The Double Life in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar WildeThe Importance of Being Earnest appears to be a conventional 19th century farce. False identities, prohibited engagements, domineering mothers, lost children are typical of almost every farce. However, this is only on the surface in Wilde’s play. His parody works at two levels- on the one hand he ridicules the manners of the high society and on the other he satirises the human condition in general. The characters in The Importance of Being Earnest assume false identities in order to achieve their goals but do not interfere with the others’ lives. The double life led by Algernon, Jack, and Cecily (through her diary) is simply another means by which they liberate themselves from the repressive norms of society. They have the freedom to create themselves and use their double identities to give themselves the opportunity to show opposite sides of their characters. They mock every custom of the society and challenge its values. This creates not only the comic effect of the play but also makes the audience think of the serious things of life.
Oscar Wilde begins with a joke in the title that is not only a piece of frivolity. It concerns the problem of recognising and defining human identity. The use of earnest and Earnest is a pun, which makes the title not only more comic, but also leads to a paradox. The farce in The Importance of Being Earnest consists in the trifle that it is important not only to be earnest by nature but to have the name Earnest too. Jack realizes “the vital Importance of Being Earnest”(53) not till the end of the play. Algernon calls the act of not being earnest Bunburying which gives the plot a moral significance. Bunburying means inventing a fictitious character by which one can escape the frustrating social norms. Algernon says to Jack:
“Well, one must be serious about something, if one wants to have any amusement in life. I happen to be serious about Bunburying. What on earth are you serious about I haven’t got the remotest idea. About everything, I should fancy. You have an absolutely trivial nature.”(50)To soothe a dying friend or to help a fallen brother is a respectable excuse to get away from the repressive convention. Bunburying is the reason for all the mistaken identities. Algernon is serious about Bunburying as the Bunburyist is serious about not …
…ngagement, their re-engagement. Cecily is not the natural country girl. She possesses the self-assurance of the experienced woman. Without being cynical she makes her desires clear. And when Gwendolen and Cecily discover that their Earnests are impostors whose names are Jack and Algernon they decide that love can be restored only if Jack and Algy christen themselves Earnest.At the end the farce turns to be an idyll of wish-fulfillment- Cecily wishes to be engaged to Earnest and it happens so, Jack declares that he is called Earnest and he is in fact, Algy pretends to be Jack’s young brother and it comes true too. The characters’ fantasies are brought to life at the end of the play. Their double life is not a hypocrisy. They mock the laws and the customs of the society in which they live. The characters challenge society’s values, free themselves from their rigid norms and at the end of the play they manage to regain their balance and become earnest.
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde, Penguin Group, London:1994
Wilde:Comedies, ed. by William Tydeman, The Macmillan Press Ltd, London:1982
Revising Wilde, Sos Eltis, Clarendon Press, Oxford:1996