A Critique of Wilde's the Importance of Being Earnest
First performed in 1895, Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest satirized manners and social customs of late Victorian England. Focusing on a pair of young men who live "double lives," the comedy brings to light an element of English society that was ripe for exposure. Wilde was a master satirist. With this play, he shows how cynical attitudes creep into one and before long lead to all sorts of problems. For Jack and Algernon, maintaining a phony second identity is the only way to lead a satisfying life. However, as the story unfolds, the two realize that true fulfillment can only be obtained through honest living. This paper will critique Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest and show the plot, themes, characters and title all work to give an "important" message to the audience.
Otto Reinert (1956) states that The Importance of Being Earnest "merits attention both as satire and as drama" (p. 14). This double way of approaching the play is consistent with the "double" theme that is explored throughout it. Reinert states that Earnest works as both a satire and a drama because "the farce is meaningful" (p.14). It contains a "pattern of ironic inversion" (p. 14) that allows the comedy to be critically analyzed. Examples of ironic inversion run through it from beginning to end and come by way of every character whether major or minor. The butler Lane, for example, delivers one of the first examples of this "ironic inversion" when he explains why got married: it was the result "of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person" (Wilde, 2006, p. 404). The implication is that one marries quite by accident. It is not a contract one enters into willingly.
Yet, Lane does not suggest that marriage is in and of itself something bad. He states that he believes "it is a very pleasant" arrangement -- right before confessing that he, however, has only been married once and, therefore, lacks the necessary experience to really so for sure whether this is true. It is another example of ironic inversion. Lane, who is married, should be able to say whether marriage is good or bad -- especially since his marriage seems to have been a successful one and lasted. Yet, it is precisely because it has lasted and been successful that Lane gives off an air of cynicism. Rather than confess anything positive about marriage, he prefers to reflect his master's attitudes and issue a double meaning: on the one hand, he believes marriage to be quite nice; on the other, he cannot corroborate this belief with any evidence of his own (implying that his own marriage is not so nice). The audience is left to wonder whether Lane is only pretending to be dissatisfied in his marriage or whether he really is unhappy.
This "ironic inversion" is picked up by Jack and Algernon, both of whom feel the need to live double lives, sensing that English society will not allow them to have fun any other way. Yet, they also want what conventional society offers -- marriage. To achieve this aim, they must come clean and cease living the "double" life.
Yet, happily, the false identity turns out to be a "real" identity for Jack. It is revealed that he is Algernon's long-lost elder brother, named after his grandfather Ernest. This happy revelation solves a number of problems. Gwendolen is pleased because she loves the name Ernest (and is not quite so fond of "Jack"), and Lady Bracknell now gives her consent for Jack/Ernest to marry Gwendolen. As a result, Algernon is allowed to marry Cecily.
It is overall a very light-hearted affair, but the very light-heartedness of it all helps to supply the meaning of the drama the Reinert identifies in the play. The meaning is that triviality and seriousness should balance one another out -- that one should never be too trivial or too serious about anything. This message is solidly conveyed in the final lines of the play: Lady Bracknell says to Jack/Ernest: "My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality." Jack responds: "On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I've now realized for the first time in my life the vital importance of being earnest" (Wilde, p. 471).
The Message: Themes of the Play and How Wilde Deals with Them
The theme of the "double" life coincides with the theme of marriage in the play. Each is concerned with respectability and status. Jack feels that he must hide his "town" life from his ward Cecily, fearing that his conduct might scandalize her. That is why he assumes the false identity of "Ernest." Yet, it is this very same false identity that wins the heart of Gwendolen. Which life is real? Which is false? Both are real, but they are detached -- and by the end of the play, Wilde unites them into one life, just as marriage unites the man and the woman in one flesh.
The stigma of low status is overcome thanks to the lucky revelation at the end of the play that Jack actually is Ernest -- and the nephew of Lady Bracknell. Wilde suggests that there exists a happy and good guiding hand of Providence. It is very much in line with what Cecily says to Algernon, as Joseph Pearce (2000) notes: "Cecily's reproach to Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest, 'I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time,'" may also be leveled at Wilde as author of the play (p. 220). He has been pretending to be wicked but in reality has all along been leading us towards a happy and hopeful conclusion.
The theme is marriage is dealt with just the same. It appears from the opening comments made by Lane that the play will look cynically upon marriage. Yet the play ends happily with two marriages. Love, Wilde suggests, is quite possible in marriage so long as triviality and seriousness keep a playful balance -- and so long as a good Providence oversees all things. It is perhaps this latter point that is most important.
Thus the overall message of the play is that a proper balance of light-hearted fun and underlying serious principles should be sought after. After all, there appears to be a light-hearted by serious principle governing the affairs of the characters. Without Providence to steer the play to a happy ending, the balance that Wilde aims for his characters (and us) to have cannot be achieved. Likewise, the meaning of the play cannot be understood without a sense of the role that Providence plays. Jack and Algernon can only do so much to obtain their goals -- but in the end they are blocked. Wilde appears to suggest that the proper balance of triviality and earnestness requires a benevolent Providence.
Characterization vs. Plot
Characterization and plot and both key to the working of the play. The play is driven by characters which undergo transformations. It is also driven by a plot that has a beginning, middle and an end. The characters must overcome conflicts within their individual situations, and the overall story must resolve conflicts that arise independent of the characters' actions (Foster, 1956, p. 19).
For example, Algernon wants to know what his friend Jack/Ernest is hiding in the countryside. He resolves to meet this pretty ward Cecily. To do so he pretends to be Jack's "friend" Ernest. Cecily falls in love with him. But complications arise when Jack/Ernest returns to the countryside and resolves to be "earnest" rather than "Ernest." He announces that "Ernest" is dead -- but this is problematic for Algernon who is pretending to be "Ernest" at that same moment. Then Gwendolen arives, and she tells Cecily that she is engaged to Ernest. Cecily thinks Gwendolen means Algernon. The two fall out with one another. The only thing that can resolve this sudden problem is the truth. Jack and Algernon must come clean.
All of the characters are trivial in a way. Gwendolen insists that she can only love a man named "Ernest." Lady Bracknell insists that she could never allow an orphan to marry Gwendolen. Algernon is obsessed with appetite (he eats all the cucumber sandwiches in the very first scene). And both Jack and Algernon play at being "Ernest" in order to hide a side of themselves.
At the same time, there is a seriousness about them all too. Lady Bracknell's stance with regards to Gwendolen's marriage is firm. She will not budge on the matter -- and even if there is something shallow in her stance, it is to be respected. Likewise, Jack is serious about being a good man -- and so is Algernon as Cecily happily suspects. Part of the greatness of their characters is that they are able to balance triviality with seriousness. They know how to have fun and…