The Importance of Being Earnest
At the climax of Oscar Wilde’s comic masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, we learn that a baby has been mistaken for a book. Until that improbable revelation, however, the play—Wilde’s wicked exposé of the artificiality of conventional morality, and his one unequivocally great work—is concerned less with procreation than with recreation. Earnest follows two fashionable young heroes, Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, as they lead elaborate double lives, complete with false identities and imaginary friends, that allow them to seek unrespectable pleasures while presenting a respectable face to their local societies: London for Algy, whose fictional invalid friend, Bunbury, provides frequent excuses to escape to the countryside; Hertfordshire for Jack, whose assumption of a fictional identity of his own (that of a ne’er-do-well brother named Ernest) allows him to misbehave in town.
Those artificial façades start crumbling when both men fall victim to natural impulses. Jack has fallen in love with Algy’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax, and Algy becomes besotted with Jack’s young ward, Cecily Cardew, during a mischief-making visit to Jack’s country house. (He arrives pretending to be the black-sheep brother, Ernest—which is just as well, since Cecily, like Gwendolen, has always yearned to marry a man named Ernest—and Jack can’t expose Algy without exposing himself.)
But Jack’s matrimonial aims are seriously impaired by the fact that he has no pedigree. As he sheepishly reveals during an interview with Gwendolen’s mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell, he was discovered, as an infant, in a large handbag in the cloakroom in Victoria Station, and subsequently adopted by the kindly gentleman who found him.
Just how the baby got into the handbag is revealed in the play’s final moments, when it evolves that Miss Prism, the tutor currently employed by Jack to educate Cecily, was once a nursemaid in the employ of Lady Bracknell’s sister—the same nursemaid who’d gone for a promenade with Algy’s elder brother twenty-eight years ago and subsequently disappeared, along with her charge. As the shocked company looks on, Prism describes how, “in a moment of mental abstraction,” she had switched the baby she was taking care of and the manuscript of the novel she was writing, placing the former in her handbag, which she deposited in the railway station cloakroom, and the latter in the pram, which she took for a stroll. On realizing that she’d lost the baby, Miss Prism fled London and never returned.
Miss Prism’s inability to distinguish between a human being and a work of fiction may have been the result of mental abstraction, but for Oscar Wilde, the conflation of life and art was always deliberate. The result, for us, is that it has never been easy to separate how Wilde led his life—particularly his personal craving for notoriety—from his aesthetic and creative impulse to subvert. As early as the 1870s, before he’d left Oxford for London, the Dublin-born student of both Pater and Ruskin was playing the young artiste with a flair for self-promotion that caught the attention of the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.