Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (824-867)
I have previously read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde once for an English class last fall, so I decided to focus my analysis on Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest for this week's blog. Since this is a play, I wanted to hear it performed. I watched Bethany Lutheran College's April 2018 production of the play on YouTube in conjunction to reading the text. I thought the play was quite hilarious, and I don't think I would have caught all the humor had I not watched a performance of it! Oscar Wilde does a fantastic job at warping the reality that each character faces, and I think he wrote this play for the enjoyment of an audience, especially with regards to the dramatic revelations revealed at the end.
From the beginning of Act I, Jack and Algernon are quite observant and view Victorian life straightforward. The audience is introduced to the first lie when Algernon reveals the cigarette box he has kept from Jack. Wilde uses these lies to twist truth and reality, and in this case, he uses the concept of property to challenge this notion. Jack claims the cigarette box to be his property, even though the uncle/aunt relationship on the box doesn't make logical sense for the cigarette box to belong to Jack. Algernon refuses to believe that the cigarette box is Jack's simply because Jack has claimed it to be his property, but when Jack pulls out his address card with his name on it, Algernon believes it without a doubt. I immediately noticed Algernon's argument regarding property was debunked when he recognizes the business card as a truth, but the cigarette box as false. The notion of appearances comes into play here, since the concept of property must be tied to a name.
Lying gets Jack and Algernon into a pretty big mess when Cecily and Gwendolen realize that they are both engaged to Ernest. Gwendolen is very set on marrying a man by the name of Ernest, even making (what I think is) a sexual comment that the name "produces vibrations" (832). This leads to a connection with to Tennyson's subtle way of discussing sexual desire in "Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal," adding literary layers to the era where sexual relations were not to be discussed in public in order to uphold honorable virtues. Gwendolen judges the name Jack and John to be a lowly one, and she pities any woman who would marry a man with such a name. Similarly, Cecily says the same, claiming she would "pity any poor married woman whose husband is not called Earnest" (849). Both ladies are victims of the institution of marriage, who must fall trap to the institution based on Victorian ideals to economically survive. Wilde plays with appearances again by placing Cecily to be of a lower class than Gwendolen, but the audience finds out in the end that Cecily actually has access to a wealth of 130,000 pounds.
While Gwendolen's "social sphere" is "widely different" than that of Cecily's, Gwendolen gets her judgmental attitude from her mother, Lady Bracknell (851). Before Gwendolen finds out about Cecily being engaged to Ernest and having a big fight with her, she claims her "first impressions are never wrong" (850). Obviously, the audience knows at this point that she really has no clue about the realities around her, since Jack has been lying to her about his identity, and Cecily turns out to be very different from her. Yet Gwendolen pretends to have known about Cecily all along, claiming her argument about first impressions again with an embellishing adverb "invariably" (853). Lady Bracknell seems to know the truth about everything by the end of the play, yet her deceitful character is the largest advocate for living "in an age of ideals" (832). This might reveal that upper-class Victorians were not so virtuous as they appeared. When Jack shares his desire to marry Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell berates him with questions. She demands more information about his past when he admits to not knowing any information about his parents. At this point, I think she knows his true identity since she knew about a child being left in a handbag at the train station all along. However, she decides to conceal this because she still does not know his economic status.
In response to some of the questions posed in the Prezi covering this unit, I believe the play's title has significance in regards to its theme about reputation. In the Victorian age, one's name held significance to what class someone originated and their family history. As seen in lady Bracknell's plans to arrange a marriage for her daughter, she wants to find a happy, successful man for Gwendolen to spend the rest of her life with. In Jack's case, "to be born, or at any rate, bred in a handbag, whether it had handles or not, seems to [Lady Bracknell] to display a contempt for the ordinary decensies of family life" (835). Gwendolen would ruin the reputation of her name and her family if she were to marry a child that was found in a handbag with no parental guidance. With regards to the importance of being earnest, Jack uses the name Ernest to become a new man with a better upbringing so that he can succeed in Victorian life. It is also important for Jack to be Ernest--a namesake--so that he can get away with marrying Gwendolen.
The role that lying plays in the story relates to reality for the characters. Jack and Algernon lie so much that they have to become the characters they create. They lie so much that their realities become their truths, and their lies turn out to be their true identities in which Jack really is Ernest, and Algernon is Jack's brother. Algernon compares his duality to Bunburying, and even claims that "one has a right to Bunbury anywhere one choses" (855). Anyone and everyone has the power to change the course and direction of his or her life, and Jack and Algernon create their alter-egos to escape the social confines of Victorian society and live freely and creatively as other people. Perhaps the social norms of this period were too pompous to uphold.
With regards to Oscar Wilde's assertion that "it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors," I think The Importance of Being Earnest shows that everyone has a reputation and name to uphold, that everyone can create their own truths and reality. But for every other person that encounters them, every stranger has a different interpretation and judgment that becomes their own version of reality and truth. As with any piece of art or literature, the audience may have different interpretations of work that oppose the author's/painter's intentions. This is what makes literature, art, and Wilde's characters so special; every interpretation of a text, work, and character is unique and has its own value. Overall, Oscar Wilde challenged these ideas of Victorian virtue in The Importance of Being Earnest to show that Victorian Brits weren't all that prestigious, and that even upper-class men and women can lie as deceitfully as lower class individuals, making everyone more similar despite class and gender barriers.