess to a dual identity‹evinces a tension between two irreconcilable elements. Augusta represents the highest and most earnest element of English society. This is principally seen, as with many other characters, in her name: Augusta. The name Augusta implies a respected and successful leader. She desires the suggestion that her name makes to extend to her relationships with others, as we see in her demand to govern over the engaged couples with moral certainty. At every moment she is telling the couples what they can and cannot do. As soon as she enters the scene she asks Gwendolyn about the intimate moment that she interrupted, “Gwendolyn! What does this mean?,” and moments later says of the recent engagement of the couples, “You are nothing of the kind” (1660). The imperative tone that she sets upon entry indicates her confidence in her ruling powers, and her demands evidence her sense of earnest moral righteousness.But the reasoning behind her demands and questions completely betrays the earnestness Lady Bracknell desires. When appraising Cecily’s worth as a potential wife for Algernon she says, “Few girls of the present day have any really solid qualities, any of the qualities that last, and improve with time. We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces” (1662). This quote in itself is easily believable as part of the highest tea-time conversations. But the quality that Augusta is praising as solid is money, the very element of superficiality. This discrepancy between form and function displays Augusta’s battling identities. She hopes to appear earnest and august, but her inner identity, that is aligned so closely with the absurdity of all the other characters, always manages to escape.With Lady Bracknell the quick pacing that allows for the contrasted identity is even more exaggerated than it is with Jack. Often the first half of her line will be believably earnest and Victorian, but in the second half of the same line, she betrays the earnestness that was established in the beginning of the line. Her demand that Algernon, “Never speak disrespectfully of Society” could come from the most earnest of mouths. Wilde has Augusta present the earnest half of the lines authoritatively and there is no sense of vacillation between conflicting thought patterns, or identities in these lines. This presentation forces the reader, for a short time, to believe that Lady Bracknell will finally speak seriously. But in the second part of her statement to Algernon, where she explains her demand, we see her second identity surface.It is again Wilde’s pacing that allows these characters to exist so believably in this state of duality for the whole play. Wilde allows his characters to skip between identities, never allowing the reader to settle on the character’s true identity. This skipping also allows Wilde to set the two identities next to each other for comparison. In much the same way as a paradox, when these two elements are set next to each other their irreconcilability gains its comic effect. Instead of establishing the existence of the two identities, and presenting them at unique times, Wilde chooses to present the irreconcilable elements together, skipping back and forth between the two, within scenes and acts. In both cases, when characters are thought to be serious we already know them to be jesters. But due to Wilde’s quick pacing we forget our previous encounters, and what the characters had said because the reader’s mind has had to work so quickly to keep up with the constantly changing subject matter or point of view. The earnestness is at first believable, but always returns to the absurd, at which point the irreconcilability of the two identities becomes obvious. This quick movement, and immediate contact between the earnest and the absurd nature of these characters’ identities, always tending and ending on the absurd, exaggerates the irreconcilability of the characters two elements. There is a curious merging of the characters’ fates as the play progresses. In the opening scene Jack immediately declares his intention to be speedily married to Gwendolyn. During this scene Algernon continually disparages the institution of marriage, going so far as to say, “If I ever get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact” (1631). Yet, in the beginning of the third scene we find both men aiming for the same thing: trying to address wrongs so that they can be quickly married. Algernon says here, “I am engaged to be married to Cecily, Aunt Augusta” (1661). In the end both are headed to marriage. This merging of characters extends further than just this superficial level. Immediately before Lady Bracknell enters the room to deliver her moral wanderings to the couples, the speech of the couples reveals the merging of their minds. Cecily and Gwendolyn chime in unison (following Wilde’s stage directions), “Your Christian names are still an insuperable barrier. That is all!” To this, Algernon and Jack respond, again in perfect unison as dictated by Wilde, “Our Christian names! Is that all? But we are going to be christened this afternoon” (1660). Wilde allows us to believe that this exchange has been planned beforehand by telling Cecily, in the stage directions to conduct the group as if they were an orchestra. But on second glance we realize that while their timing may have been planned, what they are saying was not planned. The couples have the same ideas, and Jack and Algernon do not even need timing instructions for these ideas to come out together. As the play proceeds the characters regress from distinct personalities to undistinguishable forms that share the same thoughts.At the end of the play there is some indication that the characters have become defined. While Algernon sits quietly aside, Jack learns that his name has been Earnest all along. Yet this ending means nothing when Wilde’s treatment or respect for names is considered. Throughout the work Wilde depreciates the traditional value of words by his frequent inclusion of puns and word inversions. In the first act Jack remarks that pretending to be a dentist when you are not a dentist “produces a false impression.” Algernon immediately responds, twisting the meaning of “impression” by saying, “Well that is what dentists always do” (1632) referring now to the plaster impressions of teeth that dentists make. Wilde has exposed the multiple meanings of this word, and in doing so, has stripped the word of its constancy or ability to closely define anything. By repeating, throughout the play, this practice of twisting words to absurd lengths, Wilde depreciates the value of words. This undermining of words extends even to the most holy of words, one’s name. Jack and Algernon have learned that in order to marry their prospective wives they must have the name Ernest. This poses absolutely no problem to the pair. They quickly arrange for a christening to rid themselves of their unattractive name. When Jack arranges for his christening Reverend Chasuble him, “At what hour would you wish the ceremony performed?,” to which Jack gaily responds, “Oh, I might trot around about five if that would suit you.” (1648). Wilde purposely uses this light, conversational tone to display the absolute lack of meaning this renaming will have. By presenting a name as something that can be changed in between ones afternoon appointments Wilde completely depreciates any value or certainty a name may have or provide. In the end Jack learns with great glee that his name has been actually been Ernest all along, a distinction from Algernon who receives no such news. This could be seen as a last differentiation between the characters, a mark of development. But by this time the possible importance that a name could bestow upon someone has consciously been completely destroyed by Wilde. In fact, this excitement over something we now know to be so trivial is Wilde’s final remark on triviality versus earnestness. Throughout the play Wilde has presented seriously all that is in fact trivial, and has presented trivially all that is serious. In this last line Wilde follows this trend by allowing Jack to be excited over something we now know to be completely meaningless, continuing his juxtaposition of perception and reality. In doing this Wilde in facts demarcates the triviality of this supposedly unique name, reminding us, once again, of the similarity and alignment of the two characters.Wilde challenges the traditional conception of dramatic or fictional work with this anti-development. The traditional sense of development is the delineation and definition of the characters involved. Traditionally a writer makes the characters and work memorable by defining the characters’ unique qualities. Beyond positing the truth of this assumption, it is not necessary to belabor this discussion. In Wilde’s work the characters are only memorable insofar as they don’t develop, and in fact, are memorable in that they become less unique, as is underscored in the scene of unified speech. Instead of allowing the play as a vehicle for the characters to define themselves, Wilde allows the characters to regress, and actually become less defined. This lack of development serves as a statement against the characters own inability to progress or develop. But, on a larger scale this anti-development, as the word suggests, is a paradox in itself. In presenting regression where development is expected Wilde turns the traditional conception of fictional works on its head. This conceptual paradox works in much the same way that the smallest paradoxes in the play – the epigrams – work. Wilde opens his statement by saying that he will present a play, a fictional work, which leads to the reader to assume the characters will undergo the typical process of individuation. But, through the play the opposite occurs. Wilde has subverted this assumption by dis-shapening the characters, thereby creating a paradox on the grandest scale. This largest paradox fuels the work, by the sense of surprise that it engenders, in much the same way that the other paradoxes in the work do. As a gay man in prudish nineteenth century England Oscar Wilde never felt comfortably assimilated into the strait society that surrounded him. He was forced to assume a double identity to cope with his divergence from the norms of the day. This tax that the society levied upon Wilde undoubtedly engendered an animosity, an animosity that is reflected in his ironic, and sardonic treatment of Victorian society in “The Importance of Being Earnest”. However, the multiple and irreconcilable identities that Wilde was forced into are the more significant driving force behind this work. This struggle with identities is seen in the paradoxes that pervade all levels of the work. In the end though, these large themes build upon, rather than overshadow Wilde’s greatest genius which lies in his subtle turns of phrases and words that keep even the most earnest reader chuckling throughout.

Feminism in Wilde’s World: Empowered Women in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’

Throughout history, women were perceived as inferior to men socially, economically, and intellectually. In modern society, the majority of people would call out this statement for its blatant misogyny and inequality. However, such a claim would define gender roles during the Victorian era, especially if the woman was a widow or unmarried. Only married women held merit and even so, they needed to be submissive to their husbands. This was an accepted norm in Victorian society until Oscar Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895, which both challenges and mocks said society through the identity of Ernest. Jack takes on this character to win the affection of Gwendolen, yet he is unaware that Algernon is doing the same for Cecily, resulting in a ridiculous love triangle all for the sake of appearances and marriage. In satirizing marriage, he simultaneously satirizes gender roles, in which marriage was the most paramount aspect of life for a woman in order to wield any power. In the play, Wilde defies gender roles by empowering women, regardless of their marital status, while illustrating men as the weaker of the two.

The most obvious choice for an example of would be Lady Bracknell, since she practically embodies female dominance. Both pompous and contradictory in her dialogue, Lady Bracknell symbolizes the vanity and stupidity of the upper class, yet she is the main figure of female empowerment as well. Though she occasionally grants permissions to Algernon as his aunt, her character is primarily revealed through making all of the decisions for her daughter,Gwendolen. Everything Gwendolen does or intends to do is dictated by her, as examinable through her unvarnished statements such as “Pardon me, you are not engaged to anyone…you, Gwendolen, will wait for me below in the carriage.” (Wilde 12). In a typical Victorian family, the father would constitute these choices, but Lady Bracknell forced her husband into submission from her self-made supremacy. When Algernon declines dining with her, she responds, “Your uncle would have to dine upstairs. Fortunately he is accustomed to that.” (9), revealing not only the lowliness she diminished her husband to, but her awareness of it. Lady Bracknell further executes her dominance through assessing Gwendolyn’s possible suitors, and ultimately organizing her marriage. Her list of eligible young men and the interview she gives them further highlight her dominance through her ambition to arrange the marriage the way she would prefer it. Even the questions skewed towards the power of the wife and the compliance of the husband by setting unrealistic standards for his upbringing, career, and “disapproval of natural ignorance.” (13). From start to finish, Lady Bracknell serves as the dominating force for every character, straining from the Victorian concept of a man being the authority figure of a household.

This prevalent dominance transfers to the other female characters in the play, Gwendolen and Cecily, who oppose the notion of strictly married women wielding power in Victorian society. Miss Prism favors this statement, “by [a woman] persistently remaining single, a man converts himself into a permanent public temptation,”(26) and while this highlights her conformity to Victorian society, the actions that unfold dispute it. Like her mother, Gwendolen is headstrong in asserting matters of taste and morality on a sophisticated level, even though she is unmarried. For instance, when alone with Jack, she immediately disregards his awkward smalltalk and takes charge of his proposal. During the whole conversation, Gwendolen sets the proposal in motion with copious hints. In the beginning, she interprets Jack’s comments about the weather as a premise or his proposal, for he “means something else” (10). As the dialogue closes, Gwendolen addresses the matter directly by asking him to do so as a final push for him to ask for her hand in marriage. Gwendolyn finally forces him to his knees, illustrating a metaphor for the submission she has put him in. Yet when Jack does propose, she is disappointed about commanding him to do so, commenting, “I am afraid you have had very little experience in how to propose.” (11) This proves that even she is surprised at the dominance she has to assert over him, especially as a bachelorette.

While not as pontifical as Gwendolen, Cecily also upholds her own power as an unmarried woman against Algernon. He immediately claims Cecily is the prettiest woman he ever saw, and in response to Miss Prism’s comparison of “good looks” to a “snare,” that Algernon concludes they are a snare “every sensible man would like to be caught in” (25). This quote displays that Algernon becomes captivated by her beauty, not her status, which satirizes the obsession with appearance in the Victorian era. This allows Cecily to direct their marriage; so much to explain the entire history of their engagement and commit to future plans (32-33). Despite their marital status, both women bend their fiancés to their will with the assets of class and beauty.

As a result of the women’s rise to power, the men in the play, Jack and Algernon, are portrayed as the weaker characters. Though they are oblivious to this, the women take note oftheir inability to act as the superior species, such as Cecily’s playful comment, “Men are so cowardly, aren’t they?” (40), which expresses her disenchantment with both of them. The cowardice of Jack and Algernon is exposed through the reveal of Ernest, as their web of liesuntangle and reveal the unfortunate truth. Jack manipulates the identity of his brother Ernest to lead a double life in the city and country, therefore drawing attention to his fear of being accepted in Victorian society, which forces him to be duplicitous. On the other hand, Algernon’s character of Bunbury, a deathly ill man in the hospital, gives him a break from tedious and unexciting social obligations. Like Jack’s fictional brother Ernest, Bunbury allows Algernon to humor himself while upholding the male concept of austerity and duty, yet Jack is ashamed of his lies, while Algernon condones it. Their need to hide their true identity behind Earnest not only shows their lack of stereotypical male bravery, yet also the desperation to earn the affection of their love interests. Their desire for pleasing the women in their lives is rather pathetic, going as far as to need permission for a kiss on the cheek. Just as much as the play allows females to ascend, in turn it consequents in the male descent.

Nevertheless, the characters are both blissfully and ironically unaware of this flip in gender roles. Wilde specifically identifies their ignorance through Gwendolen and Cecily, who are blind to their dominance, as well as of Jack and Algernon, who consequently take pride in their manhood. Gwendolen is shocked at the opposite of the accepted belief, calling equality of the sexes “absurd” and that “where questions of self sacrifice are concerned, men are definitely beyond us” (44), confirming the perceived inferiority of women in the Victorian era. Cecily extends the praise of men over women by complimenting their “physical courage of which we women know absolutely nothing” (44). Obviously, Jack and Algernon agree with these opinions to not only establish their pride, but to affirm the superiority of men that is customary in the time period. Despite Wilde’s commentary, traditional perceptions of gender applies to the characters of the play because it criticizes the flaws, incomprehension, and idiocy of Victorian society.

Throughout The Importance of Being Earnest, the stereotypes of gender are challenged by engaging women, and thus delineating men as the weaker of the two. Wilde chiefly executes the supremacy of women through Lady Bracknell, and continues to authorize them through the influence that Gwendolen and Cecily have over Jack and Algernon. Hence, this lessens the power of the men in the play, and when combined with the rise of the female sex, it strains the traditional gender roles in the Victorian era, especially due to their marital status. Using wit and satire, Wilde disregards marital status and redefines the nature of men and women.

Works Cited

Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. New York: Dover Publications Inc. 1990. Print.

The Comic Aspects of Algernon in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’

Algernon is a comic to a contemporary audience because of his dandyism, his enjoyment of self-gratification, his inverted morals and his double life. Wilde presents Algernon as a dandy figure who is more concerned with style over substance; indeed, Algernon’s nature can be seen through Algernon’s house, which is described in the opening stage directions as an extravagant setting that was ‘luxuriously and artistically furnished’. Algernon also displays lack of concern for formality and accuracy reflected from how he responded to Lane’s polite criticism on Algernon’s piano playing ability. Algernon claimed to that sentiment was his forte, and that he ‘keeps science for Life’, showing his artistic flair and nonchalance as well as his belief that expression and sentiment are much more important things. Algernon’s unduly concern with being stylish and fashionable could also be seen through his concern towards specific requirements of clothing for his fake identity, Bunbury, in Act 1, where he asks Lane to put up his dress clothes, smoking jacket and Bunbury suits. Algernon’s dandyism can also be seen in how he places particular importance to trivial things such as his leisurely hobby of drinking champagne and eating in Act 1. This can be shown through how he eats cucumber sandwiches before Lady Bracknell’s arrival yet decides to eat again after she leaves. Algernon is hence recognisable to the Victorian era audience due to his wealth and his idea of having ‘art for art’s sake’, a slogan associated with the Aesthetic movement, which is against Victorian moralism, making him a good stock character to mock since he was superficial and shallow.

Moreover, Algernon is presented as a figure who enjoys indulgence and self-gratification. In Act 1, Algernon’s desires for food can be seen. Jack comments on Algernon as ‘eating as usual’ and Algernon replies saying that it is ‘customary in good society to have a slight refreshment at 5 o’clock’. When Jack reached out for some cucumber sandwiches, Algernon stops him and eats them while claiming that they are for his Aunt Augusta. When all of the sandwiches have been consumed, Algernon tells his aunt that the shop had sold out of cucumbers. After she leaves, Algernon decides to go out for dinner. This shows how food is a symbol of self-gratification in the play, the idea that food is to be eaten for style also shows how Algernon has to satisfy his desire for doing something that is quintessentially English. The food he has is also called ‘reckless extravagance’ according to Jack. Algernon is recognisable to Victorian audience since food was seen as a sign of class and wealth yet it is comical to due to how it is satirical and against Victorian ideals of virtue and modesty.

Algernon is also portrayed as a character with inverted morals and ideas about marriage. According to him, it is romantic to be in love but ‘there is nothing romantic about definite proposal’ and that when the ‘excitement is all over’, ‘the very essence of romance is uncertainty’. Algernon trivialises marriage while Victorians usually view marriage very seriously, reflecting an inversion of Victorian ideals in the play. He also promotes the idea of affairs and infidelity by saying ‘Three is company and two is none.’ suggesting that ideas of loyalty and honor are insignificant. His cynicism towards love and marriage is reflected through his Bachelor lifestyle and the champagne reference in Act 1, that ‘in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand. He also mentions ‘divorce courts’ and that he view relations as ‘simply a tedious pack of people’. Algernon’s character is comic because serious things are trivialised and trivial things are made very serious and important to him. Therefore, Victorians may laugh at it but the play is highly sarcastic, satirical and essentially pokes fun at Victorian ideals and moral.

In a historical context, Algernon is recognisable to the Victorian audience as a dandy figure. A dandy figure is a young man that is very concerned about his clothes and appearance and is often in the position of the upper class man. When Wilde wrote the play it was at the time of the aesthetic movement, Wilde portrayed the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ through Algernon. Algernon’s apartment is described in the opening scene as ‘luxuriously and artistically furnished’, which suggests wealth and superficiality, also how an extravagance life Algernon, and the Victorian upper class is living. This also presages how Wilde will use this play to satire the unrealistic values and morals that the upper class hold. Wilde was strongly influenced by the aesthetes at the time and how Algernon asserts ‘anyone can play [piano] accurately but I play with wonderful expression…sentiment is my forte’ complements this idea. Algernon’s use of nouns “expression” and “sentiment” shows Algernon’s belief of art is more important as an extension of artistic styles than an accurate portrayal of reality. The “afternoon tea” arranged by Lane symbolises leisure and the idleness of the upper classes and also emphasises that Algernon clearly values style over substance. He recognizes no duty other than living a beautiful life create comedy and also mock the Victorian views on trivial matter such as appearances, this is perfect to be portrayed by a character that is dandified.

Secondly, Algernon is also recognisable to the Victorian audience as a figure of self-gratification. Algernon is in the upper classes, which the audience at the time will be very relatable. He is wealthy and he spends his time and money on trivial things such as appearance and style, which seems very important to him. In the opening scene, Algernon asked Lane whether he had prepared “the cucumber sandwiches cut for Lady Bracknell” then finish it before Lady Bracknell came. This portrays his self-gratification and also the fact that he is greedy. Using “cucumber sandwiches” portray bathos as this seems like it is the height of Algernon’s life – which is likely to be the life of the upper classes at the time, idle and leisure. Algernon “takes two” sandwiches in the opening scene right after Lane “hands [Algernon] them on a salver” also shows his self-gratification, this seems to suggest he did not ask Lane to make them because of Lady Bracknell, he seems to have it done for himself. Later in Act One where Algernon “[picks] up empty plate in horror” and shouted: “Good heavens! Lane! Why are there no cucumber sandwiches? I ordered them specially” seems to go against the Victorian ideals of virtue and modesty; dramatic irony is also used here, as the audience knows that he has finished them all. The “cucumber sandwiches” are also a symbol of food and it suggests euphuism on sex and lust. Food and gluttony suggest and substitute for other appetites and indulgences. Wilde uses Algernon and the symbolism to satire these values that are over-exaggerated and adverse.

Thirdly, Wilde also uses Algernon to portray the inversion Victorian ideals on Marriage and Victorian morals in general. Algernon commented on marriage that it is “very romantic to be in love but there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal.” He is suggesting that only the chase and the flirting is interesting and romantic about a relationship, once people settle down for marriage, it is not about love anymore. At the time, the Victorians view marriage very seriously, however, Wilde is using Algernon to create comedy and to trivialise and satire the Victorian attitude towards marriage. This is very relevant to Wilde’s life as Wilde had extramarital affairs and he is commenting on the values and purpose of marriage – he seems to suggest that it was appropriate behaviour by having extramarital affairs. Algernon inverses the phrase “two is a company, three is crowd” into “three is company and two is none”, this promotes the idea of infidelity as it is a hidden convention to have extramarital affairs at the time, this contrasts to the idea that Victorians are conservative and are strict to their morals. Another example of inversion in the play is when Lady Bracknell usurps the role of the father in interviewing Jack, since typically this was a father’s task. The inversions in the play are used by Wilde to create comedy as serious things are trivialised and trivial things were made serious, this is also complemented in the beginning of the play: “A trivial comedy for serious people” – this seems to act like a disclaimer and is a complete contrast to what is going on in the play.

Algernon is describedas portraying a feminine trait; this suggests Wilde’s own sexuality and the double life that both Algernon and Wilde were leading. Wilde was a homosexual and was imprisoned in 1895. Before then, he was having extramarital affairs with Lord Alfred Douglas and a few other men while he was married. His wife was pregnant with their second children when he had these affairs. Through The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde is portraying the two different characters and lives that he was living through Algernon and Jack. Both Algernon and ‘Ernest’ live a double life: Algernon has an imaginary friend named Mr Bunbury and ‘Ernest’ has an imaginary brother named Jack. As defined by Algernon, Bunburying is the practice of creating an elaborate deception that allows one to misbehave while seeming to uphold the very highest standards of duty and responsibility. This is especially reflected in how Algernon and ‘Ernest’ is escaping their social and moral obligations in using the identity of Mr Bunbury and Jack, however these identities allow them to appear far more responsible than they actually are. Using the word ‘Bunbury’ and regularly using it in the form of noun, verb, and adjective displays Algernon as a foolish and an unintelligent upper class man – this is slightly ironic since upper class should be more educated and therefore more intelligent. An inversion of expectations creates comedy and is shown in the relationship between Algernon and Lane, this is especially evident when Algernon does not appear to be excessively annoyed at Lane drinking the champagne: “Why…the servants invariably drink the champagne? I ask merely for information.” And Lane does not seem to be ashamed and the audience can interpret Lane’s experience of wine by him describing the wine is “to the superior quality”.

Where ideas and authorship are concerned, Algernon is a proponent of aestheticism and a stand-in for Wilde himself. Algernon has no moral convictions at all, recognizing no duty other than the responsibility to live beautifully. He is recognized as a dandy figure, self-gratification, has an inversion of Victorian ideals and morals of marriage, and has a double life. As he is in the upper class, he would have been very relatable to the contemporary audience and therefore is comic as he is used by Wilde to satire the morals and values of the Victorian society.

Ultimately, Algernon is comic to a contemporary audience because of his double life. Algernon created a fake identity just like Jack, who is called Bunbury. Algernon uses Bunbury as an excuse to escape from his duties and obligations, for example, dining with Lady Bracknell, by claiming that Bunbury is ill and that he has to go see him at the countryside. He also has a set of clothes specially prepared for his impersonation. Algernon’s double life is used to assist him in shirking from his responsibilities and is a direct contrast to Victorian ideals of how people should behave. People back in the day were to be dutiful and honest, while as Algernon used Bunbury to be irresponsible and deceitful. The stark contrast between Algernon and people of the Victorian era makes Algernon a comical character due to his inverted values.

The Importance of Being Frugal: Oscar Wilde’s Condemnation of Upper Class Society

Honesty is an important trait that is conveyed throughout society. It is the foundation for a long-lasting and meaningful relationship, and it is expected to be practiced in almost every social interaction. Much like today, the Victorian Era valued honestly and upheld the idea of being earnest. Oscar Wilde’s novel The Importance of Being Earnest, is set in London, England, during the Victorian Era. During this period, Wilde found hypocrisy of the morals that were so greatly valued by the upper class and decided to write a commentary on the prejudiced class based society. To do so, Wilde utilizes epigrams, satire, and irony to highlight and ridicule the cultural norms of aristocratic society and marriage during the Victorian Era.

Wilde employs epigrams to to satirize upper Victorian society. The epigrams he used were for comic relief and to ridicule ideas on marriage and morality. In act one, Jack responds to a negative claim made on marriage from Algy by saying “[t]he Divorce Court was specially invented for people whose memories are so curiously constituted” (Wilde 9). Wilde is commenting on his belief that all marriages are doomed for failure. He is also acknowledging the ridiculous wedding laws that were set in place during that era. Wilde experienced these laws and marriage failures first hand as he was arrested for having an affair with a man and was placed in jail for two years. This experience led him to be more satirical to relationships and weddings in upper class society. Another example of this is in act four when Gwendolen states, “If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all of my life” (Wilde 87). This highlights her hypocritical and paradoxical nature as she promises to keep waiting for a life time as long as she does not have to wait too long. Wilde strongly believed that the upper class, although they were supposed to be setting an example for the lower class by upholding high morals, were incredibly backhanded and did not truly follow what they believed in. Gwendolen represents the very embodiment of this as she appears as insincere. Oscar Wilde utilizes these epigrams to further explore this hypocrisy he found in Victorian ideals.

In addition to epigrams, Wilde relies heavily on satire to expose the flawed views of the Victorian community. He uses this to mock social conventions such as marriage, courtship, and class division. In act one, Algy states, “As far as the piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for Life” (Wilde 7). During the Victorian era, pianos were powerful objects in social gatherings. If one could play the piano, it would immediately gain them respect and high social standing. In this pun, Algy trivializes pianos, an important icon in the eyes of many during this period. Wilde is using this quote to make a statement on how anything that has value placed upon it by a typical upper class Victorian must not have any real sentiment, and it is therefore ridiculous and unnecessary. The character Dr. Chasuble is used to further satirize the morals and important values set by the upper class. Dr. Chasuble is supposed to be a holy and and righteous man that the upper class can look up to; however, he does not seem to hold any real religious qualities. He is not intelligent, is often absent minded, and has concealed passions.

As a priest, he is supposed to be opposed to marriage; however, he courts and flirts with Miss Prism with the intention of marrying her. All of these things lead him to not be an appropriate religious role model. Wilde uses Dr. Chasuble to mock the dishonesty he found throughout clergyman and other religious leaders as well as the society that looked up to them. Dr. Chasuble is supposed to prompt respect, as all clergyman during that time, but instead he holds a materialistic attitude towards life and is very hypocritical. This is how Wilde viewed religious leaders in real life. Wilde uses the character Lady Bracknell to satirize and represent all rich upper class women. She has a domineering personality, is outright snobbish, and is clearly motivated by money. These traits can be seen when she is interviewing Jack to determine if he is eligible to marry Gwendolen. She develops a self righteous temperament and claims that Jack is ineligible to marry do to his family background even though he has money. Out of all things to disqualify Jack as an ineligible bachelor, she chooses something he has no control over. When it comes to Cecily’s eligibility to marry Algy, she is immediately very accepting because Cecily comes from a decent background and will have a large dowry. Through Lady Bracknell’s obsession for money, Wilde is able to mock the upper class’s ridiculous need for materialistic possessions. Wilde tends to satirize the whole idea of money, righteousness, and social class, not to discuss what is moral but to show the absurdity of the whole ideal.

Wilde creates situational irony throughout the novel to highlight the facile relationships created within upper class society. At the end of the play, both Cecily and Algy, as well as Jack and Gwendolen, become engaged. All of the characters’s problems seem to immediately disappear and everyone appears to have a happy ending; however, in real life this does not happen. Wilde creates this ending to show the shallowness and superficial relationships that were formed during the Victorian Era. Another example of this is when Jack discovers his Christian name is actually Ernest. All throughout the play, he pretends that his real name is Ernest, however he never truly believes that it is. Once his actual name is discovered, Gwendolen exclaims, “Ernest! My own Ernest! I felt from the first that you could have no other name!” (Wilde 93). After that, she immediately forgives him and agrees to marriage. Gwendolen’s love for Jack is only on a superficial level. She admires the aesthetic of loving the name Ernest, but she does not actually love Jack for his personality or qualities. As Jack proves throughout the play, he does not uphold his Christian name because he is not an honest or earnest man. This further propels the idea that the relationships formed throughout the play are trivial and are not based off of any real emotions. Wilde utilizes situation irony to make fun of the Victorian relationships and values formed.

As well as situational irony, Wilde constructs dramatic irony to comment on the absurdity of Victorian relationships and to help highlight the satire throughout the play. The most obvious form of this is Algernon and Jack’s false personas they create to aid them in their lies and excuses. Algy often uses “bunburying” as a way to escape from the city and to visit the country side. Jack goes by Ernest in the city, but in the country side he is known as Jack. Both men have constructed imaginary characters that they claim to be visiting whenever they leave their family members and friends. Jack and Algernon are extremely deceitful, and the majority of their bonds formed with other characters are based off of lies. Even after the rest of the characters discover Jack and Algy’s deception, they instantly forgive them and continue to maintain relations with them. Wilde uses this to once again expose the ridiculous nature of a typical upper class Victorian. He believed that all friendships and marriages that were formed were only created from social ranking and not from any real attributes. Another situation emphasizing this ideal is when Gwendolen and Cecily fight over who is actually engaged to Ernest. It is ironic because the audience knows that neither of the girls are actually engaged to a man named Ernest. This goes back to the idea that both women are only interested in the men because their names are Ernest. Cecily even claims in act three that if Ernest’s, aka Algy, real name was Algernon she would not be able to love him. She says, “I might respect you, Ernest, I might admire your character, but I fear I should not be able to give you my undivided attention” (Wilde 62). Their love is not formed for the men themselves but instead for the name. Wilde creates these ludicrous relationships and scenarios to represent the relationships he saw formed in upper class society.

Oscar Wilde employed literary devices such as epigrams, situational and dramatic irony, satire, and puns to create a comic play, that mocks the upper class of Victorian communities. Although the typical high society Victorian did often hold hypocritical morals as well as superficial relationships, Wilde specifically chooses to satirize marriage and relationships since he experienced prejudiced in that area first hand. After he was caught cheating on his wife with another man and was thrown into jail, his perceptions on marriage and wedding laws took a scornful view. From that point on, Wilde held a sadistic view on all upper class society writing works of literature to mock and expose the hypocritical morals and relationships of the Victorian era.

Beyond Farce

Richard Foster states that The Importance of Being Earnest has a “multivalent nature”[1] and thus implies that a farce or comedy of manners are not particularly urbane genres and are therefore ‘unsuitable’ for The Importance of Being Earnest. Foster argues that the play could be interpreted as more satirical and complex than a farce or comedy of manners. The play has many clever, intricate and inventive concepts specifically regarding the hypocrisies of Victorian society, which Wilde exposes, as well as the subtle comparison between the play and Wilde’s own life.

Despite many who describe the play as a comedy of manners, Foster refers to Wilde as an “elaborate literary lampoon” due to his satirising of conventional Victorian literature and thus interprets the play as a parody. Wilde satirises the traditional romantic idea of love as written by authors such as Austen and Shakespeare. The superficial love shared between Jack and Gwendolen hardly compares to the eternal love felt between Darcy and Elizabeth[2]. This is exposed through the lacking of true Victorian values and the choice of “style over substance.” Such notions are subtly displayed through Gwendolen knowing of a man called Ernest and knowing that she was “destined to love” him simply due to his name. This hardly promotes the eternal, sincere and passionate love seen in other Victorian texts such as Jane Eyre and thus parodies traditional Victorian passionate love stories. Gwendolen herself acknowledges this concept as “in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.” This subtle parodying is an example of how a term as “farce” is unsuitable for such a play as it seems more satirical. This coincides with Wilde’s satirical take on Victorian society.

Wilde satirises the hypocrisies of Victorian society specifically through the pun in the title regarding the Victorian ideal of “earnestness.” Earnestness was regarded as a conventional value of upper class society. Jack represents conventional Victorian values of wanting to appear as a man of duty, moral responsibility and earnest, namely a “man of the world.” However, his alter-ego is a man of no morals and no sense of duty or earnestness which is displayed in his language showing disregard for morality by inventing a brother “who gets into the most dreadful scrapes.” This is a contradiction of Victorian values as well as satirising the general tolerance for hypocrisy in the upper class societies. The subtlety of this inversion and complexity of the play is revealed through the language in the play displaying the irony of the alter-ego lacking earnestness having the name of Ernest. Algernon, conversely, is an a moral character who gives no thought to “appearances” and is therefore the foil to Lady Bracknell and Jack. Algernon closely compares to the flamboyant character of Lord Darlington in Wilde’s ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ revealing that satirising Victorian values and hypocritical tolerance is a running theme for Oscar Wilde. The play’s focus on style over substance, according to Nicola Onyett[3], allows for gambling, homosexuality, deceit and illegitimacy as long as “an appropriate veneer of respectability is maintained” which displays the Victorian’s requirement of sincerity and earnestness as hypocritical. This irony provides a ‘complex’ interpretation of the play and implies it to be more ‘complex’ than a simple farce.

Wilde observed that “life imitates art” and therefore the play could be considered artistic in its subtle and personal imitation to Wilde’s own life. Algernon could be interpreted as a recreation of Wilde himself due to his flamboyancy, dandy-like characteristics and being discreet in an indiscreet way with regards to his idea of ‘Bunburying’. The artistic subtlety in the play is evident in the homosexual subtext within the play which is thought to have been directed at Wilde’s gay community and is not often noticeable for others, thus especially during Victorian times in London, was significant and discreet. The name “Cecily” is believed to have been slang for male prostitute as Algernon professes his love for her, could be seen as a metaphor for Wilde’s own love for Lord Alfred Douglas. There are also implicit double entendres in the word “Bunbury” and cucumber sandwiches. It is sometimes thought that modern critics have explicitly exposed the subtext behind the play reading into the division of ‘bun’ and ‘bury’ as a code for male to male intercourse, intended for Wilde’s gay audience in an implicit way as to keep up Victorian importance of appearance. Algernon’s phrase “nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury. A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it” is believed to have reference to Wilde’s own ‘masked life’, forced to marry a woman to cover his discreetly indiscreet ventures into the world of homosexuality. This implicit subtle subtext is a clear example of how the play is more “subtle” and “artistic” than a mere farce or comedy of manners.

However, the play’s themes have certain explicitness revolving around a comedy of manners which is why it may be interpreted as so. Extensive verbal wit is utilised to provoke humour but is quite obvious and lacks subtlety. As seen in Lady Bracknell’s sharp repartee in her interview with Jack, with her clever response of forbidding her daughter “to marry into a cloak-room and form an alliance with a parcel”. The play is clearly influenced by Restoration Comedy due its sharp repartee and a plot revolving around love and marriage. The forbidding of engagements is a classic plotline in a comedy of manners and is therefore obvious in that there is no deeper meaning behind it other than to create humour and long standing jokes as seen in Act III where Lady Bracknell continues with her reference to Jack’s origins, “I had no idea that there were any persons whose origin was a Terminus”. This palpable joke could support an argument in that The Importance of Being Earnest lacks subtlety and complexity and entails that the play is more of a comedy of manners, this is also displayed in the structure of the play.

The structure demonstrates a comedy of manners and a farce rather than a satire. The exposition of The Importance of Being Earnest prepares the audience for a comedy of manners in that the opening scene displays interaction between Algernon and his servant which is an aspect of comedy in a comedy of manners. Their exchange establishes a tone of light hearted, witty and “beyond the reach of conventional morality” commentary and linguistic humour. The use of epigrams in reference to the topic of marriage illustrates a reversal in the social norms of the times as they both are equal in wit even though Lane is of an inferior social position. Typical of a comedy of manners the unscrupulous characters, Jack and Algernon, are rewarded with Lady Bracknell’s approval of their marriages at the resolution of the play. This follows the comic structure of a comedy of manners. The play finishes in the archetypal Victorian style of a farce using the title of the play in the final phrase, as Jack “now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.” The comic climaxes throughout the play reflect those of a farce, as in Act II in the revelation of both Gwendolen and Cecily discovering that they are engaged to ‘Ernest’. This misunderstanding is typical of a farcical climax. This infers that the play is most definitely a fusion of both a farce and comedy of manners. The fusion of genres adds “complexity” to the play.

However the childish and, to an extent, innocent characters of the play add a farcical concept to the play and doubt its ingeniousness and originality. The comic pairing of Jack and Algernon can come across as childish in the pettiness of their arguments such as in their quarrel over muffins. Although the term “muffins” may be read into further metaphorically, the argument in itself appears petty and childlike due to repetition of the word “muffins” and irrelevant acknowledgement of how one ought to eat muffins as Algernon professes “one should always eat muffins quite calmly” scolding Jack for eating them all in an “agitated manner.” Their farcical banter often reaches a childish conclusion, as in Act II where Algernon states he will not leave because, “I haven’t quite finished my tea yet! And there is still one muffin left!” Although the banter in itself has an air of cleverness, the topic and overall appearance could seem childish and simple. This doubts as to whether the play is “complex” and “subtle”.

Thus, although The Importance of Being Earnest is a play which possesses the conventions of a farce or comedy of manners, in certain aspects it is inventive, “subtle” and “artistic” as suggested by Richard Foster. As to how farcical or ‘simple’ the humour is presented in the play is up to the director as this may vary between productions. In his review, William Archer wrote that he found the play empty of meaning, “What can a poor critic do with a play which raises no principle, whether of art or morals” and claimed it to only be a play of “irrepressibly witty personality.” Although linguistic humour is a strong feature in the play, the notion that it raises no principle is erroneous as the play does raise the principle, although perhaps discreet, of hypocrisy in Victorian times and the value of “being earnest.” The structure of the play and comic climaxes, however illustrate that the play, in the structural aspect, is a comedy of manners and a farce, but this fusion of genres adds to the complexity of the play. In conclusion, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is most certainly an ‘artistic’ and ‘subtle’ play as well as ‘complex’ and therefore Foster was correct in saying that the terms “farce” and “comedy of manners” are unsuitable as they do not begin cover the depth, complexity and originality behind the play. [1] Richard Foster: Wilde as a Parodist: A second look at the Importance of Being Earnest. College English, 18 October 1956. [2]Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice. [3] Chief examiner and principle moderator for A-level English literature.