The Importance of Being Earnest
Exploring Of Contradictions Through Hilarity in The Importance Of Being Earnest
Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest explores contradictions through silly characters, ridiculous plotlines, and overall hilarity. The quality of earnestness, a bridge between truth and exposure of truth, is expressed in a character known as “Bunbury,” Algernon’s alter ego through which he participates in mysterious, secret weekend activities with homosexual implications. Algernon’s sexual identity serves as a truth that is concealed, creating an undoing of earnestness. Thus, earnestness is explored through all that it is not. The stifling of the truth of Algernon’s sexuality in the play suggests the act of being earnest is ultimately unattainable.
Earnestness does not describe a single quality, or even a single adjective, but rather a mixture of qualities that is toyed with in the play. A specific ferventness serves as a crucial ingredient for the intense connotations of this word, ultimately turning run-of-the-mill honesty or sincerity into a heightened, impassioned expression of the truth. The melodrama, ferocity, and importance of being earnest, is to back up the truth with action. The definition of earnestness presents an automatic contradiction to the nature of this comedy which follows ridiculous, exaggerated, and hysterical characters and plotlines. While the characters may exemplify the intensity seen in earnestness, they’re situated on a platform of whimsy rather than on one of truth. Earnestness is not lighthearted or silly like the storyline or characters in the play.
The seriousness of the exposure of truth is made laughable as the most prominent plotline surrounds Jack’s discovery of his birth name as “Earnest.” Gwendolyn’s refusal to marry someone of any name other than Earnest makes Jack so obsessed with the prospect of finding out his true birth that he doesn’t care when he finds out Miss Prism was the nanny who misplaced him in a train station as an infant. Logic plays no part in this mindset or plotline, from Gwendolyn’s odd inability to marry a man with any name other than Ernest, to Jack’s indifference to finding out the identities of his birth parents, to the sheer convenience and improbability of finding out he was given the one obscure name he was hoping for. Moreover, no one works to expose the truth about Jack being found at a train station as an infant, and earnestness implies an action-oriented process of exposing the truth. Lady Bracknell shouts at Miss Prism to find out if she was indeed the nanny who misplaced him, but there is no exploration of this story beyond Jack’s birth name. The comedy finds its humor in the sense of outrageousness permeating the characters’ personalities and the progression of the plot. The serious quality of earnestness is nowhere to be found.
Algernon’s “Bunburying,” by its very definition rooted in dishonesty, opposes earnestness. Algernon uses a fictitious character, Bunbury, as an excuse to miss his normal obligatory engagements, saying “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” (Page number?). In addition to using Bunbury as someone to whom he had a prior engagement, he adopts him as an alter ego for himself to experiment with a new, semi-anonymous personality. “You can put up my dress clothes, my smoking jacket, and all the Bunbury suits…” he says to Lane, looking forward to his trip (Wilde 1748). In special, reserved clothing he effectively takes a break from the regular engagements and monotony of his normal life as someone else, visiting places where he won’t be recognized as his true self. Where earnestness is exposure of the truth, Bunburying serves as a vehicle through which Algernon can lie. Since the façade of an entirely made-up personality of Bunbury allows him to ignore his commitments, the time he spends Bunburying is an active contradiction to earnestness.
Furthermore, the act of Bunburying, serving as a vat of excuses for Algernon to get out of his commitments, represents a duality of personality, or double-life that rejects the importance of being earnest. The dichotomy between Algernon and Bunbury presents a side of Algernon’s personality that he must suppress in his daily life; the reasons for which are not clear. The idea of suppression speaks to Algernon’s rejection of earnestness if Bunbury, a real part of Algernon’s personality, is indeed a truth that he doesn’t share with any of his friends or family members. Bunbury, to outsiders, is somewhat of a mystery—no one has ever met him, despite countless attempts. He is kept a secret. Bunbury is not only used by Algernon to live as his true self in secret, but he is himself a secret entity. The importance of being earnest in this case means that Algernon should express his true self rather than cover it up.
The term “Bunburying” itself has connotations of closeted homosexuality, providing new meaning to Algernon’s dual-personality. Several theories surround Wilde coining the term as a reflection of his own homosexual experimentation. Aleister Crowley, a writer and one of Wilde’s contemporaries, spoke about Wilde’s personal experiences, saying “Oscar Wilde was travelling between Sunbury and Banbury when he met a boy returning from public school. Wilde and the boy later met by appointment at Sunbury.” The term “Bunbury” is assumed to be a combination of the two town names Wilde visited during his personal homosexual exploration. The entire play then takes on a new meaning with the loaded definition of Bunburying as a cover-up for homosexuality.
Algernon, possibly a closeted gay or queer man in light of the newly illuminated meaning of “Bunburying” makes several innuendos to his secret sexual identity. For example, by saying “a man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it,” he suggests that men who marry women without experimenting with the same sex will be bored, or that experimentation must precede commitment (Wilde 1739). He gets homosexual experimentation out of his system, so to speak, when he spends weekends Bunburying. By saving sexual experimentation for his single life, he exposes his value of faithfulness and the sanctity of marriage, further showing that he views Bunburying as secretive and absolutely separate from marriage or commitment. His homosexual tendencies are thus ultimately suppressed, a way of “undoing” earnestness.
The hidden meaning of “Bunburying” as sexual experimentation is alluded to throughout the play as characters speculate and complain about Bunbury. Jack notes “I don’t allow any Bunburying here,” and “This Bunburying, as you call it, has not been a great success for you”. These comments support the analogy between Bunburying and homosexual behavior, as Jack wants to maintain distance from himself and Bunburying, and suggests that Algernon should also rethink his own engagement in Bunburying. He looks at the whole activity with disgust in the same way a homophobic person would look at homosexual behaviors; his lines would make complete sense as homophobic commentary if “Bunburying” was simply replaced with “gay activity.” The disgust pointed at Bunburying accounts for Algernon’s secrecy and concealment about what exactly he does when he Bunburies, and reflects the need for gay and queer people to conceal their sexual orientation out of fear of others’ disapproval. Earnestness is out of the question, and unachievable, because the exposure of Algernon’s assumed sexual fluidity would render him rejected from society and the people in his social circle.
When Jack tells Algernon where he can and can’t Bunbury, Algernon mentions that any serious Bunburyist would know he can Bunbury anywhere he likes, saying “one must be serious about something, if one wants to have any amusement in life. I happen to be serious about Bunburying” (Wilde 1765). The contradiction of earnestness in Algernon’s Bunburying is clear: he feels earnest about covering up the truth, which, in this interpretation, is his sexual fluidity. If earnestness is serious exposure of the truth, Algernon is serious about his concealment of the truth. The opposition between what is exposed and what is covered mirrors the opposition of seriousness and silliness explored throughout the play.
The Importance of Being Earnest argues that hypocrisy and contradiction must be unattainable if true earnestness is impossible. The ultimate truth will never be expressed under the constraints of society, and Wilde uses homosexuality as an example of a truth that would inevitably oppose societal acceptance. In a broader respect, the tone and title of the play contradict one another, as the silly and ridiculous play is about the seriousness and severity of earnestness on the surface level.
Honesty As a Providing Theme in The Importance of Being Earnest
Analysis The Importance of Being Earnest
Honesty is an important trait; the importance of being honest is demonstrated various times throughout The Importance of Being Earnest. With this trait being something that people of differing cultures can understand as a universal truth, comprehending the meaning of not only the title but the story itself becomes easier. Algernon and Jack pose as different people but as time goes on their lies begin to catch up with them and cause conflict; throughout the play, both Algernon and Jack lie about their true identity which supports the title. In this story there are multiple instances of dishonesty in action; some of these would be shown by Jack pretending to be Ernest in the city and Algernon also pretending to be Ernest when he goes to the country to see Jack.
The play starts off with Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen coming to visit Algernon. Unfortunately Algernon’s friend, Jack, who is going by the name Ernest since he is in the city, beats them to the house first. Jack then proceeds to tell Algernon his plans to propose to Gwendolen. Jack goes on to say “I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her.” (Act 1). Unfortunately Lady Bracknell refutes the marriage; she states “When you do become engaged to someone, I or your father will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise as the case may be.” (Act 1). Even though Lady Bracknell does not approve of the engagement, Gwendolen and Jack still continue and decide to keep in touch. Already Jack is off to a bad start by lying that his name is Ernest when it is not. Jack should come clean of the dirty secret if he plans to marry Gwendolen. Later in the play Algernon goes to Jack’s estate on the country but when he arrives he is overcome by Cecily’s beauty. He then proceeds to pretend to be Jack’s evil, and also made up, brother Ernest. Lying to Cecily is a bad way to start off a relationship. It is made even worse when Jack returns to make an end of the made up “Ernest” only to find Algernon pretending to be him. This causes Jack to have to play along to keep from hurting Cecily’s feelings because she is deeply in love with Ernest. This where a lot of their lies begin to catch up with them. Right when things could not get any worse, Gwendolen arrives at Jack’s estate looking for him. While there she gets to know Cecily to only find out they both are engaged to the same person, Ernest Worthing. Even though everything is worked out in the end, the bulk of it all could have been avoided if they were honest from the very beginning.
Ganz states “This sequence is more than a delightful joke. It is symptomatic of the emotional and intellectual attitudes that underlie the play…,” I completely agree. I believe lying is not a subject to joke around with. People should be completely honest with each other especially considering marriage is involved. Lying leads to untrustworthy people. If someone lied to me, especially about a serious matter like marriage, I would find it very hard to trust that person in the future.
Poague goes to say “The Importance of Being Earnest has been a particularly sane one, critics now generally agreeing that the play is indeed comedy (as opposed to farce).” I honestly do not find the humor in this play. I see this play being a more drama like play. With the climax being when Gwendolen and Cecily find out that they are both engaged to the same man. Although many may actually find that scenario somewhat humorous, it also at the same time is kind of sad and unfortunate. Poague also says there are about five different types of irony throughout the play. Some being easy to find and others not so much. An example would be when the play first opens and Algernon asked Lane “Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?” (Act 1). Lane replies, “I didn’t think it was polite to listen, sir” (Act 1). This irony is somewhat hard to see like Poague said before; “Lane’s response would simply not be funny out of context. We might expect a rejoinder had Algernon been engaged in a private conversation…”
The importance of honesty was portrayed many times through the entire play. Starting with Jack and Algernon, and even Lady Bracknell at one point. Honesty is a key feature that everyone should have. Like said before, most of this catastrophe could have been easily avoided if the characters were honest from the very beginning. I am sure by the end of the play, all the characters learned the “importance of being earnest.”
Description Of Hypocritical Tendencies in The Importance of Being Earnest
The Hypocrisy of the Upper Class in Victorian Society
A major theme in The Importance of Being Earnest is the hypocritical tendencies displayed throughout Upper-Class Victorian Society. Wilde’s witty writing style is used to expose these tendencies through his use of epigrams and paradoxical situations. Many quotes and scenes found in the play result in the opposite of what an audience would expect. Irony and inversions are utilized in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest to expose the extreme hypocritical tendencies of Victorian Society when dealing with class and morals. Upper-class Victorian Society is based on a hypocritical view on morals, as seen through Wilde’s witty use of epigrams to expose extremes of this mindset in his characters; this hypocritical mindset results in unjust decisions and an overall unfair society.
A perfect example of an epigram that utilizes hypocrisy in the play comes from early on in the first act. “Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?” (Wilde 2). This epigram depicts the hypocrisy of the upper class’criticisms of the lower classes for not setting a good example. Algernon, a man who is comfortably in the upper class, is criticizing lower classes for not being useful enough. Algernon feels that the lower class should be setting a good example, while he, in the higher class, does nothing to contribute to this good example.
One of the most prominent uses of hypocrisy in the play is through Lady Bracknell’s refusal to consent for marriage between Jack and Gwendolen, and then giving consent for a marriage between Algernon and Cecily. When discussing with Jack his proposal to Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell discovers that Jack was abandoned by his parents and left in a handbag when he was a baby. “To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life,” (Wilde 14). Even though Jack has a yearly income of, “seven and eight thousand a year,” (Wilde 13), these funds were not an adequate reason for Lady Bracknell to give her consent to the marriage of him to her daughter. While riches alone was not reason enough for Lady Bracknell to approve of her daughter’s marriage to Jack, it was, in fact, sufficient for her to give her approval of her nephew’s marriage to Cecily. After discovering that Cecily is in the possession of 130,000 pounds, Lady Bracknell immediately agrees to consent for their marriage. “A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the funds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her,” (Wilde 47). Lady Bracknell’s opinion on Cecily changed as soon as she discovered her riches. The satirical hypocrisy of this situation is used to expose the unjust morals of Victorian Society. Wilde utilizes Lady Bracknell’s character to take the hypocritical mindsets of Victorian England to an extreme.
Another character that represents the hypocritical nature of upper-class Victorian society is Gwendolen. As displayed in the epigram, “If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life,” (Wilde 52), Gwendolen’s character is utilized by Wilde to provide yet another example of how the upper class can be hypocritical. Gwendolen’s comment is extremely hypocritical, as she is making a promise that she is hoping that she will not have to keep. Through the epigram, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing,” (Wilde 44), Wilde uses Gwendolen to once again represent the contradictory nature of upper-class Victorian society. The expectation would be that sincerity takes precedence over style, so when Gwendolen states that she feels that style is more important than sincerity, Wilde is once again utilizing his character to expose the extreme hypocrisy in Victorian Society.
All throughout The Importance of Being Earnest are examples of how Wilde uses extreme satire to prove his point of hypocrisy in upper-class Victorian society. The play constantly defies the expectations of the audience and, instead, does the exact opposite. The entire play is based around many criticisms of Victorian Society. Using epigrams to provide his audience with a witty way to discover the unjust nature of society, Wilde successfully critiques the hypocritical mindset of Victorian Society and, in turn, causes his audience to reconsider their morals.
The Influence of Oscar Wilde’s Sexuality | English Literature Dissertation
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was a writer whose homoerotic texts pushed the social boundaries of the Victorian era. Born to a family of unabashed Irish agnostics, the self-proclaimed “dandy” valued art, fashion, and all things physically beautiful. After receiving a comprehensive education from Oxford, Wilde made a name for himself in London first as a novelist, penning the now famous The Picture of Dorian Gray.
A string of successful plays followed, among them “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “An Ideal Husband”. Wilde also published a variety of short stories and essays, but is acclaimed by historians for his pioneering influence over the aesthetic movement, aprogression that opposed the accepted Victorian take on art in everyway, shape, and form. Wilde postulated that art existed solely foritself, only for the sake of being art. His play “The Decay of Lying”exemplified this tenet best, personifying his distaste for society’s proclivities through a conversation between two people in a park.Though he fathered two sons, Wilde’s marriage fizzled as his personallife continuously hinted at homosexuality. Wilde’s inability to keephis private life secret proved to be his downfall; a love affair with aprominent nobleman resulted in Wilde’s imprisonment and expulsion from British social circles. Victorian Britain became increasingly morally rigid, its period marking a time when Britain was experiencing a growthin imperialism and conservative thought. While serving his term for homosexual acts, Wilde wrote the deeply spiritual De Profund is, inwhich he discussed his aspirations of individuality and freedom from the proprietary values that bound late Victorian society.
An avant-garde writer and raconteur, Wilde’s sexuality had a profound effect on his works, influencing imagery and the nature of his characters in both The Picture of Dorian Gray and “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Wilde’s sexuality and effeminate nature shaped his relations to aestheticism, which in turn manifested itself in his works’ moral implications. Wilde frequently employed thinly disguised doubles, representing himself in his work in order to juxtapose anaesthete and a traditionally Victorian society. Wilde’s aesthetics arestrangely connected to his obsession with Jesus Christ. It is peculiarthat such an unorthodox figure such as Wilde would find so much solaceand inspiration from such a religious source. In De Profundis, Wilde’s admiration for and comparison with Jesus takes on many levels. Helikens his persecution to Jesus’ crucifixion, a notion that evokeshubris, especially given Wilde’s naturally flamboyant disposition.Though not entirely humble, Wilde’s comparisons are based more on parallels drawn between Wilde’s persecution and the events leading to Jesus’ martyrdom. Many speculate Wilde’s eventual baptism and acceptance of Catholicism was a manifestation of imminent death’s madness as the famed author was too radical to accept religion withinthe boundaries of sanity. However, there are critics who contend that Wilde “was very much in the mainstream of the intellectual currents of his time, a man clearly aware of what he was trying to achieve in terms of his life and art”; in the end, he was willing to accept his newfoundstatus as a pariah, provided he could still create plays and prose.
Considered by many to be “the most outrageous trial of the century”, Wilde’s fall from grace was so indicative of his progression and the significance of his unique works set in a time “between the Victorianera and the modern age” (Hoare 4). Wilde’s persecution reflected aclash of morals and ideals not unlike those faced by the protagonists of his novels. Wilde’s trial mimicked his imaginative fiction:
“…it was a clash of opposites: of good versus evil, of heterosexualand homosexual, of masculine and feminine, of the safe and thedangerous, of what was seen as morally right or morally wrong” (Hoare4).
Homosexuality’s Influence in The Picture of Dorian Gray and “The Importance of Being Earnest”
Wilde’s homosexuality had a profound influence over his work. His own experiences and relationships are projected into The Picture of Dorian Gray, and it is widely speculated that the characters Basil, Lord Henry, and Dorian are different aspects of Wilde himself. Wilde wrotethat “Basil is how I see myself, Lord Henry how the world sees me, and Dorian how I would like to be” (Ericksen 101). The controversy behind The Picture of Dorian Gray was based in the extreme homoeroticism ofthe characters’ interaction; it is easy to see how Wilde’s writing elicited such a reaction. The male relationships are surely suggestiveenough to stir even the most open-minded in the Victorian era. Wilde’ssexuality affected the structure of the relationships as well, opening the book with the making of a homosexual love triangle involving Basil,Dorian, and Lord Henry. Basil’s painting is intimately connected with his adulation of Dorian’s physical beauty. Dorian, in turn, adores LordHenry, a man of stature who introduces him into a new coterie. LordHenry, in turn, adores Dorian’s physical beauty but also his relativeinnocence and the opportunity to mold him into the type of Victoriansocialite everyone will adore.
The novel opens with Basil’s overstated obsession with Dorian’s goodlooks. Basil’s sentiments, however, are undeniably romantic. As he paints his masterpiece, Basil is described as looking wistfully at the canvas, “a smile of pleasure” passing across his face as he lingersover the image he created (Wilde 1962, 20). In the case Basil’s day dreaming was too speculative a conclusion to make, Wilde provided his readers with interaction between Basil and Lord Henry sufficient enough to establish a romantic attraction for Dorian inside Basil. WhenLord Henry walks into Basil’s studio, Basil plans on keeping hissubject’s identity a secret out of jealousy. Basil “immensely likes”Dorian, and has “grown to love secrecy” as it ensures that he will nothave to share Dorian with Lord Henry (Wilde 1962, 22). Though it islater discovered that Basil is concerned that Lord Henry will corruptDorian with his cynicism and overdeveloped penchant for amorality, Basil is extremely protective of a man who he has befriended solely onthe basis of his physical appearance. He describes to Lord Henry how upon seeing Dorian for the first time his “face grew pale”, knowing hemet someone “whose mere personality was so fascinating that [it could]absorb” him if he allowed it (Wilde 1962, 24).
Wilde’s homosexuality is significantly influential not just over thecourse of the plot, but also in the development of characterrelationships. Lord Henry’s attraction to Dorian Gray is multi-tiered. Half the attraction to Dorian is on account of his youth, a possiblereflection of Wilde’s relationship with younger men. The other half o fLord Henry’s attraction to Dorian is his ability to mold Dorian into alike-minded socialite, a member of his “New Hedonist” group. However,Lord Henry’s attraction, like Basil’s is undeniably romantic in nature.Though Lord Henry finds Dorian attractive, Dorian’s hold over LordHenry does not fully take root until after Basil rambles on and onabout his “curious idolatry” he has developed, and how he “couldn’t behappy” if he “didn’t see Dorian everyday”; Lord Henry takes seriousnotice of Dorian after Basil confides that he finds the young man to be”absolutely necessary” to Basil’s life (Wilde 1962, 27). Wilde developsLord Henry in this way to stress his association with society at large;most people are not loved by everyone unless they are first loved by afew. Society, Wilde argues, will love whom it is deemed fashionable tolove. Following Basil’s affirmations and affections, Lord Henryobserves the “young Adonis [made out of] ivory” as “wonderfullyhandsome, with his finely curved, scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes,his crisp gold hair”; it comes to no wonder why “Basil worshipped him”(Wilde 1962, 33). The love triangle develops past Basil’s death; evenDorian finds himself attracted to Lord Henry. A peculiar observation isDorian’s loss of composure after observing Lord Henry’s “romantic,olive-colored face and warm expression”; Wilde writes that Dorian is indisbelief at his trepidation upon meeting Lord Henry (Wilde 1962, 38).After all, Dorian is “not a schoolboy or a girl” (Wilde 1962, 39).
As Wilde’s homosexuality became more apparent, he began leading doublelives. One of his lives was socially acceptable, as society perceived him as a married man with two sons. His other life was one spent amongmale prostitutes, renting houses outside London in which he would haveextramarital, homosexual affairs. The incredible restriction Wildefaced was more because of his homosexuality than his maritalinfidelity. In leading his double lives, Wilde designed four charactersin “The Importance of Being Earnest” to exude differing degrees ofduality. The multiple personas were a reflection of the masks Wildeused as a “means of personal adjustment,” a prevailing theme among thefour characters (Ericksen 151). The first character is Jack Worthing, aresponsible man typical of the Victorian era. The legal guardian of ayoung woman, Jack finds it to be increasingly difficult to enjoyhimself through the minor indiscretions that provide the average youngman with such entertainment. As a result of his guarded nature, Jackcreates his double, an alter ego he claims as his younger brother, whomhe names Ernest. When Jack leaves the country and his responsibilities,he becomes Ernest, a mischievous character in contrast to the composed,model citizen Jack. The second character is Algernon Moncrieff, friendto Jack Worthing and first cousin to the woman Jack intends to wed. Algernon also leads a double life, though his double life involves an”imaginary friend” of sort, a man whom he names Bunbury. The thirdcharacter Wilde incorporates is Gwendolen Fairfax, the object of Jack’saffection. Though she accedes to her mother’s will in public, Gwendolenrebels in private, pursuing “Ernest” without her mother’s consent.After Jack plans to wed Gwendolen, she mentions she cannot marry a manwhose name is not Ernest; this creates quite the dilemma for Jack, ashe had originally planned to “kill” Ernest with another fabrication.The final character, Cecily Cardew, is a ward under her guardian, JackWorthing. Tutored in the country, Cecily longs for a life outside hercountry estate, falling in love with the deviant Algernon.
The doubles are a forward testament to Wilde’s life as a homosexual inVictorian London. As a “Jack” among his peers and “Ernest” among hislovers, Wilde is best personified in Algernon, though is present inboth Jack and Algernon as they are “constructed on similar principlesand ideas” (Ericksen 151). Both Jack and Algernon lead double lives,hence the similar principles and ideas. However, where Jack andAlgernon differ is the nature of their double lives. Jack’s alter ego,Ernest, is someone whom he actually becomes upon entering town.Algernon, on the other hand, claims to be visiting Bunbury, hisimaginary ego. Algernon remains the same; the only thing that changesis his behavior. While “both Algernon and Jack are sophisticated men ofthe world,” only Jack finds the need to change his identity and life ashe shifts social circles (Ericksen 152).
Like the socially accepted individuals in Victorian society, Jack isrigid, morally sound, and never deviant. Initially known to Algernon asErnest, Jack’s transformation is almost instant as Algernon reveals hisknowledge of Ernest/Jack’s deviance with names. Ernest is wistful andmadly in love with Gwendolen until his true ego, Jack, is revealed. Assoon as Algernon shows Jack/Ernest the cigarette case, Jack showshimself, pointing out how “ungentlemanly [a thing it is] to read aprivate cigarette case” (Wilde 2005, 12). Algernon, now Jack’s foilfollowing Ernest’s departure, retorts with an epigram truly reminiscentof a dandy, stating the “[absurdity in] having hard and fast rules”(Wilde 2005, 12). The two characters play off each other from the verybeginning, revealing their intentions. Algernon remains the deviant,bored with his surroundings and endless cucumber sandwiches (Wilde2005, 4). Jack leaves to indulge in the sort of behavior from which heis restricted as he is responsible for Cecily. Like Wilde, who has afamily of his own, Jack cannot overindulge without risking social harmto his family. Ernest, then, is a double play on words; in indulgingone’s “earnest,” or true self, one escapes the constrictive Victoriansociety of moral and social obligations. Wilde’s aim here is to escapethe Victorian moral code, returning to the Hellenistic antiquity ofmale relationships.
Strangely, most everyone except Jack longs to see or meet Ernest.Algernon himself assumes the identity of Earnest in his quest to meetCecily. Much to Jack’s chagrin, Algernon decides to assume the identityof Algernon simply out of curiosity. Algernon has no ulterior motives;he wants to be Ernest just to be Ernest, a reflection of Wilde’spredisposition toward universal simplicity. Cecily also longs to meetErnest, as she has heard of his antics and looks forward to a relativeseveral degrees less rigid than her estranged guardian. Gwendolen ismadly in love with Ernest partly due to her empathy for Jack’supbringing, and partly because of her obsession with his name. ThroughErnest, Wilde reveals his wishes of acceptance; he wants people todesire his homosexual identity and accept him not in spite of it, butbecause of it.
Victorian values were imposed on every part of culture. Because of thegreat successes and advances felt by the 1860s, it was assumed that thethrone had arrived at something new and worth keeping. An increasinglyprudish era, the Victorian, puritanical movement required that all arthave purpose. Whether to emulate a person, place, or event, art neededa reason to exist. It could be veneration of the object, veneration ofthe genre, or even veneration of the artist, but all art, including thewritten word, was subject to the Victorian standard if it was to beaccepted by the general public. Like so many other movements, theVictorians were faced with the concept that art existed for art, thatits sole end is itself and nothing more.
While many mistakenly attribute this movement to Wilde, he in fact didnot create aestheticism, “he was merely its vehicle” (Gaunt 119). As anIrishman, it was only natural that Wilde would be the catalyst for sucha movement. Ireland was still relatively free of the imperialistexpansion, allowing for a medium of trade most of England could notmatch. Wilde, after all, was not from the industrial wastelands ofLiverpool, Manchester, or London. He was from “the dingy magnificence”of Dublin (Gaunt 119).
Wilde’s aesthetics are rooted in his education, primarily hispreoccupation with Hellenistic Greece and the old texts involving malerelationships. When searching for the concept of beauty, he might have”gotten his ideas from the great 6th century Hellas”, where Wildeperceived “the triumph of Greece and great civilization was itscreation and representation of a supreme form of beauty” (Gaunt 120).The ancient Greeks may have appealed most to Wilde because of the highpremium they put on male-male relationships. Viewed as the most pure ofall loves, homosexual male love was venerated by great leaders as wellas scholars. The king of the gods and Mount Olympus, Zeus, was known tohave a male lover, a young shepherd by the name of Ganymede.
Contrary to the Victorians, “who had inherited a set of religiousbeliefs based on faith rather than reason,” Wilde had no concretereligious beliefs at all (Ericksen 19). The “Aesthetic Movement, ofwhich Wilde was soon to become the representative figure, wasessentially a reaction against the ascendance of “Philistinism in artand life” (Ericksen 19). Wilde was determined to “cultivate his ownindividual impressions of the world (Ericksen 19). Though he quicklybecame the most prominent aesthete, Wilde’s views were not unique. Hehad previously traveled to France, where he met with names such as deGoncourt, Flaubert, and Huysman, who showed him the depth of sufferingas beauty. After Wilde settled in London in the 80s, he began toshowcase his aestheticism, sporting garb such as “plum-coloredvelveteen knickerbockers with perhaps a soft loose shirt and a wideturned-down collar” (Ericksen 21).
Wilde advocated art as having intrinsic, immeasurable value. Unlike theVictorian stance, art did not have to feature a moral code, teach alesson, or exist as a monument to an ideal supporting morals. Art isart, and exists only to exist for itself. For example, paintings of theLast Supper, though beautiful, existed to be a testament to Jesus orChristianity. Wilde’s Aestheticism would interpret the Last Supper toexist solely for the purpose of being a beautiful painting. The colors,shapes, and figures would be the central focus as they would representbeauty; the connotation behind twelve disciples sitting around asolitary figure would be dismissible. Wilde’s sexuality ties indirectlyto the concept of art; one of the reasons Wilde advocated theaforementioned moral system was his relation of the system toantiquity. Homosexual union was not a defiled perversion; Wilde arguedthat it was a sign of progress, like aestheticism. Aestheticism andhomosexuality would be placed in the same context as other time periodssuch as Hellenistic Greece, Classical Italy (Michelangelo), andShakespearean England. The aforementioned periods involve theperfection of the male form; Wilde believed himself to be in line withthe traditions of old because of his Oxford rearing. Hellenisticaesthetic coincided with Wilde’s sexuality and his aesthetic movementin the shared view that the male form was the most beautiful.Homosexual relationships were therefore considered an act of beauty,the most revered form of affection possible.
Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying” is a multi-page testament to his belief inart’s greater purpose as having no such purpose. Essentially anextended metaphor for the ill consequences of turning art into amathematical measure, “The Decay of Lying” describes lying “and poetryas arts” (Wilde 1997, 7). The metaphor continues, equating art with anexaggeration of reality. True art, Wilde argues through theprotagonists Cyril and Vivian, is so abstract that the real “becomesunreadable” (Wilde 1997, 13). The nature of art and beauty is soabstract that nature and life are meant to imitate it.
The dangers of regarding art as a moral calculus are detailed in ThePicture of Dorian Gray. The strange stasis in which Dorian findshimself—the state where his self-portrait shows his aging and thenegative effects of his actions—is a wonderful example of Wilde’saesthetics in motion. The story unfolds as Dorian is sitting in frontof Basil; Basil is seen pondering the sheer physical beauty of thescene in front of him. The true aesthetic, Basil seeks out thebeautiful solely because it is beautiful. He becomes enamored withDorian only because of his beauty. On the other hand, Lord Henry findsDorian irresistible because of the potential socialite he sees in amind that has yet to be molded. Basil the aesthete warns Lord Henry,imploring him not to make a cynic out of something beautiful; in thiscase, Basil is ultimately requesting Lord Henry to take caution in hisapproach to Dorian. Basil wants to preserve Dorian the way he isbecause he finds him beautiful, where Lord Henry wants access toDorian’s private time so he can mold something new and different.Dorian becomes a work of art, manipulated by Lord Henry, killing Basil,the aesthete.
Later in the novel, Lord Henry gives Dorian a yellow book, one with notitle that is presumably about art and philosophy (Ericksen 115).Dorian becomes obsessed, using it as a Bible with which he leads hiswhole life. In the end, Dorian dies, having gone mad. This is anunequivocal warning from Wilde to those who would pervert the course ofart (Victorians). Wilde shows the reader what happens when art is takenout of context and into a completely inappropriate light. Moreover, itshows how damaging the Victorian approach is; Dorian is unable tochange his ways. Shortly after his inhuman treatment of Sibyl, heattempts to reform, only to find the painting smirking back at him.This is a reflection of the unyielding nature of Victorian society; itis a reflection of Wilde’s suffocation and inability to move freely,creatively, or inspirationally in the context of British society at theclose of the 19th century. Just like Dorian, Wilde cannot expresshimself freely; though he had a chance in the beginning of the novel,Dorian did not follow the poor artist Basil. He instead opted toconform to the higher-ranking Lord Henry, whose coterie led Dorian tohis death. Once in the clutches of Lord Henry, Dorian was fullysupplicated to the mercy of his manipulator. Lord Henry almostimmediately changes in his affections for Dorian, the extremedifferences being Dorian’s perception as an “Adonis” in the beginningand as an unrecognizable, withered, man who is unidentifiable untilthey “check his rings”.
Wilde’s third play, “An Ideal Husband” makes use of the witty banterknown as “epigrams” to reveal the darker side of Victorian values in a”tongue-and-cheek” fashion. The whole play is an epigram of sorts,exemplifying the imperfections of the Victorian bourgeois by mockinglyportraying the inefficacy of their incorporation into Wilde’s idealsociety. The traditional Victorian values Wilde mocks in “An IdealHusband” are devotion, forgiveness, sacrifice, loyalty, moralintegrity, and a composed disposition, all traits that Wilde subvertsin his character portrayals. Though Sir Robert, the “ideal husband”,finds himself at the disadvantageous end of blackmail, his past doesnot warrant Wilde to present him as vile or duplicitous, as Lord Goringpostulates to Lady Chiltern that every man of “every nature [has]elements of weakness” (Wilde 2004, 27). The play, however, becomes”centered around a conflict caused by [Lady Chiltern’s] unyieldingmoral rigidity” (Ericksen 142). Sir Robert faces a moral dilemma in hiscoping with Mrs. Cheveley’s blackmail. Wilde makes a useful point inthe Sir Robert’s circumstances; on one hand, Sir Robert is faced withmaking public his dark and relatively shameful past, thereineffectively nullifying Mrs. Cheveley’s threats. On the other, he mustdeal with a Puritanical wife “who cannot forgive anyone who has done awicked or shameful deed,” including Sir Robert’s possible complicity(Ericksen 141). Would an ideal husband accede to the blackmail, thereindenying his wife’s request to challenge Mrs. Cheveley? In either event,Sir Robert’s relationship is put in jeopardy. He can either lie to hiswife, giving in to Mrs. Cheveley and compromising his marriage, or hecan make his past public domain, marring the perfect public image hiswife so treasures. Ironically, the couple’s social coterie perceivesSir Robert as the ideal mate, a man who, until his blackmail, was knownfor his impeccable reputation. Even his private life with Lady Chilternwas blissfully free of blemishes. Sir Robert’s reputation andrelationship with his wife, however, could have been saved by a simplelie. Had he never revealed the truth to his wife and given in to Mrs.Cheveley, giving in to her will, Lady Chiltern wouldn’t have been oneto know the better. An ideal husband in this case would therefore lie;for Wilde, the Victorian moral impetus lies not with adhering to thetraditional values, but rather in maintaining the facade of keepingvalues in general. Ironically, Lady Chiltern “learns of her husband’spast” all the same, “[castigating] him and [rejecting] his please forforgiveness” (Ericksen 141). No amount of marital maneuvering can spareSir Robert. In the end, it is Lord Goring who confronts Mrs. Cheveleyabout Sir Robert’s blackmail; he is the only empowered character as hespeaks and acts under no false pretenses. While he is far from perfect,chastised by his father for “dancing until four o’clock in themorning”, Lord Goring is Wilde’s idealist—he is an art lover, whosewitty repartee is surpassed only by his willingness to fight Mrs.Cheveley.
One of Wilde’s most effective comic devices is his employment ofepigrams, and more comical still is his utilization of Vicomte deNanjac’s malapropisms. The French Attaché in London, Nanjac representsWilde’s interpretation of those not fortunate enough to be born elite;Nanjac is easily recognized by his adoration of society and “hisAnglomania” (Wilde 2004, 4). His malapropisms are a reflection of thesad attempts of many to engage in epigramic banter, the object of LordGoring’s successful use of epigram. A ridiculing character, Wilde’sNanjac is one whose blind aspiration to join a society hampers hisvision and taste, therein earning him the scorn of the more capableLord Goring.
Wilde’s assault on the Victorian bourgeois is personified best by theduality of his characters. Sir Robert, for example, “presents a publicmask of absolute personal integrity but has actually built his fortuneand career upon a deception” (Ericksen 144). An almost hero, Sir Robertis a manifestation of Wilde’s implications regarding a relativelyinnocent man’s subjugation under society. Lord Arnheim, Sir Robert’sformer co-conspirator, first seduces Sir Robert with his “doctrine ofwealth”, elucidating his view that controlling others is life’sgreatest attribute (Ericksen 142). Mrs. Cheveley displays this best as”Lord Arnheim’s theoretical protégée”; the two are almost Machiavellianin their manipulation (Ericksen 145). Where Lord Arnheim seduced SirRobert by playing to the discrepancy between his noble birth and modestfinancial holdings, Mrs. Cheveley is absolutely ruthless in herwillingness to wreak havoc on all aspects of Sir Robert’s married lifein order to secure her investments. In his surrender to the wills ofthe two manipulators, Sir Robert becomes an ideal human, one whoseproclivity to err alienates him from society. By succumbing to the twoprominent materialists, Sir Robert embodies Wilde’s disdain for thefinancial drive of Victorian social coteries; contrary to theart-collecting Sir Robert, the female villain has no pleasures outsidecontrol and exploitation.
Wilde addresses the lack of humanity in Victorian society, personifiedby the promulgation of perfection among the social elite. In the firstAct, Mrs. Marchmont and Lady Basildon discuss their unfortunate maritalsituation. Lord Goring notes they are married to “the most admirablehusbands in London”, to which Mrs. Marchmont responds that theirhusbands’ perfection “is exactly what [they can’t stand]”; “there isnot the smallest element of excitement in knowing [them]” (Wilde 2004,10). In this sense, the true Sir Robert, the one susceptible tosuggestion and whose past compromises his future, becomes the idealhusband. Wilde suggests all Victorians wear masks, alternate identitiesthat shield them from being human and enjoying existence. The idealmarriage is manifested best by the speculative union of Mabel Chilternand Lord Goring, who at the play’s close reject the common Victorianroles and morals previously discussed.
Wilde’s Victorian surroundings were instrumental in his development ofaesthetics, but were unfortunately not tolerant of his private life. Acontroversial figure, Wilde was homosexual, and had an ongoing affairwith a younger nobleman by the name of Lord Alfred Douglas. LordDouglas’ father, enraged at his son’s homosexual relationship withWilde, accused Wilde of being a sodomite, a grave offense in GreatBritain at the time. Though acquitted in his first of two trials, Wildewas later sentenced to serve two years’ hard labor on theaforementioned charges. First imprisoned in London’s Wandsworth prison,Wilde was denied pen and paper until his transfer to Reading Gaol,where he eventually wrote De Profundis. While “Wilde revealed hisfascination with the figure of Christ [throughout] his literary career,only in De Profundis did he actually make [Christ] a part of hisaesthetic system” (Ericksen 156). A dramatic monologue on spiritualityand society, De Profundis features several metaphors likening Wilde toChrist. Wilde felt his unjust imprisonment made him a martyr; uponinitial circulation of rumors regarding his sexuality, Wilde could haveleft London for France, therein spared persecution. Unlike “Hamlet, whobecame a spectator to his own tragedy”, Wilde the Christ-figureactively sought out what he perceived as his end (Wilde 2003, 28).Where Christ accepted his fate for the benefit of mankind, Wilde was aself-convinced saint and martyr for art and what he perceived to be thethreatened aesthetic movement. Having “passed through every mode ofsuffering,” Wilde was convinced that his redemption would be realizedthrough his incarceration and subsequent release, upon which his newfound humility would help him “rise again” (Wilde 2003, 4). Just asmankind would redeem itself through the trial and crucifixion of Jesus,Wilde felt society would be redeemed through his incarceration. Hecontinued, developing his incarceration to salvation, likeninggreatness to requisite sorrow. Wilde admired Jesus for having realizedhis calling as being “completed,” reaching “fulfillment” upon its end(Wilde 2003, 19). Marveling at his situation, Wilde mused on theincredulity of “a young Galilean peasant imagining that he could bearon his shoulders the weight of the world,” including all the world’spast sins as well as what “had yet to be done and suffered” (Wilde2003, 13). Jesus’ death and resurrection was that toward which Wildeaspired, conceding that imprisonment was most likely an act ofretribution for the fanciful and carefree life he led previously.Incarceration, then, was Wilde’s means of atoning for the errant lifehe might possibly have led upon his release. He hoped his relationshipwith Lord Douglas would be forgiven, and longed for society’sacceptance. Wilde could “claim on [his] side that if [he realized] what[he had] suffered, society should realize what it [had]” in turninflicted; with a mutual cognizance shared between Wilde and society,he hoped there would be “no bitterness or hate on either side” (Wilde2003, 7). Just as Jesus attempted to win over his captors andaggressors through his death and resurrection, Wilde hoped to pacifysociety’s enmity by paying his social dues in prison. Wilde evenlikened the course of his life’s events to those leading up to Jesus’martyrdom. For example, Jesus was given direction by God the Father andcondemned by Man. Wilde, in turn, ascribes “the two great turningpoints in [his] life” as when his “father sent [him] to Oxford, andwhen society sent [him] to jail” (Wilde 2003, 6). Wilde’s foreknowledgeof an impending criminal proceeding did not dissuade him, just as thedisciples could not sway Jesus’ acceptance and willingness to die onthe cross. Neither Wilde nor Jesus could ignore their calling, nomatter the grisly end. As a sinner, Wilde conceded that he had toaccept the fact that martyrs were equally persecuted “for the good aswell as for the evil” committed (Wilde 2003, 7).
However similar to Jesus Wilde would assert himself to be, there weredefinite discrepancies in De Profundis that could testify to Wilde asan admirer of Jesus rather than his attempted emulator. Wildepostulated that Jesus saw Man in the same fashion as the aestheticmovement saw art; Man existed simply to exist. Wilde wrote that Christ”regarded sin and suffering as being [beautiful]” in and of themselves,that such a notion was the “dangerous idea” that led Christ to hisdemise (Ericksen 157). Just like Christ, Wilde’s own “dangerous idea”that ran against the Victorian grain was what led to his downfall.Wilde also saw his imprisonment as a period of transition. Hisindictment of the Greek gods as deities emulating humans indicatedhislife prior to imprisonment; Wilde labeled the Olympian gods as ableto “reach greater heights” (Wilde 2003, 17). Each Olympian representeddifferent aspects of humanity that, when indulged by Wilde, resulted inincarceration. In his simile, Wilde indirectly likens himself to eachgod’s moral flaws. He lauds Zeus for not being able to “resist mortalman’s daughters” and Hera for her pride and “peacocks”, a catharticevaluation of the Victorian bourgeois who imprisoned him (Wilde 2003,17). Wilde also attributes his former peers to Apollo and Athena, eachof whom failed to forgive. Apollo slaughtered the mortal Niobe’s sons,”leaving Niobe childless” for her hubris in claiming her childrenrivaled the offspring of Leto (the mother of Apollo and Artemis);Athena turned Arachne into a spider for having claimed to be moreskilled with the loom than the goddess of wisdom and crafts (Wilde2003, 17). In describing the society that bore him, Wilde becomesimperfect, as his reformation requires penance as a medium of change.By attributing himself and his society to the Greek gods, Wildedifferentiates himself from Jesus. Jesus never required crucifixion toattain perfection—he was born perfect and lived without sin. Wilde, onthe other hand, is punished not on behalf of another (though it can besurmised that his imprisonment kept the young, impressionable LordDouglas out of jail), but for his own social transgressions. Wilde alsoheld great contempt for Lord Douglas, as De Profundis was more ascathing letter from a jilted lover than a philosophical testament toWilde’s self-improvement. Wilde often lamented his situation, spitefulthat “for him, the beautiful world of color and motion [had] been takenaway, while Bosie (Lord Douglas) walked free among the flowers”(Gardiner 145). De Profundis becomes conciliatory towards its end,however, as Wilde follows through with his original assessment that”terrible was what the world did to [him],” but worse still was “what[he] did to [himself]” (Wilde 2003, 3). Unlike Jesus, Wilde is somewhatself-hating, embittered by his social persecution despite his greatcontributions in the aesthetic movement. His imprisonment wasultimately brought on by his own charges; following his falling outwith the Marquess of Queensbury (Lord Douglas’ father), Wilde pressedlibel charges and lost, opening himself up to legal scrutiny. In theend, it was his own defense that cost him his freedom, unlike Jesus wholived to die, fully cognizant of an inescapable fate. Though heexperienced a form of martyrdom, Wilde’s self-comparisons to Jesus arelimited, and he shifts from indirectly likening his life and its recentevents to those of Jesus to aspiring to become Jesus-like (in essence,more Christian). Rather than claim to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, Wildepurports that he has suffered just as Jesus suffered, and in doing sobecame a better man just as Jesus did. Wilde claims “to have become adeeper man is the privilege of those who have suffered” (Wilde 2003,21). Despite Wilde’s De Profundis presentation of himself as Jesus,there are a great number of instances that involve his own supplicationbefore and admiration of Jesus as opposed to his presumption ofequality with Jesus. Wilde admires Christ for his refusal to stone MaryMagdalene, bringing shame on her persecutorsin his statement suggesting that those without sin cast the stones tocondemn her. In his tirade against the Victorian bourgeois, Wilde alsovenerates Christ for advocating the poor; Wilde described prison as”something that earns sympathy” from the poor and earns the rich thestatus of “pariah” (Wilde 2003, 2). The poor, Wilde argued, were asimpler people who were closer to perfection. Jesus, after all, was notborn rich, but the son of a poor carpenter. In the waning years of hisimprisonment, Wilde began to consider his incarcerated state as areturn to simplicity, and in simplicity becoming closer to perfection.
Wilde’s comparison to Christ was perhaps overtaken by the method inwhich he transformed Christ, reinterpreting him as an “artisticpersonality” (Ericksen 156). It is odd that Wilde would place Jesus onsuch a pedestal, as he remained an avowed agnostic until the twilightof his life. In fact, Wilde goes out of his way to denigrate theChristian faithful to a degree, describing his faith as somethingsuperior because it is tangible, that his “gods dwell in temples madewith hands”; Wilde asserts that only “within [actual] experience is[his] life complete” (Wilde 2003, 5). Wilde’s adulation could also beconstrued as a comparison of himself with Christ as a purely literaryfigure; his assertions were not hubris, but merely the lamentations ofa writer recognizing a universally acclaimed protagonist in the world’smost renowned tragedy. By placing Jesus in the context of a literaryfigure rather than reading Wilde’s comparisons from a religiousperspective, the reader is further able to understand the context inwhich Wilde worked. Wilde never deified himself, though he did perceivehimself as “a defiant artist intensely conscious of his cultural roleas an innovator of art” (Erickson 13). De Profundis waivers between theveneration of Christ and the open advocating of agnostics, with Wildeoften professing that agnosticism “has its martyrs and should reap itssaints” just as Christianity has (Wilde 2003, 5). In this respect,Wilde transcends the figure of Jesus in his simplicity; Jesus’ deathand the events of his life were a leap of faith, whereas Wilde’s beliefsystem and his life, cultural contributions, scandals, and downfallwere historically documented. His “actual experiences” previouslydiscussed were in themselves defined as real in their sorrow. For a manwhose “fop” and “dandy” were all encompassing, Wilde’s redemption wouldnot be nearly as invigorating as that of Christ (Gardiner 15). WhereChrist was promised a seat at the right hand of God Himself, Wilde’sfuture upon release was one of almost guaranteed estrangement.
Wilde’s homoerotic imagery and context are unique; they served as aneffective device in the establishment of Dorian as both an evilcharacter and one manipulated by another. The homoeroticism, forexample, first serves to establish Dorian in a protective love affairwith Basil, where Dorian is portrayed as innocent, his face bright withthe naïveté that can only be attributed to youth. That Dorian is drawnto Lord Henry in a sexual manner makes his fall from grace all the moredecadent, giving the reader the impression that Dorian was “stolen”away from the clutches of youthful exuberance. Without the homoeroticsubtext, there would be no logical explanation for Lord Henry’sattraction to Dorian, or Dorian’s willingness to follow Lord Henry.Though Dorian could be portrayed as having left Basil behind so as toaspire to greater social heights, the manner in which Wilde useshomosexual tensions prompts the reader to make different conclusions,ones that are steeped in suspicion and communicated in whispers. Thetaboo of same-sex relationships is cast aside with the introduction ofSybil, but it remains in the back of the reader’s mind, solidified byseveral characters’ effeminate preoccupation with physical beauty.Wilde’s own sexuality manifests itself in three stages among the threemale characters; first, the image of Basil, the affirmed homosexual wholives a detached life. Second is the image of Lord Henry, the privatehomosexual who is an irrevocable face in the local coterie. Third isthe image of Dorian, who begins innocently, but upon realization of hishomosexuality and his attempt to become assimilated into societyperishes against his own will. Wilde’s sexuality is thereforeinstrumental in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
“The Importance of Being Earnest” is a reflection of Wilde’s duality;contrary to Dorian, who cannot exist detached from or assimilated intosociety, Jack is an amalgamation of Basil and Lord Henry. His dual lifeis revealed, but only by another who also wishes to take part in socialduplicity. In “The Importance of Being Earnest”, Wilde communicates theimpetus of self-truth as a panacea for unhappiness. Both Algernon andJack are happiest as Ernest as they are free to act as they wish.Unhampered by the Victorian society that constricts them, the twoerstwhile-Ernests move, speak, and do as they please. The elaboratelengths to which Jack resorts is a reflection of the life Wilde musthave led behind his family’s back; when Jack assumes the role ofErnest, he risks crossing his stories, getting his two livesintertwined in the form of Cecily and Gwendolen meeting. Here, Wilde’ssexuality affects both Algernon, the representation of the dandy andfop, and Jack, whose secret life is a metaphor for homosexualityrepressed. Both are hampered by Victorian restrictions; Algernon facedthe shirking of his familial duties, whereas Jack had to remain a modelindividual for his supposedly sheltered ward to follow. Only Jack is inperil of being discovered, however; Wilde attempts to communicate theimportance of being true to one’s self, as Jack is the only characterof the two men to assume an entirely new identity. As Algernon uses hisfabricated person as an excuse to leave his surroundings, he is neverput into the same dilemmas as Jack. In the case of “The Importance of Being Earnest”, Wilde’s sexual constraint was an important factor inanalyzing the play.
Wilde’s aestheticism was highly influenced by his sexuality. Heapproached aestheticism the same way he approached his male relations,perceiving art simply to observe beauty. Beauty to Wilde is exactlywhat Dorian was to Basil; beauty was a necessity, something Wilde couldnot do without. In his attempts to articulate aesthetics, Wilde mayhave gotten lost in his purpose. Victorian thought was the standardagainst which to rebel, begging the question of Wilde’s motives. Washis aesthetic perspective a manifestation of a new dimension of hisanti-Victorian sentiment? Wilde often satirized other aesthetics,claiming that he would only “attack the unmanly oddities whichmasquerade in its likeness” (Gardiner 43). The irony behind Wilde’ssatirizing contention is that determining those who are “unmanlyoddities” requires the same logical selection process as mandated byVictorian interpretation. For example, a Victorian observing art wouldemploy criterion to evaluate the piece as a decent work of art.Similarly, Wilde’s decision as to what constitutes aesthetic thoughtwould require criterion to evaluate the thought or work purported to bepart of the aesthetic movement. While Wilde’s sexuality was onlyeffectively used to correlate Hellenistic antiquity, it still wasuseful in understanding the shift in perception. Whether or not Wildecame to the conclusion that the Victorian system was inferior,subsequently adopting aestheticism is a different instance than Wildeadopting aestheticism solely to oppose the Victorian system.
Moral implications are much more concrete than art interpretation; in”An Ideal Husband”, Wilde does not attempt to spoon-feed his audiencehomoerotic suggestion. Instead, Wilde focuses on Victorian society as awhole, portraying it in the superficial light he felt appropriate. ThePuritanical attitudes relayed by Lady Chiltern are portrayed asimpossible standards. The “ideal husband” is then the imperfect,unpredictable man who concedes to his own weaknesses. This is bestevidenced by Wilde’s warmer tone toward Lady Basildon and Mrs.Marchmont, an almost sympathetic tone to their plight of drab husbandsand “perfect” marriages. Wilde’s sexuality does not traditionally comeinto play. However, when perceiving homosexuality as an imperfectionPuritan society shuns, Wilde’s sexuality fits well but lacks thecreative outlet to fully present itself as a viable factor. Thoughsexuality was an important part of Wilde’s works, it was notinstrumental in the proprietary “An Ideal Husband”. However, Wilde didsuccessfully present himself in the form of Lord Goring, the dandy ofthe play. Moral implications in “An Ideal Husband” had little do withsexuality, but had everything to do with Wilde’s disdain of theVictorian bourgeois social circles.
Wilde as a Christ figure is a notion that draws several conclusions.First, it is not Wilde’s sexuality that likens him to Jesus. Wilde’ssexuality comes into play only as the factor of his persona that earnedhim persecution and eventual prison time. Simultaneously, Wilde as aChrist figure was a feasible notion only in his martyrdom for art;where Christ was nailed to a cross, died, and was reborn, Wilde wasimprisoned, was released, and reborn. Wilde’s speculation on his newlifestyle post prison-release was one of humility, much in the samemanner as Jesus’ humility throughout the history of his encounters withhis disciples. A somewhat wanton display of hubris, Wilde’s Christcomparisons are a bit lofty and overly ambitious. Wilde perceivesChrist from an agnostic point of view, evidenced by his relativeflexibility in putting himself in the same contact as the Son of God.However, both Jesus and Wilde shared parallels, such as the eventsleading up to their incarcerations.
Oscar Wilde’s homoerotic texts, aesthetics, Christ comparisons andmoral implications were largely the result of his sexuality, though itcan be argued equally as effectively that Wilde’s writing was affectedby anti-Victorian sentiment. Had he been alive now, in an age wherehomosexuality is often as accepted as racial differences, it isunlikely that he would have gained the notoriety that he did while inprison and following his release. Though he died a pauper, Wilde’sworks were revolutionary in their latent content, the dandy style, andthe fact that they addressed issues such as homosexuality in a timewhere society was becoming steadily more conservative. As with anyauthor, Wilde’s works are best understood when taking intoconsideration his biography and history, including his sexuality.
Ericksen, Donald H. Oscar Wilde. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1977.
Gardiner, Juliet. Oscar Wilde: A Life in Letters, Writings, and Wit. Collins & Brown, Ltd., 1995.
Gaunt, William. The Aesthetic Adventure. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1945.
Hoare, Philip. Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand: Decadence, Conspiracy, and theMost Outrageous Trial of the Century. New York, Arcade Publishing,Inc., 1997.
Wilde, Oscar. “An Ideal Husband.” Champaign: Project Gutenberg Press,2004. Wilde, Oscar. “De Profundis.” Champaign: Project Gutenberg Press,2003.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying.” [online] Available at:www.ucc.ie/celt/published/E800003-009/text002.html Cork: Corpus ofElectronic Texts, 1997.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Champaign: Project Gutenberg Press, 2005.
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 roomnot 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 identityevinces 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.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. New York: Dover Publications Inc. 1990. Print.