Richard Foster says that The Importance to Being Earnest has “multivalent nature”. This means that farce or comedy-of-manners are not suitable for The Importance to Being Earnest. Foster suggests that the play can be understood as more complex and satirical than a comedy of manners or farce. Wilde makes subtle comparisons between his life and the play’s.
Foster describes Wilde’s play as a comedy of manners despite the fact that many have described it as a comedy of manners. This is due to Wilde’s satirizing Victorian literature. Foster therefore interprets Wilde’s play as parody. Wilde mocks Shakespeare’s romantic love story. Gwendolen and Jack share a superficial love that isn’t as strong as Elizabeth and Darcy. This is evident by the lack of true Victorian values as well as the preference of “style over content.” Gwendolen, who knew Ernest and was “destined for love”, clearly shows this. This is not the same kind of love shown in Victorian novels like Jane Eyre. Gwendolen says that the term “farce” is inappropriate for such an absurd play because it appears more satirical. This is in keeping with Wilde’s satirical view of Victorian society. Wilde mocks Victorian society’s hypocrisy, specifically by using a pun in his title about the Victorian ideal for “earnestness.” This was considered a standard value for upper-class society. Jack is an example of Victorian values. He wants to be seen as a man who is responsible for his actions and is earnest. However, Jack’s alter-ego, Jack, is not a man who is morally responsible and has no duty. This is because Jack is mocking the tolerance for hypocrisy that is common in upper class societies. The play’s language reveals the complexity of this play. It also displays the irony in Ernest’s name, an alter-ego with no earnestness. Algernon, on the contrary, is a moral character and doesn’t think about appearances. He is Lady Bracknell’s foil. Algernon’s behavior closely matches that of Lord Darlington’s extravagant character in Wilde’s play ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’. It is clear that Oscar Wilde’s ongoing theme of mocking Victorian values, hypocritical tolerance and satirizing Victorian values is Algernon. According to Nicola Onyett play’s focus is on style rather than substance. It allows gambling, homosexuality, and illegitimacy if “an appropriate veneer or respectability” is maintained. This displays Victorian’s expectation of sincerity, earnestness and hypocrisy. This irony offers a more complex understanding of the play than simple farce.
Wilde believed that “life imitates artwork” so the play could be considered artistic because of its subtle imitation of Wilde’s life. Algernon could be seen as Wilde’s recreation due to his flamboyance, dandy-like traits and indiscreet approach to his idea for ‘Bunburying. The play’s homosexual subtext, which is believed to be directed at Wilde’s gay community, is a sign of the artistic subtlety. This is especially evident during Victorian London. As Algernon professes his love to Cecily, it is possible that “Cecily”, which was probably slang meaning male prostitute, could be understood as Wilde’s metaphorical love for Lord Alfred Douglas. Double entendres are implicit in the words “Bunbury”, and cucumber sandwiches. Modern critics might have made explicit the play’s subtext, exposing the code behind it as a code that allows male to male intercourse. Wilde intended this implicitly to preserve Victorian Victorian beauty. Algernon’s expression “nothing is going to make Bunbury go away.”
The “Marriage of a man without knowing Bunbury is a very tedious experience” reference is to Wilde’s’masked life’. Wilde was forced to marry an unknown woman to cover his indiscreet and secretive ventures into homosexuality. This subtext implicitly shows that the play is subtler and more artistic than a comedy of manners.
The play’s themes are explicit and revolve around a comedy-of-manners theme. This is why the play may be misinterpreted. A lot of verbal wit and humour is employed to create humour. But it is not subtlety or subtle. Lady Bracknell’s sharp repartee was evident in Jack’s interview, when she cleverly replied that her daughter could not marry into a room with a cloak and make an alliance. This play clearly influences Restoration Comedy’s sharp repartee. It also features a plot that revolves around love/marriage. The classic comedy of manners plotline about forbidding engagements has been adapted to a comedy of humor. As such, it is clear that the purpose of the play is to create humor and long-lasting jokes. Act III sees Lady Bracknell continue her reference to Jack’s origins. This joke is a palpable one and could be used to claim that The Impertinence of Being Earnest is a comedy of manners. The play’s structure reflects this.
This structure is more comedy of manners than satire. The Importance is Being Earnest’s opening scene prepares the audience to laugh in a comedy. This is because it shows Algernon interfacing with his servant. This comedy of manners has a humorous aspect. Their conversation creates a lighthearted and humorous atmosphere that is “beyond what conventional morality can reach” and displays linguistic humour and commentary. It is a sign of a shift in social norms that Lane and Lane use epigrams to refer to the topic marriage. As a comedy, Jack (and Algernon) are given Lady Bracknell’s blessing at the end to approve their marriages. This is a comedy of manners. The play closes in Victorian-style farce fashion, Jack “now realized for my first time in life the vital Importance to Being Earnest.” In Act II, Cecily and Gwendolen are revealed to be engaged to ‘Ernest. This is a typical farcical ending. This means that the play is an amalgamation of comedy and farce. The play is complex because it combines genres.
The play’s innocent and childish characters are a fun and funny addition to its absurdity. Algernon, Jack, and their argument about muffins can make Jack seem childish. The term “muffins”, although it can be taken metaphorically, makes the argument seem childish. Algernon repeatedly uses the word “muffins”, and ignores any mention of how to eat muffins. Jack complains that he won’t leave the table because he hasn’t finished his tea. The banter is clever, but the overall topic and appearance of the muffins could be childish. These doubts raise questions about the play’s complexity and subtlety.
The Importance Of Being Earnest, despite being a comedy or farce, is in some ways inventive, subtle and artistic. Richard Foster suggested this. The director can decide how farcical and simple the humor is presented, as it may vary from production to production. William Archer said that he was disappointed by the play’s meaning. He wrote, “What can an inept critic do with it? It raises no principles of art and morals.”
While linguistic humour is a prominent feature of the play it does not raise any principle. However, the structure of the play as well as its comic climaxes show that the play in its structural aspect is a comedy-of-manliness and farce. However, this fusion of genres increases the complexity of the play. Oscar Wilde’s The Imitation Of Being Earnest is a complex and artistic play. Foster was right in stating that “farce”, “comedy, or comedy of manners” does not cover the originality, depth, and complexity of the play.
Richard Foster: Wilde: The Parodist. Second Look at the Importance to Be Earnest. College English, 18 Oct 1956.
Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice tells the story of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, two people from completely different social classes who must overcome their pride and prejudice in order to find true love.
Chief examiner, principal moderator for A level English literature