There is a generally accepted view that Oscar Wilde is a ‘king of paradox’. This opinion can be effectively illustrated by his play The Importance of Being Earnest, a piece of literature that includes a paradox in its title. According to Merriam-Webster, paradox relates to a seemingly impossible situation or a notion that is composed of two opposites (par. 1). Despite the fact that some view paradox as an unnecessary turn of phrase, which usually bears no semantic load, the way in which Oscar Wilde ‘played’ with it in The Importance of Being Earnest deserves even more attention than it has already received.
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Satire of the Victorian Society
To explore the concept of paradox as well as its contribution to The Importance of Being Earnest, it is worth mentioning the fact that the play was intended as a complete satire of the high-class Victorian society (Sparknotes par. 2). To create comical characters that become representatives for the deficiencies present in the society, Oscar Wilde integrates paradox into their speech: “My dear fellow, the way you flirt with Gwendolen is perfectly disgraceful” (Wilde 5).
By combining two words “perfectly” and “disgraceful” that have opposite connotations, Wilde underlined the insincere nature of the Victorian society that hid its dissatisfaction with the reality under the covers of their intricate turn of phrase. Therefore, since the nature of Victorian society was, indeed, paradoxical, the literary device chosen by Oscar Wilde fully reflects the realities, which accompanied the play’s setting.
Paradox and Parody
The notion of paradox is tightly intertwined in Wilde’s parodic representation of characters and situations they were in; therefore, paradox should be examined in the context of parody. According to Niederhoff, parody predominantly responds to a certain text while paradox relates to an opinion (41). However, Oscar Wilde managed to merge the two concepts into one through taking set comedic expressions and changing one word in it, creating a paradox and a parody at the same time: “The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. […] It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public” (Wilde 44). By changing the set expression “washing dirty linen” into “washing clean linen” Wilde managed to create a parodic paradox.
Purpose of the Paradox
The most important point to mention relates to the tone and the purpose of The Importance of Being Earnest as a literary piece. It is a comedy intended to make fun of society and expose its faults in a manner that will not be offensive to readers and viewers; rather, comedy is used to teach people to laugh at themselves (Rahman 3). In the same way Ernest, the main character that lied about who he was, learned to tell the truth and became “earnest”, the audience is supposed to learn more about themselves and see how their actions look on the outside. Paradox, in this case, is not a mere literary device used to create comedy; it is a tool for teaching.
Thus, a paradox is not just a play on words that has no specific purpose or meaning. On the contrary, it can be concluded that the notion of paradox in the context of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is an effective literary device used to create a comedic effect. It was integrated into the play to show the faults of the society and teach people to take themselves a little less seriously.
Merriam-Webster. Paradox. n.d.
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Niederhoff, Burkhard. “Parody, Paradox, and Play in The Importance of Being Earnest.” Connotations 13.1. (2004): 32-55. Print.
Rahman, Mahbubur. The Importance of Being Earnest Themes. n.d.
Sparknotes. The Importance of Being Earnest: Themes, Motifs, and Symbols. n.d.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest, London, UK: Penguin Books, 1995. Print.