Study Guide

The Importance of Being Earnest Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Oscar Wilde

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Ernest and Bunbury

The two imaginary people created by Jack and Algernon might symbolize the empty promises or deceit of the Victorian era. Not only is the character Ernest anything but earnest for the majority of the play, but he also doesn’t even really exist. This makes Jack’s creation of him doubly deceitful. Bunbury sounds as ridiculous and fictional as he actually is. Both of them allow Jack and Algernon to live a lie – seeming to uphold the highest moral standards, while really misbehaving without suffering any consequences. Jack takes it a bit farther since he actually impersonates his so-called good-for-nothing brother.

Even when Jack and Algernon are caught in their lies, they never suffer any real punishment. That they can both kill off their imaginary alter egos or friends without much to-do, shows Victorian society’s real values. The Victorian era did not value honesty, responsibility, or compassion for the under-privileged (neither Lady Bracknell or Algernon exhibit much pity for Bunbury when he "dies"), but only style, money, and aristocracy. It is appropriate that the nonexistent characters of Ernest and Bunbury show how shallow are the Victorians’ real concerns.

The handbag in the cloakroom at Victoria Station, the Brighton line

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:

MISS PRISM
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.

Diaries and Miss Prism’s Three-Volume Novel

You might wonder what the heck do Cecily’s and Gwendolen’s diaries have in common with Miss Prism’s three-volume novel – other than the writing part. Well, the writing part is actually important. Think about what you do when you write. It’s always a very personal activity, because the way you string the words together is completely your creation. It’s your thoughts that are put down onto paper. Your writing is an expression of yourself. So it’s no surprise that some people want to keep their personal thoughts private. Hence, you have a diary. Many people’s thoughts and desires are irrational; instead they’re very idealistic.

This is the point in The Importance of Being Earnest. Almost any type of book or writing, with the sole exception of Jack’s Army Lists, reveals someone’s wishes or dreams. Cecily’s diary meticulously documents her desire for a lover and future husband named Ernest. It even includes imaginary love letters. Gwendolen’s diary does the same, minus the letters. Lady Bracknell’s notebook keeps tabs on men who have the potential to become worthy suitors for Gwendolen’s hand. Most of the content in these pieces of writing is unrealistic at best or fantastic (in the fairy-tale sense) at worst. But these thoughts are kept private.

Miss Prism’s three-volume novel, on the other hand, reveals what happens when one tries to impose an impossibly idealized world onto gritty reality. Miss Prism probably wrote her novel in her younger days, when she was dazzled by other romantic and sentimental stories published in the same "triple decker" genre. Thus, her writing could have been a sort of diary, a projection of a perfect inner world – her deepest desire – put into words. But everything fell apart when she tried to publish it – pushing it into the public sphere. It caused her to forget her real responsibility – baby Ernest – while she was daydreaming about future success. She lost her job over it and was pursued by Scotland Yard. Her actions made her a criminal. And Lady Bracknell returns years later to haunt her about it.

So the diaries and three-volume novel of our female characters represent the innermost fantasies of idealistic young girls, dreams that clash directly with reality. Miss Prism puts it best with her quote: "The good end[s] happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means" (II.15). You might want to counter, that very few things actually end happily-ever-after in the real world.

Food

Every instance where food is mentioned – from the Algernon’s opening discussion of wine with his servant, Lane, to the girls’ insults over tea and the guys’ climactic fight over muffins – is fraught with conflict. The fight over something as basic as food – something that every human being has a carnal need for– might represents another carnal desire: sex. Because the men fight over food the most (Algernon’s wolfing down of the cucumber sandwiches to Lady Bracknell’s distress, Jack’s settling for bread and butter, Algernon’s consumption of Jack’s wine and muffins), we suspect that food fights are their way of expressing their sexual frustration in the face of unusually domineering women. You can’t deny that Lady Bracknell exerts a tremendous amount of power. Even Gwendolen and Cecily put their male lovers in compromising positions and dictate the terms of their marriages.

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