Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners, The Importance of Being Earnest, offers the reader and viewer a chance to laugh at the deceptive ways that people present themselves. As Lady Bracknell puts it, towards the close of the play, “We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces”. (Wilde Act 3, line 164) This fascination with the contradictions between the visible and the concealed aspects of personality and behavior is a reflection of Wilde’s stated goal for the play.
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He subtitles the play, “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”; after all, an epigram that itself contains contradiction. Additionally, his obsession with contradictions between personal behavior and social expectations may reflect his own documented struggle with forbidden behavior that brought him to legal disaster.
To demonstrate the contrast between socially fabricated identity and the genuine self, Wilde provides each character an opportunity to reveal both their glossy surfaces, and, somehow, in some way, the more real and authentic person existing below the more socially acceptable outer layer. By distributing the deception across the entire cast, he makes a powerful comment that all members of society are equally guilty of having surfaces that differ sharply from their true selves.
The most obvious contrast is in the characters of Algernon and Jack. Each has a second identity that allows them to operate free of the censure of those whose good opinion they value. Each espouses one set of values but actually operates by a slightly different one.
Jack Worthing, whose name itself suggests a play on the word ‘worthy’, presents two very different surfaces to the world. When in London, he plays the part of a ‘man about town’. In his city identity as ‘Ernest’, he occupies a bachelor apartment, despite owning a full-sized house located on a staid square of family residences, which he rents out to a presumably less dashing elderly lady (Wilde Act 1, line 520), in a neighborhood that remains desirable today. He participates in the social whirl, for example by dining with his friends, and becoming perhaps so intoxicated that he does not recall having left behind a valued cigarette case (Wilde Act 1, line 111).
However, he presents a very different character in his country setting. “Jack”, as he has allowed himself to be known in his country identity, is a notably careful guardian to his benefactor’s grand-daughter. Jack encourages Cecily’s study of an admirably challenging range of academic subjects, such as German, Geology, and Political Economy (Wilde Act 2, line 97), all in the enlightening company of Miss Prism (Wilde Act 1, line 195).
He also serves his community as Justice of the Peace (Wilde Persons of the Play). In this role, he doubtless encounters legal cases involving the exact sort of youthful indiscretions he himself engages in while in London (e.g., dining out at Algernon’s and getting into other trouble) (Wilde Act 1, Line 210-211). His disconnect between surface and truth is so comprehensive that he is dismayed, at the end of Act 3, “to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth” (Wilde Act 3, line 477-479)
Algernon Moncrieff is Jack/Ernest Worthing’s long-time friend, and even more of a useless playboy. He may be surviving on a parental inheritance. He certainly does not work, but instead spends his time hosting dinners at which, for example, his butler tells him eight bottles of champagne and a pint might be consumed (Wilde Act 1, line 15). This supports the notion that he lives somewhat beyond his means. He tells Jack, “I happen to be more than usually hard up.” (Wilde Act 1, line 118-119) This does not prevent him seeming, on the surface, “ostentatiously eligible” (Wilde Act 3, line 214). As his Aunt Augusta Bracknell puts it, he is “He has nothing, but he looks everything. What more can one desire?” (Wilde Act 3, line 215-216).
This is the essence of having ‘surfaces’. University educated and moderately talented musically (enough, at least, for his aunt Augusta to entrust the music program for her end-of-season reception to him) (Wilde Act 1, Line 352-353), he has a secret life. He has created the useful fiction of a demanding rural invalid friend, in order to occasionally opt out of social engagements that bore or irritate him. This also allows him to maintain the surface appearance of a helpful, dependable person (Wilde Act 2, line 325), rather than a self-centered time-waster whose view of life is summed up as, “It is awfully hard work doing nothing.
However, I don’t mind hard work where there is no definite object of any kind.” (Wilde Act 1, line 690). This invalid, of course, is the infamous Bunbury. Algernon correctly identifies Jack’s deception of both his city and his country household and neighbors as a magnificent example of Bunburying (Wilde Act 1, line 254). In suggesting that every man needs a Bunbury (Wilde Act 1, line 264), Algernon is perhaps expressing Oscar Wilde’s own desire to maintain a secret life.
The two young ladies also show contrasting sides of their personalities. These ladies could not be more apparently different from one another on their surfaces. However, they share an underlying ambition to marry someone who fits their set of requirements. These requirements are a mix of the harshly realistic (e.g., must have money, position, parental approval), and the entirely goofy, e.g., must be named Ernest (Wilde Act 2, line 513), must be naughty.
Gwendolen Bracknell has the exterior, surface of a city sophisticate. Although her age is never made explicit or discussed, there is the suggestion that she is perhaps at least a season or so beyond her first presentation to society. This is hinted at when Algernon asks, “Have you told Gwendolen yet that you have an excessively pretty ward who is only just eighteen?” (Wilde Act 1, line 667). It is also reflected in Algernon’s description of her as,” brilliant, clever, thoroughly experienced young lady “(Wilde Act 2, Line 812).
Despite her mother’s contention that she has, “a simple, unspoiled nature” (Wilde Act 1, line 98), she harbors definite and rather sophisticated opinions. She is “never wrong” (Wilde Act 1, line 379), about her absolute pronouncements on social behavior, for example, that , “once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate” (Wilde Act 2, line 515-517), the importance of the name Ernest, and her entirely contradictory comments regarding her own character, for example, “I never change, except in my affections” (Wilde Act 3, line 436).
Cecily Cardew is equally decided in her opinions, despite her rural seclusion. She appears on the surface to be still a child, yet she keeps a diary with a very mature eye out for future publication (Wilde Act 2,line 432). She holds her own in argument with Gwendolen, and is a keen observer, noting that Jack, “often looks a little bored when we three are together.” (Wilde Act 2, line 20). Her obsession with the name Ernest is, like Gwendolen’s fixation (Wilde Act 1, line 395), perhaps silly, but perhaps symbolic of the commitment they hope for from their husbands.
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Lady Augusta Bracknell, bearing the Caesars’ honorific meaning venerable, treasures respectability. However, like everyone else in this play, she possesses both a visible surface, and a real nature and past. For example, although she does not, on the surface, “approve of mercenary marriages”, she notes that, “When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way.” (Wilde Act 3, line 191-192) Thus, she married for money. Her secret identity is as a manipulator. She now dominates her spouse in his sickly senior years, consigning him to eat in his room to even up her guests’ numbers for dinner parties (Wilde Act 1, Line 330-332).
It is she, not Gwendolen’s father, who interviews Jack/Ernest regarding his marital intentions and prospects on Gwendolen’s behalf (Wilde Act 1, line 435-596). She exercises parental interest in Algernon’s marrying someone with assets, because, “Algernon has nothing but his debts to depend upon” (Wilde Act 3, line 190). She also seems to view Cecily’s personal fortune as a compensation for her guardian Jack/Ernest’s socially unacceptable lack of parentage (Wilde Act 3, line 120-195).
The governess, Miss Laetitia Prism, seems the stereotype of maidenly, and educated, respectability. However, even she has two secrets, or perhaps three. For example, she avidly seeks out the company of Reverend Chasuble, saying.” I was told you expected me in the vestry, dear Canon. I have been waiting for you there for an hour and three quarters.” (Wilde Act 3, line 334-335). This suggests she has a crush on him. She aspired to author sentimental novels (Wilde Act 2, line 49-50, and Act 3, line 358). She also failed catastrophically and dramatically as a baby nurse for General and Mrs. Moncrieff, by leaving Jack/Ernest in a train station (Wilde Act 3, line 352-360).
Canon Frederick Chasuble, D.D. supposedly a celibate local clergyman, reveals feelings for Miss Prism, long concealed under his chasuble (clerical vestments, by promptly embracing her when the young couples formalize their engagements (Wilde Act 3, line 482). His unpublished trove of sermons regarding the Anabaptists suggests secret literary aspirations (Wilde Act 3, line 312). However, he never demonstrates an interest in a vibrant, personal Christianity.
Lane and Merriman also appear consistent internally and externally, but even they have private lives and personal feelings. Lane, much more than a robotic servant, has a failed marital history, which he shares with Algernon, to Algernon’s boredom and moral censure (Wilde Act 1, Line 23-36). He also aids and abets Algernon in concealing his piggish and premature consumption of all of Aunt Augusta’s favorite cucumber sandwiches (Wilde Act 1, line 310). Merriman is also more than a wooden, unfeeling domestic. He is a sympathetic helper in the young people’s romantic efforts, willingly removing the ominous dog cart intended to carry Algernon off forever, for whatever length of time will help the young people achieve their marital goals (Wilde Act 2, line 421).
In his satirical sketching of all these characters, Wilde liberally and widely distributes his critique of society, a world that he seemed to feel valued appearance over substance, and form over sincerity. He burdens each character with both a societally acceptable surface, and a quirkier, rougher, and more genuine inner identity that diverges from societal expectations. In doing so, Wilde makes a powerful case for greater personal freedom. This cannot have been entirely accidental, given his troubled and fraught history regarding his own double life.
Wilde, Oscar. “The Importance of Being Earnest.” 2013. mikicafilolosko.pbworks.com. Ed. Russell Jackson. P. B. Brockbank. Web.