In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, we’re introduced to themes that highlight the Victorian lifestyle, primarily the issues of being “earnest” (typically sincerity and honesty, a sense of duty and honor) and the importance of marriage (though the motivations for marrying are quite varied in the play). Wilde keeps the play light, with witty dialogue and an overlying motif of vapid aristocratic folly.
“Jack”, or Ernest’s aspirations represent all that was seen as valued in Victorian life among the elite of society, but the important thing to note is that while he aims for duty and responsibility in his life, more than anything he wants others to see these qualities in him. It’s not that Jack truly feels he should possess these qualities, no that’s besides the point. Rather, the goal is to be perceived as such, regardless of his true nature below the surface. This allows for Jack’s hypocrisy in maintaining his alter ego of “Ernest” in the city—it allows him to escape the country life of raising his ward to go adventuring in the city.
Comically, Jack has to become Ernest in order to fully embody the esteem of a respected position in society, and indeed his lie is what brings him closer to the realization of marriage to Gwendolyn. In a sense, Jack must be more of a hypocrite to become more respected.
Jack’s stuck to his web of lies and conceits, and is almost swallowed up by the play’s climax, yet (and perhaps this is more to do with the play’s lighthearted genre than anything else) he never has to face the worst consequences of what could have become of him.
Algernon, on the other hand, lives only for himself, a “dandy” that takes all the pleasure he can. While he commit most of the same hypocrisies that Jack does, Algernon always struck me as someone doing it just for kicks, rather than Jack, who despite his own double life aspires to a life of respectability. Algernon wants to enjoy his life, but he also seems to genuinely enjoy weaving truth and lies together to do it.
It’s relevant to mention also that all the characters in this play would have likely been considered the economic elite. Jack mentions to Lady Bracknell that he makes between “7,000 and 8,000” annually. To put this into perspective, in 1894 when the story was written, the American dollar equated to 0.2050 of a British pound. That means that Jack was taking in around $34,000 a year. Adjust for inflation, nowadays that would be around $888,000.
I mention this, because I think to fully appreciate the actions of the characters in the story you have to take into account the kind of impenetrable safety net that was built up around them. There was no worry of paying bills, of providing for a family. Instead, importance shifted from monetary survival to more elaborate and abstract notions—like being earnest. The routes the characters take are based on those notions, where an almost alien lifestyle (to me, anyway) of societal reputations and perceptions superseded all else.
However, while these rich elite families strived to be seen as embodying all these respected qualities, they perhaps broke the rules more than any other (I certainly can’t afford to keep up an alter ego), so that they might act out their whims as they pleased. Algernon especially reminds me of a child with little restriction, and while he aims to live beautifully in all he does he is really just a shallow, selfish human being. Jack has more edge to him (or perhaps more delusions), but still follows the same paths, escaping into the city whenever he can.
In the end, I couldn’t help being slightly angered by the story, more because of the emptiness of the characters. This is my bias, though. I grew up poor, and the values that Jack tries to fake were ones that were steeled in me at a young age. Dishonesty and gluttony have always been incredibly immoral behaviors to me, since I believe a person’s word is really all they have. In the play, a person’s word is almost never what it appears to be, and so the whole cast is a cadre of morally ambiguous charlatans.
Where does the line begin to blur? Which actions that the characters take are “right” and “wrong”? I’ve offered that I disagree with many of the routes taken, but I also recognize that regardless of their position in life these are people searching for happiness or contentment, so how do we begin to judge their actions if that is their overall goal?