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Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of being Earnest, deals with several aspects of Victorian life and social manners in a humorous way. It is sometimes called a Victorian melodrama or a sentimental play. It was very common for the writers to take the theme of fallen women or abandoned children and to present it in a witty and philosophical way. Wilde too does it, but in his high satirical tone. Therefore, the play is a satire, or it can be called a comedy of manners. This paper gives focus on the moral paradox in the play, as seen reflected through the characters.
The title of the play itself is very paradoxical. Wilde uses the name of his character, Ernest, in a mocking way to echo the word earnest. Though the key meaning of this word is honesty and sincerity, Wilde intends to convey the false attitudes of the Victorians. Therefore, the word embraces their false morality in several ways, like their smugness and the pretension of their sense of duty. In other words, the play is about the Victorian morality and the constraints it imposes on the society. The play is also a double-edged criticism of the conventional preoccupations of the middle and upper middle class society in the nineteenth century Victorian England. The outward appearance of virtue and honor of his characters is not only artificial but is also fictitious. As Lady Bracknell says “We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces” (Act, p. 111).The play, thus, becomes very interesting as it mirrors the Victorian flamboyant style of dress, their hypocrisy, and their shallow life altogether.
The real moral paradox is shown through the central characters named Jack Worthing and Algernon. Jack is shown as a gentleman, a justice, who pretends to carry with him all the Victorian virtues. He makes others believe that he is earnest in his life. The truth, however, is different. He maintains a fictional self, an alter-ego, and it is though this other self that his suppressed desires seek an outlet. It is for this reason that he visits his fictional brother frequently in the city of London. This enables him in indulging in an amoral life. In other words, his fictional brother helps him to escape from his limitations imposed by the society on an upright man. When Gwendolen falls in love with him, the play touches its highest watermark of satire, because her fixation is on his name, Ernest, and not on the person. In short, everything is pretentious, even love, under the mask of earnestness, revealing the moral paradox in the play.
It is Algernon, the autobiographical figure in the play, who is more interesting. He is a dandy, an idle and charming bachelor. He always talks epigrammatically and paradoxically. He too has a fictional character named Bunbury. He tells Jack, “You have invented a very useful younger brother called Ernest, in order that you may be able to come up to town as often as you like. I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose” (Act 1, part 1). He enjoys doing things in a wrong way. He is proud to say that “My duty as a gentleman has never interfered with my pleasures in the smallest degree” (Act 11, part 1). His philosophical talk echoes Oscar Wilde’s style and subject.
This escape from (un)reality is achieved in the play mostly with the plot of marriage to which the Victorians pretend to attach great importance. How shallow it is can be seen from the remarks like “I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand Act” (Act 1, part 1). Marriage is the basic force in the play, leading he characters to several motivations. It is also the subject of key discussions, to know whether marriage is a business in society or whether it is for pleasure. The two pairs of lovers in the play become the focus, making the play sexual, or a romantic comedy. Through their preoccupations and dialogues, Wilde succeeds in exposing the social restrictions that surround the institution of marriage. Again, it is a moral paradox as through their outward behavior in no way they reflect the morality they preach. The unwritten or unspoken rules and norms in the society rush through these characters, making the play highly satirical. By giving importance to property and inheritance, the Victorians made a mockery of this divine institution, marriage. In fact, the real moral paradox in the play covers a larger canvas. It reflects the soul of man trapped in social paradoxes. It is the life with which people play, resulting in a kind of unreal human existence. Therefore, the play is something more than a mere comedy; it deals with the real values in life.
Finally, the moral paradox in the play touches upon another component, the question of identity. The play brims with confused identities, beginning with the discovery of the baby in a bag at a London railway station. Everything is masked, making it difficult for anyone to see the actual identity of a person. Jack confesses at one stage that “it is very painful for me to be forced to speak the truth” (Act 111). Lady Bracknell also says that “We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces”. “Continuing his disgraceful deception”, Jack‘s ultimate realization is that, as he reveals to Aunt Augusta, “On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest”. Therefore, as discussed in this paper, the real paradox in the pay is the moral confusion of not being earnest, or the importance of being earnest.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. Web.