Critical Overview

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1044

Two major issues predominate much of The Importance of Being Earnest's criticism. First, while audiences from the play's opening have warmly received it, Wilde's contemporaries questioned its seeming amorality. Playwright George Bernard Shaw (Major Barbara), after seeing the original London production, attacked the play's "real degeneracy" in an article reprinted in Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays. Shaw described Wilde's repartee as "hateful" and "sinister." A second and related concern arises about Earnest's dramatic structure, which exhibits elements of the farce, comedy of manners, and parody. Critics often disagree as to how the play should be categorized.

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On the play's morality, critical opinion remains divided. In his book Oscar Wilde, Edouard Roditi, for example, believed that Wilde's comedy never rises above "the incomplete or the trivial." Because none of the characters see through the others or critique their values, Roditi believed the play lacks an ethical point of view. Eric Bentley, in The Playwright As Thinker, raised similar issues, concluding that because of its "ridiculous action," the play fails to "break . . . into bitter criticism" of serious issues.

For Otto Reinert, writing in College English, Wilde's comedy results in "an exposure both of hypocrisy and of the unnatural convention that necessitates hypocrisy." As a consequence, "bunburying," the reliance on white lies that keeps polite society polite, "gives the plot moral significance." For example, when Lady Bracknell criticizes Algernon for caring for his imaginary friend, Bunbury, who should decide "whether he was going to live or to die," she voices the conventional belief that "illness in others is always faked [and] . . . consequently sympathy with invalids is faked also."

Though Lady Bracknell respects convention, Reinert wrote, "she has no illusions about the reality her professed convention is supposed to conceal." She assumes that both Algernon and Bunbury are "bunburying," and her behavior "exposes the polite cynicism that negates all values save personal convenience and salon decorum."

Nor is Lady Bracknell immune from her own lapses in earnestness. Stating her disapproval of mercenary marriages, she admits, "When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind." That is, though she opposes marrying for money, she had no money when she married a wealthy lord. For her, according to Reinert, this position "is neither cynical nor funny. It represents . . . [a] compromise between practical hardheadedness and conventional morality."

Overall, the play does not endorse social dishonesty, for while the plot ridicules respectability, "it also repudiates Bunburyism." Wilde's use of "paradoxical morality'' serves as a critique of "the problem of manners," for "Bunburying Algernon, in escaping the hypocrisy of convention, becomes a hypocrite himself by pretending to be somebody he is not." Wilde sees that Victorian respectability forces people to lead "double lives, one respectable, one frivolous, neither earnest."

The second critical issue concerns the play's categorization. Reinert unapologetically describes the play as a farce "that represents the reality that Victorian convention pretends to ignore." The characters themselves are not being ironic, i.e. saying one thing and meaning another. They actually mean what they say. For example, Algernon despairs of attending Lady Bracknell's dinner party because she will sit him beside "Mary Farquhar, who always flirts with her own husband." As Reinert wrote, "Algernon is indignant with a woman who spoils the fun of extramarital flirtation and who parades her virtue. He is shocked at convention. And his tone implies that he is elevating break of convention into a moral norm," that is, making the unconventional conventional.

Characters like Algernon, who resemble those in works by Alexander Pope (The Rape of the Lock) and Jonathan Swift (Gulliver's Travels), "derive their ideals for conduct from the actual practice of their societies, their standards are the standards of common corruption, they are literal-minded victims of their environments, realists with a vengeance."

For Richard Foster, writing in College English, Wilde's comedy works through parody, by transforming "stock comedic techniques, plot devices, and characters." Foster defended the play against charges that it is merely farce, because farce "depends for its effects upon extremely simplified characters tangling themselves up in incongruous situations," as in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors or Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer. Instead, "the comedy of Earnest subsists, for the most part, not in action or situation but in dialogue" which is too witty and intellectual "to be described simply as a farce."

Nor is Earnest actually a comedy of manners, according to Foster, though it does use verbal wit to expose and ridicule "the vanities, the hypocrisies, and the idleness of the upper classes." After all, a
"comedy of manners is fundamentally realistic," requiring the audience to see the stage world as real or possible, if exaggerated. To assist in this recognition, some characters and the audience recognize the fools. In a comedy of manners, folly is recognized by some characters and the audience, while in Earnest, according to Rosemary Pountney in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Wilde creates "a world of deliberately reversed values" in which the wicked are charming and the good, boring.

Rather than a farce or comedy of manners, then, Foster saw Wilde using familiar plot devices and characters to satirize Victorian society. Jack's relationship with Gwendolen evidences a stock problem of lovers prevented from marriage by class differences. Wilde's solution: establishing the true patrimony of Jack, the railway station infant. Another commonplace of romantic literature is love at first sight, but in Earnest, Cecily has fallen in love with Algernon before first sight, solely because she believes his name to be Earnest. And while Algernon is cynical, there is evidence that his cynicism is superficial, for immediately on meeting Cecily, "Algernon is engaged to be married and reconciled to getting christened.''

Cecily, seemingly sheltered and innocent, suggests it would be hypocritical for Algernon to actually be good while presenting to be wicked. "The moral of Wilde's parody: the rake is a fake, girlish innocence is the bait of a monstrous mantrap, the wages of sin in matrimony." What some critics identify as dramatic problems, then, are perceived by others as the play's strengths. "Nothing in the play," wrote Foster, "is quite what it seems. . . . The play's 'flaws'—the contrivances of plot, the convenience of its coincidences, and the neatness of its resolution—are," according to Foster, "of course, its whole point.''

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