‘The only real people are the people who never existed, and if a novelist is base enough to go to life for his personages he should at least pretend that they are creations, and not boast of them as copies. The justification of a character in a novel is not that other persons are what they are, but that the author is what he is. Otherwise the novel is not a work of art.’ (Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying).
There is a portion of Wilde’s work which is considered what we would term ‘farce’. Work such as The Importance of Being Ernest is almost invariably referred to in such terms and is considered to be superficial, fairly shallow frivolity. However, if one scratches just a little beneath the surface then it is clear to see that the farce is merely a disguise, a mask. Farce as façade.
Wilde used a shallow and one-dimensional exterior to create a Trojan Horse for the real message of his work. He disguised his true meaning and intention in a more easily palatable, innocuous form. In the same way that Wilde used his characters in The Importance of Being Ernest to satirically mock and criticise the very upper-classes who made up his audience, meaning that without realising they were actually laughing at themselves, so too did he feed his message to his audience subconsciously, without them registering the true meaning behind his fluffy masquerade.
In The Importance of Being Ernest two characters both live double lives, attempting to balance two very differing personalities. Both characters present a different person in their home life to the person they present to society. In the case of Jack Worthing, he immerses himself in the glamour and excitement of high-society and fashionable life in London in order to escape the responsibilities and burdens of domesticity and his ward Cecily Cardew, a life which he finds banal and claustrophobic. He explains to Algernon, in elucidation of his double life, that ‘when one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring’ (The Importance of Being Ernest). Jack has become prematurely responsible for another person’s wellbeing, left in charge of his ward before he had experienced the joy of bachelor life. He feels a loyalty to his ward and is faithful to the responsibility bestowed upon him. By creating two personalities, he is able to fulfil his obligations at home while also living the life of an unburdened bachelor whilst in London.
Wilde creates characters who each have two separate relationships with society. Both characters manipulate those around them by escaping the life they are chained to. Similar to Jack, Algernon creates not an alter-ego but an excuse. He uses a fictional friend; Bunbury, in order to give himself a legitimate and excusable reason to escape the unbearable company of his relatives. When he wishes to avoid a social occasion or family obligation he invents the excuse that he must visit Bunbury, his ailing and frequently ill friend. Algernon explains to Jack; ‘You have invented a very useful younger brother called Ernest, in order that you may be able to come up to town as often as you like. I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose’. Both Algernon and Jack escape their mundane, everyday lives to experience a small taste of the life they wish they could lead. Jack is able to live as a bachelor and Algernon is able to escape the relatives who overshadow his life.
Wilde is exploring a basic human quality, the desire for space and to live your own life, which conflicts with the need to fulfil domestic obligations. This is also a prominent factor in his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. The novel’s protagonist and title character finds that he is able to live a decadent and often immoral life but retain his youth and beauty, while his portrait grows old and haggard, his sins and immoralities being reflected in the portrait’s disfigurement.
In both texts it could be suggested that Wilde is using the idea of his characters’ concealing their true identities and escaping their obligations as a manifestation of the double life and deceit that he was forced to live himself as a homosexual man in a time when homosexuality was illegal. The theme of concealment and false personalities would surely have been extremely important to Wilde, as his true life and true self were lived in secret and illicitness. While not explicitly embellishing his characters with the specific agonies and personal dichotomies which he himself would have struggled with, he does evoke a sense of the same internal conflict and split life which he would have lived.
Wilde’s states in The Decay of Lying; ‘Art finds her own perfection within, and not outside of, herself. She is not to be judged by any external standard of resemblance. She is a veil, rather than a mirror.’
Wilde’s veil is an ingenious manipulation of his audience. What appears to be superficial and harmless fun is actually an extremely potent message about not only his own life but the suffering shared by those with the same experience.
Algernon’s comment to Jack; ‘nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury, and if you ever get married, which seems to me extremely problematic, you will be very glad to know Bunbury. A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it’ (p14), could quite plausibly be a particularly poignant reference to his own life, in which he lived as a devoted and loyal husband and father while still being true to his own homosexual self in his personal relationships. In this comment Wilde could be echoing the fact that without being able to indulge his true feelings within his private homosexual relationships; his secret identity, he would have been unable to successfully maintain his public identity as the heterosexual husband and father.
Dorian Gray’s ability to live his immoral life while appearing aesthetically to be virtuous and beautiful, thus concealing his true self to the world, could also be reference to the hidden and surreptitious nature of Wilde’s true self. The true life that Wilde wanted to live had to be suppressed and lived in clandestine secret. This recurrent theme was integral to his eventual trial and conviction.
Wilde repeatedly presents the individual’s relationship with society as a burden, something which must be lived with and around, even escaped. Wilde’s characters frequently have conflicting sides of a split personality and must carefully manipulate what they present to society in order to mould their surface image into something acceptable and conforming.
In The Importance of Being Ernest Gwendolen tells Cecily; ‘The home seems to be the proper sphere for the man. And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not?’ (p44). It is a prominent factor in Wilde’s work that men and women must conform to what society expects. This is one of the primary reasons for his characters finding a way to escape the responsibilities forced upon them. This particular comment, made by a strong female character who would in modern terms be considered feminist, is another sub-surface and indirect reference to Wilde’s own life.
Like his characters, Wilde had two very differing personalities. Wilde endeavoured to fulfil his domestic obligations and is reported to have been an extremely devoted father. Gwendolen’s comment could very easily be a reference to the fact that Wilde felt defensive about his success and ability as a father, while still being faithful to his homosexual self. The conflict experienced by Wilde is arguably the influence on the conflicts he gives his characters, manifested in their need for escape and sanctuary.
It could therefore be suggested that Wilde’s view of the individual’s relationship with society is one of deceit and Machiavellian duplicity. In another comment made by Algernon to Jack, Wilde could again be alluding to his own life:
Jack: If I marry a charming girl like Gwendolen, and she is the only girl I ever saw in my life that I would marry, I certainly won’t want to know Bunbury.
Algernon: Then your wife will. You don’t seem to realize, that in married life three is company and two is none.
Wilde could once again be making direct reference, though indirectly made, to the fraudulent and carefully constructed persona he used himself to disguise the truth of his identity. It could be argued that Algernon is the manifestation of Wilde’s more deceitful side, the truly Machiavellian and intentionally deceptive aspect of his personality, while Jack is the more virtuous half of the pair, the loyal desire to be faithful to one’s obligations, although Jack too cannot escape the overwhelming need to be faithful also to the true self. He does however manage to balance simultaneously, though only for a short time, domestic and personal loyalty.
In both The Importance of Being Ernest and The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde illustrates the inherent human conflicts which exist within us all. In both texts Wilde’s characters fight against the inescapable dichotomy of social life and home life, finding a way to display the appropriate aspects of their personality at the relevant moment. Dorian Gray, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrief all behave very differently in varying situations and they display carefully selected and apposite aspects of their personality according to company and situation. Wilde’s character Cecily Cardew for example, remains studious and dutiful to her academia under the scrutiny of her governess Miss Prism, while daydreaming of romance and escape in the freedom and secrecy of her imagination. She conceals her dreams from her governess and appears conscientious and attentive to her studies, while dreaming secretly of being rescued and taken away. The appearance and superficial exterior which is presented to the outside world differs greatly from the internal self, the true thoughts which are allowed freedom within the security of her mind.
Algernon: My letters! But, my own sweet Cecily, I have never written you any letters.
Cecily: You need hardly remind me of that, Ernest. I remember only too well that I was forced to write your letters for you.
Algernon’s second deception and his disguise, presenting himself as Ernest, enables him to appear as Jack’s brother in order to win the affections of the already infatuated Cecily. After deceiving his relatives with the false alibi of Bunbury, Algernon then poses as the fictional brother Ernest who Jack has used as his own excuse to escape.
Wilde’s interwoven plots and various pretexts, lies and disguises are all representations of human behaviour. On the surface a light-hearted and superficial farce, The Importance of Being Ernest actually makes an extremely profound comment on human nature and inherent human dichotomies. Shrouded in apparent triviality and shallow humour, Wilde does in fact send a powerful message to his audience about the problems caused by society for people who struggle to comply with the rigorous and restrictive demands placed upon them.
As he himself no doubt did, Wilde shows that his characters are unable to live as their true selves and must instead conceal themselves beneath a façade. Wilde is ingeniously and covertly attacking the same society which prohibited him from being who he truly was.
The comparatively minor problems faced by his characters are undoubtedly a symbol of the unbearable burden Wilde experienced and the exhausting challenge of hiding everything about himself he wanted to show proudly to the world. While Wilde concealed his sexuality and his true romantic life behind his marriage, his characters merely wish to escape temporarily from the minor annoyance of relatives and domesticity. The Importance of Being Ernest is actually a testimony to the injustice experienced by those living in society but unable to truly live unrestricted and truthfully.
‘In point of fact what is interesting about people in good society—and M. Bourget rarely moves out of the Faubourg St. Germain, except to come to London,—is the mask that each one of them wears, not the reality that lies behind the mask’.
Wilde’s core message, beneath both his trivial façade and true meaning is the old chestnut that we are all of us the same. Shakespeare said:
‘What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d’.
Wilde’s own expression of this message is extremely similar, that beneath the skin we are all identical; ‘It is a humiliating confession, but we are all of us made out of the same stuff. In Falstaff there is something of Hamlet, in Hamlet there is not a little of Falstaff. The fat knight has his moods of melancholy, and the young prince his moments of coarse humour’ (The Decay of Lying). Wilde’s innermost message, the most greatly disguised meaning is that although his true self is something which is illegal, illicit and considered depraved, he is still just a man. Though truly homosexual, still a capable and loving husband and father.
‘Where we differ from each other is purely in accidentals: in dress, manner, tone of voice, religious opinions, personal appearance, tricks of habit and the like. The more one analyses people, the more all reasons for analysis disappear. Sooner or later one comes to that dreadful universal thing called human nature. Indeed, as any one who has ever worked among the poor knows only too well, the brotherhood of man is no mere poet’s dream, it is a most depressing and humiliating reality; and if a writer insists upon analysing the upper classes, he might just as well write of match-girls and costermongers at once’ (The Decay of Lying).
Wilde is silently asking his audience to be accepting of those who are rebuked and punished by society for that which is inescapable, inherent and uncontrolled. Something which is not a decision or choice but which is illegal is condemnation and damnation for any man. Beneath his humour and light entertainment is a man in pain, asking for understanding and acceptance for every man or woman in society who is concealing their true self.