The Importance of Being Earnest
An Afterward to the Play
Oscar Wilde (1854—1900), author of The Importance of Being Earnest. This
picture was taken in 1895, the year the play opened in London.
A recent Friday night at the Andreas Center was devoted to some nice
potato-leek soup and the reading of Oscar Wilde’s play The
Importance of Being Earnest. We laughed a good deal, of course,
but there are ways in which the play is not only comic, but also
Wilde is generally a social satirist, but one way of looking at
The Importance of Being Earnest is to see it as not so much satire
as nonsense. Other writers in late Victorian England were creating
nonsense, too. One of the best known to us is Lewis Carroll, the Oxford
mathematician who wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)
and Through the Looking-Glass (1872). Carroll’s method was to
imagine a dream-state in which the ordinary ways of logic were replaced
by fantastic ones. Within the dream-logic, everything is consistent, but
Earnest is a different sort of nonsense from Alice, but
it is just as carefully invented and just as carefully consistent. All
through the play, people speak this nonsense. This is even said in so
many words at the end of Scene 1:
Algernon: I love scrapes. They are the only things that are never
Jack: Oh, that’s nonsense, Algy. You never talk anything but
Algernon: Nobody ever does.
The play is very funny, but Wilde is not just getting laughs any way
he can. There are no rude noises, no puns, no visual gags. No one sits
down in a chair and sticks to it. No one’s toupee is snatched off his
Instead, Wilde presents us with this kind of thing:
Algernon: All women become like their mothers. That is their
tragedy. No man does. That’s his.
Jack: Is that clever?
Algernon: It is perfectly phrased! and quite as true as any
observation in civilized life should be.
At first we think, “How true! How profound! How clever!” But on
second thought we think, “No wait! It is not in fact universally true
that all women, etc.” Then Algernon declares it to be as true as any
observation in civilized life should be, and we are left
thinking, “Untrue, and therefore exactly as true as anything need or
ought to be.” What superb nonsense! What an artist!
The Tale of a Thousand Years
As soon as we say that Wilde is not just a gag man but an artist, we
raise his work to the level of Literature and cause children to read it
in school. Well, it is Literature, and that must mean there is an
Idea in it.
What is this Idea? Therein lies a tale.
There was a time—say seven hundred years ago—when intellectuals in
Europe had succeeded in making a great synthesis of All Knowledge. This
Knowledge included both divinity and science. It had taken hundreds of
years to accomplish the feat, and by any standard, the result was
elegant and amazing.
The trouble was, they got the science wrong. Their way of doing
science was to pore over the books of Aristotle, Pliny the Elder,
Ptolemy, and so on, and derive scientific statements by a kind of
Eventually it dawned on a few people how out-of-whack that was. So
they devised a new means of doing science—by observation, measurement,
calculation, and so on. This resulted in a great deal of New Knowledge
that contradicted Aristotle and Ptolemy. That by itself would have been
no problem, but of course the medieval synthesis of All Knowledge would
take a drastic tumble if the new intellectuals yanked out all that Old
Science. And yank they did.
The yanking process went on for centuries. The philosophers and
theologians tried to keep up, but the scientists were fast-moving. The
old synthesis pretty much fell apart, and there was no time to make a
new one: the New Knowledge was coming in too rapidly.
In the early Victorian period, Tennyson in England and Melville and
Whitman in the States had attempted a kind of synthesis of
contradictions. Not knowing what to believe in any more, they manfully
believed in everything. “Do I contradict myself?” Whitman observed.
“Very well then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
In the late Victorian period, however, the shaky synthesis of
contradictions flew to pieces. It could not keep up with the
accelerating speed of the new ideas. In 1859 Darwin published Origin
of Species, and humankind officially became an evolving animal. In
1895 (the year Earnest was first staged) Freud began publishing
his works, and humankind officially became a stinky little animal to
boot. The Industrial Revolution and The First World War took us down
another few notches—but now we are shooting beyond Wilde’s lifespan and
need to come back to the 1880s.
The old synthesis in which God, humankind, and nature held their
elegantly balanced positions was effectively a heap of ruins. Among
literary people and intellectuals there was a widespread feeling of
despair about the value and dignity of Man, the meaningfulness of
civilization, and the existence and goodness of God. No solutions to
these problems seemed clear. Therefore the literary people threw
themselves into the problems heart and soul:
Algernon: The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life
would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a
Nonsense as an Idea
The literature of the late 1800s and the early 1900s was written out
of whatever fragments of belief and unbelief writers were left with.
Their literary response to the Big Questions took various forms.
Some despaired of the whole deal, or came close. Joseph Conrad, in
Heart of Darkness (1899), showed human civilization and morality as
very thin: close to the surface lay unimaginable barbarism and evil.
(The point was re-made in the story’s 1979 cinematic re-make by Francis
Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now.)
Others found an attenuated kind of hope in mankind’s upward evolution
to some as-yet unseen higher form of life. George Bernard Shaw (a friend
of Wilde’s) expounded this doctrine in his play Man and Superman
(1905) and gave us glimpses of these supermen in such characters as
Henry Higgins (Pygmalion, 1913) and Saint Joan (1923).
Others kept a stiff upper lip and maintained a stoic response in the
face of grim reality. Robert Louis Stevenson, for instance, called upon
us to bear up, for surely not all is in vain—although he does not
exactly explain why not (Pulvis et Umbra [i.e., “Dust and
Still others took the great shambles of western thought as a source
of amusement. Now we see what the human race is, and the joke’s on us.
Among the writers of earnest comedy and trivial plays for serious people
was, of course, Oscar Wilde. But there were many others, all through the
What may be regarded the first work of Victorian literature was
Thomas Carlyle’s amusingly serious Sartor Resartus (published in
serial form in Fraser's Magazine, 1833-1834). The tone was
maintained in the comic novels of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace
Thackeray. Edward Lear composed a more intentional kind of nonsense
(four books published from 1846 to 1877), and so did Lewis Carroll,
already mentioned. Then there was the caricaturist and writer Max
Beerbohm (1872-1956). When he was a young man he knew Wilde and was
influenced by him. (Did Wilde intend a reference to Max Beerbohm when
Jack reads off the generals whose names begin with the letter M and
finds a certain Maxbohm among them? “Ghastly names,” Jack cries.) There
were also comic writers, equally funny, who did not, however, labor with
equally satirical or intellectual intent. Among these were Jerome K.
Jerome (The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1886) and Three
Men in a Boat (1889)), and later—to shoot once again beyond Oscar
Wilde’s lifetime—P. G. Wodehouse (Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves
adventured through fifty-four years together, without aging, in books
and stories published from 1917 to 1971).
Here then is where Oscar Wilde came in. In spite of the crisis of
faith and the aching doubts about ultimate meaning and value, he and
other Victorian writers gave England a reason to laugh. And when one
laughs, one has not despaired.