The Importance of Being Earnest appears to be a conventional 19th century farce. False identities, prohibited engagements, domineering mothers, lost children are typical of almost every farce. However, this is only on the surface in Wilde’s play. His parody works at two levels- on the one hand he ridicules the manners of the high society and on the other he satirises the human condition in general. The characters in The Importance of Being Earnest assume false identities in order to achieve their goals but do not interfere with the others’ lives.
The double life led by Algernon, Jack, and Cecily (through her diary) is simply another means by which they liberate themselves from the repressive norms of society. They have the freedom to create themselves and use their double identities to give themselves the opportunity to show opposite sides of their characters. They mock every custom of the society and challenge its values. This creates not only the comic effect of the play but also makes the audience think of the serious things of life. Oscar Wilde begins with a joke in the title that is not only a piece of frivolity.
It concerns the problem of recognising and defining human identity. The use of earnest and Earnest is a pun, which makes the title not only more comic, but also leads to a paradox. The farce in The Importance of Being Earnest consists in the trifle that it is important not only to be earnest by nature but to have the name Earnest too. Jack realizes “the vital Importance of Being Earnest”(53) not till the end of the play. Algernon calls the act of not being earnest Bunburying which gives the plot a moral significance.
Bunburying means inventing a fictitious character by which one can escape the frustrating social norms. Algernon says to Jack: “Well, one must be serious about something, if one wants to have any amusement in life. I happen to be serious about Bunburying. What on earth are you serious about I haven’t got the remotest idea. About everything, I should fancy. You have an absolutely trivial nature. “(50) To soothe a dying friend or to help a fallen brother is a respectable excuse to get away from the repressive convention. Bunburying is the reason for all the mistaken identities.
Algernon is serious about Bunburying as the Bunburyist is serious about not being serious. The trifle is that to be serious about everything is to be serious about nothing. The Bunburyist lives in a world of irresponsibility in which there is always the danger of causing a moral anarchy. In Wilde’s opinion Victorians who want to retain the respect of the conventional society lead double life- one respectable and one frivolous. He creates a world in which the laws of the society have no power and the double life can be revealed. Bunburyism is a way of life which offers relief from the restrictive social norms.
Wilde’s characters live in a world in which order is constantly vanishing and they scorn stability and simplicity. “The truth”, as Algy says, “is rarely pure and never simple. “(13) Algy and Jack fulfil their wishes by the means of lying. They are impostors who use false identities in order to free themselves from the hypocrisy of the convention. Their tricks simply serve them as a way to achieve their moral freedom. The relationship between Jack and Gwendolen undergoes a parody. Gwendolen laughs when Jack asks how she might feel if his name is not Earnest.
Ah, that is clearly a metaphysical speculation”, she says, “and like all metaphysical speculation, has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them. “(18) This remark of Gwendolen exactly fits the general theme of the play, but in fact the joke is directed to her. Yet at the end of the play, Gwendolen’s conviction that she will marry an Earnest and her faith in the name are justified- we understand that Jack’s true name is Earnest. The effect which Oscar Wilde achieves is to satirise faith in ideals with the help of absurdity.
The relationship between Algernon and Cecily undergoes an irony too. At the first meeting between them Algernon begs her not to think him wicked, and she replies: “If you are not, then you have certainly been deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner. I hope you have not be leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy. “(31) This speech upsets even Algernon. It epitomises the central irony of the play because Algernon in his ambition to escape the hypocrisy of convention becomes a hypocrite himself by pretending to be somebody he is not in fact.
In Wilde’s world truth itself is of little importance. When Jack is charged with being named John, he declares:”I could deny it if I liked. I could deny anything if I liked. “(49) And he is very confused and feels uneasy when he has to tell the truth: “It is very painful for me to be forced to speak the truth. It is the first time in my life that I have ever been reduced to such a painful position, and I am really quite inexperienced in doing anything of the kind, so you must excuse me if I stammer in my tale. “(50)
He says that he has never had a brother but this turns out to be not true, because Algy is in fact his brother. The comic effect of Jack’s lies reaches its climax when he learns that what he had thought to be not true turns to be true. “Gwendolen”, he says, “it is a terrible thing for me to find out suddenly that all my life I have been speaking nothing but the truth. “(67) In comparison with their suitors Gwendolen and Cecily do not deceive society by the means of imposture. They try to escape in a world of fantasy.
They adopt identities which suit a particular occasion. For example, they invent lovers who they want to marry to. Gwendolen explains her attitude to love and she is very firm about it: “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. And my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Earnest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. “(17) Cecily’s diary is her way to escape of the society’s customs.
It undergoes a kind of parody, for she writes everything about her relationship with an invented lover- their engagement, his love letters(which she has written), the break off of their engagement, their re-engagement. Cecily is not the natural country girl. She possesses the self-assurance of the experienced woman. Without being cynical she makes her desires clear. And when Gwendolen and Cecily discover that their Earnests are impostors whose names are Jack and Algernon they decide that love can be restored only if Jack and Algy christen themselves Earnest.
At the end the farce turns to be an idyll of wish-fulfillment- Cecily wishes to be engaged to Earnest and it happens so, Jack declares that he is called Earnest and he is in fact, Algy pretends to be Jack’s young brother and it comes true too. The characters’ fantasies are brought to life at the end of the play. Their double life is not a hypocrisy. They mock the laws and the customs of the society in which they live. The characters challenge society’s values, free themselves from their rigid norms and at the end of the play they manage to regain their balance and become earnest.