The Two Faces of The Importance of Being Earnest

Published: 2023/07/06 Number of words: 2633

It is generally thought that Oscar Wilde’s body of work has three most important achievements: the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (first published in 1890), the play The Importance of Being Earnest (first performed in 1895) and the letter De Profundis (written in 1897). Of these three masterpieces, The Importance of Being Earnest is often regarded as a superficial, if virtuoso, farce or comedy of manners and is dismissed “as a trifle of dialogues” (Reinert, 1957, p. 14). However, this is a shallow approach to a play of hidden depths and meanings, in which the audience or readers “can sense a solid substance beneath the frothy surface, the nature of that substance [remaining] an enigma” (Parker, 1974, p. 173).

One of the secrets of the play is its attitude towards social hierarchies. Is The Importance of Being Earnest a criticism of the rigidity and hypocrisy of Victorian society or is it a manifestation of Wilde’s cold elitism and affinity for exclusionary aesthetics? This essay will attempt to answer this question and will conclude that both views are valid, though there are good reasons for giving more purchase to the latter.

The careless attitude towards The Importance – the first working title of which was The Guardian (Raby, 1994, p. 142) – may be due to Wilde’s own flippant way of referring to his play: in an 1894 letter to the actor George Alexander, the playwright calls it his “somewhat farcical comedy” (Wilde, 2000, p. 620), and in another one from 1895 he describes it as “trivial” and says that it was “written by a butterfly for butterflies” (Wilde, 2000, p. 630). The first production of the play about four young lovers who, through entertaining schemes and assumed personalities find their right partner, opened in 1895 at the St James’s Theatre and was initially received with acclaim, even though the Marquess of Queensberry – the father of Wilde’s troubled and troubling companion Lord Alfred Douglas, aka Bosie – tried to sabotage the opening night by creating a scene and stopping the performance. The theatre, however, managed to prevent this with the help of twenty police officers, who guarded the entrances of the theatre, and the Marquis had to content himself only with sending Wilde “a grotesque bouquet of vegetables” (Wilde, 2000, p. 632). Yet Wilde’s libel case against Queensberry began during the run of the play, and when he lost it and was arrested for gross indecency, his name was first erased from the playbills and then the show was cancelled altogether (Freshwater, 2013, p. 284).

Nevertheless, since its initial short life, the play has been revisited and celebrated by many generations of both critics and theatregoers. It can be argued that this is primarily due to his masterful usage of language, making the characters’ speech “as hard and glittering as possible” (Paglia, 1991, p. 534). The mere employ of sparkling verbosity, however, is an unlikely reason for the play’s success, both in English and in translation in other languages, which leads to the conclusion “that Wilde’s witticisms contain a wealth of unsuspected meaning” (Paglia, 1991, p. 541).

One way of approaching the play’s hidden essence is to read The Importance as a devastating critique of the hypocrisy of Victorian society, with its Puritanical ideals that it never lived up to. Given that in De Profundis, the letter he wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas from prison, Wilde muses that “[t]o be entirely free, and at the same time entirely dominated by law, is the eternal paradox of human life that we realise at every moment” (Wilde, 2003, p. 997), it would be reasonable to suggest that he wanted to expose “the ludicrous and sinister realities behind the fashionable façade of an over-civilized society where nothing serious is considered serious and nothing trivial trivial” (Reinert, 1956, p. 17). This ridicule of those in positions of power has ancient roots in the western theatrical tradition, and Wilde was particularly influenced by “Restauration and eighteenth-century manners comedy” (Foster, 1956, p. 19). However, although he satirises the ruling class of Imperial Britain, with its “grotesquely hypocritical moral absolutes” (Brown, 2003, p. 353), characterising the play as a manifestation of social protest would be erroneous. At best, “it subjects the social institutions of its milieu to ridicule but stops short of advocating specific reforms” (Lalonde, 2005, p. 666). In other words, at the end of the play, the order of Society, personalised in Lady Bracknell, prevails: the two young men, both leading double lives of pretend respectability and actual pleasure, fall into the hands of the women, that way perpetuating the social and class order. Nevertheless, Wilde’s critique is both potent and subtle.

One such delicate stab at the false moral high ground of Victorian society can be seen in the exchange between Cecily and Miss Prism, when they discuss literature and the way stories should end. “The good ended happily, and the band unhappily” (Wilde, 2003, p. 376) says Miss Prism. Wilde gives “us an oblique perspective on a society’s shallowness through direct ridicule of the shallow art in which it sees its reflection” (Foster, 1956, p. 23). Another almost imperceptible way of exposing the rot in the ruling class is through the character of Jack Worthing, who is presented in the dramatis personae list as J.P., i.e. Justice of the Peace which is a judicial officer position. And yet, this man who is supposed to be an honest pillar of his community, leads a double life of lies and indeed complete disregard for the legal proceedings taken against his alter ego, Earnest. If his “immorality is representative of the class to which he belongs, it must also be taken to be representative of the judiciary system” (Lalonde, 2005, p. 666) itself.

A more obvious commentary on the injustices of the age is the reversal of the gender roles. The female characters in the play – one of the working titles of which was Lady Lancing (Wilde, 2003, p. 620) – are those with power and influence, whilst the men lack integrity and backbone. Regarding her father, Gwendolen says that “[o]utside the family circle, papa, I am glad to say, is entirely unknown”, adding that “[t]he home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man” (Wilde, 2003, 397). This “domestication” of the male enables Lady Bracknell to assume “the authority normally ascribed to the father of the patriarchal unit” (Lalonde, 2005, p. 668), transforming the patriarchy into a matriarchy.

However, Lady Bracknell is the chief enforcer of the rigid class order that, it can be said, Wilde tries to ridicule. She is “a figure of the larger society’s work to fit individual subjects into socially recognized and sanctioned categories” (Lalonde, 2005, p. 662) or, to go back to De Profundis, she is the prime “Philistine who upholds and aids the heavy, cumbrous, blind mechanical forces of Society, and who does not recognise the dynamic force when he meets it either in a man or a movement” (Wilde, 2003, p. 1042). The main way she does this is by policing the intermarriages between the aristocracy and the haute bourgeoisie, allowing the unions she regards as acceptable and banning all others. Her primary interest is in people’s income and politics: when she hears about Cecily’s fortune, she immediately accepts her as a fitting bride for her nephew; when she interviews Jack as a possible suitor to Gwendolen, she cares to find whether he has any association with the Radical Party (Wilde, 2003, p. 409 and p. 369). Indeed, she is the only character who is “sensitive … to the social unrest outside of the carefully constructed upper-class environs of the play” (Lalonde, 2005, p. 672), constantly on the alert for the rise of the spectre of socialism and revolution. Her hypersensitivity for a possible violent insurrection is a testament to her knowledge that the social order she upholds is not only corrupt, but also a sham (Lalonde, 2005, pp. 669-670).

This corruption is made most manifest in the character of Algernon, whose charm and verbal prowess distract the audience and readers from his lack of morals. He is condescending to his manservant and all others from the “lower classes”; regards marriage as nothing more than business; disapproves of being faithful to one’s partner; and has little, if any, affection for his family relations (Wilde, 2003, pp. 358, 359, 363 and 370). Influenced by Baudelaire and Barbey d’Aurevilly, Wilde was interested in the concept of the dandy, and Algernon is the perfect dandy. The dandy is an extreme “individualist who … used his grace and wit to oppose and dominate the crass world about him” (Ganz, 1963, p. 44); he is not trying to reform society but, being hostile towards it, wants to subvert it (Ganz, 1963, p. 45). In a way, Algernon manages both to reflect the hypocrisy of Victorian order and to attack it, whilst hiding behind a mask of innocence and triviality, “from the concealment of which he can say what he wishes without fear of retaliation” (Ganz, 1963, p. 45).

However, the dandy is also a snob. His “judgements are artistic rather than moral” (Gnaz, 1962, p. 51); he does not care for the morality of the social order he occupies, but for its beauty; aesthetics are his ethics. Since Wilde wrote that “[t]he supreme vice is shallowness” (Wilde, 2003, p. 981), it is important not to read the play only through the more obvious lens of social critique and to seek a different, deeper meaning. Art, for Wilde, was a symbol (Wilde, 2003, p. 1026) and he believed that making art with good intentions – such as exposing societal hypocrisy – would produce inferior artistic results (Wilde, 2003, 1044). It can be argued that in Wilde, who “was not a liberal, as his modern admirers think” but “a cold Late Romantic elitist”, “we see that brilliant fusion of the aggressive western eye with aristocratic hierarchism” (Paglia, 1991, p. 512) and even “class arrogance bordering on racism” (Paglia, 1991, p. 516).

The characters from The Importance are like objets d’art arranged in the supreme reality of art (Wilde, 2003, p. 1017), which is a higher, ideal world that is “poised on the brink of modernist, Beckettian absurdity” (Brown, 2003, p. 355). It is a world of pure form, where “the distinction between a moral and a physical failing, between external and internal, does not exist” (Ganz, 1963, p. 42) and in which “everyone invents what they desire, and everyone finally acquires it” (Raby, 1994, p. 146). In a sense, Wilde creates a new mythological world, with its own pantheon of gods with cold passions, similar to those from Greek mythology, but costumed in Victorian high fashion. No matter how absurd they appear to outsiders, the things the character say in the world of the play are true. Lady Bracknell describes herself as “a really affectionate mother” (Wilde, 2003, p. 368) and she believes it, as do the others. Moreover, she is an affectionate mother, for Gwendolen’s happiness indeed depends on the absurd – or absurdist – laws that Lady Bracknell upholds.

In this world drained of all emotion, form and appearance become everything, for there is nothing else beneath them. There is no real lust in the characters and thank goodness for that, for one shudders at the thought of these sinister automata having any form of real physical intimacy. Fixated on form and desirous for public display, “Gwendolen’s thoughts never stray from the world of appearances”, imagining “Jack looking at her, while she looks at others looking at them” (Paglia, 1991, 536). It is a new religion that worships form, and Lady Bracknell is its high priestess who follows, even sculpts, the morphos commandments of fashion and “catechizes her daughter Gwendolen” (Paglia, 1991, 537), that way perpetuating the absolute rule of style and cold Apollonian beauty.

This beauty is crystalized in the sharp, sparkling language of The Importance that works as “a mode of hierarchical placement” and asserts “a caste location vis-à-vis some other person or class of persons” (Paglia, 1991, p. 544). In the famous afternoon-tea scene with Gwendolen and Cecily, rhetoric “is devoted to social differentiation and segregation” (Paglia, 1991, p. 545). It is a verbal Titanomachy, the god-like participants in which have little knowledge of and even less care for the world and problems of lesser beings. The play does not lament the state of any contemporaneous class or political system, nor does it offer any idealized perception of the past or vision for the future. “Class structure in Wilde exists as art, as pure form” and “order is admired not because it is right or just but because it is beautiful” (Paglia, 1991, p. 554). He creates an absurdist world, ruled by laws entirely different from ours. It can be argued, therefore, that it is erroneous to say that Wilde satirises Lady Bracknell and the society she represents by making her appear absurd. The upper classes in The Importance satisfy “aesthetic and not moral demands” (Paglia, 1991, 554). Lady Bracknell is an organic occupant, indeed ruler, of her absurd world, and this perfect fit makes her beautiful and, consequently, good.

Of course, both approaches – looking at The Importance as a social criticism and as a snobbish approval of hierarchies and their cold beauty – are valid. After all, in the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde writes that “[d]iversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital”, adding that “[w]hen critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself” (Wilde, 2003, p. 17). However, it is important to stress that the play was written before Wilde’s trial and the transformation – some might say maturation – of his attitude towards the world and himself in prison. In De Profundis he writes “Pleasure for the beautiful body, but Pain for the beautiful Soul” (Wilde, 2003, p. 1025), lamenting his previous fascination with superficialities and promising himself to focus on his inner, spiritual world. Yet his characters from The Importance are just surface and have no inner world; they have no souls. Given that the play came into being before this change in Wilde, maybe reading it as an act of apotheosis of hierarchical beauty is indeed the more valid approach. However, as Algernon says, “truth is rarely pure and never simple” (Wilde, 2003, p. 362) and perhaps time will yield new readings of Wilde’s masterpiece.


Brown, T. (2003) ‘Introduction to The Plays’, in Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. London: Harper Collins Publishers, pp. 351-356.

Foster, R. (1956) ‘Wilde as Parodist: A Second look The Importance of Being Earnest’, College English, 18(1), pp. 18-23.

Freshwater, H. (2013) ‘The Censorship of the Stage: Writing on the Edge of the Allowed’, in Powell, K. (ed.) Oscar Wilde in Context. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 278-288.

Ganz, A. (1963) ‘The Meaning of The Importance of Being Earnest’, Modern Drama, 6(1), pp. 42-52.

Lalonde, J. (2005) ‘A “Revolutionary Outrage”: The Importance of Being Earnest as Social Criticism’, Modern Drama, 48(4), pp. 659-676.

Paglia, C. (1991) Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, New York: Vintage Books Edition.

Parker, D. (1974) ‘Oscar Wilde’s Great Farce The Importance of Being Earnest’, Modern Language Quarterly, 35(2), pp. 173-186.

Raby, P. (1994) ‘The Origins of The Importance of Being Earnest’, Modern Drama, 37(1), pp. 139-147.

Reinert, O. (1956) ‘Satiric Strategy in The Importance of Being Earnest’, College English, 18(1), pp. 14-18.

Wilde, O. (2003) De Profundis, in Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. London: Harper Collins Publishers, pp. 980-1059.

Wilde, O. (2000) The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. London: Fourth Estate Limited.

Wilde, O. (2003) The Importance of Being Earnest, in Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. London: Harper Collins Publishers, pp. 356-419.

Wilde, O. (2003) The Picture of Dorian Gray, in Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. London: Harper Collins Publishers, pp. 17-159.

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