Manners and irony in The Importance of Being Earnest
This extract, from Oscar Wilde’s The importance of being Earnest, is a good example both of the characteristics of the comedy of manners and how Wilde uses irony as a subversive arm against the system. All this particularities of Wilde’s literature can be viewed using the interview that Lady Bracknell makes with Jack.
In The importance of being Earnest Oscar Wilde is doing social criticism. He fights against the system but it’s a battle where victory is impossible. Wilde knows this, so he uses irony and something like caricatures (a transcoding of caricature from painting to the literature) as his arms for this battle. The dominant class is that which is portrayed in the interview. The most obvious thing is that they are from high-class:
Jack. Well, yes, I must admit I smoke.
Lady Bracknell. I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an
occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is. How old are you?
Lady Bracknell’s answer shows that her conception of Jack is a man with a lot of leisure (?conception probably right). This is that kind of impression that someone has when she is talking with a person from high-class. Wilde uses this answer also with irony to portray people form high class in London as idle people. This fact that characters are people from the dominant class is an evidence that proves that The importance of being Earnest is a comedy of manners.
Following this idea – i.e., this is a comedy whose characters are form high-class –, we may see that Lady Bracknell is doing an interview in order to find a husband for her daughter. This interview may remind us of the job interviews of work. Here we can see, again, the irony: it’s as if the mother must find a proper husband for his merits. This is because get married is – in the world view of the characters – the most act important for a woman, because if they do not get married, they would be excluded form the society.
In order to maintain this irony we have found that very often, characters have to be quick at replying to each other. We can see it in the following quote:
Lady Bracknell. Ah, nowadays that is no guarantee of respectability of character. What number in Belgrave Square?
Lady Bracknell. [Shaking her head.] The unfashionable side. I thought there was something. However, that could easily be altered.
Jack. Do you mean the fashion, or the side?
Lady Bracknell. [Sternly.] Both, if necessary, I presume. What are your polities?
Jack. Well, I am afraid I really have none. I am a Liberal Unionist.
We can see here that Jack’s answer “Do you mean the fashion, or the side?” that is quick and full of ingenious, a mix that provokes the irony. In this same quote we can see another obvious social criticism: when asked about its political affiliations, Jack responses “I am afraid I really have none. I am a Liberal
Unionist.”, so Wilde is indirectly saying that Liberal Unionist are “none” in politics, another evidence also of irony.
The social criticism doesn’t stop here. Oscar Wilde wants to make for us a more complete criticism, so he criticised a society in which the appearance of thinks is the most important thing: a hypocritical society. In this context, Lady B. asks Jack to show her his real parents when he says that he is “found”. It is hypocritical because, as we can see, in other parts of The Importance of being Earnest family is not for them something too important – actually, the character Algernon complains of his family.
So, the interview between Lady Bracknell and Jack hasn’t got a happy ending (although the whole comedy, as a comedy of manners). Lady B asks some questions to Jack in order to take note of this particular kind of “merits” and all of that was good until he says he is “found”, that is, he has lost his parents. In this moment, the appearances, the superficial side of the problem, makes Lady Bracknell adopt a conservative resolution.
To sum up, Wilde uses the double entendres (sometimes he remarks this point by making his characters ask about the clear meaning: “Do you mean the fashion, or the side?”), resulting in sarcasm, satire and irony, to criticise a whole class (not only individuals: his characters, as long as they are like caricatures, doesn’t represent individuals). All these facts contribute to make a comedy, with all the characteristics of the realist subgenere of “comedy of manners” and full of humour.