Ironie in Oscar Wildes "The importance of beeing Ernest"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2010 11 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 What exactly is Irony?
2.1 Explanation of the term “Irony”
2.2 Grice: Irony as conversational implicature
2.3 Leech’s “Irony Principle”

3 Irony in "The Importance of Being Earnest"
3.1 Irony in the title of the comedy
3.2 Examples in act one
3.3 Examples in act two
3.4 Examples in act three

4 Conclusion

Works Cited

1 Introduction

It is impossible to imagine living without irony in our everyday life. Irony as a form of “linguistic indirectness“ has become a phenomenon in recent years. It is used by, no matter what age or social group in our speaking, writing and literature. The term “irony” derives etymologically from the Greek word “eironeia” and actually means “adjustment”, “escape”, or especially “lack of seriousness“. But another significant element is being added, which is “making fun of someone”. So if you call someone a hero, who just ran away from something harmless, you do not mean it literally, you indirectly try to express the opposite. Actually you would have said, that he is a total coward.

But exactly that is what makes a definition of the term “irony” so difficult, because it is not always exactly the opposite when you are ironic; sometimes it just means something else. If we now start from this explanation of the term, you could assume that something ironic is almost a lie, as someone who uses irony wants to express something else than he actually says. It is not a lie because when you lie you try your best nobody realizes your being untrue. When someone is ironic, the intention is to let the other person notice this. Thus irony is transparent where a lie is, at least, opaque. The second major difference is the intention to deceive which is constitutive for the lie, but not when you use irony. You also can not compare irony with mockery; mockery always tries to hurt someone directly, irony in contrast always is detached and uses some kind of adjustment.

In this work I will try to define irony and try to find and analyze some of the ironic passages from Oscar Wilde’s comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest”.

The eccentric Oscar Wilde, who lived from 1854 until 1900 was one of the leading representatives of the aesthetic movement of “L’art pour l’art”, which tried to “aestheticize” all areas of life. Wilde, who lived the life of a perfect dandy, deliberately bended the norms of the Victorian era.

In 1895, at the peak of his career, he was sentenced to two years of hard labour, because of homosexual practices. This verdict ended in his financial and social ruin.

After his release Wilde emigrated to Paris where he died on the 30th Nov 1900.

In his works, including “The Importance of Being Earnest”, Wilde criticized the bigotry and the exaggerated morality of the English society at this time.

2 What exactly is Irony?

2.1 Explanation of the term “Irony”

To understand irony, some conditions of felicity have to be fulfilled, to make sure that there will be no misunderstanding. This means that the listener has to understand the ironic part first, before it can succeed. Besides that, the listener has to recognize, that it is a simulation of a lie. The ironic speaker has to know, that the listener is able to understand irony (Lapp 146 f.). So it is always an advantage to know more about the listener. For this reason it is certainly beneficial to know more about the listener’s character. One should know, the interlocutor is usually honest and sincere or rather cynic and sarcastic. In addition one should also use typical signals, which constitute irony. These are “facial, gestural and intonational modulations, such as eye blinking, throat clearing, an emphatic voice, or the accumulation of bombastic phrases, bold metaphors, long sentences, repetition of words or (in written texts) italics and quotation marks” (Lapp 29).

2.2 Grice: Irony as conversational implicature

Before I continue with Leech’s interpretation of irony, I will now give a short overview over the irony model of H.P. Grice.

Grice assumes that each exchange of speech in general is based on a co-operative principle, which is followed by all conversation partners, who are willing to have a successful conversation. This is co-operative principle is: “Design your contribution to the conversation the way that everyone recognizes the purpose of the conversation, you are participating in” (Lapp 64).

This general principle of cooperation is concretecised by a system of four specific maxims, which contain various sub-maxims:

1. Maxim of quantity:

Make your contribution as informative as necessary, but not more than necessary.

2. Maxim of quality:

Say nothing that is wrong in your opinion and that you do not have good reasons for.

3. Maxim of relation:

Say only relevant things.

4. Maxim of modality:

Avoid uncertainty, ambiguity, redundancy and disorderliness.

In our everyday use of language there are always situations in which the speaker does not comply with the co-operative principles. Like this he misleads its listeners, or he wants to suggest something without expressing it (Lapp 64 f.).

2.3 Leech’s “Irony Principle”

Geoffrey Leech defines irony as an independent principle of interpersonal rhetoric, which he calls “second-order principle”. It is based on the “principle of politeness” . Leech uses the same maxims of conversation, too.

Regarding his “irony principle” (IP) Leech says: “If you must cause offence, at least do so in a way which doesn’t overtly conflict with the PP [= Politeness Principle], but allows the hearer to arrive at the offensive point of your remark indirectly, by way of implicature” (Leech 82).

If possible, irony should not hurt the Politeness Principle, but this claim is often hard to realize.

3 Irony in “The Importance of Being Earnest”

3.1 Irony in the title of the comedy

I want to illustrate the description of irony with some examples in Oscar Wilde’s comedy. For a better understanding I will briefly describe the background, compare what the speaker said and what he meant in this situation and finally describe the effect the statement has on the involved people.

Already the title “The Importance of Being Earnest” and the subtitle “A trivial comedy for serious people” contain irony. They ridicule the conservative and puritan Victorian Society, for Wilde the epitome of exaggerated seriousness. Wilde tries to trivialize all this seriousness, is almost making fun of it in some sentences. For him, there is no importance in this Victorian earnestness. He tries to express this in the double meaning of Earnest. On the one hand side it is Earnest the name of a man and on the other hand side it is Earnest in the sense of “to be earnest”. Like this he expresses that he actually abhors this earnest way of living.

3.2 Examples in act one

Right at the beginning of the first act, there is a conversation between Algernon and his servant Lane about marriage. During this conversation Lane answers Algernon’s question in a very ironic way. When

Algernon asked: “Is marriage so demoralizing as that?”

Lane answers: “ I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once.” (Wilde 7)

His statement is obviously wrong, for a former husband, he should have a lot of experience. He most probably considers that his one marriage can not be enough to answer Algernon’s question satisfying enough.

Algernon does not respond to Lane’s ironic statement at all, he is rather blocking him in a very rude way to let him know that he is not interested in Lane’s family life.

Shortly after that conversation, Jack visits Algernon and talks about his neighbours. He tells Algernon that he always amuses his neighbours at home, whereupon Algernon asks: “Got nice neighbours in your part of Shropshire?”

Jack: “Perfectly horrid! Never speak to one of them.”

Algernon: “ How immensely you must amuse them! (By the way, Shropshire is your country, is it not?)” (Wilde 8).



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University of Koblenz-Landau – Anglistik
Irony Oscar Wilde England The importance of beeing Ernest Ernest Earnest Sarcasm Sarkasmus Comedy Komödie Satire Gay Homosexual Homosexuel Schwul



Title: Ironie in Oscar Wildes  "The importance of beeing Ernest"