Is The Importance of Being Earnest a Realistic Fiction?

8 August 2016

Realistic fiction is stories about imaginary people and/or events that can actually happen (Cullinan, 1989). The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde may seem realistic but, in fact, it is not. Fictional characters of the Victorian Period and various occasions of ridicule represent nothing but sarcastically mirror the reality of the Victorian society. The characters look humane and world view seems to be based on the Victorian society. Many scenes in the play suggest, with sarcasm, possible situations in the period.

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The Importance of Being Earnest chimes with Abrams’s notion of “realistic fiction” through three themes: the nature of marriage, the restriction of morality, and the lack of earnestness. The nature of marriage has a leading role in developing the plot of The Importance of Being Earnest and is a major debate on whether the reality is “pleasant”. Discussion about the nature of marriage first appears in the opening scene of Algernon and Lane talking about how demoralising marriage can be.

Lane remarks that his marriage was pleasant but has ended because of “a misunderstanding between himself and a younger person” (Wilde, 2006), which might be between him and his younger self or his ex-wife. This reflects the reality that, in the Victorian Period, marriage could be lax and divorce was common. The next question on the nature of marriage emerges when Algernon and Jack have a little disagreement on whether proposing to a woman is “pleasure” or a “business”. “Business” does not describe marriage proposal correctly.

Although the result of a proposal may usually be an acceptance, the process is where it is romantic and hence “pleasure”. Before the marriage proposal, Gwendolen tells Jack that she loves a man called Ernest because she believes the name “inspires absolute confidence” (Wilde, 2006). Even before she knows Ernest, she already has fascination with him. Marriage is thought to be serious and getting married should be thoroughly considered. Gwendolen, however, superficially believes all that is told to her. Satire Lady Bracknell has a list of eligible bachelors in which Jack is not in it.

She questions Jack of how competent he is that she has to consider him based on her assumptions of the nature of marriage. She regards smoking as an “occupation” and knowing nothing as “a delicate exotic fruit” (Wilde, 2006). Apparently, these assumptions make no sense and are sarcasm which the opposites are, in fact, the real, normal requirements, such as occupation and knowledge, for an eligible man (SparkNotes Editors, 2004). Morality in the Victorian Period affected the society and is another theme of dialogues in the play. Jack states that reading a private cigarette case is “ungentlemanly” (Wilde, 2006).

Algernon responds with “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. ” with Wilde’s intention that moral limits how Victorians lose a majority of their freedom due to social practice (Wilde, 2006). The conversation suggests an over-moralised Victorian society which constraints Victorians behaviours. In fact, the book title has already hinted a paradox of being Ernest or earnest. Earnestness, the extent of being sincere (Oxford Dictionaries, 2013), is one of the major sources of Wilde’s satire.

Jack seems to be an earnest man but he uses two names—Jack in the country and Ernest in town. Ernest is the name Jack invented for going to town. Algernon does a similar thing that he creates a dummy called Bunbury for him to go to the country. One does not need en extra name unless they need to control how identities present themselves to different people. When Gwendolen tells him that she loves a man named Ernest, which is indeed Jack, he does not directly tell his true name and later proposed to her by taking advantage of “Ernest”. Earnestness, as mentioned above, is about sincerity.

The Importance of Being Earnest is indeed the importance of not being earnest. Plenty of seriousness in the play denotes the opposite—frivolousness. Algernon hates when meal is not taken seriously by people. He even thinks they are “shallow”. This extreme thought cannot be taken seriously since not being “serious” about meals does not render one superficial. Another apparent example is Gwendolen’s belief of style, but not sincerity, having a great significance. She contradicts herself saying earlier that “Ernest” gives her fascination from its possible notion of sincerity.

Obviously, Gwendolen is not serious about “style” or else she would not have loved Ernest. The Importance of Being Earnest is filled with satire and sarcasm which Wilde used to reflect and criticise the Victorian society. All characters and events themselves in the play look very real. Common readers who do not know the Victorian Period may perceive them to be sophisticated and humane. It is the satire that readers will find world view in the play a reflection of reality rather than plain history. The Importance of Being Earnest supports Abram’s notion of realistic fiction. ?

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