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 i…
… he was inextricably associated but from which he could just as easily distance himself via a pithy saying, but he treats the tension of homosexuality, his own mask, more seriously. Jack is never ready to admit his entrance into the Bunbury underworld, and we never learn from Algernon the necessary rules of conduct. The personification of homosexuality as a character’s double is not surprising – some critics argue that Dr. Jekyl’s evil counterpart, Mr. Hyde, has some homosexual leanings – as such a controversial and, perhaps, embarrassing topic can be more easily disguised and obscured in the murky depths of the doppelganger tale. Today, with scientific evidence backing an opinion that places individuals’ sexual preferences on a sliding scale from full heterosexuality to full homosexuality, the simple bifurcated view of sexuality in literature may soon be obsolete.