Illustration of Jack Worthing in a top hat and formal attire, and a concerned expression on his face

The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde

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In The Importance of Being Earnest, how does Algernon use Wilde's asthetic principles to transform his life into a work of art?

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Algernon is definitely a character who values style over substance. As such, we could describe him as an aesthete or a dandy, as another reviewer mentioned.

First, it is clear that Algernon prioritizes pleasure and is very self-centered. He enjoys the finer things in life. Algy is also willing to put his own desires above those of anyone else. For example, he eats all of the cucumber sandwiches that were made expressly for his Aunt Augusta (Lady Bracknell) before she even arrives, but he won't let Jack have any. At the end of Act Two, once the men have been "found out," Algy eats muffins to quell his own unhappiness, but again, he doesn't want Jack to have any. In other parts of the play, we see Algernon commenting on fashion, appearances, and fine dining.

Algernon primarily channels his aesthetic energies into his creation of the Bunbury figure. Bunbury is "an invaluable permanent invalid" Algy has invented "in order that [he] may go down into the country whenever" he wants. Basically, he says Bunbury is ill to avoid social obligations and then goes to enjoy himself doing whatever he wants, namely getting into "scrapes." He puts one of his elaborate Bunbury performances into play when he goes to Jack's country home pretending to be Ernest in order to meet Cecily. Algy has a wardrobe particularly for the occasion, as he tells Lane to pack up "all the Bunbury suits" for his weekend adventure. After he has wreaked all sorts of havoc on Jack's life through this stunt, Algernon cares only for the pleasure and fun he has himself experienced. He tells Jack this has been "the most wonderful Bunbury I have ever had in my life."

It is clear that style and his own desires will come first for Algernon. His appreciation of fine food and drink and his interest in fashion put him in the category of an aesthete. Further, his performance as Ernest and his play with the idea of Bunbury contribute to this idea that his life is a work of art to be appreciated and looked at rather than lived at a substantial level.

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As the mouthpiece of Wilde's aesthetic values, Algernon Moncrief epitomizes the Victorian dandy; the declared bachelor who lives above his means, follows only his own canon of life, and stops at nothing, nor for anyone, to get what he wants.

In creating the character of Bunbury, Algernon takes the first step into creating an alternate reality that would enable him to come and go as he pleases in plain view of others. Openly admitting his creation, Algernon tells Jack how important it is to keep a "Bunbury" in one's life, especially when there are tasks and responsibilities that one does not necessarily want to comply with.

ALGERNON:I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose. Bunbury is perfectly invaluable.

In a similar fashion, Wilde is...

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quoted with saying that leading a moral (tedious) life is a "middle class" phenomenon while there is more joy that can be drawn from living like a libertine. This is sealed with the words spoken by Algernon to Lane in Act I:

ALGERNON: Lane's views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.

Another instance of aestheticism in Algernon's life is living above his means. Abiding by the code of the dandy, Algernon can afford to require the best of everything despite of paying for nothing. We catch minor glimpses of reality lurking in Algernon's life when we hear that he has "creditors" who "knock" at a specific way at his door. Yet, he scoffs at this and moves onwards with his fantasy, particularly after finding out that Cecily is a rich heiress with a strange imagination, and of a marriageable age:

ALGERNON: A glass of sherry, Lane...To-morrow, Lane, I'm going Bunburying... You can put up my dress clothes, my smoking jacket, and all the Bunbury suits….I hope to-morrow will be a fine day, Lane.

Hence, by obeying his own rules and breaking everybody else's Algernon's life illustrates the fanciful and the fashionable, for whom Wilde coined the sobriquet "the beautiful people".

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