Absurdity and Satire in The Importance of Being Earnest
In Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, much is made of societal expectations, protocols, as well as the inversions of these expectations. A character, Jack Worthing, adopts an alter ego when going into town to avoid keeping up with the serious and morally upright behaviour that is expected of him as guardian to his eighteen-year-old ward, Cecily. Another character, Algernon Moncrieff, makes up an invalid friend Bunbury whose grave health conditions provide him with the excuse to escape to the country as and when he pleases. Both Jack and Algernon are admired by two young ladies who erroneously believe the men's names to be Ernest, and who adore the men for this very reason. In relating the story of mix-ups and mistaken identities, the ideals and manners of the Victorian society are satirized in a comedy where the characters "treat all the trivial things of life seriously and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality" (Wilde back cover), in the words of the author himself.
Act 1 JACK. [Nervously.] Miss Fairfax, ever since I met you I have admired you more than any girl . . . I have ever met since . . . I met you.
GWENDOLEN. Yes, I am quite well aware of the fact. And I often wish that in public, at any rate, you had been more demonstrative. For me you have always had an irresistible fascination. Even before I met you I was far from indifferent to you. [JACK looks at her in amazement.] 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 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.
JACK. You really love me, Gwendolen?
JACK. Darling! You don't know how happy you've made me.
GWENDOLEN. My own Ernest!
JACK. But you don't really mean to say that you couldn't love me if my name wasn't Ernest?
GWENDOLEN. But your name is Ernest.
JACK. Yes, I know it is. But supposing it was something else? Do you mean to say you couldn't love me then?
GWENDOLEN. [Glibly.] Ah! that is clearly a metaphysical speculation, and like most metaphysical speculations has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life, as we know them.
JACK. Personally, darling, to speak quite candidly, I don't much care about the name of Ernest . . . I don't think the name suits me at all.
GWENDOLEN. It suits you perfectly. It is a divine name. It has music of its own. It produces vibrations.
JACK. Well, really, Gwendolen, I must say that I think there are lots of other much nicer names. I think Jack, for instance, a charming name.
GWENDOLEN. Jack? . . . No, there is very little...