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Should, Shouldn’t, and the Irony of Inexperience, Essay Example

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Essay

In Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” the florid language of the Victorian era does little to disguise the world underneath the words. All rules are for sale and all bets off, especially when it comes to love, fun, and money. These three elements add to the self-ridicule which each of Wilde’s characters unnecessarily puts themselves through. All is excess hidden behind overblown courtesies, roses and poetry, and Bunbury relatives at whom the wise men righteously tsk, whom naïve girls like Cecily call “too serious”. Every word- and the men and women who utter them- remains two-sided, a fact which the transparency of the deceit reveals to the audience with a debonair charm.

Novelists frequently utilize setting to reveal tone, but the names of Wilde’s characters- and their transparent dialogue- leave the reader smirking in anticipation. The audience’s grace period of mental preparation allows Wilde to dive into his quirky prose and immorality tales. A Bunbury man named Ernest- who is neither earnest nor real- falls for a Cecil who loves a ne’er-do-well by the right name, at the wrong time. Miss Prism, the governess, diligently teaches every subject, turning each lesson over and over and trying to keep the shine on the apple for young Cecily–the astute audience readily deduces that she fails at this task. Good Jack Worthing turns out to be rather worthless in defense of his new love for Gwendolen and clumsy enough for Lady Bracknell to interrupt them.  Reverend Chasuble dons his chasuble with unnerving austerity. Although the Victorian era in which the play is written frequently lauded such virtuosity, the reverend’s morality disgusts and off-puts in the context of the frivolity of the fickle women and ridiculous men. The audience loves the characters for that.

Some modern critics might even include Lady Bracknell’s expansive vocabulary as a primary example of overdone language, but her usages of ‘quixotic’, ‘effrontery’, and ‘apoplexy’ often peppered Victorian conversation within the higher class. Lounging about and avoiding their studies as Cecily does, the higher class of the English wants for nothing, yet Bracknell applauds Jack’s smoking as an occupation to keep him from being idle while the lady herself does not have to lift so much as a finger for herself. It serves more to illustrate that the simplest language of that age surpasses the capability of the average modern citizen, a facet which only intensifies the irony of Aunt Bracknell’s recommendations for ignorant education and her sudden change of heart regarding the attachment of the newly-wealthy Cecily and her beloved brigand and nephew, Algernon. She certainly would not have approved of the pains which Jack ‘Ernest’ Moncrieff, Miss Prism, and Reverend Chasuble went to in an attempt to teach Cecily the language and philosophies of Germany. Perhaps it is her influence which causes Gwendolen to scoff at what she terms as ‘German skepticism’ and to entreat that Jack always look at her with loving blue eyes, especially among others who would look upon him as the perfect gentleman. She shuns the simples names of John and Jack as omens of character. (Wilde 18, 52)

Truth as the opposite of virtue runs throughout the play, and no character embodies this theme more than Algernon. In Lady Bracknell’s blathering about Jack Moncrieff’s father, she observed that he was “eccentric… the result of the Indian climate, and marriage, and indigestion, and other things of that kind.” (42-43) From this isolated tidbit, the late Ernest Moncreiff fills the very mold of a romantic hero: strong, foreign, fighting and dying for a noble cause. As the fashionable Victorian man-of-the-world, in the first act, he calls elements of his world incomparable, improbable, and invaluable and ignores perfectly sound advice and then ridicules those around him for not being pensive enough. As but a young man whose life exists within a loop of the same folly and co-conspirators in folly, Algernon compares his experience to a world which he has shut his eyes and ears against. Lane should have listened to his self-proclaimed brilliance as the play opens, says Algernon, and Jack lectures Algernon on reading the contents of a private possession. This example relates to everyone, because each person had done a similar thing at one point or another. Although comical in his expression, Algernon’s quick temper lays bare what each person should or shouldn’t do.

Algernon’s strenuous objections to marriage prove to be foreshadowing and self-absorbed in almost-tragic proportions. In the first lines of the play, Algernon ascribes the highest morals to the working class servant, Lane, who thinks no more of marriage than Algernon but could have taught the arrogant man lessons in reality. Although Algernon later advocates a permanent Bunbury identity for any romantically-involved man, of marriage as a full relationship, he warns Jack: “You don’t seem to realise, that in married life three is company and two is none.” (Wilde 12) Likewise, Algernon soon finds appeal in that very statement, retreating to the company of the sweet Cecily, who lives in the country which, in Act 1, Jack condemns as a setting in which liveliness is given to companions rather than received from them (4).

Wilde’s tongue-in-cheek earnestness successfully combines dashes of wit and colorful prose with a subject itself open to ridicule and self-confident hypocrisy: inexperience. As Algernon himself explains, the “very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.” (Wilde 6) While Algernon means to forget about monogamy, by the end of the play he forgets his certainty instead. Youth makes jests of itself as each ‘incomparable’ truth of childhood gives way to a new understanding of what matters. A selfish bachelor finds love; a country girl releases the whim of attachment to the name of a stranger; a two-faced uncle abandons his bipolar personas; a snobbish aunt relinquishes misgivings about the endowments of a country girl in favor of her new-found worth. All of this emphasis upon truth looks rather foolish when Algernon and Jack discover that they are, in fact, brothers, and that Jack’s long-lost birth name was Ernest. Their inextricable bond thus legitimized by a trivial matter of blood lines and entitlement, suddenly Jack’s respectability increases due to arbitrary twist of fate. Jack begs Gwendolen’s forgiveness for being made an honest man, and she quickly agrees that he will remedy the earnestness of being Ernest after all.

Wilde’s satirization of youthful inexperience, florid language, and other earmarks of romantic Victorian literature explores each of these elements of irony separately, but together they form a cohesive picture of Wilde’s perspective on high society. As a form of entertainment, comedy has oft been relegated to the lower classes, such as the pits of the Shakespeare playhouses. Comedies for the high classes included lofty language like the words used by Lady Bracknell or took place at the opera houses- not with the talents of a writer of Wilde’s caliber. This skeptical movement against these hypocrisies continues to place “The Importance of Being Earnest” ahead of its time, and its simple language, ironically, allowed it to endure with little adaptation, fewer Victorian liberties. Whether this was intentional or not, we cannot know for a fact, but this play indicates that he would have approved of the world ahead of him. Jack’s quest to become Ernest causes him to scurry from one lie to another- when the lie itself was plain enough to be true.

Within the rigid, romanticized guidelines of Victorian society, the limits of acceptable action stand firm and the ‘acceptable’ class stands firmer yet to defend its exclusivity. Inexperienced with doubt, self-conflict, and matters of the heart, Jack, Gwendolen, Algernon, and Cecily bungle love hilariously, but this inexperience keeps them truer to their base selves, a part of them which the popular literature attempted to write out of existence. Dramatic irony requires conflict, humor, and a grain of truth; Wilde manipulated the words of his playbill to enhance dramatic irony and affect change in Victorian customs. Each character embodies a different archetype of the age and describe different errant modes of philosophy. Although they appeal to an audience, make them laugh, and even earn their sympathies, spectators do not forget that they remain hopelessly vain and wicked. In love is the absolute worst place to find earnestness. If it transforms brigands into honest men, then its effects upon the hero of turn-of-the-century dreams must suffer to become the villain.

Works Cited

Wilde, Oscar. “The Importance of Being Earnest”:3-56. Print.

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