Lying for Fun :)

While reading The Importance of Being Earnest, I noticed a lot of connections between this work and “The Decay of Lying.” At the beginning of Act 1, Algernon says, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!” (362). This reminded me a lot of how in “The Decay of Lying,” Vivian states that modern literature is worse off because people don’t make up entertaining lies anymore and that they were too adherent to realism. Throughout Wilde’s works, an ongoing theme is that it’s a good thing to lie as long as it’s entertaining. 

In the first half of this play, Algernon and Jack lie constantly for their own personal gain and amusement. They both made up people in order to go into the country or into town, and even when Jack decides to stop using Earnest as an excuse to go into the city, he decides the best way to get rid of Earnest is to kill him off instead of going clean. Both characters adhere to Wilde’s philosophy about lying. 

However, Wilde seems to contradict his philosophy about lying by introducing consequences to Jack’s actions. When Jack’s lie is found out by Algernon, Algernon goes out into the country pretending to be Earnest, which complicates the situation. Although I haven’t finished the play yet, I predict that Algernon’s and Jack’s lies will implode, they’ll get in trouble for what they’ve done, and they’ll learn “the importance of being earnest,” as the title suggests. Perhaps the reason why Wilde seems to be contradicting himself by introducing consequences is because Algernon and Jack lied for their own personal gain and not just to be entertaining. (Although their lies are very entertaining for us as readers.) Or maybe it’s simply Wilde contradicting his own ideas because he always contradicts himself. But just like telling the truth, consistency is boring, and it’s better to be inconsistent and entertaining than boring.

The Importance of Being Earnest: Aristocracy

With The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde presents a satirical commentary on the arrogance and privilege of the aristocrats. He utilizes several characters throughout the play to portray this arrogance and snobbish entitlement including Jack and Lady Bracknell. Throughout the play, there is a clear sense of pretentiousness amongst the upper class; these characters hold the thought that they are deserving of their current status and the higher position they sit on. The lower class on the other hand, are characterized, much like Hallward of The Picture of Dorian Gray, as humble and honest. In a way, the entire plot that is centered around Jack’s ambitions to marry into the upper class, demonstrates a hypocrisy that shuns and berates the upper class. With the character of Lady Bracknell, Wilde portrays the harsh reality of an immovable class system and mocks the higher class and its arrogance. Bracknell states, “The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.” Such seems to reflect Wilde’s own commentary on social class and education; the harsh truth is that education, or any real doings in daily life do not affect social class. Bracknell was born into her higher class and Wilde highlights the injustice behind such entry into her social station along with the impossibility of moving towards the higher classes. Gwendolen and Cecily are also subject to such mockery on Wilde’s part, as he repeatedly paints them as superficial and ignorant. He ridicules the upper class by exaggerating their obsession with superficialities such as style or food. Their obsession with such demonstrates the shallowness of the upper class quite clearly on Wilde’s part.

The Importance of Being a Parent

One of the most quotable lines from “The Importance of Being Earnest” is spoken by Lady Bracknell: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune… to lose both seems like carelessness” (369). While this line is mostly known for being fun and ridiculous, I would argue that the play is discussing parenthood or guardianship and its role in society. The main way this comes into play, of course, is the parent’s role of giving consent for their child to enter into an engagement. We see this when Lady Bracknell refuses to give her consent for Gwendolyn to marry Jack and when Jack refuses to give his consent for Cecily to marry Algernon. This lack of consent is one of the main conflicts in the play but is also mocked by Algernon’s several attempts to revoke his consent for Jack and Gwendolyn’s marriage. Algernon is Gwendolyn’s cousin but isn’t a guardian figure in her life. His remarks then come off as very reactionary, an attempt to leverage what he wants from the situation. In this situation, Wilde makes a mockery of these traditional familial engagement practices, and to some extent, parent-child relations in general.

This is seen all over the play, from Lady Bracknell’s stand-offish relationship with the other characters to Jack’s remark that “Mothers, of course, are all right. They pay a chap’s bills and don’t bother him. But fathers bother a chap and never pay his bills. I don’t know a single chap at the club who speaks to his father.” (371). I find this theme in the play extremely interesting, especially considering Wilde’s relationship with his own parents compared to other Victorians. I know we have only briefly discussed this in class, but it sounds as if Wilde was much closer to his mother than his father, and I am interested in how these relationships might have shaped Wilde’s own views on parenthood.

Class and Blame in The Importance of Being Earnest

In a great deal of his pieces Wilde confronts the issue of class, and in our more recent classes we have been especially focused on how Englishness and Irishness fits into this conversation with class identity. I particularly noticed this in the way the lower classes are commented on by the upper (English) classes in The Importance of Being Earnest.” 

The plot of this play revolves around the maintenance of two identities by one man: Ernest and Jack. One of them, Ernest, a bachelor who dines expensively but “cannot pay” for such endeavors in the city and often falls ill, and Jack, who is a reserved and responsible caretaker in the countryside. 

Those who care about high English society in the play spend a good amount of time commenting on Ernest, or others of lower classes who they deem unrespectable societally. When hearing the “lax” views on marriage from Lane, Algernon comments that “They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.” (358) To Miss Prism, who cares deeply about the formation of Cecily as a refined Englishwoman, Ernest “falling ill” is a sign of bad character, despite that being something that hypothetically cannot be controlled. Lady Bracknell, even deeming Jack suitable in other areas, says that he cannot marry her daughter because of his lack of relations, and that losing both parents (something he could not control and is actually quite tragic) was a “carelessness.”

This attitude of `you get what you deserve’, or as Miss Prism puts it, “As a man sows, let him reap,” seems harsh or unfair because a lot of the things they are judging on are things that cannot be controlled by characters. In the case of Jack being barred from marrying Gwendolen, this especially shows that even if you are pretty well acclimated to the English society (you do everything “correct,”) you could still be rejected because of something you cannot control, like your birth, or your Irish identity in Wilde’s case. 

I think Wilde is intentionally poking fun or criticizing the upper classes without them noticing or provoking them too much. I think it will be interesting to see how this idea develops because at the halfway point, I would guess that the story will end with a sentiment of “it doesn’t matter where you come from,” or something along those lines, but I am not sure. Will he try to conform to the narrative of English high society (that relations matter,) or will he try to suggest something new, and in a way change the way society functions? Is he trying to fit in with this play, or stand out?

Aristocratic Callousness in The Importance of Being Earnest

I have really enjoyed the first half of The Importance of Being Earnest. The play’s comedic elements have been quite entertaining, and I found Wilde’s portrayal of the aristocratic class’ ridiculousness to be especially humorous. More specifically, Lady Bracknell’s extreme callousness was of particular interest to me. The first instance of this quality occurs when Bracknell blames the infirm for their own lack of health. She says, “Nor do I in any way approve of the modern sympathy with invalids…Health is the primary duty of life” (329). Because health often cannot be controlled (especially with illness), Bracknell’s classification of this physical condition as a duty seems utterly absurd and cruel. Along these same lines, she strangely implies that it is Jack’s fault that his parents are dead by explaining that “to lose both [parents] seems like carelessness” (333). Again, the death of your loved ones is almost always not in your control, so Bracknell’s statement is extremely ignorant and cold-hearted. This almost hyperbolic insensitivity is then connected to a political bias when Bracknell describes her political philosophy of refusing to “put the asses against the classes,” which could allude to her aristocratic aversion of the rise of the “asses” or educated middle class (she also complains about the rise in education earlier in the play) (333). Furthermore, the climax of her lack of empathy and classist views occurs when she exclaims, “To be born…in a hand-bag…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” (334).  This statement continues her pattern of blaming people for things that they cannot control (here: being an orphan) while also criticizing Jack’s rags to riches story by comparing it to the French Revolution’s aggressive stance against the aristocracy. She even has the gal to suggest that Jack “to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible” – a feat that she knows would be near impossible to achieve (334).  

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. 

Wilde’s Female Characters

We saw a variety and depth in the female characters in Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, specifically through Lady Chiltern and Mrs. Cheveley,but I did not find this to be the case in The Importance of Being Earnest. Granted, Mrs. Cheveley and Lady Chiltern drive much of the plot in their play, the supporting characters of Cecily and Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest, are one-dimensional. Cecily and Gwendolen are the beautiful love interests of Algernon and Jack, respectively. Cecily is arguably developed more than Gwendolen, particularly in the scenes where she describes her diary entries about her engagement to Algernon, or ‘Earnest’. When he proposes to her, she exclaims, “Oh you have made me make a blot! And yours is the only real proposal I have ever had in all my life. I should like to have it entered neatly” (394). She takes her diary very seriously, but this aptitude for writing serves to emphasize her foolishness and absurdity. Both Cecily and Gwendolen are easily placated by their fiancé’s justifications for lying to them, and eventually come to call each other “sister,” like Jack predicted earlier on.

            A similarity between the women in the two plays is how they praise men. Specifically, Cecily exclaims, “How absurd to talk of the equality of the sexes! Where questions of self-sacrifice are concerned, men are infinitely beyond us,” to which Cecily replies, “They have moments of physical courage of which we women know absolutely nothing” (407). These lines reminded me of when Lady Chiltern finally accepts her husband’s role in the government and talks about how men’s lives are more valuable than women’s. Maybe my perspective as a modern reader is clouding my approach to these texts, but it seems ridiculous how these female characters praise the obviously flawed male characters, specifically in instances where they have wronged them. Is Wilde once again poking fun at the dynamics of the upper classes of society, particularly where women are involved, or does he subscribe to the idea that women are truly the inferior sex? I would also be interested as to what others think of Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism. How do they resist or uphold the gender dynamics presented by the other characters?

Wilde Being Earnest with Himself

Everytime I read The Importance of Being Earnest, it seems absurd to me that the socialites of Wilde’s day were not at all outraged by the mockery of themselves and their society which makes up essentially the entirety of the tragicomedy. There was, I’m sure, some blowback from those who watched the play, but it seems that Earnest did very well, as it is widely considered to be Wilde’s best, and most famous production. I suppose it is likely because the play is rarely biting or direct in its criticism of the upper class that it gets away with all of its mockery, and I imagine a good bit of it went over many of the audience members’ heads at the time it was first put to stage. 

Despite this play clearly being a parody of the ridiculous restrictions and expectations of upper class life in England, I believe that Wilde also intended to poke fun at himself with The Importance of Being Earnest. I think this can be seen in his insert character, Algernon Moncrieff, who, like most of Wilde’s other insert characters, relentlessly mocks the society he is living in, much to the general confusion of those around him. A line that stands out to me is, after Algernon states his apathy concerning societal standards, Aunt Augusta retorts, “Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can’t get into it do that.” While Augusta as a character is clearly a mockery of high society, I feel there is some truth that can be extracted from her words here, and it may be that Wilde is admitting a bit of hypocrisy on his part, that he openly mocks high society while taking an active part in it on a regular basis. Overall, while The Importance of Being Earnest serves to mock the social elite of Wilde’s day, it would seem that Wilde is not completely ignorant to the fact that, by most definitions, he himself belongs to that group himself. 

Reflecting on The Importance of Being Earnest

I’ve read Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest three times. The first was in high school for a drama class. We read the play, and then were put into pairs to prepare and perform a scene for the play. The second time was for a theatre class at Notre Dame. We both read and watched a recording of the play to talk about staging and costumes. The third time was for this class, and it’s the only time that I’ve read the play with a specific focus on Oscar Wilde.

If I’m being totally honest, I have a hard time with this play. The first time I read it, I knew that it was considered a great comedy and I didn’t understand what I was missing because I did not find it funny at all. There were witty lines, but nothing that made me laugh out loud and, if anything, I was more annoyed by Wilde’s witticism than amused by it. I had a similar reaction the second time that I read it, and, at this point, think that that is just the way that I react to reading this play.

However, I loved watching the play. That was when the comedy really clicked with me, and I understood why people love The Importance of Being Earnest so much. The Importance of Being Earnest is so farcical and a lot of the comedy is physical. Even though it’s not slapstick, moments like when Cecily gives Gwendolen the opposite of what she asks for at the tea party thrive when you can see the actors make the decision or react to what has happened.

The difference in my reaction to reading versus watching (or even performing a scene) The Importance of Being Earnest made me think about theatre in general and the way in which we approach studying plays. I act in my free time, and there is a lot of value with sitting with a script and really thinking through the language. I think it requires you to move slowly and notice things you might otherwise skim over. However, I think it is equally important to consume art as it was designed to be consumed. Plays are written to be watched and performed, and it is in that setting when they really soar. Plays come to life when they are put onstage, so in order to develop a full opinion of a play, I think it is most fair to watch it and then to go back to the script to read through key moments.

My outlook on this question is shaped by the fact that I have been involved with theatre for most of my life, and the setting in which I have read The Importance of Being Earnest has always–until now–been in a drama class. I may be missing a key element of reading plays that a person coming at it from a different perspective may see.