Oscar Wilde had written during the Victorian time which was an era that laid much emphasis on moral values. It can be contended that The Importance of Being Earnest is in essence a play on morality since the major argument surfacing after its reading relates to honesty as being the best policy.
Although the learning from the play strengthens the values as prevailing during the period, there is quite a lot in the play that is not as per convention. The primary reason for Wilde’s success was that he was able to narrate an appealing story that further strengthened the prevailing social values. This he was able to do by making use of the untraditional relationships and images.
The Importance of Being Earnest was the last play written by Oscar Wilde and it undoubtedly became the most celebrated. George Bernard Shaw and H G Wells considered the play amongst the funniest that were ever written and to this day the play continues to absorb and entertain theatre lovers through out the world.
The play makes fun of the literary world, the aristocratic society and the customs and mannerisms of the British, while at the same time questions the concept of identity. The plans of the different characters in the play are seen to be going topsy-turvy due to the occurrence of unexpected developments. Wilde has skilfully taken up the issues of romantic gamesmanship, social ambitions and class pretensions through wit sharpened dialogues.
Morality and marriage
A major reason for the play’s success is the large number of spicy epigrams used by Wilde. Although some of the succinct and inconsistent statements relate to contemporary happenings, most of them are general manifestations of beauty, classes, women and men.
Most of the statements are being quoted to this day and keep on delighting the audience with their mix of absurdities and sophistication. Other than revealing the beauty, the play is a masterpiece in depicting Victorian styles as prevalent during the time, especially in relation to morality and marriage.
For long, marriage had been a significant issue and Wilde had depicted its scheming use as a social instrument of progression. Other than Miss Prism, all the ladies in the play are seen as having hidden motives in regard to romance. Wilde has convincingly criticized the superficial ways of politeness as practiced by society and has outlined the nature of the shallow masks that were worn by aristocratic Victorians.
Why a Comedy
A major source of humour in the play is the confused source of values as displayed by the characters. In this regard, Wilde had commented about the play as being “exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has its philosophy that we should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality,” (Oscar Wilde, 2005).
Wilde had impressed upon his actors to speak out their words very seriously so that the audience did not think that they were joking. Although in essence the play is a comedy that relates to protocol, it has openly used ridiculous means to minimize its significance. Fortunately the audience is ever willing to ignore the inconsistency and indiscretions in the play.
Within the structure of the play one can feel the allusions of homosexuality implied in the male characters. It is known that while he was writing this play, Wilde was leading a twin life of a married man as also of a homosexual.
The original audiences of the play were utterly shocked at the reference of such a culture in the play and unfortunately for Wilde, the success of the play was not carried too further as his well known trial began after the opening night of the play and his career began to get loose.
There are two major issues forming the critique of The Importance of Being Earnest. Firstly, although the play was very well received by audiences when it opened for the first time, critics during the time openly questioned the moral aspects pertinent in the play.
The play was attacked by George Bernard Shaw for its “real degeneracy” (Bob Nelson, 1993), and described the playwright’s word play as being rather hateful and sinister. The second issue relates to the dramatic framework of the play in exhibiting aspects of parody, comedy of manners and mockery. Critics have been unable to come to a conclusion in regard to what category the play belongs to.
Critics are divided on the issue of morality in The Importance of Being Earnest. According to Edouard Roditi, who wrote the book Oscar Wilde, the playwright’s comedy did not rise higher than “the incomplete or the trivial” (Edouard Roditi, 1947).
Roditi felt that the play did not have ethical perspectives since no character saw through other characters nor criticized their values. Eric Bentley also felt the same way and concluded that “because of its ridiculous action, the play fails to break… into bitter criticism of serious issues” (Eric Bentley, 1987).
Otto Reinert has opined that Wilde’s comedy has had the effect of “an exposure both of hypocrisy and of the unnatural convention that necessitates hypocrisy” (Otto Reinert, 1956). Consequently there was a superficial cover up of the white lies that maintained politeness in the so called polite society, which alone was able to give the plot a moral meaning.
This is exemplified by the instance in the play when Algernon is criticized by Lady Bracknell for having taken care of his make believe friend, Bunberry who was supposed to make a decision whether he was going to die or live. In criticizing him she voices her conservative belief that “illness in others is always faked [and]… consequently sympathy with invalids is faked also” (Oscar Wilde, 2005)
Although Lady Bracknell is portrayed as respecting convention she is believed to have had no illusions about “the reality her professed convention is supposed to conceal” (Otto Reinert, 1956). She presumes that both Bunberry and Algeron are “bubburying” and she behaves in a way that “exposes the polite cynicism that negates all values save personal convenience and salon decorum” (Otto Reinert, 1956).
The lady’s behaviour is in the nature of exposing the polite cynicism in negating all desired values except salon decorum and personal convenience. Lady Bracknell is not protected from her own shortcomings in being extra earnest.
She disapproves of marriages amongst mercenaries and admits that when she had married Lord Bracknell she did not have any fortune, which implied that she was opposed to marrying for money, and that she was not in possession of much wealth at the time she married a wealthy man.
According to Reinert, “this position is neither cynical nor funny. It represents… [a] compromise between practical hardheadedness and conventional morality” (Otto Reinert, 1956).
In all, the play has not endorsed social dishonesty and for some time it makes a mockery of respectability. The use of paradoxical morality by Wilde has served as an evaluation of the “the problem of manners.”
This is so because Algeron, in trying to escape the pretence of conventions, becomes a hypocrite himself when he pretends to be a person that he actually is not. Wilde has conveyed that the so called Victorian morality forced people to lead a life of double standards, one that was frolicsome and another that was respectable, none of them being solemn.
A critical issue in the play relates to the categorization of the play. It has been described as a “farce that represents the reality that Victorian convention pretends to ignore” (Otto Reinert, 1956). The characters have not been ironic enough by way of saying something but meaning something else.
In fact they really mean what ever they state, which is evident from the fact that Algernon does not wish to attend lady Bracknell’s dinner party since she will invariably make him sit near Mary Farquhar who is in the habit of flirting while sitting with her own husband.
Reinert has written in this regard that, “Algernon is indignant with a woman who spoils the fun of extramarital flirtation and who parades her virtue. He is shocked at convention. And his tone implies that he is elevating break of convention into a moral norm,” (Otto Reinert, 1956). This makes things conventional out of unconventional situations.
Wilde’s comedy is seen as working through a caricature in transforming the techniques of comedy, plot situations and the characters.
The play has been defended against the charge that it was just a mockery because mockery “depends for its effects upon extremely simplified characters tangling themselves up in incongruous situations, as in Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors or Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer.
Instead, the comedy of Earnest subsists, for the most part, not in action or situation but in dialogue, which is too witty and intellectual to be described simply as a farce,”(Forster, 1956).
Instead of being a comedy of manners or a mockery, Forster believed that Wilde used characters and familiar plot devices satirizing the Victorian community. The relationship that Jack has with Gwendolen symbolizes the problems faced by lovers in being forced to stay away from getting married due to class differences.
Wilde found a novel solution by establishing Jack’s patrimony in being the child at the railway station. A common feature of romantic literature pertains to falling in love at first sight which too is demonstrated by Wilde in total contrast when Cecily falls in love with Algernon, not at first sight but simply because she is under the impression that his name is Everest.
Although Algernon is depicted as being cynical, but there is evidence in indicating that such cynicism is shallow since after he met Cecily, “Algernon is engaged to be married and reconciled to getting christened,” (Forster, 1956).
In appearing to be innocent and protected, Cecily conveys that it would become a hypocritical situation if Algernon tries to be good while trying to project himself as being fiendish. According to Forster, “The moral of Wilde’s parody: the rake is a fake, girlish innocence is the bait of a monstrous mantrap, the wages of sin in matrimony,” (Forster, 1956).
In essence the dramatic troubles as identified by some critics in the play, are seen as being its strengths. Forster emphasizes that the whole point of the play lies in the machinations of its plot and the convenience outlined behind the numerous coincidences that are neatly placed in its resolutions.
Bob Nelson, The Importance of Being Earnest, A study Guide.
Edouard Roditi, Oscar Wilde, 1947, Norfolk: New Directions
Eric Bentley, The Playwright as Thinker, 1987, Harvest Books Foster, Richard. “Wilde as Parodist: A Second Look at The Importance Of Being Earnest.” October, 1956, College English
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, 2005, Prestwick House Inc
Reinert, Otto. “Satiric Strategy in The Importance Of Being Earnest.” October, 1956, College English