Wilde’s Wit – Winsome or Tiresome?

Professor Kinyon said the other day that she was getting a little tired of the witticisms while reading so much Wilde back to back and I think with The Importance of Being Earnest I have finally, almost, also gotten to that point. They are unceasing to say the least and I’ve almost reached Wilde burn out!  Despite the seeming tirelessness of Wilde’s wit however, there is something equally tirelessly charming about The Importance of Being Earnest that staves off my burnout, just a little. It feels distinct from An Ideal Husband, though both deal with aspects of marriage and miscommunication.  I’ve read The Importance of Being Earnest once before for another class and one important aspect of this play, especially thinking about Wilde and the way he thinks of identity, is the representation of stage Englishness, as opposed to stage Irishness, which we’ve talked about in class and does a little to connect the two plays. Most of the ridiculousness of the play functions on the naturally ridiculous things about society, English high society in particular, from customs of dress to customs of eating and visiting — and of course the witticisms are important for drawing out exactly what is so ridiculous about those customs, painting the whims and foibles of the English upper echelon.    

Examples of the critique Wilde is leveling at the English are apparent in the interactions between Algernon and Jack, and their tiff towards the play’s end in particular.  Algernon has spoiled Jack’s Earnest ruse and Jack is understandably upset at his friend, but the argument is carried out primarily through muffins over tea-time and Algernon (the non-Earnest Earnest) is the source of much of the wit. Jack tells Algernon “How can you sit there calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble… You seem to me perfectly heartless” (403). Algernon replies sagely: “Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly” (403) to which Jack very maturely responds by taking away the muffins. By placing such a ridiculous back-and-forth between the two men, taking muffins from each other and slinging insults, in a setting setting that is so quintessentially English as tea, makes the deeply socially ingrained role of the tea and all the other interactions that happen therein seem particularly silly too, encouraging the audience to laugh at what Wilde is portraying as quintessentially English in the play, and therefore wittingly and unwittingly laugh at themselves. In hindsight, this exchange reads as particularly petty, sibling-like banter as well and the wit in this play serves then another purpose of subconsciously hinting at the play’s resolution in the interactions of Earnest and Algernon. However tiresome Wilde’s wit may sometimes make his avid readers feel, it nevertheless is a hallmark of his style and a useful tool for his more subversive commentaries. 

As an unrelated, but kind of fun question, I wonder if Cecily will be able to love Algernon as Algy rather than Earnest, or if being Earnest will be important for the future of their relationship too? I feel like that’s never really resolved in the play and I’m curious. 

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