The Importance of Being Earnest
by Oscar Wilde
The handbag in the cloakroom at Victoria Station, the Brighton line
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
The circumstances of Jack’s abandonment symbolize both his ambiguous social status during the play, and the possibility of his upward social mobility. Interestingly, the scene has both aristocratic and common elements in it. The handbag that baby Jack was placed in is – as Miss Prism describes it – completely ordinary. Like any other well-used purse, it is worn from overuse:
Yes, here is the injury it received through the upsetting of a Gower Street omnibus in younger and happier days. Here is the stain on the lining caused by the explosion of a temperance beverage, an incident that occurred in Leamington. And here, on the lock, are my initials. (III.145)
Thus, this commonplace container contains a baby of uncommon origin. Continuing this theme of disguise, it is no coincidence that this ordinary-handbag-containing-a-baby is discovered in a cloakroom – a place where outer garments like cloaks, coats, wraps, and scarves may be hung. These pieces of apparel can all be worn to conceal one’s true form, face, or identity. In the murderer-in-a-trench-coat kind of way.
Let’s move onto Victoria Station. According to www.networkrail.co.uk, there were two train stations at the same site in Wilde’s day – leading to two different sites. The western trail, including the Brighton line, led to the wealthier parts of London while the eastern road led to places like Chatham and Dover, which were more impoverished. The fact that baby Jack is at the intersection of these two lines literally puts him in an identity crisis. Does he come from a poor common family or a rich aristocratic one? Lady Bracknell tends to look on the negative side and judge him as common until proven noble.
But there is another, more positive way to interpret his discovery at Victoria Station. Trains are all about moving people to the places where they need to be. If we take Jack’s presence at Victoria Station to be a comment on his social life, it might suggest that he will have great social mobility – have success in climbing up the social ladder to a prestigious position. This is foreshadowed by the fact that he’s found specifically on the Brighton line, the road that leads to the richer parts of town. And indeed the story of Earnest is about Jack’s social advancement. In fact, he’s revealed at the end to be a true member of the aristocracy – part of the Moncrieff family – which makes him a worthy husband for another aristocrat, Gwendolen.
So the scene of Jack’s orphaning contains aspects – like the ordinary handbag and the cloakroom – that make him seem common, but also hints of aristocracy – like the Brighton line – which reveal his true social identity.