Anarchy and Individualism in “The Importance of Being Earnest”

(As Presented at the English Association of Pennsylvania State Universities Conference 2008)

It is easy to view “The Importance of Being Earnest” simply as a frivolous farce, packed with wit and absurdity enough to amuse a relatively wide array of spectators. It is tempting to view the plot and character situations of the play as mere opportunities for ridiculous, yet clever statements to be made. In fact, many early critics did just that (Gillespie, 115). While it is true that Wilde certainly does not intend to lead his viewers down any clearly marked paths to political, moral, or social enlightenment, it is evident that his ideals as both a self-proclaimed Anarchist and Individualist form the keystone of both the play’s plot and dialogue.

In “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” Wilde suggests the removal of all restraints on the individual in order that each individual may develop their own entirely unique personality and satisfy their own desires without regard to any other entity. For when man can find happiness “without exercising restraint on others, or suffering it ever,” each man will attain perfection (Wilde “Soul of Man,” 304-14). The characters of “The Importance of Being Earnest” ignorantly act in accordance with this ideal, each of them holding their own moralities, ideals, and even fashioning their own realities without regard to the influence or authority of the other characters or to even, in the words of Miss Fairfax, “ the actual facts of real life, as we know them” (19).

What seems to the viewer to be a state of frivolity and chaos within the world of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” upon a closer look, is in fact a fluid interchange amongst separate realities, guided by whim and artifice alone. In this world, reality necessarily follows imagination; separate realities do not clash, but meld; authority is a farce; and the beginning and the end of all things is form. Parker states that “The characters are not alert to a harmonious universal nature, but to a proliferation of separate, deceptive, and contradictory sense-impressions. Knowledge comes only through imagination” (182).

Perhaps the most important image in “The Importance of Being Earnest” is the replacement of a baby with a book of fiction. This act, which sets the events of the play into motion, perfectly illustrates the supreme position that imagination holds over the lives of the characters. Kohl remarks that in this play “Imagination does not follow reality, but anticipates it” (182). However, one could see this as an understatement considering the fact that oftentimes these characters, though sometimes unwittingly, possesses the ability to generate reality directly from their imaginations rather than merely anticipate it.

In Act Four, Jack states that “To invent anything is an act of sheer genius, and in an age like ours, it shows considerable physical courage,” while defending himself against criticism for his creation of an imaginary brother named Ernest (82). This is a sentiment that Wilde expresses in a similarly comic way in his essay, “The Decay of Lying.” Through the character of Vivian, he foresees a movement in society from a rude devotion to factual existence to a world where the fictional is given its proper due:

Bored by the tedious and improving conversation of those who have neither the wit to exaggerate nor the genius to romance, tired of the intelligent person whose reminiscences are always based upon memory, whose statements are invariably limited by probability, and who is at any time liable to be corroborated by the merest Philistine who happens to be present, Society sooner or later must return to its lost leader, the cultured and fascinating liar. (“Decay of Lying” Wilde).

In Cecily Cardew, Wilde creates perhaps just this type of leader: An enchanting young lady that can imagine headaches for her governess and the fiancé of her dreams into existence with considerable more ease than she can recite her German lesson. More so than any of the other characters in the play, due in part to the fact of her seclusion, Cecily’s existence is based almost solely in her own imagination. Cecily treats life as Art, in almost precisely the same way as is described in “The Decay of Lying:”

Art takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style, of decorative or ideal treatment .(“The Decay of Lying” Wilde)

Cecily takes material from her surroundings, a novel or Uncle Jack’s tales of “that unfortunate young man, his brother,” for example. She then creates an ideal engagement that gives no credence to rational boundaries. For Cecily, the possibility that her ideals may not manifest themselves is unthinkable. Even before Algernon appears, she believes that memory “usually chronicles things that have never happened and couldn’t possibly have happened” and is convinced that so long as she records “the wonderful secrets of her life” in her diary, they shall never cease to be true—Time, space, and certainly not Miss Prism could possibly stand as a barrier between she and this ideal world (34).

As opposed to Cecily’s voluntary manipulation of reality, the other characters of the play uknowingly find themselves with the ability to invent their own truths and manipulate their own realities, as well. For instance, in Act One when Jack explains to Algernon, “I have always pretended to have a younger brother…that is the pure truth, plain and simple.” He has no intentions of actually manifesting a younger brother and is, in fact, completely unaware that it is a possibility (13). However, Algernon, a character experienced in the willing manipulation of fact and fiction, explains to Jack with perhaps a note of premonition “the truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

For the characters of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” this seemingly desultory flow of fantasy into reality and fiction into fact is surprisingly simple to navigate. A Parker states in his essay “Profiles and Principles,” “The characters are alert, not to a harmonious universal nature, but to a proliferation of separate, deceptive, and contradictory sense impressions” (182). These “sense-impressions” would seem likely to clash, sometimes in a disastrous manner, considering that each contains contradictory or conflicting interpretations of the action and movement of the play. Gillespie remarks that “As different individuals go beyond conventional limitations of duality, earnestly attempting to invent or imagine Ernest, their own actions open the discourse of multiple interpretations” (126). Due to this discourse, the characters can either remain in oblivion to discordance or adopt it and manipulate it to their benefit.

Much of the comedy of “The Importance of Being Earnest” is derived from the unusually peaceful mutual existence of these worlds. One would imagine that Algy and Jack would find it a tad off-putting that Cecily and Gwendolyn invented and fell in love with an idealized character by the name of Ernest instead of their actual persons. As opposed to this perhaps more rational reaction, they decide to rectify the conflict between themselves and the idealized character by altering the formality of their given names. In fact, Algy, who has had an entire history invented for him, has no problem accepting it into his own reality. When Cecily shows him a bracelet that her imaginary Ernest bought for her, he remarks “Did I give this to you, Cecily? It’s very pretty, isn’t it”(61).

As the action of the play progresses, the viewer finds the characters on the verge of being “found out” and their guises and illusions dangerously close to giving way to clarity and resolution. However, manipulative powers prevail. The character’s individual realities simply continue to intertwine into one another without uncomfortable or forced concession of ideals. As Gwendolyn expresses with beautiful concision, “I never change, except in my affections” (90). With this attitude of unalterable devotion to one’s desires, the characters of “The Importance of Being Ernest” live out the Individualist ideal of attaining happiness without sacrificing that of any other.

In effect of the impossibility of forced alteration of one’s desires and ideals, all attempts at exertion of authority over any of other character in the play is doomed to failure and absurdity. This absence of authority is an ideal of Individualism that is best expressed by Wilde himself: “Progress in thought is the assertion of the individualism against authority” (Eltis 6). In “The Importance of Being Earnest,” hard fast rules about anything from Miss Prism’s Old Testament values to Jack’s comments on what one should and shouldn’t read are rendered ridiculous. Indeed, as stated before, any kind of all-encompassing truths are either not worth noting or absurd to everyone except the character stating them. Control exists only within one’s own world.

A prime example of the failure of authority is the scene in which the solicitors come to collect Ernest’s debts. The solicitors attempt to exert authority over a character that exists in separate spheres of reality as an individual with entirely different histories. Though Jack/Ernest incurred the debt, the solicitors enter the sphere of Algy/Ernest to seek reparations. The Ernest who created the bills no longer exists. Therefore, there is no way of punishing him. Penance is only achieved once Cecily calls to Jack and Algy’s attention that each of them would do better not to transgress from their ideal selves and reconcile the situation appropriately.

Similarly, the characters of “The Importance of Being Earnest” that would typically be able to exert authority find it impossible to do so. As was stated before, Cecily escapes Miss Prism’s authority by inventing situations, such as opportunities to meet with the rector, in order to escape lessons that she finds to be dull. In addition to this, Miss Prism’s constant criticisms of the behavior of others are made absurd, as they are often faults which she herself processes. For example, she criticizes Ernest for being unmarried, for “people who live entirely for pleasure typically are” (42), ignoring the fact that she is unwed.

Cecily, the character that one would suppose to have the lease amount of authority in the play, is capable of over-riding nearly all of her superiors. Cecily refutes with decidedness any other character’s attempt to condescend to her. She escapes the influence of her governess with ease, maintaining her own ideals, no matter how much they conflict with Miss Prism’s:

Cecily: All I know is about the relations between Capital and Idleness— and that is merely from observation. So I don’t suppose it is true.

Miss Prism: Cecily that sounds like Socialism! And I suppose you know where Socialism leads to?

Cecily: Oh, yes! That leads to Rational Dress, Miss Prism. And I suppose that when a woman is dressed rationally, she is treated rationally. She certainly deserves to be.

Chasuble: A willful lamb! Dear child!

Miss Prism (smiling): A sad trouble sometimes (35-36).

Cecily’s assuredness of her own abilities and equality with her elders is also apparent in her interaction with Algernon. When Algernon first introduces himself, he remarks that she must be his “little cousin Cecily.” She retorts quickly, establishing herself as his equal, that she is not little, but “unusually tall for her age” ( 37).

The character of the highest standing in “The Importance of Being Ernest” is undoubtedly Lady Bracknell, a character in an interesting position of supremacy. She is a comical authority figure, who espouses perhaps even more hard and fast rules of society than Miss Prism and is subsequently made to look ridiculous in the same fashion. However, when Lady Bracknell attempts to assert authority, it often takes the form of a call to the other characters to exert more control over their own realities, in order that they might overcome whatever roadblock that she has called to their attention. Once the character has completed this task, it often places the character in a more desirable situation than they were in beforehand.

In this manner, Lady Bracknell can be seen as Individualism’s greatest proponent. She expects all of the characters to have as much control over their realities as she does. For example, when she expresses disapproval of Jack’s lack of parents, she states simply that he should acquire them as soon as possible. Similarly, she expects her concerns over Algy’s possible absence at her next dinner party to be squelched by her request to Bunbury that he not relapse into illness on that particular day. It is apparent that she, unlike Miss Prism, is aware that control can only exist within one’s own individual sphere.

As opposed to authority, form takes the place as an entity of balance and stability in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Wilde’s vision of a world where Individualism reigns would be impossible without its existence and reverence by the characters. Wilde states in “The Critic as Artist:” “In every sphere of life Form is the beginning of all things …Yes, Form is everything. The secret of life” (318). With form replacing institutions and beings of authority, it is understandable that many of the most vital elements in the plot of the play are what seem to the viewer to be trivialities. For example, the act of christening is to the characters of the play a cure-all for the non-existence of Jack’s brother Ernest, and Cecily and Gwendoyln treat it as trial-by-fire proof of Jack and Algernon’s love for them.

The play revolves around small acts of ritual and formalities, which each of the characters treat as absolutes. When Jack shakes hands with Algernon in Act Two, despite Jack’s obvious agitation, Chasuble remarks that “It’s pleasant, is it not, to see so perfect a reconciliation” (45). Similarly, it is expected that Jack won’t be free from mourning for the loss of his brother until he changes out of his black clothing. One can even see instances of form’s ability to control one’s bodily functions. For example, in their first meeting Algernon asks Cecily to give him a buttonhole, as he never has an appetite without putting on a buttonhole first (39). In this way, form and artifice provide points of reference in this otherwise disconnected, borderline anarchic world which are necessary for overall movement and fluidity.

Wilde tells his reader in “Critic as Artist,” “Don’t let us go to life for our fulfillment of our experience. It is a thing narrowed by circumstance, incoherent in its utterances and without correspondence of form” (320). Wilde shows to his audience in “The Importance of Being Earnest” a world where individuals can in fact go to life for fulfillment of one’s desires. It is not a Utopian society where justice and equality prevail and all characters reach enlightenment by curtain fall, but instead a world where ego-centrism and absurd ignorance to the concerns of others leads to liberty and self-fulfillment. Looking at this masterpiece of comedic drama through this lens of political critique reveals perhaps one of Wilde’s most striking commentaries on Individualist-Anarchism. Through the creation of this lovably absurd world where Individualist-Anarchist values hold sway seamlessly and unknowingly, Wilde opens viewers minds to the possibility of greater personal responsibility in the creation and direction of their own reality.

3 responses to “Anarchy and Individualism in “The Importance of Being Earnest”

  1. Pingback: Theatre Review – The Importance of Being Earnest | strivetoengage

  2. tammy

    how would i cite this as a source?

  3. Pingback: Shaw and Wilde’s Socialist Digital Kit – Wk 11 | Rebus

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