"The Importance of Being Earnest": The Truth of Contradiction
Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People is an English play with that perfect (and hard-to-achieve) mixture of hilarious dialogue and stinging satire. At first glance, Earnest is merely about a group of delusional characters spouting random one-liners to each other with impossibly straight faces. But on deeper reflection, the play is very serious when it comes to satirizing Victorian society.
Wilde quite obviously ridicules the wealthy land-owners who lead high society, but when it comes down to it, he is also making fun of basic human nature. We find that not only are we enjoying a good laugh at the cost of distant English aristocrats, but we are also laughing at ourselves.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a play of contradictions. We are presented with fantasy versus reality, Victorianism versus the inevitability of modernity, truth versus fiction, nonsense versus sense. Wilde pits these ideas against each other, letting them blend together at times. He contradicts himself, and then contradicts his contradiction. Ultimately, this is Wilde's attempt at reconciling the contradictions of his society and of his life into truth.
The play opens on Algernon's apartment in London. Algy is playing the piano. He then asks his butler Lane if he had heard what he was playing. Lane remarks, "I didn't think it polite to listen, sir."
Two lines in, and Wilde is already on the back of the master-servant society.
Throughout the play, Oscar Wilde focuses on aristocratic characters who lead rather pointless lives. Jack and Algernon spend their days finding amusement for themselves. Gwendolen lives a fashionable, delusional life waiting for "her Ernest" to propose. Cecily, when she is not daydreaming about romance, studies foreign languages and music for no other apparent reason than that it is expected of good society. They are all excessively bored and get caught up in their own fantasies.
Lady Bracknell, when interviewing Jack as a possible suitor for Gwendolen, displays a ridiculous list of expectation. Instead of delving into Jack's true character and intentions, she focuses on his style of living and his ancestry. She is very disturbed to learn that Jack does not even know who his parents were (in a humorous account of his being found at a railroad station), not out of concern for him, but out of a misguided desire to have Gwendolen married to a good name. Character is unimportant in the face of the mere image of "goodness."
To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, 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.
Note the words "ordinary," "decencies," and "family life," which have no meaning because they are not backed by reality. Lady Bracknell, and therefore the portrayed Victorian society, is not interested in virtue, but only the appearance of such.
Miss Prism, later, tells Cecily what is expected of her:
The fact is, you have fallen lately, Cecily, into a bad habit of thinking for yourself. You should give it up. It is not quite womanly .... Men don't like it.
Perhaps even before his time, Wilde points out that Victorian society, in the attempt to protect women, sometimes ended up inhibiting them.
Besides being a play on manners, Earnest main plot is focused on romance and its Victorian expected result, marriage.
Algy proceeds to give his advice on the subject:
I really don't see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I'll certainly try to forget the fact.
... girls never marry the men they flirt with. Girls don't think it right.
Later Algy contradicts himself:
The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one's clean linen in public.
One the hand, Victorian society placed strict rules on relationships, but on the other hand, society realized, perhaps unconsciously, the emptiness of rules without personally believed reasons. Maybe it is in contradiction that truth can really be achieved, after all.
Perhaps Cecily is the most delusional character in the play. Being secluded in the country apart from the diversions of London, she spends much of her time fantasizing about Jack's supposed brother Ernest, whom she imagines is in love with her. When Ernest does arrive (in reality, Algy), she explains to him that they have been engaged, have broken off the engagement, and are back on again. He doesn't seem to mind terribly that Cecily is mentally unstable, and is only happy that she is in love with him, despite the fact that she is only in love with his portrayed self, a lie.
Gwendolen, in exaggeration, explains what perhaps can be viewed as the drive behind Victorian society: Idealism.
We live, as I hope you know, Mr. Worthing, in an age of ideals. The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines, and has now reached the provincial pulpits, I am told; and my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence ... The name, fortunately for my peace of mind, is, as far as my own experience goes, extremely rare.
Here Wilde takes this idea of idealism and proves that this idealism in and of itself is useless. Ideals can be based on utter nonsense. The Victorians are often portrayed as having the outward forms of virtue, but ignoring the basis for this virtue. Cecily continues the pointless ideal in Act III:
... it had always been a girlish dream of mine to love some one whose name was Ernest. There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence. I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest.
The Incident of the Cigarette Case is in Act I, which results in the explanation that Ernest's real name is Jack. He pretends to be Ernest in the city where he lives rather recklessly (he owes the Savoy 700 pounds), and returns to the country as Jack where he undertakes the moral rectitude of a guardian. When he wants to go to the city, he tells his household (consisting of his ward, Cecily Cardew, and her governess, Miss Prism) that he his visiting his black-sheep brother Ernest. Algy is astonished at this news and reveals that he pretends to visit an invalid named Bunbury whenever he wants to get out of other engagements. Both live comical lies as compulsive "Bunburyists". As Algy so profoundly 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!
Later Jack displays a strange conception of telling the truth:
My dear fellow, the truth isn't quite the sore of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined, girl. What extraordinary ideas you have about the way to behave to a woman!
The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to some one else, if she is plain.
And Jack promptly states: "Oh, that is nonsense", as if his own idea was actually logical in comparison. Hypocrisy, a detriment to relationships, is dismissed for the greater good.
The Importance of Being Earnest is not what it seems. The subtitle, A Trivial Play for Serious People, reveals its core attempt at finding truth through contradiction. Through portraying Wilde's society through trivialities, he is revealing its true nature. Being "earnest" and being "Ernest" are two vastly different ideas, but when rubbed together - on the one hand, seeking ideals, and on the other, seeking to be someone's ideal - the hypocrisy of human nature can be studied in all its ridiculous forms.
Perhaps the play should be viewed in accordance with Oscar Wilde's own life. The play, the masterpiece of his playwriting career, was released precisely before his moral downfall was made public. This is a contradiction in itself. Here, success - there, failure. What was Wilde attempting to say? Was he criticizing societal hypocrisy, and therefore his own community, his own friends, the basis for his career as an entertainer? Did he take personal hypocrisy seriously? And if so, was he criticizing his own hypocritical lifestyle? Let us find the truth, contradictory though it might seem. We live in a world where triviality can be serious, and where fantasy becomes reality. Nonsense becomes sense.
To close with a contradictory truth... Jack blindly accuses Algy: "You never talk anything but nonsense." And Algy replies, foolishly wise, "Nobody ever does."