Oscar Wilde: 'The Importance of Being Earnest' - Making fun of Victorian values and society and parodying dramatic conventions
Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2003 17 Pages
Tabel of Contents:
2. Parodying Dramatic Conventions
3. Making fun of Victorian mores and society
Earnest rejected all conventional values and thereby eluded conventional evaluation
To pun this quotation in another way: How can a play that rejected all conventional values still be valueable?
The Importance of Being Earnest survived despite of its content which was indirectly criticizing Victorian society and lampooning dramatic conventions decades and is still a very popular play.
Earnest was written by the Irish author Oscar Wilde who was born in 1854 in Dublin and died in 1900 in Paris. His well-read mother, née Jane Francesca Elgee, introduced Oscar and his brother early to English, French and Italian literature so that when Oscar went to board at the Portora Royal School, Enniskillen, he was far ahead of the other pupils in academic ability and literary culture. Wilde´s upbringing in this sophisticated environment and his excellent college education at Oxford laid the foundations of his career as an author and writer. After leaving college in 1878 Wilde moved to London in order to earn money since he lacked cash. Wilde´s other, presumably for him even more important intenion was to enter society as soon as possible. He succeeded in doing both, earning money and entering London society. The theatre was very popular in the whole of the 19th century and offered rich rewards to popular dramatists and so Wilde, almost inevitably turned his attention to dramatic work which means writing for stage. By the time Earnest, his final and most lasting play, opened in 1895 Wilde was the most successful dramatist in London. The audience adored the witty play full of repartee which represented Wilde´s late-Victorian view of the aristocracy, wit, social life, and marriage.
The play tells the story of Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, who both lead a double life in order “to escape the restrictive moral mask of Victorian etiquette and be true to their own impulses.”. When they both fall in love a series of crises threatens to spoil their romantic pursuits.
This seminarpaper will provide a deeper interpretation of the The Importance of Being Earnest analyzing Wilde´s intentions for writing it. The play, in plot as well as in the presentation of the characters, is written in an obviously ironical way in which he is lampooning the society at the end of the 19th cenutry. But Wilde also mocks at the way plays were written at that time since elements in Earnest differ from the dramatic conventions.
The analysis will present on the one hand the literary interpretation of the play, that means to what extent Wilde is parodying the way literature was usually written during that period. It will provide an outline of different dramatic genres and types in comparison to Earnest.
On the other hand the socio-cultural interpretation will be presented, analyzing in how far Wilde is making fun of the Victorian society and its mores.
Of course, both, the literary and the socio-cultural interpretation of the play are related to each other but a divison is necessary in the course of the analysis to give clear explanations.
2. Parodying Dramatic Conventions
To start a discussion about the thesis that Wilde is parodying dramatic conventions it is necessary to know what is meant by dramatic conventions, that means to have an overview about the different relevant genres and types or the answer to the question what genre The Importance of Being Earnest actually belongs to. Kohl states that the author himself gives the answer to that question by describing his play a “farcial comedy”:
Die treffendste Gattungsbezeichung hat der Autor selbst gefunden: er bezeichnet sein Stück als “farcial comedy”; denn die Idee des Stücks gemahnt an eine Farce, die Dialoge erinnern an die tradionelle Sittenkomödie.
“A farce is a form of low comedy designed to provoke laughter through highly exaggerated caricatures of people in improbable or silly situations. […] Many literary critics (especially in the Victorian period) have tended to view farce as inferior to “high comedy” that involves brilliant dialogue.” Typical elements of a farce are, for example, all sorts of surprises (the whole story of Earnest is based on surprising situations), repetitions (repetition of “At last!” at the end of the play), and gross exaggeration of the characters. Powell mentions the stock characters of farce such as the domineering woman (in the case of Earnest the strong-minded matriarch Lady Bracknell) and the henpecked husband (he can be only found in one of the first versions of Earnest ) and adds further elements like lovers´ misunderstandings and confusion of identity as part of the plot of a farce. Travelling (Algernon and Jack travelling to the country or to town), Bunburying, forbidden engagements, and the ritual food gags (“Algernon Moncrieff´s gluttonizing of muffins and cucumber sandwiches […]” ) are especially characteristic for farce in the Victorian era.
Considering this overview about farce and the examples it seems that Earnest belongs to the genre of farce. “The Importance of Being Earnest [is] to all appearances a conventional nineteenth-century farce. As with Wilde´s previous plays, most of the basic ingredients of the plot [are] familiar from innumerable other farces: misplaced parents, forbidden engagements, false identities, overbearing mothers, and the copious consumption of food [are] all clichés of the comic stage.”
Nevertheless the question is not how far Wilde´s play is conventional but rather in how far it differs from similar dramas and if Wilde is parodying them. In the case of the genre of farce it is difficult to say if it can be parodied at all since it is in itself a kind of parody. In the first version of Earnest, Wilde wrote the play in four acts and cut it then later to three, what is the usual structure of a farcial comedy. That can be an indications that Wilde wanted to break with the conventions. Yet, Eltis finds crucial unconventional elements in Earnest. In his view the characters are not typical for farce: “[The] anarchic freedom, in which the characters are at liberty to create themselves, once again separates Earnest from other, more conventional, farces.” Eltis says that the world of Earnest is an anarchic one. This world is not subjected to conventional rules because “there is no division between chaos and order, fact and fiction. It is not a civilized society temporarily disrupted, but a perfect anarchic state in which the charcters live, luxuriating in its benevolent lack of rules, morals, and principles.”
 Eltis, Sos, Revising Wilde: Society and Subversion in the Plays of Oscar Wilde. Oxford, 1996, 173.
 Cp. http://www.buedg.daig-kastura.de/earnest98/earnew3.htm
 http://www.buedg.daig-kastura.de/earnest98/earnew3.htm (09.05.2003)
 Kohl, Norbert, Oscar Wilde: Das literarische Werk zwischen Provokation und Anpassung. Heidelberg, 1980, 438.
 http://guweb2.gonzaga.edu/faculty/wheeler/lit_terms_w.html (01.06.03)
 Oscar Wilde, “The Importance of Being Earnest”. In:Murray, Isobel (ed.), Oscar Wilde: The Major Works. Oxford, 2000, 538.
 Powell, Kerry, Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s. Cambridge, 1990, 110.
 Cp. Eltis, Sos, Revising Wilde: Society and Subversion in the Plays of Oscar Wilde. Oxford, 1996, 179.
 Powell (1990: 110)
 Eltis (1996: 172)
 Eltis (1996: 195)
 Eltis (1996: 172)