Reading Into Identity

After our class conversation on Wednesday, I do think I look at The Importance of Being Earnest a little differently. Not that my earlier readings of the play, as a critique of Victorian society and a commentary on Englishness, have any less valence, but that there is an expanded sense of what the play speaks to, sitting more directly within the full nexus of Wilde’s identities. My first instinct, when reading Wilde, isn’t to focus on the queer aspects of his narratives, favoring instead his aestheticism and the Irish/English aspects of his works. But Colm Tobin’s piece helped me to see, even more, how each of those aspects of Wilde inform each other as a part of his whole person — particularly in The Importance of Being Earnest. The hidden identities that both men take on, the secret lives they lead, become particularly poignant in light of Wilde’s struggles with his identity and the way he shrugged them on and off — adding that tinge of darkness amongst the humor and social jibes.  As Tobin aptly puts: “The problem about all of Wilde’s work, but his plays especially, is that they are forced to compete with the drama of his own last years” (Tobin, 71). The heightened, though comic, drama of mistaken identity and misreading in the play then becomes a way of reading Wilde as well, for good or ill, and the play’s final lesson about the certain inevitableness of being earnest, suggests the then inevitable outcome of Wilde’s life, that there is an inescapable truth of self that comes to the fore no matter what you do, or perhaps despite it.   

Tobin sums Wilde up well at the close of his piece: “The personal became political because an Irishman in London pushed his luck. He remains a vivid presence in the world one hundred years after his death. He played out the role of the tragic queer. He was witty, the greatest talker of his generation, skilled in the art-of the one-liner, the quick aside. But he was also untrustworthy and he was doomed” (Tobin, 84). Such a long string of adages seem necessary to fully encompass the life and tragedy of such a dynamic figure and there is no better space to locate that attempt than in Wilde’s work itself, throwing away all pretense that the art doesn’t reflect the artist.  (When I initially wrote this last line, I wrote Wilde’s work himself, as opposed to itself… a mistake, but a rather apt one for showing how easy it is to conflate the art and the artist — in a large sense, Wilde today is in fact his work.)

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