How could you compare The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde and C Above C Above High C by Ishmael Reed?

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teachsuccess eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We can compare both plays by analyzing the importance of appearances and the constraints of morality within the plays.

1) The deception of surface appearances.

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Jack Worthing uses his alter ego to escape the constraints of Victorian morality; with his alter ego, Earnest, Jack is able to keep up appearances before his ward, Cecily Cardew. The notion of hypocrisy as a form of self-preservation and personal agency was a means to an end within the structure of Victorian society. Keeping up appearances allowed one to preserve one's image of respectability and integrity before one's servants, family, and community.

In the story, Jack becomes Earnest when he wants to have a bit of fun in London. It's a convenient excuse that works splendidly, until he realizes that his deceptive alter ego could cost him Gwendolyn's love. Meanwhile, his best friend, Algernon, has his own alter ego as well, the hypochondriac Bunbury. Bunbury allows Algernon to bypass his social obligations, responsibilities he finds boring and uninspiring. Two other characters in the play, Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism, also have to keep up appearances in order to appear virtuous and morally unassailable.

The aristocratic Lady Bracknell's rejection of Jack Worthing/ Earnest as a desirable suitor for her daughter, Gwendolen, is predicated on Jack's lack of an acceptable pedigree. As a daughter from an aristocratic family, Gwendolen is expected to conform to particularly restrictive social norms. Honor and reputation must be preserved at all costs. Meanwhile, Miss Prism, Cecily's governess, must teach her young charge all the expected virtues the ward of a respectable man must have.

In The C above C above High C, appearances are a form of deception as well. All must conform to required expectations in order to fit into a narrow and restrictive culture. In the play, J. Edgar Hoover appears in drag and he's black, quite a stunning and unconventional portrayal of the ebullient and combative FBI director. According to Mamie Eisenhower (in the play), Hoover has never been accepted as a white man; as a form of self-preservation, he tells people that he has a tan so they will trust him to fulfill his prescribed role in society.

Meanwhile, President Eisenhower is portrayed as a lecher and adulterer in the play. His lover is Kay Summersby, who uses embarrassingly poetic language to describe her sexual ecstasies during trysts with her presidential lover. Meanwhile, General Douglas MacArthur is described as a sex-obsessed and abusive philanderer. In the play, Mamie tells Lil (Louis Armstrong's wife) that MacArthur had abused a Chinese teenager "into bad health." Louis Armstrong himself does not escape unscathed; his wife, Lil, describes him as a man sexually fixated on his mother.

The commonality between both plays is the importance of appearances as a tool of self-preservation and personal aggrandizement. In C above C above High C, respected men in political and military circles must conform to outward expectations of manhood, masculinity, and respectability. Their material success depends on this. Likewise, in The Importance of Being Earnest, members of the aristocracy and the lower classes must adhere to outward conventions of morality, honor, and dignity. Any variation from the norm threatens to disrupt the hierarchical equilibrium so prized by Victorian society.

2) The definition of morality is in the eye of the beholder.

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Gwendolen exemplifies the perfect Victorian young lady. She is dignified, virtuous, and cosmopolitan; in short, a young lady beyond reproach. Her ideas about morality are vastly antithetical to true happiness, however; Wilde satirizes her fixation on the name "Earnest" as a way to comment on the hypocrisy of Victorian morality, a morality encased in sanctimonious piety and patronizing noblesse oblige (an implied social responsibility by the aristocratic class to demonstrate nobility and compassion towards the lower classes).

Despite the social obligations of the upper classes, the lower classes also have to fulfill certain expectations. They sometimes fail desperately in this area. In the play, it is revealed Miss Prism left Jack in a leather handbag in the cloakroom of the Victoria Station when he was a baby. As Cecily's governess, however, she maintains an outward appearance of primness, integrity, and civility. Yet, the truth is that Miss Prism is a repressed woman, a caricature of the respectable working-class employee in an aristocratic household. She pines after the priest, Dr. Chasuble, but must hide her less-than-savory desires from the public eye. This she does through pompous diction and supposedly didactic discourse.

In C above C above High C, we find the definition of morality is again in the eye of the beholder. As described in (1), the perception of an individual's morality can vary depending on who is doing the judging. Characters from both plays demonstrate a fear for exposing their individual desires, personalities, and ambitions. Perhaps the natural propensity for humans to judge each other cruelly distorts truth and prevents genuine self-contemplation.

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The Importance of Being Earnest

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