Social Role and Double Life in Oscar Wilde`s "The Importance of Being Ernest"

Seminar Paper, 2000

20 Pages

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With “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895), Irish-born Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) crafted his final and most lasting play, a masterpiece of modern comedy. A century later, it strikes a wonderful balance by remaining both a respected and studied piece of literature, as well as a favourite with audiences. Oscar Wilde created a play which reflects issues that Wilde tried to conceal in his own private life: posing, living a double life and escaping from tight social obligations to release secret joys. Titled a “trivial comedy for serious people”, the comedic effect results from doubling the main motif of creating a double life.

This paper will describe the terms "social role" and "identity" and examine examples of both terms in the play. Furthermore, it will find out the special meaning of social characteristics of the time the play is set. It will become obvious that Oscar Wilde, as a critical writer, takes certain aspects of the Victorian Era and satirizes them in the play.

The first part of this paper will illustrate the main protagonists and the author with regard to the aspects of social roles and identities. The second part of the paper will, after defining the terms "social role" and "identity" examine their meaning in the play. The third part will place the play within the Victorian context and give further information about Victorian norms, the leading of double lives and the Comedy of Manner.

1 The Play

1.1 The Main Characters Algernon and Jack

The two protagonists of the play are Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing. Both are well established characters, Algernon lives in London, Jack lives in the country as a Judge of the Peace. Dissatisfied with their social setting, being annoyed by attending boring dinner parties, a "restrictive, overly serious and thus typically Victorian home life"1 lead them to acquire a double identity serving as an alibi helping them to escape their narrow social ties. Algernon invents a fictitious person named "Bunbury" in the country. Jack's alibi is a fictional brother Ernest in London.

With Algernon and Jack, Wilde creates a dandy character, an "aristocratic young man who values style rather than moral considerations and who projects a studied elegance, wit and individuality"2 . Algernon is said to be Wilde's most successful dandy: "fashionable, worldly and socially prominent, he loves artifice and keeps up a steady tone of pretence and triviality"3. He invents a chronically ailing friend, Bunbury, whom he likes to visit whenever he feels like escaping his restrictive surroundings. Algernon paraphrases leading this double life with the term "to bunbury”:

ALGERNON. [ … ]. What you really are is a Bunburyist. I was quite right in saying you were a Bunburyist. You are one of the most advanced Bunburyists I know.

JACK. What on earth do you mean?

ALGERNON. You have invented a very useful younger brother called Ernest, in order that you may be able to come up to town as often as you like. I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose. Bunbury is perfectly invaluable. (p. 14)

Changes between these two identities occur consciously and intentionally, as the following examples show:

ALGERNON. To-morrow, Lane, I'm going Bunburying.

LANE. Yes, sir.

ALGERNON. I shall probably not be back till Monday. You can put up my dress clothes, my smoking jacket, and all the Bunbury suits . (p. 36)

Algernon does not only use “Bunbury" to free himself from family obligations, but also to meet Cecily, Jack's cousin. Pretending to be Jack's brother Ernest, he appears at Jack's house in the country and meets Cecily. She seems to be fascinated by Ernest's depraved lifestyle, though at the same time fears he could be as normal as anybody else. Algernon/Ernest's justification is paid no attention at all, and she even accuses him of leading a double life and of hypocrisy, if he really is a good person.

CECILY. I have never met any really wicked person before. I feel rather frightened. I am so afraid he will look just like every one else. (p. 42)

ALGERNON. Oh! I am not really wicked at all, cousin Cecily. You mustn't think that I am wicked.

CECILY. If you are not, then you have certainly been deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner. I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.(p. 42)

But soon Algernon’s stories about the ailing friend Bunbury draw Cecily in to an extent that she is even proud of knowing a man with such a social competence, not knowing that it is exactly the story with which Algernon escapes from his social ties:

CECILY. Well, ever since dear Uncle Jack first confessed to us that he had a younger brother who was very wicked and bad, you of course have formed the chief topic of conversation between myself and Miss Prism. And of course a man who is much talked about is always very attractive. One feels there must be something in him, after all. I daresay it was foolish of me, but I fell in love with you, Ernest. (p. 56)

Jack Worthing is a dandy too, " elegant, sophisticated, clever and worldly"4. His depraved brother Ernest in London needs his "brotherly" help every once in a while in order to rescue him from various situations, which always occur when Jack needs a vacation from any social obligations. Unlike Algernon, Jack considers getting rid of his double identity, on Algernon’s advice:

JACK. I'm not a Bunburyist at all. If Gwendolen accepts me, I am going to kill my brother, indeed I think I'll kill him in any case. Cecily is a little too much interested in him. It is rather a bore. So I am going to get rid of Ernest. And I strongly advise you to do the same with Mr . . . with your invalid friend who has the absurd name.(p. 15)

JACK. Oh, before the end of the week I shall have got rid of him. I'll say he died in Paris of apoplexy. Lots of people die of apoplexy, quite suddenly, don't they? (p. 32)

When Cecily learns about Jack's mourning for his brother Ernest, she tells him of Algernon/Ernest's presence in the house. When Jack finally meets Algernon/Ernest, he is not enthusiastic at all, he hesitates to welcome "his brother" at home, disallows him to bunbury and even asks him to leave, which creates an awkward situation because Jack's family and especially Cecily like Ernest.

CECILY. Uncle Jack, do be nice. There is some good in every one. Ernest has just been telling me about his poor invalid friend Mr. Bunbury whom he goes to visit so often. And surely there must be much good in one who is kind to an invalid, and leaves the pleasures of London to sit by a bed of pain. (p. 51)

1.2 The Author - Oscar Wilde

“ I love acting. It is so much more real than life. ” - Oscar Wilde 5

Oscar Wilde is most famous for his sophisticated, brilliantly witty plays, which were the first to win both dramatic and literary acclaim since the comedies of Sheridan and Goldsmith. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and at Magdalene College, Oxford, where he was distinguished for his scholarship and wit, and also for his eccentricity in dress, tastes, and manners, which represented the opposite of the middle -class conformism: the dandy.

In 1891, Wilde had become intimate with Lord Alfred Douglas, and the Marquis of Queensberry, Douglas' father, accused Wilde of homosexual practices. Wilde was charged with homosexual offences under the Criminal Law Amendment, found guilty, and sentenced to prison for two years. He lived in France until his death, plagued by ill health and bankruptcy.

Wilde once said: "The first duty in life is to assume a pose; what the second duty is no one yet has found out."6. The concept of playing roles, posing and living with a double identity is important for an investigation of both Wilde's life and the play. Wilde posed as the decadent family father who enthused about a life that was far away from moral. He posed as the successful artist and brilliant poet. He presented the beauty of body and soul. He was the dandy. He was a client of homosexual prostitution. He played these roles within the Victorian society with its image of a unified person, but unlike in the play, Wilde’s end was not a happy one. He ended up a ruined man with a broken personality.

His life seemed to be a compromise between social rules and personal likings. It cannot be said that he disliked the Victorian society. He knew how to use people for his own benefit, whether it was to learn about opinions and behaviour in salons or simply listen to them in order to form an idea of the workings of society:

“ Die zahlreichen Plauderabende am Tisch der Reichen waren die direkte Vorschule f ü r Wildes Kom ö dien: hier entwickelte er den spritzigen Plauderton, hier waren seine Themen, seine Charaktere vorgezeichnet. Nach Aussage seiner Zeitgenossen monopolisierte Wilde niemals das Gespr ä ch; er verstand es auf am ü sante Weise, sich der Stimmung der Gesellschaft anzupassen. Er war ein Genie des Bonmots, des spontanen, ü berraschenden Witzes, der eleganten Formulierung - der geistreichste Plauderer, den es je gab. “ 7

2 Social Roles

2.1 What are social roles?

Social roles are very closely related to social classes. According to "The Victorian Web"8, social class means:

"Class is a complex term, in use since the late eighteenth century, and employed in many different ways. In our context classes are the more or less distinct social groupings which at any given historical period, taken as a whole, constituted British society. Different social classes can be (and were by the classes themselves) distinguished by inequalities in such areas as power, authority, wealth, working and living conditions, life-styles, life-span, education, religion, and culture."

British society was divided into "middle class", "working class" and "upper class". While the upper class maintained control over the political system, the working class was widely shut out of the political process.

A social role is the behaviour within a social class. One can meet the expectations of society, or one cannot. Social roles are often acquired in childhood, they are reflected in a person's identity, and cause an individual to act and react in a certain way, depending on the acquired schemata and, according to the social class an individual belongs to. Social roles also determine what to do with experiences and hopes in life, how to understand what is right, obligations, and expected behaviour patterns associated with a particular social status.

2.2 Meaning of social roles to the play

The play is widely recognized as Wilde's best play and one of the best deceitful comedies in world literature. A main theme of the play is role -playing. This happens in so far that the protagonists claim to be socially engaged towards indigent people or pretend to be somebody else, with the only purpose to enjoy their freedom while at the same time meeting social expectations.

Wilde uses the concept of a dandy for both Algernon and Jack. Algernon as the nephew of Lady Bracknell is a well-established member of the upper class. The pretence of his character Bunbury seems to be the most normal thing in his life, there are no signs of guilty conscience. Algernon seems to be unfailing and to be right in every situation. Being a dandy, it was not he and his friends who emptied eight bottles of champagne but his butler.

ALGERNON. [Inspects them, takes two, and sits down on the sofa.] Oh!... by the way, Lane, I see from your book that on Thursday night, when Lord Shoreman and Mr. Worthing were dining with me, eight bottles of champagne are entered as having been consumed. LANE. Yes, sir; eight bottles and a pint.

ALGERNON. Why is it that at a bachelor ’ s establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne? I ask merely for information. (p.6)

Also, family and marriage are not worth any striving and the lower classes do not have a moral responsibility. Both identify themselves as "British gentlemen".

ALGERNON. Lanes views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don ’ t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.(p.6)

JACK. Of course it ’ s mine. [Moving to him.] You have seen me with it a hundred times, and you have no right whatsoever to read what is written inside. It is a very ungentlemanly thing to read a private cigarette case.(p.10)

Jack is also an established member of society, though not a noble. He is a judge of peace and a guardian, but he is also a foundling who was found in a hand bag at a train station. This fact has always been problematic to him, since he could not even present one parent. But the world of nobility he wished to enter demanded for parents, since nobility evolved from the old hereditary aristocracy whose members were gentlemen by right of birth.

The women Gwendolyn and Cecily are proper young ladies, self conscious, emancipated and support their individuality. They would probably be able to make their own way, since both have been well educated. But on the other side, their idealization of the name "Ernest" shows a narrow-mindedness which could result from a very protected childhood. Both ladies have been raised by a governess, a guardian or a mother.

Lady Bracknell is a conservative Victorian lady and considered to be one of Wilde's most successful comic figures. She is " elegant, well-dressed, highly self-assured, ..., she is the most conventional figure in the play and represents society, ..., strong willed, domineering and narrow-minded ."9. She is very much concerned about being a perfect host for her friends, but little cares about any responsibility towards family and marriage. It is important what can be presented to society (out), unimportant what can be presented to privacy (in):

LADY BRACKNELL. [Frowning.] I hope not, Algernon. It would put my table completely out. Your uncle would have to dine upstairs. Fortunately he is accustomed to that.(p.19)

LADY BRACKNELL. That is not the destiny I propose for Gwendolen. Algernon, of course, can choose for himself. [Pulls out her watch.] Come, dear, [Gwendolen rises] we have already missed five, if not six, trains. To miss any more might expose us to comment on the platform.(p.87)

LADY BRACKNELL. I dare not even suspect, Dr. Chasuble. I need hardly tell you that in families of high position strange coincidences are not supposed to occur. They are hardly considered the thing.(p.91)

Although she claims to understand the traditional concept of family: “ The line is immaterial. Mr. Worthing, I confess I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. ( … ) ” (p.28), she is very much the successful and influential society lady who is used to giving orders ignorant of the harsh reality: “ I would strongly advise you, Mr. Worthing, to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible, and to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over. ” (p.29)

When she learns about Cecily's engagement to Algernon, she spends a great deal of time proving that he is not worthy of entering her social class. Only when she learns about her fortune of 130,000 pounds she suddenly changes her mind: “Yes, quite as I expected. There are distinct social possibilities in your profile. The two weak points in our age are its want of principle and its want of profile. The chin a little higher, dear. Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn. They are worn very high, just at present.(p.82) “ Cecily has learnt this instruction quite quickly:

LADY BRACKNELL. [To Cecily.] Come here, sweet child. [Cecily goes over.] How old are you, dear?

CECILY. Well, I am really only eighteen, but I always admit to twenty when I go to evening parties.(p.85)

The obvious social opinion which values appearance higher than reality, is uttered by Lady Bracknell in the following quote:

LADY BRACKNELL. Upon what grounds may I ask? Algernon is an extremely, I may almost say an ostentatiously, eligible young man. He has nothing, but he looks everything. What more can one desire?(p.84)

The governess of the Victorian Age is usually single, earns her own living and has quite a difficult and ambiguous social position. She is part of the family while at the same time being a servant. The governess’ role is taken by Miss Prism, whose name is said by some critics to be a combination of 'prim', 'prissy' and 'prison'10. She initially appears as a stereotype of the Victorian governess, although she is able to write a novel: “ I had also with me a somewhat old, but capacious hand-bag in which I had intended to place the manuscript of a work of fiction that I had written during my few unoccupied hours. ” (p.90)

In a minute of inattention while looking after the baby, she placed the manuscript in the perambulator and put the baby in the handbag instead. Supposedly because she did not fulfil the expectations of a governess, Miss Prism never returned home, and thus Lady Bracknell's behaviour about the presence of Miss Prism in Jack's house is justified.

The butlers Lane and Merriman are also perfect examples of Victorian butlers in that they wittily antagonise their masters. Lane seems to be equally dandyish as Algernon and parodies the type of Victorian butler whose mind is sharper than his master's - as we see in the very first lines of the play:

ALGERNON. Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?

LANE. I didn ’ t think it polite to listen, sir.(p.5)

3 Identity

3.1 What is identity?

According to Longman's Dictionary of English Language and Culture, identity is defined as "who or what a particular person or a thing is"11. For a better understanding, more concepts of "identity" are necessary. For a more philosophical approach, "identity" is described as "In personal identity the concern has been to determine whether anything in the body or mind remains constant; philosophers have reached no general agreement on this point. The term identity has also become increasingly important in modern psychology, largely through the work of Erik Eriksson. He has used the term to designate a sense of self that develops in the course of a man's life and that both relates him to and sets him apart from his social milieu ."12 Thus, identity is expressed by how the person acts and reacts.

3.2 Meaning of Identity In The Play

Identity is not merely a biological or personal issue, it has a clear social dimension. It has become a recognized result of social studies that people 's identity changes with social settings, social role and group behaviour mechanism13. "Bunburying" changes local and social settings, roles and identity.

In Algernon and Jack kinds of split personalities can be determined. The term "split personality" is not to be seen in the medical sense of mental illness, since in such a case, the affected persons do not have control over their personalities. In the play both have consciously created their double identities and even cultivate them within the social environment and use them consciously as an alibi to escape any social obligations whenever they feel uncomfortable.

Jack's second identity was revealed when Algernon mentioned the name “Cecily” which he had found engraved on Jack's cigarette case, a relict of his other life he had mistakenly left in Algernon's apartment. Algernon's attempts to get to know who Cecily is, lead to the revelation about "Ernest" and "Jack":

JACK. Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country, and the cigarette case was given to me in the country.(p.12)

Jack’s true identity is only revealed at the end of the play when Lady Bracknell discovers that Miss Prism, the former governess, has lived with Jack for many years. Both women are the keys to Jack’s identity:

MISS PRISM. [Still more indignant.] Mr. Worthing, there is some error. [Pointing to Lady Bracknell.] There is the lady who can tell you who you really are.

JACK. [After a pause.] Lady Bracknell, I hate to seem inquisitive, but would you kindly inform me who I am?

LADY BRACKNELL. I am afraid that the news I have to give you will not altogether please you. You are the son of my poor sister, Mrs. Moncrieff, and consequently Algernon ’ s elder brother. (p.92)

The fact that Jack did not know who he was, can be seen as a sign of a missing identity. Always looking for his true identity and seeking for his own familiar background, might have been a reason for his unconcerned double life. Jack sometimes left his social role with all its restrictions for a little pleasure, lived a double life without any need for justification - and, different to Oscar Wilde who was imprisoned, was rewarded for what he did.

" You are one of the most advanced Bunburyists I know." (p.14) leads to the assumption that Algernon knows more than one person who “bunburies” and that "bunburying" could be seen as a common practice: to use a fictitious person as an alibi for more freedom. It could also show a general attitude that predominates the Victorian Society. Algernon's understanding of identity is the following:

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.] (p.11)

In his eyes, all that is needed for a new identity are a name, a proper appearance and a business card. Algernon even creates two different identities: Bunbury and Ernest. Bunbury is his pretext to see friends in Shropshire instead of attending dinner parties.

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? “ (p.13)

He uses the character of Ernest to gain the opportunity to meet Cecily, although this time he is not escaping any social ties. Jack's frank talk about his double life has given Algernon enough hints to adopt this third identity.

4 To play roles

The investigation of playing and taking roles in life has been a major concern in anthropology, sociology and psychology since the 1930s. Playing roles was seen as an essential socializing process and necessary for the development of one’s self.14 Ralph Linton has defined role as being a series of rights and duties as well as the sum total of these discrete roles which then determine its social status15. In literature, four kinds of role -playing are distinguished:

- character imitates a person from an earlier literary work or event
- alien role that a personage assumes for an immediate and temporary occasion as a way of adapting to the demands of his total situation
- set up traditional gestures and actions within whose parameters the character is expected to perform
- character enacts a core role by virtue of his place in the social structure of his community, this role is central to his identity.16

These four kinds of role playing act together in various genres and literary pieces of the centuries. The ancient concept of playing roles was to pretend to be somebody else. In some ancient plays wooden masks were used to disguise the true character.

Also, someone plays a role when he behaves according to a certain social environment (i.e. people, places, situations). One can describe it as filtering: The person's words, movements and activities are dependent on the surrounding environment.

It is also important to mention that playing a role is determined by the goal the role - playing person wants to achieve. Such subjective reasons could for instance be a higher status within society, revenge or other personal reasons such as money or marriage. These subjective reasons are usually aroused by unsatisfactory situations. For example: Algernon's personal reason to play the role of "Ernest" is to meet Cecily and marry her.

Playing a role can simply mean acting and behaving in a certain manner, which is central to the character's identity. This type of role is close to the definition of social roles, which means that a person from a certain social class will usually act, behave and talk according to the rules of this class.

4.1 The meaning of playing roles

In the play, each character plays different roles: Algernon is on one side the loving and protective nephew of Aunt Bracknell, on the other side a selfish dandy who leads a secret double life from time to time. Because it seems to pay great advantage, he adopts a third identity - Jack’s brother Ernest. Jack is the protective uncle who visits his brother every once in a while. Gwendolyn and Cecily are clever girls with the preference to overvalue the name “Ernest” and reduce their relationship to Algernon and Jack to the mere name of “Ernest”. Lady Bracknell is, depending on the situation, a self -conscious woman, but also values appearance and style higher than reality, which often creates a comic effect. The butlers Lane and Merriman behave as ordinary butlers, but also present a cleverness and life attitude which goes beyond their expected social roles. The governess Miss Prism writes a three-volume novel, and Dr. Chasuble is not at all irritated by the fact that two adult men seek to be christened.

As we can see from the above mentioned examples, playing roles is an essential feature of the play: The reader expects a character to behave in a certain way, but soon discovers that each character behaves according to situation and partner, and often switches between different roles. The unexpected reaction of the characters produces the comedic impression of the play.

4.2 The relation between name and identity

" Mankind has attached a name to all the objects of the senses and to many invisible or theoretical entities. Most people, moreover, have a given name and a family name; a subject of controversy and, sometimes, in the case of personal names, of metaphysical anxiety."17 Names have always played a great role in the social life of humans. Aristotle mentioned, "that someone's forgetting of our name is, however trifling, a legitimate cause of anger"18. The philosophers of the Ancient Greece, for instance, were very aware of the relation between objects and their names. The fascination for naming things and persons can be traced back over many centuries. In Homer's "Odyssey", Odysseus has to obscure his identity to save somebody else’s identity: confronted with the giant Polyphemus, he gave himself the name "Nobody", which then lead to great confusion when the giant was asked who was bothering him: "Nobody".

In the Renaissance Era, the meaning of names was a matter of mysticism. It was seen as a divine gift, whereas in the 18th to 20th century names were seen more realistically. Philosophers have asked themselves, "whether the name of a thing is arbitrary or is intrinsically connected to its nature ."19. Another aspect of the relation between name and identity can be found in "Felix Krull" by Thomas Mann. The protagonist's sister is going to be married and is very fascinated about the change of her name: "How nice it must be to have the 'tonic and restorative' of giving 'oneself a new name and to hear oneself addressed to it'"20.

In Oscar Wilde's play, names play an essential role. The characters are physically the same, but because they rename themselves, they gain a different identity. Gwendolyn loves Jack/Ernest for the only reason that his name is Ernest: “ and my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you. ” (p. 21)

Cecily had always dreamed of loving someone with the name "Ernest", and says it is a pity for women who are married to somebody whose name is not "Ernest". To court the two women, John Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff show more effort in adopting the name "Ernest" than to reveal their true identity to them:

ALGERNON. You can ’ t possibly ask me to go without having some dinner. It ’ s absurd. I never go without my dinner. No one ever does, except vegetarians and people like that. Besides I have just made arrangements with Dr. Chasuble to be christened at a quarter to six under the name of Ernest.

JACK. My dear fellow, the sooner you give up that nonsense the better. I made arrangements this morning with Dr. Chasuble to be christened myself at 5.30, and I naturally will take the name of Ernest. Gwendolen would wish it. We can ’ t both be christened Ernest. It ’ s absurd. Besides, I have a perfect right to be christened if I like. There is no evidence at all that I have ever been christened by anybody. I should think it extremely probable I never was, and so does Dr. Chasuble. It is entirely different in your case. You have been christened already. (p.73)

5 Victorian Era and Double Life

5.1 Victorian Norms

For much of this century the term "Victorian", which literally describes things and events in the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 -1901), was associated with ideas of people being "prudish", "repressed" and "old fashioned". Although such associations have some basis in fact, they do not adequately indicate the nature of this complex, paradoxical age that was seen as a second English Renaissance. Like Elizabethan England, Victorian England saw great expansion of wealth, power and culture. Wilde engaged with and mocked the forms and rules of society. His stance as a dandy and outsider let him use the conventions of a social world for his social drama, which mirrored its values by reinforcing social circumstances and showing the consequences of maintaining ideals. Examples of the Victorian double moral are the concepts of a "harmonic marriage" and the “Age of ideals”: “ You don ’ t seem to realise, that in married life three is company and two is none ” .(p.16)

GWENDOLEN. ( … ) We live, as I hope you know, Mr Worthing, in an age of ideals. The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines, and has reached the provincial pulpits, I am told ( … ) (p.21)

Victorian norms which are mentionable in this context are for instance:

- gentlemanly appearance
- being patronizing
- winning women's hearts
- independence and individuality
- that it was better to seem good than to be good
- social obligations, table manners and close social ties
- pleasure (one had it secretly for a conventional social appearance)

The combination of adaptation of and distancing from these norms and moral rules can both result in a well-accepted member of society and promote double moral standards.

5.2 Double Life

Oscar Wilde knew much about the late-Victorian high society, because he was an outsider of the world of elegant fashion and society that he frequented. An Irishman of middle -class origin among the English, he gained access to the upper-class worlds of London through his sheer intellectual and artistic brilliance, but he constantly wore the mask of the dandy and the aesthete, and he wrote plays about the impenetrability of the very society that he lived in.

The dualities of society are well reflected in the play. Jack Worthing, a respectable provincial judge of peace, needs to invent a depraved younger brother to justify his frequent trips to his bachelor rooms in London. The reader/spectator can guess how he spends the time in London when he is not with Gwendolyn, and where Algernon goes on his "bunburying" expeditions after he has got out of his dinner engagements. We can see that Aunt Bracknell is particularly concerned about Gwendolyn's prospective fiancé's qualification for marrying into the family from her constant stream of questions; she wants to know whether Jack smokes, how old he is, how much money he earns, if he possesses his own property and so on.

In the same way that Oscar Wilde attempted to live a double life, many people of the Victorian Age, even highly ranking personalities of the public, cultivated their own double lives. The motif of leading a double life in "The importance of Being Ernest" is an escape from the constricting social façade into the freedom of secret pleasures. What makes the play so special is the double occurrence of this leading of double lives and the similarity between Algernon's and Jack's way of fleeing social restrictions. " Throughout the play Wilde's characters have been striving single-mindedly to construct an idealized world which satisfies equally their wishes and their sense of form, [...] the desired may be a question of nomenclature (Ernest) or of behaviour (wickedness), but it is invariably one of expression ."21.

5.3 Comedy of Manner and Social Drama

The comedy "The Importance of Being Ernest" was a social comedy about life in St. James for audiences who lived or shopped there. Society dramas are a mirror in which fashionable audiences could see fashionable images of their own fashionable worlds of homes, dinner parties, country-house weekends, dressing, talking and interclass marriage22. Oscar Wilde anticipated the major development in the 20th century of using farce as a way of reflecting peculiarities of society. A classical Comedy of Manners satirizes the vain behaviour and hypocritical double moral standards of the upper class, but is at the same time a realistic representation of society and morals. Wilde does not include the aspect of realism, he did not want to verify the social conditions and manners of the Victorian Age. The play is, according to critics, a Comedy of Manner which Wilde transforms into a trivial comedy.

6 Composition

The pla y reveals much about the habits and manners of the Victorian Age. The reader/spectator gains an insight into Victorian social roles, what people do and how people used to behave. But that is of course not the reason for the great success of the play. Oscar Wilde has satirized lots of things that he has found to be hypocritical or even outrageous. Wilde knew how to make fun of people without offending them, whilst amusing them with the characters they watched on stage.

The central point of the play regarding different identities and double lives is the sudden change of roles which is not only restricted to the main protagonists, but concerns all characters of the play. Playing roles occurs in so far that the characters of the play behave according to social rules and concepts on one side, but adopt inappropriate manners in a very overacted way on the other side. The exaggeration of the roles’ original pertinence to exorbitant situations creates the comic effect. Sudden changes of roles, unexpected reactions in various situations, the earnest involvement of all participants in senseless conversations are closely linked and make the play witty, lively, dynamic, surprising and comic.

7 Appendix


- Wilde, Oscar: The Importance of Being Earnest, Reclam, Stuttgart, 1990


- Barth, Adolf: Moderne Gesellschaftskomödie: von Oscar Wilde zu Tom Stoppard, München, Artemis -Verlag, 1987
- Bloom, Harold: Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Ernest", Chelsea House Publ., 1988
- Cyclopaedia of Literary Characters, Harper & Row, 1963
- Dictionary of Literary Biographies, Gale Research Inc. Detroit, 1982
- The Encyclopaedia of Language and Linguistics, Pergamon Press, 1994
- Gagnier, Regenia: Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public, Stanford, 1986
- Goffman, Erving: Die Selbstdarstellung im Alltag, Piper, 1996
- Harrap's Dictionary of English Synonyms, Harrap, London, 1990
- King Howes, Kelly: Characters in 19th Century Literature, Gale Research Inc.,
- Kohl, Norbert: Oscar Wilde: The Works of a conformist rebel, Cambridge University Press, 1989
- Kohl, Norbert: Oscar Wilde: Das Literarische Werk zwischen Provokation und Anpassung, Winter, 1980
- Longman’s Dictionary of English Language and Culture, Longman, 1992
- Pearson, Hesketh: The Life of Oscar Wilde, Reissued Penguin Book, 1985
- Raby, Peter: The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde, Cambridge University Press, 1997
- Seigneuret, Jean Charles: Dictionary of Literary Themes and Motifs, Greenwood Press, 1988
- Stokes, John: Oscar Wilde: Myths, Miracles and Imitations, Cambridge University Press, 1996
- Woodcock, George: Oscar Wilde: The Double Image, Black Rose Books, 1989
- Worth, Katharine: Oscar Wilde, Macmillan, 1992


- (21.6.2001)
- (21.6.2001)
- (21.6.2001)


1 King Howes, Kelly: Characters in 19th Century Literature, Gale Research Inc., 1993, p. 571

2 King Howes, Kelly: Characters in 19th Century Literature, Gale Research Inc., 1993, p. 571

3 King Howes, Kelly: Characters in 19th Century Literature, Gale Research Inc., 1993, p. 572

4 King Howes, Kelly: Characters in 19th Century Literature, Gale Research Inc., 1993, p. 572


6 Ellmann: Oscar Wilde, New York 1987, p. 311

7 Kohlmayer, Rainer: Nachwort. In: Wilde, Oscar: The Importance of Being Earnest, Reclam Stuttgart, 1990, p. 86


9 King Howes, Kelly: Characters in 19th Century Literature, Gale Research Inc. 1993, p. 573

10 King Howes, Kelly: Characters in 19th Century Literature, Gale Research Inc. 1993, p. 573

11 Longman's Dictionary if English Language and Culture

12 The Columbia Encyclopaedia, Sixth Edition, 2000 Columbia University Press

13 Turner et al., Citizenship: Critical Concepts, Ro utledge, 1994

14 Seigneuret, Jean Charles: Dictionary of Literary Terms and Motives, Greenwood Press, 1988, p. 1090

15 Seigneuret, Jean Charles: Dictionary of Literary Terms and Motives, Greenwood Press, 1988, p. 1090

16 Seigneuret, Jean Charles: Dictionary o f Literary Terms and Motives, Greenwood Press, 1988, p. 1090

17 Seigneuret, Jean Charles: Dictionary of Literary Terms and Motives, Greenwood Press, 1988, p. 885

18 Rhetorike techne, treatise, c. 360 B.C.

19 Seigneuret, Jean Charles: Dictionary of Literary Terms and Motives, Greenwood Press, 1988, p. 1090

20 Seigneuret, Jean Charles: Dictionary of Literary Terms and Motives, Greenwood Press, 1988, p. 892

21 Raby: Oscar Wilde, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 128

22 Mazer, Cary M.: Wilde, Society, and Society Drama, This essay was prepared for the production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest at People's Light & Theatre Company, Malvern, PA, in June, 1993.

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