Jack and Algy
Question 4: It has been suggested that The Importance of Being Earnest satirises the “insincerity, inauthenticity and unnaturalness” of Victorian high society. It has also been suggested that The Importance of Being Earnest celebrates these qualities and holds them up for our delighted admiration. Which of these interpretations of Wilde’s play do you find more plausible, and why? If you think both statements are true, explain why. Thursday May 10, 2007 Charlotte French ~ 300075543.
Tutorial Group : James, Monday 11am Word Count : 1556 words (including quotes) In the play The Importance of Being Earnest Oscar Wilde can be seen to both satirise elements of Victorian high society, and to celebrate them and hold them up for delighted admiration. Otto Rienert supports the argument of this play as a satire: “Wilde’s basic formula for satire is [his characters’] assumption of a code of behaviour that represents the reality that Victorian convention pretends to ignore” (Rienert 15).
But the assumption that The Importance of Being Earnest is trying to pass on a message to its audience about Wilde’s opinions of Victorian society completely goes against Wilde’s self-proclaimed commitment to aesthetic doctrines. As well as reading this play as a satire or celebration, it is possible to read it as a prime example of the aesthetic ideals Wilde and his contemporaries were trying to uphold. A central part of Wilde’s satire of the “insincerity, inauthenticity and unnaturalness” of Victorian high society is his depiction and celebration through various characters of the idea of the dandy.
For Wilde the dandy embodied the heroic ideal, a rejection of high society’s obsession with morality (Beckson 205). While Wilde celebrates the dandy, he satirises and criticises elements of Victorian society. The play is not necessarily a direct satire of Victorian conventions. It is more so that Wilde uses his representation of the dandy to challenge and criticise the stereotypes that his Victorian audience hold true. The characters of Jack Worthing and Algernon (Algy) Moncrieff seem to personify the dandy, as “irresponsible young men with talents for coining epigrams and running up debts” (Gillespie 178).
They are not however representative of what a dandy should ideally be in Wilde’s eye. Their lives are so irregular that they have to invent people – Bunbury and Ernest – in order to keep up with themselves. The play does, however, initially invite the audience to identify Jack and Algy as dandies. This allows a comparison between what serious, moralising Victorians would associate with dandyism, and Wilde’s personal view of dandies as a heroic rejection of these morals. Wilde was very critical of the Victorian obsession with morals.
Common opinion amongst upright Victorians was that artists such as Wilde were causing “cultural degeneration and decay” (Beckson, “London” 74). During the later nineteenth century there was a general decline in the Victorian ideals, which habitually condemned innovations in the arts. In its place, Modernism was rising and challenging the cultural foundations of Victorian society. Wilde himself was one if these artist that threatened Victorianism’s “undue restrictions in artistic expression… [and]… an outdated conception of the world as one of stable absolute values” (Beckson, “London” 77).
The 1890s particularly was a decade of extraordinary artistic activity and energy (Beckson, “London” 77). The 1890s was the time that Victorianism was coming to an end and the age of Modernism was beginning. Wilde and his contemporaries came to London, each hoping “that he might ride on the crest of the wave that was sweeping away Victorian tradition” (Beckson, “London” 77). As Modernism developed in England, the aesthetic values of Wilde’s circle began to replace the “formerly prescribed values of Victorian art” (Beckson, “London” 78).
It can be assumed that for Wilde, playing the part of, and celebrating the image of the Victorian dandy in his plays, was helping him to ride on this wave. Jack and Algy are, from a Victorian perspective, representative of everything that is loathed about what dandies are perceived to be. They are irresponsible, running up huge debts so as to lead a comfortable and aesthetically pleasing life. They are not at all concerned with good morals. Jack and Algy are the extreme. They have to resort to inventing alternative personas in order to carry on with their antics.
In Wilde’s reality though, these characters are not representative of his ideal of the dandy. They have no social conscience at all. They are better described as renegades. In this sense, dandies saw themselves as pushing, but not stepping to far outside the boundaries of social acceptance. As the play unfolds it is revealed to Cecily and Gwendolen that both Jack and Algy have been impersonating the invented character of Ernest. Serious and moralising Victorian audiences might have expected some sort of remonstrance, or at least Algy and Jack reforming their actions for the better.
But they “steadfastly refuse to embrace the melodramatic practice of reconciling their behaviour to that of the middle class” (Gillespie 171). Instead, they embrace what it is to be a dandy. They are tamed from their renegade behaviours in some respects, but they continue to resist conforming to the conventions of Victorian life. The message that could be seen to lie behind the play is this: that anyone who did not recognise Jack and Algy as renegades, rather than dandies, does not understand the truth of dandyism.
This can be seen as a criticism of Wilde’s Victorian audience members and their stereotypes, for “only the uninitiated mistake the dandy for the renegade” (Gillespie 169). True dandies understand the difference between the sensational and the vulgar. At the beginning of the play, Jack and Algy are unaware of this distinction. But come the play’s close, they have reformed to an appreciation of it. However, these assumptions about what Wilde might be trying to tell his audience do not align themselves with the doctrine of aestheticism.