The Importance of Being Earnest
ALGERNON. You have always told me it was Ernest. I have introduced you to every one as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life. It is perfectly absurd your saying that your name isn't Ernest. It's on your cards. Here is one of them. [Taking it from case.] 'Mr. Ernest Worthing, B. 4, The Albany.' I'll keep this as a proof that your name is Ernest if ever you attempt to deny it to me, or to Gwendolen, or to any one else. [Puts the card in his pocket.]
JACK. Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country, and the cigarette case was given to me in the country. ALGERNON
. Yes, but that does not account for the fact that your small Aunt Cecily, who lives at Tunbridge Wells, calls you her dear uncle. Come, old boy, you had much better have the thing out at once.
JACK. My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist
. It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn't a dentist. It produces a false impression.
ALGERNON. Well, that is exactly what dentists always do. Now, go on! Tell me the whole thing. I may mention that I have always suspected you of being a confirmed and secret Bunburyist; and I am quite sure of it now.
JACK. Bunburyist? What on earth do you mean by a Bunburyist?
ALGERNON. I'll reveal to you the meaning of that incomparable expression as soon as you are kind enough to inform me why you are Ernest in town and Jack in the country.
JACK. Well, produce my cigarette case first.
ALGERNON. Here it is. [Hands cigarette case.] Now produce your explanation, and pray make it improbable. [Sits on sofa.]
JACK. My dear fellow, there is nothing improbable about my explanation at all. In fact it's perfectly ordinary. Old Mr. Thomas Cardew, who adopted me when I was a little boy, made me in his will guardian to his grand-daughter, Miss Cecily Cardew. Cecily, who addresses me as her uncle from motives of respect that you could not possibly appreciate, lives at my place in the country under the charge of her admirable governess, Miss Prism.
ALGERNON. Where in that place in the country, by the way?
JACK. That is nothing to you, dear boy. You are not going to be invited . . . I may tell you candidly that the place is not in Shropshire.
ALGERNON. I suspected that, my dear fellow! I have Bunburyed all over Shropshire on two separate occasions. Now, go on. Why are you Ernest in town and Jack in the country?
JACK. My dear Algy, I don't know whether you will be able to understand my real motives. You are hardly serious enough. When one is placed in the position of guardian, one has to adopt a very high moral tone on all subjects. It's one's duty to do so. And as a high moral tone can hardly be said to conduce very much to either one's health or one's happiness, in order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother of the name of Ernest, who lives in the Albany, and gets into the most dreadful scrapes. That, my dear Algy, is the whole truth pure and simple.
ALGERNON. The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility! (Wilde 5-6)
Oscar Wilde's plays are notorious for their use of ironic witticism and incongruity to produce light-hearted comedies that are, simultaneously, social satires as well. Eric Bentley, in his book The Playwright as Thinker, terms this "serious relief," which paradoxically suggests that the humorous illustrations in the play underscore the thought-provoking issues that are raised. In The Importance of Being Earnest
, Wilde utilizes irony not only to contribute to humour to capture the audience's attention, but also to criticize certain social issues. He does this by employing irony to reveal the discrepancies between the characters' words and their actions, as well as the incongruity between their words and the truth. This essay seeks to argue that irony facilitates the audience's assessment on how the shortcomings of the characters in The Importance of Being Earnest reflect on themselves, thereby bringing critical self-awareness to the audience.
The inconsistencies between the characters' utterances and their actions are uncovered by the employment of irony, which serves to heighten self-knowledge among the audience. In this passage, Jack criticizes Algernon for talking "like a dentist when one isn't a dentist". He believes it is "very vulgar" and not socially acceptable for Algy to act like someone he is not. However, what Jack does not realize is that he pretends to be Ernest, and communicates under this false name in town; like Algernon, he is creating a "false impression". The dramatic irony allows the audience to witness how easy it is for Jack to find fault with Algy and yet not see the relation these words have to him. Moreover, the very fact that the audience immediately recognizes and laughs at this irony demonstrates Wilde's point; like Jack, it is easier for the audience to identify Jack's fault rather than to reflect on their shortcomings. But for those in the audience who detect this subtle criticism of human blindness, it will strike a deeper chord in them since they have momentarily been the butt of the irony as well, and can understand how it is true that it is always simpler to point out the speck of dust in another person's eye than it is to be conscious of the plank in one's eye.
Jack's inability to recognize the deviation between his words and actions is reinforced when he declares that in the "position of a guardian, one has to adopt a very high moral tone on all subjects" (emphasis added). Jack's earnest attitude and strong conviction can be inferred from the way he chides Algernon's lack of seriousness, thus implying that he is serious and (incorrectly) believes that he is doing all he has to do to fulfill his "duty" to Cecily. The dramatic irony is painfully obvious to the audience who correctly identifies the deficient morals that he holds through the use of exaggeration of the word "all". It is emphasized again when Jack reiterates the "younger brother" pretence. This stark disparity between what Jack says and what he actually does reveals his preconceived notions about status and its implications on how one must act, and therefore, his superficiality. Once again, we see that he is creating a "false impression", which even extends to lying to his future fiancée. Jack patronizingly says that "The truth isn't quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice sweet refined girl" (268) like Gwendolen. He apparently holds the notion that deceiving others because of pragmatic reasons such as "one's health or one's happiness" is not real deceit but merely telling white lies. The audience may smirk in knowledge of the dramatic irony, but they also become sensitive to the inherent criticism layered in humour in Jack's hypocritical example. The audience is also indignant on Gwendolen's behalf because of this deception; from an outsider's point of view, it is clear that a lie is a lie whether the intentions are good or bad. However, it does raise the question of whether lies can be justified under certain unique circumstances and the audience is left to ponder on it. They may not arrive at a definite answer to the question, but it is important that the audience is encouraged to think and reflect on how it is related to reality.
Wilde also raises critical self-consciousness among the audience by using irony to bring attention to the divergence between the words articulated and the truth behind these words. One example is the pun on the name 'Ernest' in Algernon's first speech in the above passage. Algernon claims that Jack "look[s] as if your name was Ernest" and also comes across as the "most earnest looking person I ever saw in my life" (emphasis added). It is significant that Algernon uses the words "look" and "looking" for to resemble a characteristic or a name is not the same as being that person. The audience correctly disbelieves Jack's "earnest"-ness since he continually distorts the identity of his niece Cecily. Initially, he pretends that he does not know who Cecily is, then claims that she is his "little aunt" and it is only when Algernon points out the loopholes in his lies that Jack reveals the truth reluctantly. Correspondingly, the possibility of Jack being an honest man is immediately disproved when he admits that "my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country". It is ironic that Jack is neither Ernest nor earnest, even though he may resemble both, according to Algernon. The audience's attention is directed towards this example of how deceptive appearances can be and they are drawn to the reality of how easy it is to make judgments that often prove wrong, thus fostering self-awareness.
Amidst the laughter and comedy, the audience becomes conscious of how appearance and reality are often detached from one another. In this play, the exterior seems to be a main concern with most characters. Such an attitude is aptly fleshed out in Gwendolen and Cecily; their "ideal" (262) man's name is Ernest, and their "girlish dream" (284) is also to fall in love with Ernest but both fail to see the importance of having an earnest husband as well. The absurdity of this criterion is stretched further when the girls later agree that "There are principles at stake that one cannot surrender" (296, emphasis added) since the necessity of the name Ernest is an "insuperable barrier" (296). Gwendolen's exaggeration in using the term "principles" evokes laughter from the audience who is also allowed to ponder on their own standards. From this illustration, the audience becomes sensitive to the fact that it might not be so absurd after all, since they probably and subconsciously impose such conditions on others too.
The conflicting relationship between words and the truth is further encompassed in Jack's utterance "That…is the whole truth pure and simple." It is ironic that Jack's 'truth' is the fact that he is lying, which also implies that it is not "pure".
In retrospect, this is also a dramatic irony since Jack's identity is not as simple as the audience is led to believe. Later, ironically, the audience finds out that Jack's name is really Ernest! Moreover, contrary to his belief that the truth is "simple", Jack discovers his complicated background; he was not orphaned but instead he was (literally) misplaced by his nanny, Miss Prism. To intensify the complexity of it all, the audience finds out that Miss Prism worked for Algernon's parents, which makes Jack Algy's elder brother! Therefore, Algernon is stating the truth when he says "The truth is rarely pure and never simple." and by phrasing it in this manner, this truth is plainly (simply) articulated and genuine (pure) in its assertion. The issue of truth and its characteristics come into play as the audience grapples with the two extreme definitions brought up by the two protagonists.
Although irony enhances the audience's critical self-consciousness, it may be possible that before this can be achieved, it already fails if the audience cannot accurately recognize the various ironies employed in the play. The assumption that the audience can gain self-awareness is based on the precondition that they can identify the ironies, which will then permit them to evaluate the criticism behind the irony. Nonetheless, it is true that it is not always easy to recognize these ironies since they depend on clear signals or knowledge of the context to call attention to themselves. Moreover, Wilde does not give enough time for the audience to absorb and mull over the oblique critique that is more or less only mentioned in passing in the exchanges between the characters. This may become a complication to the enhancement of the audience's self-awareness. However, it can also be argued that even the act of finding irony amidst all the complexity will boost the audience's self-awareness as they become sensitive to Wilde's veiled criticism. Therefore, the audience may not be able to identify the irony eventually, but undertaking the search itself will achieve Wilde's aim of raising critical self-consciousness.
In conclusion, Wilde's criticisms entangled in the web of humour and irony serve to bring about a thought-provoking yet inoffensive comedy. Instead of stating directly what he wishes to criticize, Wilde makes it more effective by using irony. Linda Hutcheon, in her book Irony's Edge, quotes Wayne Booth as claiming that irony is "the ironist's 'weapon of contempt' ... more powerful precisely because of its indirection" (Booth 43; qtd in Hutcheon 41). By highlighting these issues through irony and laughter, Oscar Wilde mocks the social institution or issue he criticizes and raises critical self-consciousness to the audience simultaneously.
Bentley, Eric. The Playwright as Thinker. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1967.
Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Irony. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1974.
Hutcheon, Linda. Irony's Edge: The Theory and Politics of Irony. London: Routledge, 1994.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. New York: Dover.
Last updated: 8 April 2004