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.
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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 […]