Question: Discuss the wit and humor of the play “The Importance of Being Earnest”. The Wit and Humor in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Oscar Wilde (1854 –1900) is a fabulously funny and witty writer. His humor in the play “The Importance of Being Earnest” relies on creating absurd situations, reversals, and characters whose lack of insight causes them to respond to these situations inappropriately.
The drama is sarcastic because it gives fun to its characters. Almost all the characters are members of the elite class. Lady Bracknell is very proud, and she is very much fond of scandal. When she arrives late at Algernon’s place, she explains that she was visiting Lady Harbury who looks quite twenty years younger after her poor husband’s death. Wilde constantly exaggerates the upper class’s shallowness and frivolity to show the corrupt morals which they provide as examples. When Lady Bracknell interrogates Jack, we learn that she interestedly investigates his money, trendiness, and family name. So, Lady Bracknell is the paragon of cunningness and humor.
Wilde is the master of the epigram. His epigrams are succinct, typically witty, and paradoxical sayings. They are often general reflections on life and can be lifted straight out of the text and used on your friends. For example:
“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his”.
Wilde’s ability to craft these sayings is what made him famous, and his true source of inspiration for the play. In a letter to an actor-producer friend, Wilde frankly admits that the real charm of the play is certainly the dialogues.
The aesthetic beauty of literature
An earnest ambassador of the nineteenth century was ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ dictum, Oscar Wilde was fascinated by the aesthetic beauty of literature. He flouted morality and avoided serious issues to establish the autonomy of literary art. Like the rest of his plays, sheer wit, and sparkling dialogues are the very pride of “The Importance of Being Earnest”.
Wilde frequents comic aphorisms to amuse his audience. For instance, he exposes common human follies as he remarks –
“Divorces are made in heaven”, “Girls never marry the man they flirt with” and “The best way to behave with a woman is to make love to her if she is pretty, another if she is plain”.
Again, Wilde satirizes the worthless educational system of his time by remarking that the educational system of England is starkly fruitless. We are equally entertained when Algernon criticizes family relatives-
“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.”
Use of pun
The pun is a joke using the different possible meanings of the word. We know that language is the most important fact of the play. According to the critics, Oscar Wilde creates a verbal universe in this play in which language is used to translate life itself into an aesthetic phenomenon. The heroine of the play says:
“If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life”
The playwright satirizes the whimsical women in the Victorian high society by mentioning the way they choose their life partners. Both Gwendolen and Cecily are obsessively fascinated by the name ‘Ernest’. It is in the heroine’s tongue:
“It is a divine name. It has a music of its own. It produces vibrations.”
The exaggeration suggests how most of the Victorian ladies were obsessed with superficial things like appearance and decorum.
Irony and anticlimax
Irony and anticlimax are also not rare that means available in “The Importance of Being Earnest”. The impact of anticlimax is felt when Jack says to Algernon that his purpose for coming to town is only Gwendolen, but Algernon retorts –
“I thought you had come up for pleasure? … I call that business.”
With so many witty comments, parodying and criticizing marriage, Oscar Wilde reveals his disapproval of tradition and convention. Wilde’s humor is further enlivened by antithesis and paradox.
Thus, the humor in the play depends almost entirely on its witty dialogue, though we cannot overlook the absurd situations associated with Jack’s identity. Believing in the aesthetic freedom of art, Oscar Wilde insists that anything is possible in a comic play. The Importance of Being Earnest is therefore aptly judged as “the only pure verbal opera in English”.