What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. – William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet
In the satirical romantic comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde, a man’s name is of utmost importance; specifically the name Ernest and the wonderful respectability that it projects. This is, of course, Wilde’s attempt to poke fun at the sentimental sensibilities of the Victorian aristocrat. Earnestness or sincerity of character was valued highly, as was morality, though there was very little of either going on below the surface in either the play or in Wilde’s time.
The conflict in the play starts with the protagonist John Worthing. On the surface he is a respectable Justice of the Peace and a very serious man. He owns land in the country and has a young ward who he takes care of. John’s good friend Algernon Moncreiff, (an indulgent Aristocrat who lives in the city) of course, knows John as Ernest. After he sees an incriminating inscription in Ernest’s cigarette case, Algernon accuses him of living a double life or “Bunburying.” Bunbury is a made up friend that Algernon uses as an excuse when he wants to get out of boring family obligations. He simply says that Bunbury isn’t feeling well and he has to go be by his side. Ernest denies the allegations haughtily, but then admits that he is not Ernest Worthing. He says that he is John Worthing (or Jack) in the country and pretends to have a miscreant brother named Ernest whom he visits. Then, when he is in the city he is Ernest and his other life disappears.
Later on when he is being interrogated by Lady Bracknell about his engagement to Gwendolyn, John reveals more troubling information about himself:
Jack: The late Mr. Thomas Cardew, an old gentleman of a very charitable and kindly disposition, found me, and gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time. Worthing is a place in Sussex. It is a seaside resort.
Lady Bracknell: Where did this charitable gentleman who had a first-class ticket for this seaside resort find you?
Jack: [Gravely.] In a hand-bag. (272)
This answer of course scandalizes Lady Bracknell, because someone of unknown parentage is clearly not good enough for her daughter. Jack has revealed himself to be nothing more than a lower-class citizen who was simply taken in by a gentleman. None of his accomplishments since his adoption are of any consequence, nor gain him any leverage in acquiring Gwendolyn’s hand in marriage. Jack is a literary construct used by Wilde to show the hypocrisy and condescension of the aristocrats. He feels like he has to hide who he truly is in order to keep his position in society, and society prefers it this way. Lady Bracknell is nothing more than a snob, but she holds his future with Gwendolyn in her hands. I would argue that Lady Bracknell is the antagonist in the play because of the way she controls everyone. Would you agree?
The play reaches it’s climax as everyone descends on Jack’s house in the country. Algernon pretends to be Jack’s brother Ernest and falls in love with Cecily, and Jack comes back in full-mourning regalia, telling everyone that Ernest is dead. The whole mess falls apart, and both men’s lies are revealed. Of course, the ridiculousness of this scene is furthered by the fact that both Gwendolyn and Cecily don’t really care that they were lied to. They make a big scene, but are simply angry that they aren’t really marrying someone named Ernest. They have such romantic and silly attachment to a name that was nothing more than a ruse. This scene further shows the hypocrisy of the aristocrats. You could be anyone you wanted and do anything you wanted behind closed doors as long as you presented yourself as a moral person in public.
Of course, everything turns out all right in the end, and all of the lovers end up together because it is a romantic comedy. Jack discovers that he was really Algernon’s older brother who was lost as a child and that his name is, in fact, Ernest. He says at the end,”Gwendolyn, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth, can you forgive me? (316)” This line further illustrates the idea that people were expected to lie to each other, almost like Victorian society had a back-handed sense of propriety. “The Importance of Being Ernest” is brilliant because it is nothing more than a lightly veiled social commentary and judgment on the laugh-ability of the morals of his time. Oscar Wilde’s characters may have been a bit flimsy in comparison to Shakespeare, but he succeeded in using plot and comic timing to convey a message.
I would argue that the reason why this play’s wit still bites so hard is because our society has not really changed as much as we would like to think since the Victorian era. Our twisted sense of religious moralism is more about keeping up appearances and judging others than any true relationship to God. This is not to say that there are not truly Christian people, but those who are not Christian are seen as immoral and treated with disdain for not belonging to the group. Also, the Catholic Church in recent years has become synonymous with the immoral deeds done behind closed doors that are in direct conflict with its public image. Perhaps our society could learn a few things from Ernest – a name is important, but so are deeds.