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Victorian realism was a new invention for the 1800s. According to Nathalie Vanfasse, the term ‘realism’ wasn’t actually used until 1855 when George Henry Lewes employed it as a means of comparing the reliability of a particular piece of literature or other artistic endeavor to real life or to the natural state. Despite this, the pursuit of the real remained a driving force for many Victorian writers as they strove to position themselves as opposed to the excessive styles and narratives of previous forms of literature.
Oscar Wilde was no exception to the rule. In this play, humor is used as a means of highlighting the theme of deception as several of the characters pretend to be someone they aren’t and are only able to find happiness and fulfillment by being earnest, itself a play on the name.
The issue of manners becomes of chief concern as the playwrights each poke fun at the more absurd aspects of high society. The play is relatively short, dedicated to stripping the form of writing down to its barest parts and to present a true representation of how people actually thought and spoke in this time period. At the same time, the content of the play makes the same attempt at ‘being earnest’ in its story, reflecting not only the values of the Victorian society, but exposing the artificiality inherent in it. Thus, in both form and content, The Importance of Being Earnest proves itself true to the Victorian concepts of realism.
The form of the play expresses its realism in the brevity of the play and in the naturalness of the lines. Presented in three acts, the play skips along through its dialogue without any cumbersome soliloquies or lengthy set changes. Although scenes do shift from one location to another, the direction is purposely designed to allow for quick set changes and ease of use. Rather than allowing the play to get too bogged down in details, Wilde provides relatively few detailed stage directions, some of which seem fairly self-evident by the discussions taking place. An example of this type of direction occurs when Algernon and Ernest are together at the beginning of Act 1.
Algernon is telling Ernest not to eat the cucumber sandwiches and offers him bread and butter instead. Jack’s stage direction is “[Advancing to table and helping himself]”. However, others seem placed purposely to help aid in some sort of small deception, such as Algernon’s direction to “[Take plate from below]” just before offering Jack bread and butter sandwiches. This would seem to suggest that the other tray was hidden until this moment, giving the impression that the table is set only with cucumber sandwiches rather than offering more from the beginning.
Another way in which form adheres to the concept of realism is in the fast-flowing lines typically delivered with the sort of flippant disregard for formality characterized by earlier forms of literature. Rather than discussing things as if they had been agonizing over just the right words to say for days, the characters of the play interact as if they were truly to be found sitting around a parlor at tea-time. An example of this can be found in another short exchange that takes place between Algernon and Ernest in the first act.
Algernon tells his servant to bring in a cigarette case that Ernest had left the last time he visited and Ernest speaks up: “Do you mean to say you have had my cigarette case all this time? I wish to goodness you had let me know. I have been writing frantic letters to Scotland Yard about it. I was very nearly offering a large reward.” Algernon answers, “Well, I wish you would offer one. I happen to be more than usually hard up.” Jack responds, “There is no good offering a large reward now that the thing is found.” This is the type of conversation that might occur in any given day between any two people, not the stiff, formal language of, for instance, a Shakespearean production.
The content of the play also struggles against the conventions of society for a more natural expression. Both Ernest and Algernon are constrained by the rigid conventions of the Victorian upper class, but each has developed an alter ego under which they are provided more ‘breathing space.’ “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” (Wilde, I, i) Algernon tells Ernest, known as Jack when residing in the country, during the opening scene of the play, making it obvious that each are playing a similar game of deception for a similar reason. Although this deception allows them the freedom they’ve been missing, when they each fall in love with a woman who believes them to be someone else, they find their game is not so easy to maintain.
Jack falls in love with Gwendolyn Fairfax, Algernon’s cousin, and Algernon falls in love with Cecily Cardew, Jack’s ward, but neither woman will marry their respective beaux unless their names are Earnest, highlighting the frivolity of society and its effects upon social conventions. Algernon immediately makes arrangements to be rechristened, while Jack, through an amazing coincidence, both finds his family and learns his name really is Earnest during a rare act of honesty.
As the play unfolds, the conventions of society are brought even more into question. Both Jack and Algernon fool each other in their development of their alter egos, at least for a short while, but the deception of the nurse maid who lost an infant in a bathroom is exposed as being the longest held and the most serious accusation of emptiness in social graces.
The exposure of Ms. Prism leads to the final revelation of Jack’s true identity and paves the way for his future life of truth in a severely pared down world. “Twenty-eight years ago, Prism, you left Lord Bracknell’s house, Number 104, Upper Grosvenor Street, in charge of a perambulator that contained a baby of the male sex. You never returned. … Where is that baby?” (Wilde, Act III, Scene II), Lady Bracknell demands of Ms. Prism.
Although Prism has no idea what happened to the baby she accidentally took instead of her novel, illustrating the degree of empty-headedness that has infected society, a focus upon reality for a moment reveals Jack’s true identity with very little effort expended. Another reproof is given on society in general in the fact that both Gwendolyn and Cecily insist that they will only marry a man whose name is Ernest, indicating that the name is more important that the nature and again illustrating the various ways in which formality has interfered with a perception of the truth.
Perhaps the greatest deception in the content of the play is the deception Jack Worthing pulls on himself. While Jack believes himself to be out deceiving the world, he learns in the end that he has never lied at all about who he is as he was christened both Earnest and John after his father before him and that he really does have a disreputable younger brother in the figure of Algernon: “Algy’s elder brother! Then I have a brother after all. I knew I had a brother! I always said I had a brother!” (Wilde, Act III, Scene II).
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In the end, the play itself becomes its own deception. Each character represents a paradox that existed within Victorian society, developed as a result of their dissociation from the natural world and the increasingly complex rules of manners and customs that must be adhered to regardless of personal preference, practicality or common sense.
Throughout The Importance of Being Earnest, one can trace the tendency of those in high society to adopt masks or alternate personas as a means of escaping the rigid structures of their societies in both form and content. The main focus of the play remains keyed into the idea of removing the masks of genteel society to get at the true nature of the individual. This is demonstrated within the content of the play through the revelation that everyone had been telling some form of the truth despite their efforts to hide it. In addition, the play, through the various twists and turns it introduces, ends up demonstrating in its form the very things discussed in the content.
The Importance of Being Earnest ends up being earnestly concerned with the frivolity of manners and lack of substance in human relationships while remaining truly entertaining, light-hearted and brief and still conveying a deeper meaning and ‘importance,’ thus delivering on the promise made in the title. While The Importance of Being Earnest exposes the values of manners and behaving in socially acceptable ways if one wishes to be included, it also illustrates the constraints these constructs place on the individual to hide their uniqueness behind a mask of a different shape or form.
Vanfasse, Nathalie. “Grotesque but not Impossible’: Dickens’s Novels and Mid-Victorian Realism.” EREA. Vol. 2, N. 1, 2004.
Wilde, O. “The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”. Masterplots. Ed. S. Bromige. Salem Press, Inc., 1996.