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.)

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.