of Comedy:

A Survey of

Criticism on




Initially, I intended to merely look at the language and focus on the form of Wilde's formidable wit. Yet, I soon discovered that by neglecting to put his wit into wider context, I would disregard much of its significance. As Eric Bentley wrote in 1946: "In fact nothing is easier than to handle this play without noticing what it contains. [...] very few care to root out any more serious content."1 Kerry Powell, who did extensive research on plays from the 1890s, has shown that Wilde used innumerable elements from popular farces of his time. Yet, while these have long been forgotten, The Importance of Being Earnest is still one of the most important and most popular plays in the history of English literature. What distinguishes it? Wilde's language, of course, but it is more than that: there is "an undercurrent of seriousness which was mostly absent among other farces of the day."2

Of course, as Arthur Ganz points out: "what is loosely called Wilde's wit is not all of a piece. Much, perhaps, most, of it is truly dandiacal […]. On the other hand, much of it is simple humor and is to be enjoyed as such."3 It is this wit that Ganz calls 'dandiacal' that characterises the play and therefore this is what we shall be concerned with. By putting it in context, I want to show what meaning wit had for Wilde and, consequently, how we should interpret it. His wit is part of his dandyism and aestheticism so this is what my paper will deal with first. Most of Wilde's wit is paradoxical, therefore my second concern will be the paradox. I will explain the general concept of paradox, how Wilde's love for it can be explained by his experiences in life and what views he held about its significance. To see Wilde's wit against this background will help us to fully comprehend the seriousness that it contains. After a detailed formal analysis of Wilde's wit, I will examine its serious side, i.e. its social criticism. 4

The Context: Dandyism and Aestheticism

Dandyism and aestheticism were the major influences on Wilde's wit. From about 1887 to 1894, which was his most productive period, dandyism became his leading principle. It influenced both content and form of his works as well as his theoretical views.5 Therefore it is not surprising that The Importance of Being Earnest, written in 1894, depicts a dandiacal world with characters, who use the same wit that was characteristic of Wilde himself.6 At the core of Wildean dandyism lies the substitution of moral values for aesthetic values.7 In the summer of 1890, he wrote to a friend: "For myself, I look forward to the time when aesthetics will take the place of ethics […]."8 In "The Critic as Artist" Wilde has Gilbert proclaim: "Aesthetics are higher than ethics."9

Style and perfection are the main principles for the dandy – in clothes as well as in conversation and art. In "Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young" Wilde declared: "In all unimportant matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential. In all important matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential."10 Similarly, in The Importance of Being Earnest, Gwendolen explains that "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing" (III, 28f., p. 295). Correspondingly, in art the emphasis was placed more on form than on content: "To Art's subject-matter we should be more or less indifferent."11 This was especially meant against the kind of content that was favoured by the Victorian philistines, who expected art "to be spiritually uplifting and morally instructive".12 Aestheticism, in contrast, avoided any social, political or moral instruction; "the artist's principal concern was with the perfection of his work."13 This was summed up in the doctrine l'art pour l'art.

Wilde reproached the Victorians' seriousness about subject-matter. In an interview he described the philosophy of The Importance of Being Earnest: "we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality".14 Bentley explains: "Insensitivity to slight and delicate things is insensitivity tout court. That is what Wilde meant when he declared that the man who despises superficiality is himself superficial."15 It is part of Wilde's aversion against earnestness that in his criticism he avoids any earnestness.16 He explained: "As seriousness of matter is the disguise of the fool, folly in its exquisite modes of triviality and indifference and lack of care is the robe of the wise man."17 "Th[e] upper class could feel about Shaw that at least he took them seriously, no one more so. But the outrageous Oscar […] refused to see the importance of being earnest."18

Wilde opposed the Victorian idea that the content of a work was the most important aspect and had to determine its form – it should be the other way around. About the real artist he said: "He gains his inspiration from form, and from form purely".19 As he rejected a preoccupation with subject-matter, he was strictly against realism and naturalism in art. He protested against what he called the "Decay of Lying". In this essay, Wilde stated that art was superior to nature and criticised the emphasis on fact and the neglect of the creative imagination. "[…] Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art."20 Through lying the dandy also gains freedom in the intellectual sphere.21

The overemphasis on form and style was also a means of wit for Wilde. Cecily tells Gwendolen that she does not believe Algernon's explanation, "But that does not affect the wonderful beauty of his answer" (III, 26f., p. 295). Gwendolen agrees: "True. In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing" (III, 28f., p. 295). Similarly, Algernon answers to Jack's question, whether his last paradox was clever, merely with a consideration of its form: "It is perfectly phrased!" (I, 608f., p. 268).

Just like form was more important than content and meaning so the name of a person was more important than the person himself.22 Both Gwendolen and Cecily have always had the ideal to love someone with the name of Ernest. The sound of a word is also more significant than the meaning,23 for example Jack says about Gwendolen's mother: "Never met such a Gorgon . . . I don't really know what a Gorgon is like, but I am quite sure that Lady Bracknell is one" (I, 586f., p. 268). Similarly, for Cecily the sound of the voice is crucial: "I am more than content with what Mr Moncrieff said. His voice alone inspires one with absolute credulity" (III, 39f., p. 296).

The perfection of form contributes to the impression of artificiality. In his life as well as in his art Wilde sought to achieve artificiality: "The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has yet discovered."24 It is not surprising that artificiality reigns in The Importance of Being Earnest, and the artificiality of the plot, the characters and the language contributes much to the humour. Wit and irony can be seen as the major means of artificiality.25

The dandy is furthermore devoted to the perfection of self, embraces individuality and strives for absolute freedom.26 In fact, the Wildean dandy desires to be even more than individual: he wants to be unique.27 He wants to set himself apart and maintain a pose of superiority. In A Woman of No Importance, Lord Illingworth announces: "The future belongs to the dandy. It is the exquisites who are going to rule."28 Mediocrity and vulgarity as well as the bourgeois mentality were rejected.29

Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, who together with Baudelaire developed the theory of dandyism in France, wrote that one of its principal characteristics was "to produce the unexpected, that which could not logically be anticipated by those accustomed to the yoke of rules".30 Indeed, "the unexpected" is a major constituent of Wilde's wit. This also explains why paradoxical wit was especially important to him: it was most helpful to astonish the audience as it surprisingly turned around conventional views. Wilde even adds another aspect to his practice of astonishing: in a letter he advised Whistler to "remain, as I do, incomprehensible; to be great is to be misunderstood."31 Similarly, Wilde's "flawless dandy", Lord Goring, "is fond of being misunderstood. It gives him a post of vantage."32

Dandyism worshiped the art of the pose and the mask. "Durchschautwerden wäre für den Dandy Unfreiheit, darum sucht er durch seine Masken ungreifbar und unangreifbar zu werden."33 They serve to conceal and to reveal at the same time.34 In language, wit and irony are masks. With their help the dandy has the freedom to say what he usually could not, because his own view is concealed.35 When Wilde cloaks his attacks on society in wit and irony and oscillates between earnestness and fun, he cannot be attacked. He can deny any serious intention as one is left in doubt whether the statements are serious or not.36 When he is not understood or misunderstood he remains unseizable and consequently superior. The concealment of his thoughts also serves to mystify, which makes the dandy as a person more fascinating.37 Furthermore, the mask puts something mechanical and artificial in the place of the natural, thereby becoming a comic means in the sense of Bergson,38 who concluded: "A man in disguise is comic. A man we regard as disguised is also comic. So, by analogy, any disguise is seen to become comic [...]."39

The discussion of masks brings us to other characteristic features of the dandy: distance and impassivity. The dandy does not get emotionally involved, he is instead the spectator of his own life and keeps himself distanced from his feelings. "Jede natürliche Reaktion, jede Äußerung einer Emotion wäre für den Dandy Bindung und würde ihn seiner Überlegenheit berauben."40 Furthermore, a distance towards his fellow men gives him once more a feeling of superiority.41 Consequently, as we will see, the dandies in Wilde's society comedies do not reveal any emotions in their speeches, there is no spontaneity; they are clearly 'acting'. Their behaviour in emotional situations seems artificial and produces a comic effect.42 In life as in art, play becomes important. In Wilde's comedies the playful character of life is stressed. It is explicitly stated in the stage directions in An Ideal Husband, which tell us that Lord Goring "plays with life".43 The idea of playing with life is equated by a playful use of language in art.44

The Paradox

As I have already stated, most of Wilde's wit is paradoxical. The paradox is related to many aspects that I have already discussed, such as the importance of form, artificiality, distance, concealment, misunderstanding and the dandy's wish to astonish. Moreover, it also perfectly illustrates the combination of seriousness and fun. It is important to start by taking a look at the definition and development of the paradox as well as its different forms. The etymology reveals the original meaning of 'paradox': "pará dóxan means 'contrary to what everybody expects' or 'contrary to received wisdom'."45 However, by and by various meanings have evolved and, depending on the age, some were more dominant than others.46 The Stoics used paradoxes to express their philosophy and therefore paradoxes are most often thought of as making sense and containing a hidden truth that can be seen when the 'puzzle' is solved.47 Furthermore, Cicero stressed that the ideas expressed were not only different from common opinion but contrary to it.48 Most paradoxes have the form of short sentences, which could be explained by the fact that paradoxes are particularly resorted to at times where norms are loosening or dissolving including the norms of thinking; "anstelle klarer Linienführung im Denken tritt eine Art Pointillismus des Denkens, und man liebt es, seine Gedanken in Aphorismen, Epigrammen und Bonmots auszusprechen."49

The Aristotalian tradition, however, saw the paradox as belonging to rhetoric and from this point of view it is merely expressing an opinion with an intensive effect on the listener or reader and it is not suitable for finding truth.50 In the 17th century the word 'paradox' began to change its meaning. The paradox was seen as deviating so much from common opinion that it was not possible to reconcile it with reasonable thinking.51 Thus, it can be said that the old definition of paradox as something contrary to common opinion was expanded so that it additionally meant something contrary to common sense.52 Wilde, too, understood the word as containing both meanings,53 although the first type of paradox is more common.

In order to show the diversity of paradoxes, I want to describe one possible classification with reference to Wilde. Ihrig divides paradoxes into three categories: relative paradoxes, intellectual paradoxes and rhetorical paradoxes. Relative paradoxes are paradoxical in relation to the views held at the time. Intellectual paradoxes are the result of a keen-witted intellect, which finds discrepancies and contradictions that common thinking had hitherto not detected. Wilde, for example, sees contradictions in the traditional notion of respectability. Rhetorical paradoxes are those where the paradox is 'artificially' created through a formulation that makes it sound paradoxical. For example, Wilde's concept of art – i.e. that it is not the duty of art to teach moral lessons or to be considerate of the needs of life – is not absurd, but the formulation makes it sound paradoxical: "All art is quite useless."54 However, there are no clear-cut boundaries between these three groups. For example, relative paradoxes can be formulated as rhetorical ones.55 Furthermore, other authors have a wider understanding of the term 'paradox'. Therefore, I will in large parts of my analysis refrain from using any strict categorisation of Wilde's paradoxes. It shall suffice to examine their form, how Wilde achieves his effects and what meaning his paradoxes may have. I want to focus on the type of paradox which is implied by the etymology of the word, i.e. the 'relative paradox', because it was particularly significant for Wilde. This type of paradoxical statement "seems to be absurd at first sight but gains in plausibility the closer one looks at the matter."56 Behind the superficial absurdity lies a meaning or truth, more precisely: a truth contrary to received opinion.57 Thus, paradoxes also have a kind of 'didactic' function (though Wilde would not approve of this formulation). Paradoxes express uncommon views which cause us to startle and think about them. We "rise from the perusal of them with a self-conscious wisdom that we had not before."58

Wilde's paradoxes most often reverse statements of prevailing beliefs and thus make us "reconsider the deep assumptions that govern a culture".59 In 1892, John Barlas wrote about Wilde as a "revolutionist"60: His "daggar is the paradox. No weapon could be more terrible. He has stabbed all our proverbs, and our proverbs rule us more than our kings."61 Dollimore states that Wilde attacks binaries such as 'depth/surface', 'truth/lying', or 'nature/culture', which serve the dominant social order to maintain itself.62 Wilde inverts these binaries, which means that the hierarchy between the two concepts is reversed: the inferior term becomes the superior one – for example in the binary earnestness/triviality. Thereby he attempts to subvert the dominant culture.63 However, it is not merely an inversion, because the meanings of the concepts involved are altered64 when they are moved from the controlling to the subordinate position in the pair or vice versa.65 The fact that the alternative values are expressed in the categories of the very culture that is opposed gives Wilde's strategy a special and pleasureful bite.66

The Biographical Background

A deeper understanding of his paradoxical wit wil be gained when taking a look at his life and his theoretical writings. Ellmann considers Wilde's experiences at Oxford vital for his interest in paradoxes. While at university, he got immersed in various movements; "fervently but impermanently" he embraced "Catholicism, Freemasonry, aestheticism, and various styles of behavior".67 Ellmann concludes that he learned to see life's complexity and to object to its simplification.68 "As a result, Wilde writes his works out of a debate between doctrines rather than out of doctrine."69 He felt what Algernon says in Act I of The Importance of Being Earnest: "The truth is rarely pure and never simple" (I, 209, p. 258). Not only his immersion in a number of movements shaped Wilde’s thought. Beckson points out that Wilde studied Hegel's system of contraries while being at Oxford and as a consequence probably envisioned reality "as a paradoxical condition resisting resolution".70 The influence that Hegelian philosophy had on him can be seen when studying his notebooks which contain entries such as the following:

the normal conditions of progress in thought is this: first a narrow definiteness, an uncompromising dogmatism; then the antagonism and criticism to which this gives rise; lastly the intellectual synthesis and union: (Hegel) [...] –71

Furthermore, according to Shaw, Wilde's impulse to "scandalize" can be attributed to his Irish heritage.72 Because of this background he felt that he was set apart from the other members of London society. However, it was not until much later that Wilde made consistent use of paradoxes in his works. The earliest paradoxical works date from 1887, when Wilde was almost 33.73 This leads Breuer to assume that there is an interrelation between Wilde's turn to paradoxes and his sexual reorientation after the year 1886. The latter implied "a double-life and, as a consequence, a growing personal understanding of ambivalence, contradiction, irony and paradox."74 Becoming aware of his sexual differentness resulted in a more negative or nihilistic attitude towards the established social order and moral code. Therefore, the paradox offering an unconventional view or truth became more important to Wilde.75

Wilde's love for paradoxes also has to be seen in a historical and anthropological context.76 The paradox is also the expression of a particular mindset and a phenomenon of a certain time: a time of transitions and decay where one form of government disintegrates or one social class is replaced by another.77 New views are articulated with ingenuity while the old views are still present. Yet, they are not deeply rooted any more. The tension caused by the transition is necessary for the paradox and finds its adequate expression in it.78 "Die Geister dieser Zeit zeichnen sich durch einen zersetzenden Scharfsinn aus."79

Wilde's Philosophical Views

First of all, I have to point out that one has to be careful speaking of a "philosophy", because as Kohl explains: "Nichts hätte ihm ferner gelegen und seinem künstlerischen Temperament weniger entsprochen als die Konzeption einer abstrakten Kunstphilosophie."80 It is not by chance that his collection of aesthetic writings carries the title Intentions. Yet, his essays are not a compilation of heterogenic ideas either.81 Beckson observed that the paradox occupies an important place in his essays: Wilde "made the paradox an essential principle of his aesthetic philosophy."82 Wilde wrote that "Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style".83 Like style, truth was something highly individual for him. This is wittily expressed in Lady Windermere's Fan, where he has Cecil Graham, the dandy, proclaim: "whenever people agree with me, I always feel I must be wrong" (III, 282f., p. 43). In his aesthetic theories, too, there was no universal truth. In "The Truth of Masks" Wilde wrote: "For in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true."84 This can be connected to the paradox, which turns our old assumptions or truths upside-down and presents new ones. Beckson points out that the connections between paradox and truth was explicitly made by Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray.85 Mr Erskine, a minor character, remarks in a conversation with Lord Henry: "Well, the way of paradoxes is the way of truth. To test reality we must see it on the tight rope. When the verities become acrobats, we can judge them."86 Later on in the novel, when the Duchess of Monmouth asks what the dandiacal Lord Henry Wotton should be called, Dorian replies: "His name is Prince Paradox". Lord Henry justifies his title by explaining: "I give the truths of to-morrow."87 Thus, "the capacity to reveal new truths" is linked to the dandy and his paradoxes.88 The truths contained in paradoxes are "truths of to-morrow" because they are not the ones of contemporary society but may be recognised as truths in the future.89 That the wisdom is not accessible for everyone was already emphasised in the earliest analysis of Wilde's paradoxes written by Ernest Newman: "A paradox is simply the truth of the minority just as a commonplace is the truth of the majority." The "one thing the British Philistine cannot understand… is a paradox". [...] We ordinary beings can see objects in three dimensions only; a good paradox is a view in the fourth dimension."90 Wilde beautifully illustrates this in An Ideal Husband in a conversation between the dandy Lord Goring and his father, a philistine:

LORD GORING [...] If there was less sympathy in the world there would be less trouble in the world.
LORD CAVERSHAM [...] That is a paradox, sir. I hate paradoxes.
LORD GORING So do I, father. Everybody one meets is a paradox nowadays. It is a great bore. It makes society so obvious.
LORD CAVERSHAM [Turning round, and looking at his son beneath his bushy eyebrows] Do you always really understand what you say, sir?
LORD GORING [After some hesitation] Yes, father, if I listen attentively.91

Even if the 'British philistine' would be able to understand a paradox and the unconventional truth it contains, the author could still claim that nothing more than a comic effect was intended – an idea I have already expressed earlier relating to his wit in general. Kohl sees paradoxes "a covert attack on the values of society, as a mask that would enable Wilde to decline responsibility should society take offence."92

A Formal Analysis of Wilde's Wit: Paradoxes

Wilde's paradoxes appear in many different forms, but what they have in common is more than what separates them. The most general formal feature is their sophistication: "Die elegante, formvollendete und präzise Formulierung kennzeichnet das Paradox [...]."93 Some paradoxes are logical or rhetorical paradoxes, statements that seem to contradict themselves and are in conflict with common sense, for example: "This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last" (III, 378, p. 304).94 "Manchmal nimmt die logische Fehlleistung bzw. der bewußte Verstoß gegen die Regeln der Logik auch die Form des direkten Selbstwiderspruchs an."95 For example, Cecily explains to Algernon that her diary "is simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication" (II, 415-17, p. 282). At first, this seems to be a non sequitur, because Cecily's conclusion does not follow logically from what she had previously said.96 However, a hidden truth suddenly appears at a closer look, as Pfister explains to us: "Das Tagebuch, eine beliebte Ausdrucksform viktorianischer Innerlichkeit, Selbstüberprüfung und 'sincerity', ist immer auch das Medium der Selbstdarstellung und damit auch der mehr oder minder öffentlichen Pose."97

When Algernon hands the cigarette case back to Jack he uses a paradox that seemingly contains a blatant self-contradiction: "Now produce your explanation, and pray make it improbable" (I, 184f, p. 257). Yet, this paradox that seems so obviously absurd contains a truth that is more than plausible: No liar would give an explanation that seems improbable, he would make it sound as credible as possible. The same idea is contained in a paradox that appeared in The Picture of Dorian Gray, where Lord Henry says: "I can believe anything, provided that it is quite incredible."98 More often than logical or rhetorical, paradoxes attack Victorian norms and turn them upside-down. Pearson, speaking of Wilde's work in general and his language in conversations, says that "[h]is favourite method of ridiculing conventional standards was to change a word or two in a proverb or cliché, and so add an aspect to truth."99 Indeed, this method appears in The Importance of Being Earnest; two of Algernon's remarks shall serve as examples: "Divorces are made in Heaven" (I, 81f., p. 255) and "in married life three is company and two is none" (I, 261f., p. 259).100 When exchanging the word "marriage" for "divorce", the latter undergoes a re-evaluation; suddenly it receives a positive connotation. This is a common feature in Wilde's technique.101

Contrast and Combination of Opposites

Paradoxes do not only figure heavily in The Importance of Being Earnest but the method used for constructing paradoxes resembles the technique Wilde most often draws from when designing his witticisms. In most of his wit different or even opposing ideas or perspectives are brought together:

Als Haupttechnik des dandystischen Witzes erscheint uns die Zusammenstellung differenzierter Perspektiven, die sich von der oxymorischen Koordination von Einzelworten bis zur Integration zweier polarer, einander aufhebender Thesen in einer syntaktischen Einheit erstreckt.102

There is in particular one underlying structure of two opposing systems or views which pervades the whole play. It is already pointed out in the title and subtitle: earnestness vs. triviality, the view the Victorian philistine vs. the one of Wilde, the dandy.103 As we will see, Wilde uses a number of stylistic devices to surprisingly combine words or concepts from two different areas in order to produce or heighten a comic effect. Usually, at the same time social criticism is implied. Even if there are no clear-cut boundaries, due to the importance of the Ernest/earnest word play, this device will be discussed first. Wilde's use of puns seems to go along with his dandiacal attitude, his emphasis on form. As Herlemann points out, the pun was particularly common among people for whom and during times for which the sound of a word was more important than its content.104 Pearson confirms that "Puns were popular in the nineteenth century."105 Its most important one is contained in the play's title. It is a homophonic play on the quality 'earnest' – meaning 'serious' or 'sincere' – and the name 'Ernest'. Moreover, it represents the two opposing ideals or systems on which the play is built: On the one hand the 'trivial' attitude of the dandy with its emphasis on form, and on the other hand the Victorian ideal of earnestness and all that it entailed. This opposition is also shown in the subtitle "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People". The pun on 'earnest' pervades the whole play and the connection between the name and 'earnestness' is made by Gwendolen and repeated by Cecily in almost the same way:

GWENDOLEN There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.
(I, 382f., p. 262)
CECILY There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence.
(II, 498f., p. 285)

The importance of this pun is furthermore emphasised by the fact that it is the final line before the curtain drops. In reply to Lady Bracknell's reproach of "displaying signs of triviality", Jack declares: "On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I've now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest" (III, 474f., p. 307).

However, homophonic puns are relatively rare – and these are the puns that Pearson is referring to when he says that "Wilde was not addicted to them".106 Wilde usually preferred to play with the different meanings of words. Thus he often uses puns that exploit polysemy. An "unintended pun" in the sense of a Freudian slip can reveal more about the character of the speaker, here it is Miss Prism's underlying libidinous energy:

MISS PRISM [...] The manuscript unfortunately was abandoned. [Cecily starts] I use the word in the sense of lost or mislaid. (II, 56-58, p. 273)

Raby calls this an "almost submerged double-entendre". The word 'abandoned' means 'lost' or 'mislaid' but also 'licentious'.107 To make sure the audience is aware of it, Wilde has Cecily start and Miss Prism stress the meaning she intended, thereby explaining the 'pun'. One of Lady Bracknell's remarks contains a pun on the word 'duty' – one meaning being 'responsibility' and the other 'tax': "What between the duties expected of one during one's lifetime, and the duties exacted from one after one's death, land has ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure" (I, 490-493, p. 265). This kind of wit, which contains a transition from an ethical to a material question, also serves as a attack on Victorian society:

Der mühelose, schier unbewußte Übergang von einem Wortsinn zum anderen, der Abstieg vom hohen ethischen Anspruch in die Niederungen des Finanziellen, deckt in geradezu marxistisch-ideologiekritischer Weise das Pathos sozialer Verpflichtung als legitimierende Camouflage ökonomischer Motive auf.108

There are many instances where the characters unexpectedly jump from one meaning of a word to another, usually from a more figurative meaning to a more literal one. A good example of this is found in the first conversation between Gwendolen and Cecily, where Gwendolen says: "Cecily, mamma, whose views on education are remarkably strict, has brought me up to be extremely short-sighted; it is part of her system; so do you mind my looking at you through my glasses?" (II, 568-71 p. 286). The context at first evokes the figurative sense of "short-sighted". Yet, there is a sudden, unexpected transition to the literal meaning in the final part of the sentence, and on this the main effect is based.109 As often in Wilde, the construction was designed to be as misleading as possible.110

Such a transition towards the literal meaning often includes a sudden combination of two spheres or a transition from one sphere to another, especially from the human to the material or from the ethic to the aesthetic.111 In the following example, Wilde plays with the two different meanings of 'profile' and implies the literal meaning through a combination of action and speech:

LADY BRACKNELL [Cecily presents her profile] Yes, quite as I expected. There are distinct social possibilities in your profile. The two weak points in our age are its want of principle and its want of profile. (III, 176-78, p. 299)

Furthermore, the words "principle" and "profile" are brought closer together by means of a syntactic parallel ("its want of") and alliteration – but more about this later on. Thus, an ethical problem (want of principle) and a physical or aesthetic one (want of profile) are combined. Frequently, we can find a clear transition from one question or problem to another, for example in the remark of Chasuble relating to Miss Prism's harsh judgement about the death of Jack's wicked brother: "Charity, dear Miss Prism, charity! None of us are perfect. I myself am peculiarly susceptible to draughts" (II, 229f., p. 277). Here, the comic effect results from a sudden transition from the moral category towards outward appearance or the physical in general. Herlemann points out that the French philosopher Henri Bergson observed that this shift was a main method of the comical.112

ANY INCIDENT IS COMIC THAT CALLS OUR ATTENTION TO THE PHYSICAL IN A PERSON WHEN IT IS THE MORAL SIDE THAT IS CONCERNED. […] Where lies the comic element in this sentence, taken from a funeral speech and quoted by a German philosopher: "He was virtuous and plump"? It lies in the fact that our attention is suddenly recalled from the soul to the body.113

Wilde's love for this form of wit where the physical or outer appearance are placed above the content or character does not come as a surprise after we have examined his dandyism. "Die plötzliche Ablenkung des Gedankenganges auf eine völlig heterogene Ebene demonstriert gleichzeitig die Unwichtigkeit des Inhaltlichen [...]."114 It also goes along with his attitude that, in other instances, the transition is not from the moral question towards the physical aspect, but towards an aesthetic question; in fact, an ethical problem may even be dissolved into an aesthetic one. Furthermore, the direction of the movement is always away from ethics, never towards it.

Metaphors are also exploited by Wilde in a similar way as puns. When metaphors are used, a double meaning can unwillingly become apparent: the literal sense may obtrude and suggest connotations, which undermine the original intention comically.115 Pfister points out: "die meisten dieser komischen Fehlleistungen sind bezeichnenderweise Freudsche Versprecher."116 Dr Chasuble reveals a libidinous energy behind his façade of pastoral spiritualisation by a Freudian slip in a remark in the presence of Miss Prism:117 "Were I fortunate enough to be Miss Prism's pupil, I would hang upon her lips." When he explains "I spoke metaphorically.--My metaphor was drawn from bees. Ahem!" (II, 75-78, p. 274), he only draws more attention to the connotation. Furthermore, in the bible bees are a symbol of love. Miss Prism's reaction – the stage directions read: "Miss Prism glares" – indicates that she thinks of the literal sense of the metaphor, thereby revealing a similar libidinous energy.118

Whole remarks can be understood in two ways, such as for example the following one by Miss Prism regarding marriage. It seems to be a reproach of Jack's fictitious brother Ernest, who she despises for his immoral behaviour and missing respectability. Yet, we also know that she is in pursuit of Canon Chasuble and tries to persuade him to get married, thus her remark becomes in fact funny when applied to her own situation:

CHASUBLE But is there any particular infant in whom you are interested, Mr Worthing? Your brother was, I believe, unmarried, was he not?
JACK Oh yes.
MISS PRISM [bitterly] People who live entirely for pleasure usually are. (II, 252-56, p. 278)

Furthermore, two apparent opposites, namely being a priest obeying celibacy and living "entirely for pleasure", are thus linked – to the effect that the first one is ridiculed.

Another method that Wilde applies for bringing different meanings, words or concepts together is the unexpected subsumption.119 Algernon, for example, classifies "proposing" as "business":

ALGERNON How are you, my dear Ernest? What brings you up to town?
JACK Oh, pleasure, pleasure! What else should bring one anywhere? (I, 38-40, p. 254)
JACK I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her.
ALGERNON I thought you had come up for pleasure? . . . I call that business. (I. 67-70, p. 254)

A similar method is used when Lady Bracknell says of the General, Jack's father, that "He was eccentric, I admit. But only in later years. And that was the result of the Indian climate, and marriage, and indigestion, and other things of that kind" (III, 439-41, p. 306). Saying indirectly these aspects are all of the same kind is not only funny but also ridicules marriage, especially since "indigestion" has a clearly negative connotation.

Alliteration and parallelism are particularly apt to combine words as they suggest a semantic correlation in addition to the visible or audible correlation of the words and their syntactic equality – we remember Lady Bracknell's remark "The two weak points in our age are its want of principle and its want of profile (III, 177f., p. 299). The outward correlation makes the semantic discrepancy all the more surprising and therefore contributes to the comic effect.120 Another example where the structure of a sentence adds to the comical effect is the retardation of an unexpected twist, which heightens the moment of surprise. The word or phrase that turns around the statement is often at the very end. In the following example, Wilde further contributes to the effect by indicating a hesitation through punctuation:

GWENDOLEN The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man. (II, 564f., p. 286)
GWENDOLEN If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life. (III, 365f., p. 304)
ALGERNON I am obliged to go up by the first train on Monday morning. I have a business appointment that I am anxious . . . to miss! (II, 134f., p. 275) [my emphasis]

We have seen that in many instances wit not only depends on the form of the statements. The comic effect can be based on the logical-semantic structure lying underneath the characters' remarks.121 "Was dann den komischen Effekt auslöst, ist nicht, oder nicht allein, die sprachliche Form, sondern ein pseudo-logischer Fehlschluß, der sich das Denken zu leicht macht [...] oder Unzusammengehöriges kurzschließt."122 The examples I have given so far have been a combination of form and content, now I want to show an example where merely the logical-semantic structure is concerned. Lane's remark "I didn't think it polite to listen, sir" (I, 2, p. 253) in response to Algernon's question if he had heard his piano playing brings together the two opposing systems that the play is built upon: "die ethischen Normen gesellschaftlicher Proprietät [...] und die ästhetischen Normen des Stils", the Victorian code of behaviour and the art of piano playing, i.e. aestheticism.1233 Yet, let us return to form.

Universal Truths and New Meanings

Form can make the dandies' statements seem universally valid and true. By imitating the form of proverbs and definitions Wilde confers the appearance of objectivity and universality that they have onto his own statements.124 In stark contrast to this stands the content, the unconventional or at times even ridiculous thoughts he expresses. This contrast causes a comic effect. In Act I, for example, Algernon "defines" what relations are: "Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven't got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die" (I, 592-95, p. 268). The parallel structure and the superlatives further support the effect of the absoluteness of the statement's validity and add to its wit. Another example where a parallelism heightens the sense of universal truth is Jack's epigram "When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people" (I, 47-49, p. 254). The contrast in the content of the two sentences is wittily set against the correspondence in form.125 In fact, virtually anything that is said in the play is expressed as an unshakable truth. The inclusion of words such as "of course", "certainly" or "surely" has a similar effect as the form of definitions and proverbs, for example when Cecily tells Algernon: "If you are not [wicked], then you have certainly been deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner" (II, 119f., p. 275).

The presentation of his own statements as universal truths corresponds with the dandy's notion that he should make himself the measure of all things.126 Generalisations also defy any serious, argumentative objection and discussion. Specific problems, especially ethical ones, are dissolved into more general, more complex considerations, which are usually of an aesthetic nature as in the following example.127 A question of ethics induces Algernon to make an attempt to turn it into a discussion on modern culture (i.e. an aesthetical question). Of course, Jack's reproach is already absurd as he extends the principle of privacy of correspondence to dedications in cigarette cases.128:

JACK [...] It is a very ungentlemanly thing to read a private cigarette case.
ALGERNON Oh! 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. (I, 126-30, p. 256)

Wilde also gives new meanings to words or re-evaluates them. Words with positive connotations suddenly receive negative ones and vice versa, or 'binaries' are turned around. The most important example is, of course, again the 'earnest' vs. 'trivial' one. For instance, Algernon says to Jack in Act II:

Well, one must be serious about something, if one wants to have any amusement in life. I happen to be serious about Bunburying. What on earth you are serious about I haven't got the remotest idea. About everything, I should fancy. You have such an absolutely trivial nature. (II, 780-84, p. 292)

He reproaches Jack for being unable to "discriminate among life values, to see that monotone of attitude blunts the spirit and deadens joy."129 This charge is unfair as it turns out. The meanings of 'serious' and 'trivial' as well as their positive and negative connotations are changed. "To be serious about everything is to be serious about nothing; that is, to trifle."130 Wilde also questions our basic assumptions, for example the one about the city and the countryside. One would expect the city to be associated with corruption and depravity and the country with innocence, but Lady Bracknell says: "A girl with a simple, unspoiled nature, like Gwendolen, could hardly be expected to reside in the country" (I, 501f., p. 265).

Wit in Dialogues and Witty Repartees

As we have seen, the length of Wilde's witticisms varies widely. His wit can be expressed through merely one word or it can be constructed in several sentences. Inversions of Victorian norms and expectations are often also compounded in conversational exchanges.131 "Sprachkomik beruht jedoch keineswegs immer [...] auf der einzelnen Redeäußerung, der einzelnen Replik einer Figur; oft ergibt sie sich gerade aus der Verknüpfung der Repliken, dem Zusammenspiel der Dialogpartner."132 In this respect there is some similarity with Restoration comedy, especially with Sheridan's plays, where we find "wit combat" and witty repartees.133 The characters express their wit, each trying to triumph over the other. Witty repartees occur for example during Gwendolen und Cecily's verbal 'fight' in Act II.134 Here again, the different meanings of a word are exploited as well as the literal meanings as opposed to the figurative ones: Cecily uses a pun on the word depression and Gwendolen takes a saying literally:

GWENDOLEN Personally I cannot understand how anybody manages to exist in the country, if anybody who is anybody does. The country always bores me to death.
CECILY Ah! This is what the newspapers call agricultural depression, is it not?
(II, 674-78, p. 289)
CECILY [...] This is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners. When I see a spade I call it a spade.
GWENDOLEN [Satirically] I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different. (II, 654-58, p. 288f.)

Wilde also uses conversational exchange to expand paradoxes. Edwards points out that the play shows that Wilde "had learned how to burn his fireworks on a longer fuse".135 In The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde reworked a scene that he had deleted from A Woman of No Importance nearly two years before. The original lines were a short comment by Lady Caroline Pontefract: "[...] she was very devoted to poor Lord Stutfield, very devoted indeed. I have heard that when he died her hair turned quite gold from grief. But it may have been for another reason."136 Later, this comic idea is stretched by building it into a conversation:

LADY BRACKNELL I'm sorry if we are a little late, Algernon, but I was obliged to call on dear Lady Harbury. I hadn't been there since her poor husband's death. I never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger. (I, 292-94, p. 260)
[... talk about cucumber sandwiches ...] LADY BRACKNELL [...]. I had some crumpets with Lady Harbury, who seems to me to be living entirely for pleasure now.
ALGERNON I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief.
LADY BRACKNELL It certainly has changed its colour. From what cause I, of course, cannot say. (I, 311-15, p. 261)

Through experience, he "recognise[d] that the best firework manipulation was achieved by entrusting it to at least two characters rather than one."137

Anti-Realistic Effects

Like in none of Wilde's other plays, one of the major means for wit in The Importance of Being Earnest is the dandiacal attitude of distance and, resulting from it, a break in illusion.138

Durch eine geringfügige Übertreibung der dandystischen Distanzhaltung in bestimmten Szenen ergibt sich der Eindruck einer psychologisch kaum noch motivierbaren Entfernung der Figur von der Situation, in der sie eigentlich befangen sein müßte, die wir als antiillusionistische Übertreibung oder als Brechung der Illusion interpretieren müssen.139

In highly emotional moments – such as for example in Act II in The Importance of Being Earnest, when Gwendolen and Cecily engage in a verbal fight, or when they abandon Jack and Algernon after finding out their names are not Ernest – the audience would expect natural, emotional reactions. Yet, the characters show politeness and affectation, their remarks are witty, ironic, perfectly phrased and filled with Latinised vocabulary.140 They use generalising aphorisms, inappropriate explanations and argumentations or digressions.141 Another reaction that is out of place occurs at the end of Act II. Algernon and Jack, who have just been walked out on, respond to the crisis with commonplace hunger. Not only do they eat – Algernon starts and Jack soon joins in – they also start a discussion about it:

JACK How can you sit there, calmly eating muffins when we are in this horrible trouble, I can't make out. You seem to me to be perfectly heartless.
ALGERNON Well, I can't eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them.
JACK I say it's perfectly heartless your eating muffins at all, under the circumstances.
ALGERNON When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am in really great trouble, as any one who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy. Besides, I am particularly fond of muffins. (II, 816-20, p. 293)

The talk about food can also be seen as a digression. Such digressions occur frequently throughout the play in emotional situations and constitute another possibility to show distance. Another example for digression appears earlier in the play in the conversation between Cecily and Algernon, where they mention the weather – which is probably the least emotional subject possible:

CECILY [...] [Shows diary] 'To-day I broke off my engagement with Ernest. I feel it is better to do so. The weather still continues charming.' ALGERNON [...]. Cecily, I am very much hurt indeed to hear you broke it off. Particularly when the weather was so charming. (II, 476-482, p. 284)

Cecily proves what Jack had said about her earlier: "Cecily is not a silly romantic girl [...]" (I, 641, p. 269). The exaggerated distance and impassivity and the artificiality resulting from it have a comic effect throughout the play.142 Yet, they are more than a means for comedy, they reflect the philosophy of the dandy. They allow him to stand above the situation and keep his superiority.143 The inner distance of the characters is also demonstrated when they use a way of speaking that does not fit their personality. They seem to leave their roles144 and take on others. Jack, for example, uses in one scene what Herlemann characterises as the typical tone of a governess145 towards Algernon: "Hallo! Why all these cups? Why cucumber sandwiches? Why such reckless extravagance in one so young?" (I, 56-58, p. 254).

This attitude of distance is further highlighted by the way the actors play their roles. The characters in the play are supposed to speak their witticisms with utmost earnestness, there is never any laughter about them. This also contributes to the comic effect and compares to Wilde himself: "Wilde was a master of satirical nonsense, the gravity of his measured utterance making his best efforts inexpressibly comical [...]."146 Another means of disillusionment is chance, "der unverhüllte, wie ein "deus ex machina" in die Handlung eingreifende Zufall, hinter dem ebenfalls das ironische Bewußtsein des Dichters erkennbar wird."147 Although this of course rather belongs to the question of action and plot, I still want to briefly discuss it, as the whole play is built on it: the lost infant is "found" and the situation is cleared by Miss Prism, who lost Jack and happens to be now in charge of his ward; Jack turns out to be Ernest, and Algernon, who pretended to be Jack's brother, is his brother after all. Ironically, both Algernon and Jack are Ernest when they are least earnest. "In The Importance of Being Earnest ist der Zufall zum System geworden."148

Coincidences also appear on a smaller scale throughout the play, often in connection with the characters' statements. It is in less important situations but with a great comic effect:

GWENDOLEN [...] What wonderfully blue eyes you have, Ernest! They are quite, quite, blue. I hope you will always look at me just like that, especially when there are other people present. [Enter Lady Bracknell] (I, 437-40, p. 264)

However, Lady Bracknell is certainly the last person that Gwendolen wants to be present when Ernest looks at her "just like that".149 Another example would be the fulfilment of Jack's prophecy: "Cecily and Gwendolen are perfectly certain to be extremely great friends. I'll bet you anything you like that half an hour after they have met, they will be calling each other sister" (I, 649-52, p. 269) and Algernon's addition "Women only do that when they have called each other a lot of other things first" (I, 653f., p. 269). In Act II, after their fight about their engagement to 'Ernest', Gwendolen asks Cecily "You will call me sister, will you not?" (II, 744f., p. 291).150

As I have explained above, paradoxes at first sight usually seem to be absurd. Furthermore, the dandy "is fond of being misunderstood".151 Thus, "nonsense" and "absurd" are in Wilde's play – using Pfister's expression – "leitmotivisch wiederkehrende Schlüsselwörter".152 They can be found at important places in the play,153 for example at the end of Act I:

JACK [...] Bunbury will get you into a serious scrape some day.
ALGERNON I love scrapes. They are the only things that are never serious.
JACK Oh, that's nonsense, Algy. You never talk anything but nonsense.
ALGERNON Nobody ever does. (I, 724-30, p. 271)

In Act I alone, Jack's reply "Oh, that's nonsense" to Algernon appears five times and the words 'absurd' or 'absurdly' are uttered six times. "Absurdity is a wonderful joke for Wilde, but also a weapon of the critical intelligence.
The Importance of Being Earnest resonates with significance [...]."154

Criticism of Society: The World of the Philistines

Above all, of course, Wilde attacks earnestness. It was the central moral imperative of the Victorian middle class. Thomas Carlyle's slogan very well illustrates the spirit at the time: "The time for levity, insincerity, and idle babble and play-acting, in all kinds, is gone by; it is a serious, grave time."155 According to Kohl, some characteristics of the Victorian attitude towards life were: "[g]ewissenhafte Pflichterfüllung, strenges Arbeitsethos und Verachtung des Müßiggangs".156 Victorian earnestness becomes manifest in political, moral and religious orthodoxy. Its repressive character provoked hypocrisy, which allowed the fulfilment of individual desires while at the same time one's role in society was maintained.157 Hypocrisy became "the most characteristic vice of the age".158

Proprietät ersetzte persönliche Aufrichtigkeit, prätentiöser Moralismus korrespondierte verdrängter Sinnlichkeit, und religiöse Konformität überdeckte wachsende Glaubenszweifel. Die Folgen waren Hypokrisie, Prüderie und bigotter Pharisäismus.159

Thus 'earnestness' is in fact "Victorian solemnity, that kind of false seriousness which means priggishness, hypocrisy, and lack of irony." 160Hesketh Pearson, who wrote the first truly scholarly biography of Wilde, describes the time as "an age which mistook seriousness for profundity and sincerity for truth".161 Wilde called the 'sincerity' the worst vice of those who dominate society: "We are dominated by the fanatic, whose worst vice is his sincerity."162 Wilde demonstrates that triviality is more serious and earnest than earnestness - "als Ernst, der sich der eigenen Uneigentlichkeit nicht bewußt ist oder sie verdrängt."163 Superficiality, the cult of style and wit seem more profound than the ostensible profundity of conventional thought.164

Besides society's prime value, earnestness, Wilde's subjects in the play are Victorian morality, duty, traditional customs as well as the Philistines' attitudes towards money, the class system, love, marriage, baptism and the church, education and art. Wilde quite outspokenly declares through his dandies that seriousness or earnestness, morality and duty are not only dull but unhealthy. Due to the exquisiteness of the wit, the following attacks will be quoted fully. They are not 'hidden', but quite straight-forward. The larger comical context makes them sound predominantly funny for the audience:

CECILY Dear Uncle Jack is so very serious! Sometimes he is so serious that I think he cannot be quite well.
MISS PRISM [Drawing herself up] Your guardian enjoys the best of health, and his gravity of demeanour is especially to be commended in one so comparatively young as he is. I know no one who has a higher sense of duty and responsibility.
CECILY I suppose that is why he often looks a little bored when we three are together. (II, 13-29, p. 272)

LADY BRACKNELL Good afternoon, dear Algernon, I hope you are behaving very well. ALGERNON I'm feeling very well, Aunt Augusta. LADY BRACKNELL That's not quite the same thing. In fact the two things rarely go together. (I, 281-85, p. 260)

JACK When one is placed in the position of guardian, one has to adopt a very high moral tone on all subjects. It's one's duty to do so. And as a high moral tone can hardly be said to conduce very much to either one's health or one's happiness, in order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother [...]. (I, 201-06, p. 258)

Victorian customs are also comically attacked when Wilde depicts an excessive adherence to them. When Gwendolen insists on custom and form by demanding a proper marriage proposal from Jack, she makes Victorian behaviour seem ridiculous:

JACK Gwendolen, I must get christened at once-I mean we must get married at once. There is no time to be lost.
GWENDOLEN Married, Mr Worthing?
JACK. [Astounded] Well . . . surely. You know that I love you, and you led me to believe, Miss Fairfax, that you were not absolutely indifferent to me.
GWENDOLEN I adore you. But you haven't proposed to me yet. Nothing has been said at all about marriage. (I, 413-20, p. 263)

In her extreme insistence on form, she almost becomes dandiacal. Lady Bracknell, the tyrannical matriarch, embodies more than any other person the system Wilde opposed: "Die Wertschätzung von 'Rang und Namen', Respektabilität und Sozialprestige machen Lady Bracknell zu einer vollkommenen Repräsentantin aristokratischen Standesdünkels, elitärer Arroganz und geistiger Boniertheit."165 She conservatively holds on to Victorian values and traditions like no one else in the play. Lady Bracknell several times reveals the pecuniary interests that lie underneath the supposed Victorian life of ideals. She bluntly questions Jack about his financial situation and later about his ward's. When she learns about Cecily's wealth, she suddenly takes another look at her. This passage shows that in Lady Bracknell's opinion, possessing money is one of the "really solid qualities", one of "the qualities that last" – which, to us would be superficial ones. Therefore, the word "surface" receives a different, unexpected meaning:

LADY BRACKNELL [Sitting down again] A moment, Mr Worthing. A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her. Few girls of the present day have any really solid qualities, any of the qualities that last, and improve with time. We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces. (III, 160-65, p. 299)

When speaking in support of Algernon and Cecily's engagement, she seems to stand up for the romantic-idealistic view of a love match.166 Yet, continuing her argument by using an example that does not fit at all, her true motives show:167

LADY BRACKNELL […] Dear child, of course you know that Algernon has nothing but his debts to depend upon. But I do not approve of mercenary marriages. When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way. (III, 188-92, p. 299f.)

Thus she reveals that her own position in society results from an social advancement through marriage. Yet, Lady Bracknell is not the only one, other examples suggest the importance of money to Victorian society in general. I want to point out the already quoted example of the widow who is living only for pleasure now and whose hair has turned quite gold from grief. With the word 'gold' Wilde suggests that she has inherited a large amount of money and by spending it she now leads a life of pleasure.

Thoughtless adherence to social norms and values produces much of the comedy in the play but also contains harsh social criticism because of its heartlessness. Instead of showing humanity and sympathy after hearing Jack's story, Lady Bracknell judges the circumstances of his origin as "display[ing] a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life" (I, 554f., p. 267).

A similar heartlessness is demonstrated by Miss Prism. When she hears of (the fictitious) Ernest's death, her reaction is merely a harsh, moralising judgement that is unreasonable: "What a lesson for him! I trust he will profit by it" (II, 118, p. 277), and, "As a man sows, so shall he reap" (II, 228, p. 277).
169 Her lack of sympathy differs from Lady Bracknell's in that it is predominantly caused by her strict and narrow-minded adherence to Victorian morality. She is unforgiving and her high moral principles and respectability are hollow and 'trivial'.170 Her language is sententious and prim – a fact that is hinted at by her name, which is presumably a fusion of 'prim' and 'prissy'.171 Wilde's criticism against the type of person Miss Prism stands for can also be seen in the statement that she is of "repellent aspect" (III, 315, p. 303). We remember that beauty is of highest importance in the dandy's philosophy.172 Sympathy, forgiveness and rehabilitation for the sinner or outcast were major concerns for Wilde, which can be seen, for example, in the plots of his social comedies written before The Importance of Being Earnest.

Chasuble serves to satirise the Church of England. He uses the same sermon no matter what the occasion: My sermon on the meaning of the manna in the wilderness can be adapted

to almost any occasion, joyful, or, as in the present case, distressing. [All sigh.] I have preached it at harvest celebrations, christenings, confirmations, on days of humiliation and festal days. (II, 236-40, p. 278)

This implies the utter meaninglessness and uselessness of his words. The sacraments and ceremonies lose their significance. This is all the more comic because everything "this pompous individual does or says is on a large and ornate scale."173 His unctuous language sounds ridiculous: "Dear Mr Worthing, I trust this garb of woe does not betoken some terrible calamity?" (II, 210f., p. 277). A clergyman is expected to be a man of principle, but Chasuble shows some dandiacal character traits, which win in the end: while he supports celibacy when arguing with Miss Prism, in the end he abandons it.

The church is coming under fire when Lady Bracknell connects them with financial considerations: "Algernon, I forbid you to be baptized. I will not hear of such excesses. Lord Bracknell would be highly displeased if he learned that that was the way in which you wasted your time and money" (I, 295-98, p. 302). "Every luxury that money could buy, including christening, had been lavished on you by your fond and doting parents" (III, 429-31, p. 306). "[…] Lady Bracknell's comments offer an insight into the money-dominated scale of values of the upper classes and is an instinctive signal as to how they regard the functions of the established church."

The Victorian attitude towards love and marriage is a constant topic for Wilde. Love, which should be the lasting foundation of a marriage, is depicted as unstable and transient.
175 Cecily tells Algernon that she does not want to wait until she can marry him at the age of thirty-five: "[…] I couldn't wait all that time. I hate waiting even five minutes for anybody" (III, 264f., p. 301). Lady Bracknell reveals the shallowness of marriage and a down-to-earth approach to it when she remarks: "To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other's character before marriage, which I think is never advisable" (III, 204-06, p. 300).

Marriage is consistently de-romanticised and devaluated. It receives its first blows already after the first few lines:

LANE […] I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand. ALGERNON Good heavens! Is marriage so demoralizing as that? LANE I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person. (I, 19-26, p. 253)

Lane's reply can be interpreted as follows: the emphasis on "it is" in Lane's answer indicates that he affirms that marriage is demoralising – and this is what makes it "a very pleasant state". Algernon's question already implies a negative judgement. It does, however, not result from a moral concern, it refers to an 'aesthetic question', i.e. the quality of the champagne. Thus, Algernon surprisingly changes the meaning of "demoralizing". As usual, the dandy replaces moral considerations with aesthetic ones. Marriage is further ridiculed when Lane explains that his marriage did not result from a romantic attachment but from a "misunderstanding". Eric Bentley writes of this passage: "It cannot be said that marriage in this passage receives the 'staggering blows' which the ardent reformer is wont to administer. But does it not receive poisoned pin pricks that are just as effective?"176

Throughout Act I, Algernon pokes fun at marriage, for example when he declares that a double life is necessary: "A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it" (I, 256f., p. 259). He further suggests that proposing and romance or marriage and love exclude each other:

ALGERNON I really don't see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I'll certainly try to forget the fact. (I, 72-77, p. 255)

Romantic clichés are ridiculed when Wilde inverses them. Such reversals do not only occur in paradoxes but they are also "acted out". It is only the philistines who allow themselves "to be trapped within the conventions of everyday life."177 Inversions of romantic clichés, which are very common in the play, are often achieved by inversions of stock romantic speech and situations:

JACK You really love me, Gwendolen? GWENDOLEN Passionately! JACK Darling! You don't know how happy you've made me. GWENDOLEN My own Ernest! JACK But you don't really mean to say that you couldn't love me if my name wasn't Ernest? GWENDOLEN But your name is Ernest. JACK Yes, I know it is. But supposing it was something else? Do you mean to say you couldn't love me then? (I, 385-93, p. 262f.)

Here, Wilde parodies "the stock romantic situation in which the lovers' devotion alone, not their names, has meaning."178 Another example is Cecily's falling in love and engaging herself to a man she has never even met. This parodies a Victorian ideal: "Propriety ordained a certain detachment of a young girl from her fiancé, as Lady Bracknell explains to Gwendolen – but not to know him at all was an absurd parody which turned Victorian reticence inside-out."179

The World of the Dandy

Part of Wilde's strategy is that, besides criticising and ridiculing Victorian society directly, he presents his own views and portrays a dandiacal world, which is "the world of pure aestheticism."
180 Wilde celebrates exactly the attitude condemned by Carlyle. While he devaluates the traditional Victorian norms, he revaluates aesthetic values of style, pose, triviality or surface, play, pleasure and so on in paradoxical inversion.181 One might call the play in itself already an attack on Victorian society: while Wilde's society comedies still contained both worlds – the dandiacal one and the world of the Philistines, i.e. "the world of the sentimental plots, where ladies with mysterious pasts make passionate speeches and the fates of empires hang on intercepted letters and stolen bracelets",182 the latter one is completely missing in The Importance of Being Earnest. Everyone in the play is witty and shows to some extent dandiacal traits; even Lady Bracknell reaches dandiacal heights in her class conceit. The characters are have no depth, they are all 'surface'. Another mockery of earnestness comes from the fact that everything that the main characters treat with seriousness is in fact 'trivial'. What Hesketh Pearson wrote about Wilde applies to his characters as well: "What other people took seriously he dealt with humorously; what they dismissed as trivial he treated with great solemnity."183 Algernon tells Jack that he must be serious about dining with him at Willis's: "I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them" (I, 278f., p. 260). Gwendolen and Cecily treat something as trivial and superficial as a name with utmost seriousness. The importance of being earnest is reduced to the name 'Ernest', a fact that reminds us of the dandiacal principle of the dominance of form.184 Their ideal is to only marry someone called 'Ernest'. Any other name would be an "insuperable barrier" (III, 51, p. 296). Another example is the following discussion between Algernon and Jack, which includes the oxymoron "serious Bunburyist":

ALGERNON [...]. One has a right to Bunbury anywhere one chooses. Every serious Bunburyist knows that. JACK Serious Bunburyist! Good heavens! ALGERNON Well, one must be serious about something, if one wants to have any amusement in life. I happen to be serious about Bunburying. What on earth you are serious about I haven't got the remotest idea. About everything, I should fancy. You have such an absolutely trivial nature. (II, 777-84, p. 292)

We must not fail to notice the seriousness underneath: "Wilde's characters have serious views, if not actual philosophies, and from these their foolishness of word and deed develops. [...] For Algy, therefore, Bunburying entails a critique of existence [...]."185 The philosophy of pleasure and of the importance of the trivial is proclaimed with grave pathos.186 Algernon, celebrating idleness, explains: "It is awfully hard work doing nothing. However, I don't mind hard work where there is no definite object of any kind" (I, 668f., p. 270). Even smoking is seen as an "occupation" (I, 471, p. 265).

The dandies consistently move from questions of morality and duty on to dandiacal attitudes, placing the latter above everything else. I have already quoted some instances in my earlier analysis, so two examples should suffice here. Gwendolen elevates pleasure over duty when she says: "On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one's mind. It becomes a pleasure" (II, 650-52, p. 288). The following statement by Algernon contains the same idea: "My duty as a gentleman has never interfered with my pleasures in the smallest degree" (II, 359f., p. 281). The Victorian moral code, duty and earnestness are further ridiculed and criticised by Algernon's and Jack's constant attempts to flee from them. They are leading double lives, i.e. they are confirmed Bunburyists. In order to get away Jack has invented a younger brother and Algernon a permanent invalid, Bunbury. Powell points out that in Victorian farce the characters commonly evade responsibility and gain their freedom by escaping to the seaside, to the country or into childhood.
187 In addition to the obvious escapes through "Bunburying", there is also a hint at what Powell calls "escapes into childhood"188: When Jack learns that Dr Chasuble has a christening of twins in addition to his, he exclaims: "Oh! I don't see much fun in being christened along with other babies" (II, 278f., p. 279).

In the dandiacal world, one looks in vain for the Victorian ideal of a modest, unassertive and naïve girl.
189 Both Gwendolen and Cecily display a forwardness in matters romantic. Cecily not only writes Ernest's (i.e. Algernon's) love letters for him, she also engages herself, brakes the engagement and renews it – what is completely unthinkable for a woman at the time. Gwendolen, too, drops the Victorian code of behaviour when she prods Jack through a marriage proposal:

JACK And I would like to be allowed to take advantage of Lady Bracknell's temporary absence . . . GWENDOLEN I would certainly advise you to do so. [...] JACK [Nervously] Miss Fairfax, ever since I met you I have admired you more than any girl . . . I have ever met since . . . I met you. GWENDOLEN Yes, I am quite well aware of the fact. And I often wish that in public, at any rate, you had been more demonstrative. [...] (I, 367-75, p. 262)

Jack's nervousness and insecurity stand in stark contrast to Gwendolen's resolution and forwardness. Although Gwendolen and Cecily at times submit to Victorian rules – Gwendolen, for example, holds on to formalities and does not revolt immediately when Lady Bracknell forbids the engagement –, they show character traits of a modern woman, the so-called New Woman. The play does not only show different gender roles, it even goes so far as to reverse them humorously in speech.190 This is already hinted at by Jack and Algernon's yielding behaviour in the marriage-proposal scenes, which makes them almost feminine. A more obvious example of the satirical inversion of the dominant gender roles is Gwendolen's speech in Act II:

Outside the family circle, papa, I am glad to say, is entirely unknown. I think that is quite as it should be. The home seems to me 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? And I don't like that. It makes men so very attractive. (II, 563-68, p. 286)

Gwendolen furthermore acts out the inversion of gender clichés when taking over a traditionally male expression: "What wonderfully blue eyes you have, Ernest! They are quite, quite, blue" (I, 437f., p. 264).191


A look at the context has shown us that the form or structure of Wilde's wit has its roots in his general views. For example, his use of an underlying structure of opposing systems or the sudden transitions from ethical to aesthetical questions are an expression of his philosophy in life. His wit cannot be separated from his dandyism and aestheticism, and his love for paradoxical wit resulted from his own experiences in life and figured in his theoretical writings. The context makes clear that Wilde wanted more than to amuse his audiences: he wanted to point out the complexity of life and show truths that are contrary to the Victorian norms and values he rejected. Therefore, a socially critical interpretation of Wilde's wit is not only permitted but also required. When Shaw reviewed the play he reproached that the play was lacking in humanity.
192 He is certainly proven wrong. It is only a 'trivial comedy' if we are 'serious people', that is Philistines. If we are trivial in the sense of Wilde, then it is a 'serious comedy' that has to be treated accordingly.

Social criticism does not diminish the comic effect; on the contrary, it strengthens it. While the formal analysis has already exhibited the complexity and sophistication of Wilde's wit, the critical implications make us further aware of it. I also dare say that I have contested Friedrich Schlegel's claim: "Ein einziges analytisches Wort, auch zum Lobe, kann den vortrefflichsten witzigen Einfall, dessen Flamme nun erst wärmen sollte, nachdem sie geglänzt hat, unmittelbar löschen."
193 Analytical minds are definitely out of place.


Primary Texts by Oscar Wilde

  • An Ideal Husband, Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest and other Plays. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Peter Raby (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 159-245.
  • A Woman of No Importance, Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest and other Plays, 93-157.
  • "The Critic as Artist," Oscar Wilde, Collins Complete Works. Introduced by Merlin Holland (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003), 1108-55.
  • "The Decay of Lying," Collins Complete Works, 1071-92.
  • The Importance of Being Earnest, The Importance of Being Earnest and other Plays
  • Oscar Wilde's Oxford Notebooks: A Portrait of Mind in the Making. Edited by Philip E. Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
  • "Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young," Collins Complete Works, 1244f.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray. Edited by Robert Mighall (London-Victoria-New York: Penguin, 2003).
  • "The Truth of Masks," Collins Complete Works, 1156-73.

Secondary Texts

Barth, Adolf. Moderne Englische Gesellschaftskomödie: Von Oscar Wilde zu Tom Stoppard (München-Zürich: Artemis, 1987).
Bashford, Bruce. Oscar Wilde: The Critic as Humanist (Madison NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999).
Beckson, Karl. "Oscar Wilde and the Importance of Not Being Earnest," Robert N. Keane (ed.). Oscar Wilde: The Man, His Writings, and His World. Oscar Wilde Centennial Conference 2000, Hofstra University (New York: AMS Press, 2003), 1-14.
Beckson, Karl. The Oscar Wilde Encyclopedia. With a Foreword by Merlin Holland (New York: AMS Press, 1998).
Bentley, Eric. The Playwright as Thinker: A Study of Drama in Modern Times (1946; New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1967).
Bergson, Henri. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic (1900) ( (1 August 2006)
Breuer, Rolf. "Paradox in Oscar Wilde," Irish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies 23 (1993), 224-35.
Bristow, Joseph. "Dowdies and Dandies: Oscar Wilde's Refashioning of Society Comedy," Modern Drama 37 (1994), 53-70.
Edwards, Owen Dudley. "Introduction and Acknowledgements," Oscar Wilde. The Fireworks of Oscar Wilde, selected, ed. and introd. by Owen Dudley Edwards (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1989), 11-38.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde (London-New York-Victoria: Hamish Hamilton, 1987).
Ericksen, Donald H. Oscar Wilde (Boston: Twayne, 1977).
Ganz, Arthur. "The Divided Self in the Society Comedies of Oscar Wilde," in Modern Drama 3 (1960), 16-23.
Hagenbüchle, Roland. "Was heisst 'paradox'? Eine Standortbestimmung," Roland Hagenbüchle and Paul Geyer (eds.). Das Paradox: Eine Herausforderung des abendländischen Denkens<(I> (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2002), 21-40.
Herlemann, Klaus-Dieter. Oscar Wildes Ironischer Witz als Ausdrucksform seines Dandysmus. (Ph. Diss., Freiburg i. Br., 1972).
Ihrig, Erwin. Das Paradoxon bei Oscar Wilde. Inaugural-Dissertation (Düsseldorf-Marburg: Nolte, 1934).
Kohl, Norbert. Oscar Wilde: das Literarische Werk zwischen Provokation und Anpassung (Heidelberg: Winter, 1980).
Oeser, Hans-Christian. Oscar-Wilde-ABC. Unter Mitarbeit von Jörg W. Rademacher (Leipzig: Reclam, 2004).
Omasreiter, Ria. Oscar Wilde: Epigone, Ästhet und Wit (Heidelberg: Winter, 1978).
Pearson, Hesketh. The Life of Oscar Wilde (1954; London: Methuen, 1966).
Pfister, Manfred. "Nachwort," Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, ed. Manfred Pfister (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1990), 109-40.
Powell, Kerry. Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s (Cambridge / New York / Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
Raby, Peter (ed.).
The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
Raby, Peter. "Explanatory Notes," Oscar Wilde. The Importance of Being Earnest and other Plays. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by Peter Raby (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 311-68.
Reinert, Otto. "Satiric Strategy in the Importance of Being Earnest," College English 18 (1956), 14-18.
Snider, Rose. Satire in the Comedies of Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde, and Coward (New York: Phaeton Press, 1972).


1 Eric Bentley, The Playwright as Thinker: A Study of Drama in Modern Times (1946; New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967), 140.

22 Kerry Powell, Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 125.

33 Arthur Ganz, "The Divided Self in the Society Comedies of Oscar Wilde," in Modern Drama 3 (1960), 19.

44 My paper will be exclusively about the three-act version of the play, which was produced by George Alexander with Wilde's approval and used for the first publication of the play in 1899. Wilde's earlier four-act version will not be considered. It was cut down by Wilde himself and was neither staged nor printed during his lifetime. Peter Raby, an authority on the subject, agrees that "it is inferior as a stage work, and preeminence must surely be given to the version that Wilde twice approved." See Raby (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), vii.

5 Klaus-Dieter Herlemann, Oscar Wildes Ironischer Witz als Ausdrucksform seines Dandysmus, Inaugural-Dissertation (Freiburg i. Br., 1972), 3.

6 Ibid., 3.

7 Ganz, "The Divided Self," p. 21.

8 quoted in Karl Beckson, The Oscar Wilde Encyclopedia (New York: AMS Press, 1998), 3.

9 Oscar Wilde, "The Critic as Artist," Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003), 1154.

10 Oscar Wilde, "Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young," Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003), 1244.

11 Oscar Wilde, "The Decay of Lying," Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003), 1077.

12 Beckson, Encyclopedia, 2.

13 Ibid.

14 Wilde in an interview with the St James Gazette, reprinted in R. Hart-Davis (ed.), More Letters of Oscar Wilde (London, 1985), 196; quoted in: Manfred Pfister, "Nachwort," Oscar Wilde. The Importance of Being Earnest, ed. Manfred Pfister (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1990), 112f.

15 Bentley, The Playwright as Thinker, 142.

16 Pfister, "Nachwort," 121.

17 Wilde quoted in Herlemann, Ironischer Witz, 71.

18 Bentley, The Playwright as Thinker, 143.

19 Wilde, "The Critic as Artist," 1148.

20 Wilde, "The Decay of Lying," 1091f.

21 Herlemann, Ironischer Witz, 67.

22 Ibid., 104.

23 Ibid., 94.

24 Wilde, "Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young," 1244.

25 Herlemann, Ironischer Witz, 104f.

26 Beckson, Encyclopedia, 59.

27 Ganz, "The Divided Self," 22.

28 Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance, The Importance of Being Earnest and other Plays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995): III, 54f., 132.

29 Beckson, Encyclopedia, 60.

30 Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, Of Dandyism and of George Brummell, trans. Douglas Ainslie, 1897, rpt. as Dandyism, 1988, quoted Beckson, Encyclopedia, 59.

31 Wilde in a letter to James Whistler on or around 23 February 1885, quoted in: Owen Dudley Edwards, "Introduction and Acknowledgements," Oscar Wilde, The Fireworks of Oscar Wilde. Selected, ed. and introd. by Owen Dudley Edwards (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1989), 23.

32 Wilde, An Ideal Husband, The Importance of Being Earnest and other Plays, I, 172.

33 Herlemann, Ironischer Witz, 69.

34 Ibid., 91 and 71.

35 Ibid., 71.

36 Ibid., 75.

37 Ibid., 74.

38 Ibid., 70f.

39 Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of Comic (1900),

40 Herlemann, Ironischer Witz, 80.

41 Ibid., 78.

42 Cp. Herlemann, Ironischer Witz, 266f.

43 Wilde, An Ideal Husband, I, 171.

44 Rita Omasreiter, Oscar Wilde: Epigone, Ästhet und Wit (Heidelberg: Winter, 1978), 25f.

45 Rolf Breuer, "Paradox in Oscar Wilde," Irish University Review: A Journal of Irish Studies 23 (1993), 226.

46 See Ihrig, Das Paradoxon bei Oscar Wilde, 1.

47 Ibid., 3.

48 Ibid., 4.

49 Ibid., 4. See also 16.

50 Roland Hagenbüchle, "Was heisst 'paradox'? Eine Standortbestimmung," Roland Hagenbüchle and Paul Geyer (ed.), Das Paradox: Eine Herausforderung des abendländischen Denkens (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2002), 30.

51 Ihrig, Das Paradoxon bei Oscar Wilde, 5.

52 Ibid., 6.

53 Ibid., 7.

54 Ibid., 15.

55 Ibid., 16.

56 Breuer, "Paradox in Oscar Wilde", 226.

57 Beckson, Encyclopedia, 256.

58 Ibid.

59 Bruce Bashford, Oscar Wilde: The Critic as Humanist (Madison NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999), 55.

60 John Barlas, "Oscar Wilde," Novel Review, n.s. 1, no. 1 (1892), quoted in Bashford, The Critic as Humanist, 54.

61 Barlas, "Oscar Wilde," quoted in Bashford, The Critic as Humanist, 55. 62 Ibid., 55.

63 Ibid., 56.

64 Ibid., 59.

65 Ibid., 57.

66 Ibid., 56.

67 Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (London-New York-Victoria: Hamish Hamilton, 1987), 95.

68 Ibid., 96.

69 Ibid., 95.

70 Karl Beckson, "Oscar Wilde and the Importance of Not Being Earnest," in Robert N. Keane (ed.), Oscar Wilde: The Man, His Writings, and His World, Oscar Wilde Centennial Conference 2000, Hofstra University (New York: AMS Press, 2003), 2.

71 Oscar Wilde, "Commonplace Book," Oscar Wilde's Oxford Notebooks: A Portrait of Mind in the Making. Edited by Philip E. Smith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 123.

72 Joseph Bristow, "Dowdies and Dandies: Oscar Wilde's Refashioning of Society Comedy," Modern Drama 37 (1994), 66. Bristow is referring to Shaw's review of An Ideal Husband.

73 Breuer, "Paradox in Oscar Wilde," 227.

74 Ibid.

75 Norbert Kohl, Oscar Wilde: das Literarische Werk zwischen Provokation und Anpassung (Heidelberg: Winter, 1980), 20f.

76 Omasreiter, Epigone, Ästhet und Wit, 24.

77 Ibid.

78 Ihrig, Das Paradoxon bei Oscar Wilde, 17. See also Omasreiter, Epigone, Ästhet und Wit, 24.

79 Ihrig, Das Paradoxon bei Oscar Wilde, 17.

80 Kohl, Oscar Wilde, 138.

81 Ibid.

82 Beckson, Encyclopedia, 256.

83 Wilde, "The Decay of Lying," 1081.

84 Wilde, "The Truth of Masks," Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, 1173.

85 Beckson, Encyclopedia, 256.

86 Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. by Robert Mighall (London-Victoria-: Penguin, 2003), Chap. III, 40.

87 Ibid., Chap. XVII, 186.

88 Beckson, "Oscar Wilde and the Importance of Not Being Earnest," 2.

89 Ihrig, Das Paradoxon bei Oscar Wilde, 14f.

90 Ernest Newman, "Oscar Wilde: A Literary Appreciation," Free Review (1 June 1895), quoted in Beckson, Encyclopedia, 256.

91 Wilde, An Ideal Husband, III, 139-49, 216.

92 Breuer, "Paradox in Oscar Wilde," 226 fn. 5.

93 Omasreiter, Epigone, Ästhet und Wit, 26.

94 Breuer, "Paradox in Oscar Wilde," 225.

95 Pfister, "Nachwort," 122.

96 Ibid.

97 Ibid.

98 Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, 9.

99 Hesketh Pearson, The Life of Oscar Wilde (1954; London: Methuen, 1966), 192.

100 This refers to the saying: "Two’s company, three’s a crowd."

101 Herlemann, Ironischer Witz, 181.

102 Ibid., 153.

103 see Pfister, "Nachwort," for example 118.

104 Herlemann, Ironischer Witz, 111.

105 Pearson, The Life of Oscar Wilde, 197.

106 Ibid., 197.

107 Raby, "Explanatory Notes," 364.

108 Pfister, "Nachwort," 123.

109 Herlemann, Ironischer Witz, 176.

110 Ibid.

111 Ibid.

112 Ibid., 112.

113 Henri Bergson, Laughter, Chapter V,

114 Herlemann, Ironischer Witz, 112.

115 Pfister, "Nachwort," 123.

116 Ibid., 124.

117 Ibid., 123.

118 This is paralleled by another 'Freudian slip' later on, this time with exchanged roles:

MISS PRISM [...] Maturity can always be depended on. Ripeness can be trusted. Young women are green. [Dr Chasuble starts] I spoke horticulturally. My metaphor was drawn from fruits. [...] (II, 199-201, 277).
119 Herlemann, Ironischer Witz, 163.

120 Ibid., 185 and 196.

121 Pfister, "Nachwort," 121.

122 Ibid., 122.

123 Ibid.

124 Herlemann, Ironischer Witz, 183.

125 Pfister, "Nachwort," 117.

126 Herlemann, Ironischer Witz, 183.

127 Pfister, "Nachwort," 126.

128 Ibid.

129 Otto Reinert, "Satiric Strategy in the Importance of Being Earnest," College English 18 (1956), 17.

130 Reinert, "Satiric Strategy," 17.

131 Ericksen, Oscar Wilde, 150.

132 Pfister, "Nachwort," 126.

133 Ibid.

134 Ibid.

135 Edwards, The Fireworks of Oscar Wilde, 20.

136 Wilde quoted in Edwards, The Fireworks of Oscar Wilde, 20.

137 Edwards, The Fireworks of Oscar Wilde, 21.

138 Herlemann, Ironischer Witz, 360.

139 Ibid., 361.

140 Ibid., 367.

141 Ibid., 362 and 364.

142 Cp. Herlemann, Ironischer Witz, 266f.

143 Ibid., 365.

144 Ibid., 362.

145 Ibid., 365.

146 Pearson, The Life of Oscar Wilde, 197.

147 Herlemann, Ironischer Witz, 372.

148 Ibid., 374.

149 Herlemann, Ironischer Witz, 373.

150 See ibid., 368f.

151 Wilde, An Ideal Husband, I.218f., 172.

152 Pfister, "Nachwort," 130.

153 Ibid., 130.

154 Powell, Theatre of the 1890s, 139.

155 Thomas Carlyle, Past and Present. Book III, Chapter 13. Centenary edition (1843; London: 1897), 209, quoted in Kohl, Oscar Wilde, 422.

156 Kohl, Oscar Wilde, 421.

157 Ibid., p. 432.

158 Ibid.

159 Ibid.

160 Bentley, The Playwright as Thinker, 140.

161 Pearson, The Life of Oscar Wilde, 138.

162 Wilde quoted in Pearson, The Life of Oscar Wilde, 201.

163 Pfister, "Nachwort," 121.

164 Ibid.

165 Kohl, Oscar Wilde, 425.

166 Pfister, "Nachwort," 129.

167 Ibid.

168 Kohl, Oscar Wilde, 425.

169 Cp. "I am not in favour of this modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment's notice. As a man sows so let him reap" (II, 33-35, p. 273).

170 Kohl, Oscar Wilde, 427.

171 Ibid. 172 Rose Snider, Satire in the Comedies of Congreve, Sheridan, Wilde, and Coward (New York: Phaeton Press, 1972), 86.

173 Ibid., 84.

174 Raby, Companion, 45.

175 Powell, Theatre of the 1890s, 133.

176 Bentley, The Playwright as Thinker, 143

177 Donald H. Ericksen, Oscar Wilde (Boston: Twayne, 1977), 149.

178 Ibid. 179 Powell, Theatre of the 1890s, 132.

180180 Ganz, "The Divided Self," 21.

181 Pfister, "Nachwort," 119.

182 Ganz, "The Divided Self," 16.

183 Pearson, The Life of Oscar Wilde, 192.

184 Kohl, Oscar Wilde, 439.

185 Powell, Theatre of the 1890s, 137.

186 Pfister, "Nachwort," 126.

187 Powell, Theatre of the 1890s, 127.

188 Ibid.

189 Powell, Theatre of the 1890s, 131.

190 see Oeser, Oscar-Wilde-ABC, 54.

191 Raby, "Notes," 360.

192192 Adolf Barth, Moderne Englische Gesellschaftskomödie: Von Oscar Wilde zu Tom Stoppard (München-Zürich: Artemis, 1987), 30.

193 Friedrich Schlegel, "Kritische Fragmente. Nr. 22," Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, Bd. 2, (München-Paderborn-Wien, 1967), 149. Quoted in Herlemann, Ironischer Witz, 11.