1. Algernon: “Nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury, and if you ever get married, which seems to me extremely problematic, you will be very glad to know Bunbury. A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it.”
Algernon speaks these lines in Act I, replying to Jack’s announcement that he plans to kill off his imaginary brother and his suggestion that Algernon do the same with Bunbury. Jack has just denied being what Algernon called “a Bunburyist,” that is, someone who leads a double life or otherwise engages in an elaborate deception that allows him to misbehave and seem virtuous at the same time. Jack thinks that once he is married to Gwendolen he will no longer need the ruse of the irresponsible brother because he will be happy, and he won’t want to disappear. Algernon counters with the suggestion that it is the married man who needs Bunbury most of all.
On one level, this exchange merely continues the long-running marriage gag, which treats the whole Victorian notion of “married bliss” with a kind of gallows humor. However, it also initiates the play’s darker subtext. What Algernon suggests is that all husbands in Victorian society lead double lives. In Wilde’s view, Jack’s refusal to acknowledge that he is “a Bunburyist” is what differentiates him from Algernon from a purely moral perspective. Jack’s refusal to admit what he is makes him a hypocrite. Later, when Jack is forced to confess that Ernest was a fiction, and that in reality he has no brother, he makes a speech about the pain involved in being forced to speak the truth. When, at the end, he discovers that he really has been both Ernest and John all along, he tells Gwendolen that “it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.” Gwendolen forgives him, she says, because she feels he is “sure to change.” She is probably right. Jack hasn’t been telling the truth all along, and he wasn’t telling the truth when he implied that his invented brother was a ruse for getting away to see her. In fact, Jack’s desire to get away from Hertfordshire has been motivated by a desire to do things that conflict with “a very high moral tone.” Algernon and Gwendolen are likely right: before too long, Jack will feel the call of Bunbury again.
2. Lady Bracknell: “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.”
Lady Bracknell says these lines in the scene in Act I in which she interviews Jack to determine his eligibility as a suitor for Gwendolen. She has just told him she believes that a man who wants to marry should know either everything or nothing, and Jack, sensing a trap, has said he knows nothing. Lady Bracknell greets the news with complacency and says only, “I am pleased to hear it.” Wilde is on one level sending up the boorish ignorance and vacuity of the British leisured classes, qualities he had certainly encountered in the person of Lord Alfred Douglas’s voluble and undereducated father, whose provocative, misspelled note would ultimately lead to Wilde’s downfall. On another level, Wilde is making a serious social and political point. A good deal of truth exists in what Lady Bracknell says. Education, if it were effective in England, probably would threaten the established order. Lady Bracknell is implying that if the poor and the downtrodden in England knew anything about anything they would overthrow the ruling class.
The speech exemplifies one of the ways in which Wilde’s comedy works. The characters in The Importance of Being Earnest are not realistic or true to life. They don’t display consistency of temperament or viewpoint, even within a given scene or speech. They’re literary constructs, artificial creations whose purpose is to give voice to a particular utterance at a particular moment. Wilde uses Lady Bracknell to embody the mind-boggling stupidity of the British aristocracy, while at the same time, he allows her to voice some of the most trenchant observations in the play.
3. Jack: “You don’t think there is any chance of Gwendolen becoming like her mother in about a hundred and fifty years, do you, Algy?”
Algernon: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.”
Jack: “Is that clever?”
Algernon: “It is perfectly phrased! and quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be.”
This exchange between Algernon and Jack in Act I occurs after Lady Bracknell has swept indignantly out of the house in response to Jack’s inability to produce any ancestry. In some ways it foreshadows the future, since Gwendolen really does resemble her mother in a number of ways. Like Lady Bracknell, she is somewhat ruthless and overbearing, and she demonstrates similar habits of speech and frames of mind, including a propensity to monomania (witness her obsession with the name “Ernest”) and a tendency to make absurd categorical pronouncements. If Gwendolen’s voice were turned up a few decibels, it might be indistinguishable from that of Lady Bracknell.
Algernon’s reply to Jack’s question is a perfect example of the Wildean epigram: a statement that briefly and elegantly turns some piece of received or conventional wisdom on its head. Another example is Algernon’s assertion that “The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!” Typically, the Wildean epigram consists of two elements: an outrageous statement followed by an explanation that is at once even more outrageous and at the same time true. Or, as in the quotation above, it can consist of an antithesis: “On the one hand A; on the other hand B.” When Algernon tells Jack his witticism is “perfectly phrased” and “quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be,” he is voicing the moral perspective of the Wildean dandy, who believes that nothing is more important than the beauty of form and that elegance rather than accuracy or truth should dictate what people say.
4. Algernon: “Oh! I am not really wicked at all, cousin Cecily. You mustn’t think that I am wicked.”
Cecily: “If you are not, then you have certainly been deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner. I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.”
This exchange between Algernon and Cecily occurs in Act II when Algernon, who is presenting himself as Jack’s brother Ernest, is shown into the garden. He greets Cecily, calling her his “little cousin,” and she greets him as “my wicked cousin Ernest.” The moral status of Jack’s fictional brother has undergone a change between Acts I and II. At Algernon’s flat in Half Moon Street, “Ernest” was merely “profligate” (Algernon’s word). To use Jack’s terminology, he got into “scrapes,” which is to say “jams” or mischief. Precisely what Jack considers a “scrape” isn’t made clear in Act I. They are, however, something Algernon is fond of. When Jack warns him that Bunbury may get him into “a serious scrape some day,” Algernon replies, “I love scrapes. They are the only things that are never serious.”
Once the action moves to the garden of the Manor House, where Miss Prism’s moral viewpoint seems to hold sway, Jack’s brother graduates to “unfortunate,” “bad,” and downright “wicked.” Cecily yearns to meet a “really wicked” person, she says. The moment before Algernon enters, she soliloquizes that she’s terrified “he will look just like everyone else.”
This open interest in the idea of immorality is what takes Cecily out of the realm of Victorian hypocrisy and makes her a suitable love interest for Algernon. Her notion that if Jack’s brother is not really wicked he has been “deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner” turns the plot of the play on its head. She goes on to define hypocrisy as “pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time.” It isn’t, of course. It is the opposite of hypocrisy. In fact, it is the creed of the Wildean dandy-hero.
5. Lady Bracknell: “My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality.”
Jack: “On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.”
These lines form the last exchange in the play. At this point in the play, the notion of earnestness has taken several forms. Earnestness is a concept that can be best grasped by looking at its opposites. Here it is presented as the opposite of “triviality,” while elsewhere it means the opposite of seriousness. When Jack scoffs at the idea of a “serious Bunburyist,” Algernon retorts, “Well, one must be serious about something . . . . 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.” In terms of the play’s primary plot, earnestness is the quality of honesty or candor. But exactly what the play really says about this attribute is hard to determine. Algernon professes not to believe that truth belongs in civilized conversation. Jack doesn’t think truth “quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl.” Cecily thinks that “whenever one has anything unpleasant to say, one should always be quite candid.” Lady Bracknell believes that a woman should always lie about her age. Gwendolen feels that “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” Of course, which of these characters is speaking the truth about the truth is impossible to determine.
One of the moral paradoxes that The Importance of Being Earnest seems intended to express is the idea that the perfectly moral man is the man who professes to be immoral, who speaks truly by virtue of the fact that he admits to being essentially a liar. Wilde set great store in lying, which, he argued in a quasi-Platonic dialogue called “The Decay of Lying,” is a veritable art form. Art itself may really be what’s at stake here. From Wilde’s standpoint, the poseur is to be congratulated and commended if his affectations bespeak elegance and style and achieve beauty. If they do, he is close to an artist. If they don’t, he is only a hypocrite.