By Carly Hughes
In The Importance Of Being Earnest, a play of pun and paradox, Oscar Wilde delightfully exercises the brain as he explores the rules and exploits the expectations of his society. Neither condemning nor championing that society, the play, as satire, is always celebrating the entertainment it affords an observant spectator. Yet, this comedy serves a greater purpose than providing an escape from pressures and doldrums into a simpler, more sensational realm.
Intentionally or not, Oscar Wilde created, through brilliant use of paradox, an avenue to examine behavior, explore assumptions, and ultimately redeem humanity, for amid Wilde’s cutting cynicism lies the wonderful paradox of a latent optimism. Used as a sheer covering for shallow characters, paradox glitters throughout the play to such an extent that some critics argue it becomes tedious. However, Norbert Kohl aptly argues in his analysis, “Paradoxes cannot simply be dismissed as cheap effects, for in many instances they serve to explode established conventions, thereby exposing to view those aspects of reality that had hitherto been cloaked by existing norms”(Readings on The Importance Of Being Earnest, ed. Thomas Siebold [San Diego: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2001] 123).
When Algernon says of marriage, “Three is company and two is none,” the statement, is in direct contradiction to the boundaries that, in fact, define the state of matrimony, and its cavalier treatment of the subject is itself an inversion of the seriousness generally given the marriage, since it is being treated less as a promise than as a protocol. Yet, of even greater importance than the rift between societal convention and Algernon’s personal convictions is the revelation of the hypocrisy of his society’s practice of superficially condemning but secretly condoning infidelity. Algernon’s insistence that his philosophy has been “proved” by “the happy English home,” is meant to be amusing and is therefore evidence of the commonplace nature of love affairs, since humor requires first and foremost familiarity. In this instance, the significance of the paradox lies in its ability to reveal society’s simultaneous disdain of unfaithfulness in word and dismissal of faithfulness in action. As Kohl continues, “Such paradoxes illustrate vividly how social decorum is to be seen merely as a mask of conformity” (123).
Early in the play, Algernon bemoans the failure of the “lower orders” to, as he says, “set us a good example,” claiming, “They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.”
Superficially, this paradox proclaims the duality of Algernon as a character who appreciates morality but finds it applicable only in others. On a deeper level, the words are specifically chosen to steal a smile as the notion of the “lower orders” being expected to be pinnacles of virtue is considered. The idea that Algernon, a person of luxury, land, and distinguished lineage, should require any refinement by his manservant, Lane, is utterly ridiculous, or intended to seem so, a paradox. That it could be, in any way, perceived as such uncovers a practice of deducing a person’s character from his class in society.
However, as the play continues, the excesses and indulgences of its characters become a contradiction to the intended humor of Algernon’s underlying paradox; in other words, a paradox within a paradox. Thus, the play is rendered inconclusive concerning assumptions of positive or negative correlations between title and integrity, and that truly is the best possible conclusion. As one critic recognized, “Wilde anticipated a major development of the 20th century: the use of farce to make fundamentally serious explorations into the realm of the irrational”(Oscar Wilde, ed. Harold Bloom [Broomal, Pennsylvania: Chelsea House Publishers, 2002], 26). Regardless of whether this is the product of intent or coincidence, Wilde’s ingenuity stimulates examinations of logic, rationality, and reality, and thus reveals that the real power of the paradox lies not in its ability to present clear conclusions but to inspire critical thinking.
Perhaps the most crucial utilization of paradox and, for that matter, the crowning achievement of the play is in supplying charm to characters bankrupt of integrity. Jack, described as the “very soul of honor and truth” by Gwendolen is, in fact, a master “Bunburyist,” adopting the deviant alter ego of “Ernest” when he needs a vacation from the drudgery of virtue and dictates of conscience. Though scandalous, Algernon exhibits greater “Earnestness” in that he remains a scoundrel under any name, including when he too uses “Ernest” to cover his escapade. Gwendolen and Cecily, portraits of perfection in the sight of their suitors, reveal an inner pettiness to contrast with their outer prettiness when their knowledge of etiquette is used as a mask for well-mannered cruelty. Simultaneously gullible and conniving, forward and coy, their affections prove shallowly attached to a name, and though they are not unintelligent, they show a deficit in insight concerning those they profess to love, and thus, an ignorance of love itself. Yet, even in the disappointing moment when their confidence and charisma dissolve in an uncharacteristic, sickening deprecation of their sex, the expected bitterness disappears in an overall flavor of sweet innocence. The characters are living paradoxes, void of the beauty of the oxymoron that holds a greater coherent meaning but endearing nonetheless. Their paradoxical wit unveils their imperfections and vulnerability, and somehow “human” becomes a more fitting term than “hypocrite” for them.
In the end, all is well and all the story strands are properly unwound for the characters. In fact, the play is so neatly concluded and the plot so pristinely resolved that it verily declares itself a work of fiction. Yet fiction, as defined by Miss Prism, is a world where the “good” and the “bad” are justly recompensed for their work. These characters hardly qualify as good but neither do they qualify as bad; they do, however, qualify for redemption, and it is, ironically, their flaws that give them that claim. The audience also may feel a part of this; in reality, all are compositions of vice and virtue, and in the paradox of fictitious characters conquering the constraints of fiction, we may well see a reflection of our own possibilities for happiness and redemption.