Maxims and Masks: The Epigram in "The Importance of Being Earnest"
Oscar Wilde frames "The Importance of Being Earnest" around the paradoxical epigram, a skewering metaphor for the play's central theme of division of truth and identity that hints at a homosexual subtext. Other targets of Wilde's absurd yet grounded wit are the social conventions of his stuffy Victorian society, which are exposed as a "shallow mask of manners" (1655). Aided by clever wordplay, frantic misunderstanding, and dissonance of knowledge between the characters and the audience, devices that are now staples of contemporary theater and situation comedy, "Earnest" suggests that, especially in "civilized" society, we all lead double lives that force upon us a variety of postures, an idea with which the closeted (until his public charge for sodomy) homosexual Wilde was understandably obsessed.
The play's initial thrust is in its exploration of bisexual identities. Algernon's and Jack's "Bunburys" initially function as separate geographic personas for the city and country, simple escapes from nagging social obligations. However, the homoerotic connotations of the punning name (even the double "bu"'s, which serve mostly an alliterative purpose, insinuate a union of similarities, and "Bunbury" rhymes with "buggery," British slang for sodomy) flare up when paired with Algernon's repeated assaults on marriage:
ALGERNON. "...She will place me next to Mary Farquhar, who always flirts with her own husband across the dinner table. That is not very pleasant. Indeed, it is not even decent ... and that sort of thing is enormously on the increase. The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one's clean linen in public" (1633).
The mixed truth of a Wilde epigram - stating the normal in a ludicrous fashion, as with Algernon's aghast reaction to marital flirtation, and often capped by tweaking an established cliché, as with "washing one's clean linen" - is not only humorous, but salient; his distaste for public displays of "clean" heterosexual affection implies his deep-seated resentment that his linen is considered dirty and must be washed in private.
Though both men are "Bunburyists," Wilde holds and heightens dramatic tension through Jack's denial of the fact. The characters are given to hyperbolic conviction in their brief speeches, a fast-paced technique that magnifies the play's distant relationship to vaudevillian humor and reveals another duality within homosexuality; Algernon is perfectly happy to be gay, while Jack is repellent to the idea, perhaps even to the point of self-loathing. Algernon puns on the idiom "to part with," showing his reluctance to remove himself from both the world and the physically splitting position of homosexuality: "Nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury, and if you ever get married, which seems to me extremely problematic, you will be very glad...