The Irony of being Earnest
When Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest, opened in London, England, in 1895, its author was in vogue and quite prominent in the literary and social columns. “To some readers it may also have suggested – or confirmed – the impression that there was a less positive side to Wilde’s notoriety” (Jackson 161). While his use of the descriptive word “earnest” in the title denotes a certain element of sincerity and honesty, Wilde cleverly employs this as a pun and premise for conveying to the audience his opinion of the hypocrisy of late Victorian English society and the casual dismissal of truth in favor of socially acceptable appearances.
The 3-act comedy was Wilde’s mockery of aristocratic England and “a subtle form of insult” (Raby 158). Not only is there irony in how “earnest” is used, but the characters’ irrational reverence of the name “Ernest” sardonically helps to spin the reader into a farcical world where Wilde exposes the duality of how people present themselves and view each other in the class structure created and perpetuated by the society of which he was somewhat of an eccentric.
How it works
In his disdain for the rigid Victorian moral and social protocol, Wilde comically depicts the double standards and contradictions of the English culture with paradoxical dialogue between his main characters, Jack and Algy. Both men have invented alter-egos, which allow them to lead double lives. Jack, who is a justice of the peace in the country town of Hertfordshire and guardian to his adopted father’s granddaughter, appears to be an upstanding member of high moral Victorian principled society. He confesses to his friend while in town, however, “My name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country” (Wilde 300), and this way he can pretend to be his badly behaved make-believe brother of whom honorable Jack would disapprove.
Likewise, Algernon Moncrieff, Algy, who finds himself bored with certain social obligations, conjures into existence an imaginary friend named Bunbury, to whose bedside he pretends to rush when dull and unappealing demands have been made upon him. He later borrows Jack’s alias to go visit Cecily who has, in her own fantasy world, already fallen in love with Ernest, the fictional, wicked and mysterious brother of Jack. The confession to each other of their double identity, which by definition is a lie, is regarded by the men as an accepted truth; a construct necessary to uphold the requirements of social norms. These epigrams are used abundantly throughout the play.
With almost no exception, all of Wilde’s characters “exploit epigrammatic wit and paradox” (Lalonde 665). When discussing a widow who his aunt, Lady Augusta Bracknell, recently visited, Algy quips, “I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief” (Wilde 304). Algy declines Aunt Augusta’s dinner invitation with the often used excuse of visiting his phony ailing friend, Bunbury, and Aunt Augusta exclaims, “I should be