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.)
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.
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.
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.
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?