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Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) in The Importance of Being Ernest 1895 play utilizes the comedy of manners brand of satire to lampoon the social etiquette, pretensions, and conventions of Victorian society. Characterizing the comedy of manners are love relationship(s), which constitute the central plot, stereotyped stock characters with whom the common man would be easily able to identify, and witty humor. The flat, undeveloped characters stand for common dogmas or principles or represent an entire slice of society. Due to the rules governing decorum, the comedy of manners is a medium through which playwrights could openly poke fun at conventions without getting jailed or censored. Algernon, commenting on the essentiality of serious comedy, says that “one has to be serious about something, for one to have any amusement in life” (Act 3, Scene 1). This is the fundamental Wildean principle that applies in his comedy of manners play. Wilde evokes sardonic mockery of social orthodoxy by the characters’ comments and actions against serious mores such as marriage, sexuality, religion, government, and social class.
Twinning and double identity is a mechanism in the comedy of manners which leads to the hilarious plot and denouement of Wilde’s play. As the title reveals, Ernest and earnestness are centers upon which the play revolves. The main protagonist, Jack Worthing, unbeknownst to the other characters has a hidden identity as Ernest. As Ernest, Jack delights himself in hedonistic pleasure in London. The intrigue develops with Jack’s double identity as Ernest and his amorous liaison with Gwendolen Fairfax who earnestly desires to marry an Ernest, because it is a charming name to her ear. Jack decides to put away his dissolute Ernest days behind him in order to marry however, fiancée Gwendolen is fixated on the name Ernest since the name inspires more trust in him. For her sake, he undergoes a legal name change to Ernest Worthing. To his detriment as well Algernon Moncrieff’s fiancée, Cecily Cardew, also wants a husband named Ernest. For her, Algernon, also parades as Ernest. In order to woo his future wife, he seeks a certified name change to Ernest. By the end of the play, in a coincidental meeting with Miss Prism, the former Jack Worthing discovers that his father’s name was Ernest and that his original birth name actually is Ernest John. The motif of twinning adds to jocularity since it heightens the tendency to confusion, identity-theft, and labyrinthine messages. Puns, double-entendres, social blunders, timing, and misunderstandings are weaved in together to achieve a humorous sequence of events.
True to the comedy of manners genre, Wilde “saw the need to flaunt abhorrence of conventional taste in dress and behavior” (Hirst 3). As such, Wilde ridicules the institution of marriage, the motives of union, the game of courtship, and the marriage life. At the play’s start, Algernon finds out that marriage is ‘demoralising’ because married women do not allow their men to drink as much as bachelors. Some characters have cynical views on marriage and freely vent them in such a way as to provoke laughter. Algernon does not look forward to marriage because he considers it an end of the excitement of romance to which Jack replies that the Divorce Court was instituted for people like him (Wilde Act 1, Scene 1). Miss Prism jokingly asserts that “no married man is ever attractive except to his wife” (Wilde Act 2, Scene 1). Lady Bracknell, Jack’s aunt, has forgotten her deceased husband’s name and blames his odd behavior to elements such as “the Indian climate, marriage, and indigestion” (Wilde Act 3, Scene 1). These individual opinions on marriage paint a disagreeable picture of marriage as the characters form and air their perspective based on their own experiences and society’s dogmas. In this play, Wilde mimics the marriage of convenience theme through Lady Bracknell who is a stock character representing the Victorian aristocracy which founded marriages on income and estates, rather than on love and compatibility.
“The comedy of manners inherently provides the most appropriate battleground for dramatizing class warfare” (Ross). Lady Bracknell refuses the alliance between Gwendolen and Jack because Jack is an orphan with a common upbringing whereas his fiancée, Gwendolen, comes from a high social class. The marriage interview that Lady Bracknell conducts is intended to deride the upper classes. As Bracknell interrogates Jack, he responds to her questions with suppressed anger; yet with witty answers which betrays the disgruntled attitude of the poorer classes when confronting the possibility of the denial of a marriage due to class disparities and the stigmatic social implications of such improvident alliances. Bracknell’s questions Jack of his family, education, estate, and ties (Wilde Act 1, Scene 2). Lady Bracknell also attempts to erect a barrier between her nephew Algernon and his fiancée Cecily until Bracknell finds out that Cecily is a high-born, moneyed woman, then she changes her mind and consents to the marriage.
“Because social satire is basic to all the plays of this type, the comedy of manners is particularly subversive” (Hirst 4). Wilde undermines religion and conventional sexuality in The Importance of Being Ernest by pervading the play with lies, half-truths, and innuendos. Miss Prism suggests to a priest, Dr. Chasuble, with whom she is in love, that “he should get married” (Wilde Act 2, Scene 1). While Dr. Chasuble upholds Catholicism’s objection against the clergy’s matrimony, Miss Prism continues to rebut him saying that, “men should be more careful; celibacy leads weaker vessels astray” (Wilde Act 2, Scene 1); clearly alluding to the increased temptation in repressed desire for the woman. In the face of Lady Bracknell’s dissent of Jack and Gwendolen’s marriage, Jack retorts “then a passionate celibacy is all that any of us could look forward to” (Wilde Act 3, Scene 1). This statement is anti-Victorian since pre-marital sex is not condoned and considered taboo. Lady Bracknell echoes her disapprobation at this alternative as she quickly refuses this decadent lot for her daughter, Gwendolen.
At dinner, Wilde takes the opportunity to parody tea manners when Gwendolen and Cecily, as two competing females for the supposedly same Ernest, exchange insults. In Victorian England, having dinner was a formal affair where everyone is instructed to be one his or her best behavior. Table etiquette, customary niceties, and polite conversation are indispensable to having a decent tea with someone else. However, due to double-entendres about the two Ernest’s, the women betray their ire, each wishing that the other would stay away from her Ernest. Wilde repeats his parodying of Victorian table manners when Jack and Algernon have tea. They quarrel that they cannot both be re-christened Ernest and argue over tea-cakes and muffins.
In Act I, Scene 2, Lady Bracknell is inviting Algernon to dinner; however he opts out of her gracious request, saying that Bunbury, his brother is sick, which is a blatant lie.
The irony of The Importance of Being Ernest/Earnest is that no one embodies that virtue. The men, Jack and Algernon, change like Proteans in order to marry and satisfy their desires to be married. The women, Gwendolen and Cecily, demand that they would marry no other than a man called Ernest, hoping that their Ernests are earnest. Lady Bracknell holds hollow, aristocratic standards that only serve to condescendingly remind the other characters of their inferior ranks, choosing to focus her energies on the superficial social trapping of social pedigree rather than character analysis. Lady Bracknell reveals that the Tories and Liberal Unionists’ only significance to her is their visits to her place to have tea and dinner. Tories and Liberal Unionist are opposing sections in British parliament, therefore one observes that politics and social reform does not matter to her. Her attitude reflects the traditional apolitical or politically passive stance of the indifferent rich.
In sum, Oscar Wilde chooses to challenge Victorian morality through the comedy of manners genre where marriage, class conflict, sexuality, religion, and government are attacked. At the same time, the comic element most often surfaces as mistaken identities, twinning, double-entendres, and levity at serious issues. “With The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde uses his wit like a sword to slash trough rules of etiquette, to poke fun at the aristocracy and academia, and to thrust forward his own philosophy as a committed aesthete” (Wonner 11). Indeed, Wilde’s comedy of manners takes satiric plays in a whole new direction, daring to defy mores, instead choosing to focus on humor and beauty to criticize and see truth more clearly.