The Importance of Being Earnest : the Fun-house Mirror of Identity
Lies, in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, inevitably reveal, become, and create actualities which replace apparent realities. The function of such dishonesty and deception in Earnest, then, can be seen to break down what appears to be true, and the difference between what is apparently true and what constitutes the actuality of the situation serves to communicate the idea that what one sees and what one assumes based on observation and scientific "reality" will inevitably breakdown. Through the actions and revelations of Jack/Ernest, one can observe with clarity the reality of the lie as it becomes the truth. Jack's relationship to literalist, authoritative attitudes of austere behavior and social action changes as his relationship to "truth" continuously shifts.
In his essay "The Decay of Lying," Oscar Wilde argues "that the object of Art is not simple truth but complex beauty" (174), and that "as a method, realism is a complete failure" (175). "Life," then, to Wilde, "imitates Art;" it "is the mirror, and Art the reality" (179). We can clearly see in this essay that dogmatic and universalizing "truths" attributed to so-called "reality" by the likes of characters like Aunt Augusta will inevitably break down. Her obsession with an ordered, rigid, augustan "nature" falls apart as early as her first conversation with Jack, when she responds, upon learning of his parents' deaths, "to lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness" (18). Obsessed with how things "look," Lady Bracknell epitomizes the overly-formal, Victorian society of jumping through class-determined hoops (as her name "Augusta" would of course imply). In her early interactions with the other characters, Lady Bracknell determines what is or is not "immaterial," even if she may sound ridiculous at times (19). Her word constitutes law in the eyes of Jack, who must ask her what she "would advise [him] to do" concerning his marriage with Gwendolen (19). So early in the play, Jack still believes in the authority of this crumbling system of "reality," even though it has just ludicrously told him "to try and acquire some relations as quickly as possible" (20). When Jack feels his future subject to the whims of Lady Bracknell he begins to see her as "a Gorgon," and with that comparison inevitably comes the image of the aristocrat capable of turning him into a statue--a silent, static construction in a stony society (20). Jack's fear, though, cannot be written off as mere hyperbole; Lady Bracknell "is a monster, without being a myth," which makes the danger of her spider-webbing ideology all the more threatening (20).
During the second act, Jack attempts legally to change his name to Ernest by being christened as such. Ernest, who has of course been constructed as a ne'er do well and complete miscreant, must be destroyed and re-codified in the Victorian, Bracknell system. Jack must first "get rid of" Ernest,then (due to Gwendolen's unfortunate insistence on only loving a man named Ernest) re-establish a new Ernest within the system set up by the structuralist authorities like Aunt Augusta. In addition, Ernest must meet his end "in Paris" (21), off in the land of the "other" where, in the mind of figures like Lady Bracknell, his type of screw-up would belong. Once Jack has killed Ernest sufficiently dead, then the assimilation of the "other" can be completed, ceremoniously, with a christening. Indeed, the assumption of Ernest into the "Bracknell" system naturally must involve a ritualistic ceremony like a christening. Such a formulaic performance naturally should accompany an adoption into a culture of order, and it is merely the procedure "that is the important thing" (46), not the meaning or original reason behind it. In this exchange over the christening on pages 45-46, we can see a parallel for the rift between wanting to simply adopt the name "Ernest" and wishing to be sincerely in "earnest" about ones own identity.
Of course in the third act the audience finds their campy, deus-ex-machina conclusion. Here life and nature, as in Wilde's essay, reflect art, the whims of an unknown force (the playwright, surely) clearly overpowering all the comfort of realism when Jack's name "naturally is Ernest" (58). In that single line, all hope for life and nature as forces not to be manipulated disintegrates, and Jack becomes Ernest in earnest. The absurdity, of course, does not end with merely that pun, but continues in Jack's subsequent line, "it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth" (58), which, though redoubtably witty, functions as more than a mere Wildean witticism; it allows the audience to understand "truth" in The Importance of Being Earnest. The line reveals truth to be a mask for the seeming reality--a mask that twists and reverses and doubles in on itself in a Mobius strip just like the "earnest/Ernest" pun. It is no coincidence that Jack refers to "the Importance of Being Earnest" as "vital" (59). The word vital (L. vitalis) denotes a life necessity, and associates being "earnest" with having what is necessary to live. In order to actually be alive, Jack must embrace his mask, accepting it for the truth, even in the face of such an authoritative reality. Here we see that Jack's line transcends witticism; he comes to the realization that the only "truths" to his reality are the truths he himself creates.
Somehow, though, all the campiness and deus ex machina manages to fit in such an existentialist kind of conclusion. The devices make the scene a blend of drama and metafiction; as Jack realizes that truth is subjective, and that when what one views as true changes his entire world will change with it, so does the playwright realize himself a kind of god of his own truths. Here an invisible brush applies just the right strokes to the canvass or Earnest, and reality is changed, reshaped and created out of what was once fiction and falsehood. In the last two pages of Act Three, the fun-house mirror of identity reflects the true image of both Jack and Wilde, more clearly than any "real," properly ordered, and fixed mirror could.
I want the bomb
I want the P-funk!
My band is better than yours...
I want the P-funk!
My band is better than yours...