The Importance of Being Earnest (AND Being Ernest)

Hi, everyone! This past Wednesday, I presented on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, a play about double lives and meaningful names. I connected the piece to Northrop Frye’s definition of the “domestic comedy” as well Spininger’s argument that Wilde’s play both meets the criteria of a “domestic comedy” and parodies the genre by conveying a meaning opposite to the play’s events. The Importance of Being Earnest attaches the quality of being “earnest” or dedicated (specifically in the marriage sphere) with the name Ernest– creating an ideal man that women fall for and no man can possibly be. Therefore, two men (Algernon and Jack) both pretend to be Ernest (an act that isn’t earnest itself), to woo the women they admire. The women discover they are engaged to the man and are outraged, but eventually decide to marry the men anyway– and Jack finds out his name has been Ernest this whole time (although he is the one that starts the idea of double lives in the play in the first place!).

Together, Frye and Spininger argue that Wilde purposefully meets the criteria of the “domestic comedy,” something his audience would have been used to, in order to break the exact social norms it seems to enforce. We obtain criteria to base our concept of “domestic comedy” on from Frye’s book Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Frye postulates that all domestic comedies meet the “Cinderella archetype,” having a happy ending that involves “the incorporation of an individual very much like the reader into the society aspired to by both, a society ushered in with a happy rustle of bridal gowns and banknotes” (44). In other words, like Cinderella, a domestic comedy usually ends in marriage (perhaps more than one, like in Wilde’s play) as well as a rise in social status. However, Frye also writes that the best domestic comedies also “involve a social promotion…with moral ambiguities,” or that although the comedy ends in marriage and financial stability, we may question whether the ending was morally acceptable considering the rest of the play (45). In The Importance of Being Earnest, we could argue that Frye’s latter criteria applies well. Although the characters end happily, all four main characters had to jump through multiple hoops (pretending to be someone else, or accepting your betrothed to be a person completely different from who they were telling you they were) in order to reach this ending. As Spininger will argue, Algernon and Jack have deceived their way into getting married. Although they come clean about their identities, they still lied multiple times about their entire lives to the women they were engaged to marry– and on top of all this, Jack realizes that he was Ernest all along. Do their marriages at the end of the play seem morally called for?

As Spininger puts best in his article “Profile and Principles: The Sense of the Absurd in The   Importance of Being Earnest,” the fact that the men still get married at the end of the play “shows how absurd the ending itself really is and exposes the fact that deception and illusion are the very fabric of [Victorian] society” (51). Wilde is turning the genre of domestic comedy on its head by purposefully making his play an obvious domestic comedy but allowing the conditions that make the play meet the genre’s criteria absolutely ridiculous. Wilde parodies his play’s own genre to create a compelling discussion on marriage and the lack of genuine emotion that he believes is behind contemporary marriages. Spininger furthers Frye’s domestic comedy by comparing the happy ending to the means it takes Wilde’s characters to reach it. He notes that Wilde’s characters’ negative comments on marriage are never proven wrong– instead, the characters get married anyway, keeping their negative comments about marriages intact and perhaps even proving them correct by following through with marriage after a mess of deception (50). Spininger even uses Wilde’s own title to argue against the meaning of the play, writing that the characters fit in perfectly with the rest of society because of their deception and that “the most important quality in this society is not being earnest” (Spininger 52).

I found this idea of using a genre that has specific societal value to completely disprove and almost scandalize that value is fascinating. I had understood that the characters’ marriages were absurd– who would marry someone who has been lying about their identity? Why should you need to lie about your identity to get someone to want to marry you? And even finally, is marriage important enough to inspire deception? Without doing any historical research (and I think you definitely could to add even more value to this argument!), we can already tell just how important marriage was at Wilde’s time– although we can wonder just how valuable something is that is built upon lies. Some other works on the reading list that may be interesting to pair with this piece are: A Midsummer Night’s DreamFun Home, or Invisible Man (double lives); or perhaps even “The Yellow Wallpaper” (narratives about marriage). Let me know if you have any other ideas or questions!

Citations:

Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. 1957. Princeton University Press, 2000.

Spininger, Dennis J. “Profile and Principles: The Sense of the Absurd in The Importance of Being Earnest.” Papers On Language & Literature, vol.12,   no .1,  1976, pp. 49-72. Academic Search Complete. Web. 21 Feb. 2017.

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