The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

December 17, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. (1895) French title: L’Importance d’être constant.

Before visiting the Paris exhibit about Wilde and after reading The Happy Prince and Other Tales, I turned to The Importance of Being Earnest, another landmark in Wilde’s field of masterpieces. I loved this play and I wish I could see a stage version.

wilde_importanceI guess that a lot of readers know the story. Jack Worthing is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax. Her cousin is Algernon Moncrieff, who’s also Jack’s good friend. Jack created himself an alias for when he’s in town. When he’s in the country, he’s Jack, the serious guardian of Cecily Cardew. When he’s in town, he’s reckless Ernest who’s in love with Gwendolen. Algernon and Gwendolen both know him as Ernest. For his countryside family and friend, Ernest is Jack’s daredevil brother. Jack explains all this to Algernon who was about to get in the way of his marrying Gwendolen because he saw that Ernest’s cigarette case bore the inscription “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.”

Jack decides it’s time to kill fictional Ernest and goes to his country home. At the same time, Algernon is intrigued by Cecily and rushes to Jack’s country home to meet her and arrives before Jack. He worms himself into Jack’s house and Cecily’s heart under the pretense of being…Ernest.

The rest is a series of hilarious qui proquos mixed with witty lines while sending catty remarks to the London literary milieu and joyfully trampling over an institution, marriage. This is a gem of a play that thrives on irony and good words. It has this kind of biting humour I enjoy. It’s everywhere, even in the names of the characters: Jack chooses to call himself Ernest where he definitely does not behave earnestly. Algernon is actually Swinburne’s first name, something I would have never noticed without attending the exhibition. For me Algernon is a weird name that reminds me of Molière’s characters. (Like Argan or Arnolphe)

In appearance, the plot doesn’t lead into mentioning Victorian literature, literary critics or censorship. And yet Wilde manages to throw piques here and there in the dialogues. Here we have a clear reference to Victorian triple Deckers…

I believe that Memory is responsible for nearly all the three-volume novels that Mudie sends us.

Miss Prism. Do not speak slightingly of the three-volume novel, Cecily. I wrote one myself in earlier days.

…and remember how Trollope and Wilde were on the same painting A Private View at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith? The plot itself with the revelation of one of the character’s identity through a mind-blowing series of coincidences reminded me of sensation novels or of early Thomas Hardy’s novels. After this little pat at successful novels, Wilde just dismisses their literary value around the corner of an offhand sentence:

Oh! it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.

And after implying that people aren’t reading the good stuff because these books are not listed on the approved TBR recommendations, he throws a last punch to the literary milieu with this statement on literary criticism:

Literary criticism is not your forte, my dear fellow. Don’t try it. You should leave that to people who haven’t been at a University. They do it so well in the daily papers.

I bet these lines have made teeth grind. Then he’s playing darts with his words and targets another institution, marriage. It is shown as a nasty affair that has nothing to do with love. Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell explains:

To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.

Jack’s intention to propose to Gwendolen doesn’t make Algernon gush. Congratulations are not the first thing that comes to his mind and his vision of marriage doesn’t rhyme with bliss:

I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.

He goes even farther when he talks about what we’d call today public display of affection. (Well, at least in English, there’s no French expression for that.)

That sort of thing is enormously on the increase. The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public.

For Algernon, love and marriage don’t go together like a horse and carriage. Well, until Cecily comes along. Women are a bit foolish in Wilde’s play. Gwendolen and Cecily are both enamoured with the idea of loving someone named Ernest. This name is conductive to their love. Why Ernest? Apart from the wordplay with earnest, is there anything else behind the name?

I loved The Importance of Being Earnest. It’s so good it seemed like a giant quote from a fictional French playwright who’d be a fusion between Molière, Marivaux and Musset. Molière for the comedy, the humour and the criticism of society’s flaws and Marivaux and Musset for the tricks on identities and the play with sentiments. The tone of the play and the plot itself bring me back to French theatre but with sentences like I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them, don’t you feel like you’ve crossed the Channel?

A word about the French translation. I’ve read this in English but I’ve checked the French editions. The one in the Cahiers Rouges collection by Grasset sounds good. Ernest becomes Constant, which is the French translation of earnest. The wordplay is maintained in French, which is not always that easy to do. For readers who are either French and practising their English or English-speaking natives who want to practice their French, Flamarion has a bi-language edition of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Last but not least, I can’t resist sharing this last quote with you.

I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.

Some politicians have taken the matter in their own hands and put the fools out of the shelves to liberate us from all this annoying cleverness. Please guys, don’t bother on our account, we rather liked the intelligent ones.

  1. December 17, 2016 at 6:43 pm

    I have not read it yet. I have to add it to my reading list. Thanks for bringing it up!

    Like

    • December 17, 2016 at 8:21 pm

      It’s around 100 pages and it’s huge fun. Really recommended.

      Like

  2. December 17, 2016 at 6:52 pm

    Isn’t it a wonderful collection of wit and satire? I think you can see why I was fond of Miss Prism in a way (her aspiration to be a writer… and her awful novel…). You have to watch the classic 1952 film of it, with Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell – the way she says ‘handbag’ has been imitated by just about everybody in England ever since!

    Like

    • December 17, 2016 at 8:24 pm

      You know that in French un Harpagon is a miser, after Molière’s play. A Wilde should be the name of a witty person.
      I can see why you felt some empathy toward Miss Prim (and not that Proper, btw. Another play with names) but nothing says your novel is baddly written. So I wouldn’t go to far with the comparison.
      I’ll try to catch the film.

      Like

  3. December 17, 2016 at 10:41 pm

    I love the quotes you put in the review! I’ve always loved this Wilde play.

    Like

    • December 17, 2016 at 10:44 pm

      I have a lot of quotes, considering the length of the play. I love his sense of humour.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. December 17, 2016 at 11:14 pm

    So great – and such a good description of the play, Emma. Yes, it is the greatest French play in British literature.

    Like

    • December 17, 2016 at 11:48 pm

      Thanks Tom.
      To be honest, I don’t know much about British theatre. The only British playwrights I know are Shakespeare, John Ford and Pinter.

      Like

      • December 18, 2016 at 9:19 am

        On second thought, Wilde was Irish. So his fellow playwrights are JB Shaw and Beckett. He fits better with them, no?

        Like

  5. December 18, 2016 at 12:02 am

    What fun to revisit this play. I had forgotten most of it – how could I forget about the public nuisance of clever people – my favorite.

    Like

    • December 18, 2016 at 9:03 am

      This play is a treat for words lovers. There are quotable sentences everywhere and he was so witting. His untimely death is a shame.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. December 18, 2016 at 12:57 am

    Apparently, in certain circles in Victorian Britain, to be “earnest” was a slang euphemism for being gay. I’d imagine the title would have entertained many who were in the know.

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    • December 18, 2016 at 9:13 am

      Oooh! That’s why the French edition in the Cahier Rouge collection includes a foreword about the first Gay Pride!

      Do you think there’s a cross-language ironic wordplay in there? So Ernest is the gay side of Jack. Ironically, in French, the word for earnestness is constance…which is the name of Wilde’s wife.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. December 18, 2016 at 1:17 am

    This play is also a forerunner of virtually all of Wodehouse – wealthy, idle young men about town; the country estate; coming to said country estate under false pretences; amorous entanglements, and silly tiffs; monstrous aunts; absurd plotting; even a smart-talking servant (Lane is surely a prototype for Jeeves) … it’s all here!

    Like

    • December 18, 2016 at 9:16 am

      I’ve only read one Wodehouse and I remember I loved it.

      amorous entanglements, and silly tiffs; monstrous aunts; absurd plotting; even a smart-talking servant : this is all in Molière, you know. Toinette and Sgnanarelle are Lane’s ancestors.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. December 22, 2016 at 4:48 pm

    Wonderful isn’t it? And so quotable, you were rather restrained, but then I suppose otherwise one quotes the entire thing.

    I’ve seen a few stage versions of this, happily none bad. There’s also a pretty good film adaptation which if you’ve not seen it I think you’d enjoy.

    Like

    • December 23, 2016 at 9:07 am

      It did require a bit of effort to select quote. The whole play is like a giant quote.

      I’m going to Paris soon, I hope there’s a stage version somewhere because I really want to see it live. Otherwise I’ll try the film.

      Like

  1. January 7, 2017 at 7:13 pm
  2. January 25, 2017 at 10:24 pm

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