Point, Counterpoint, Thrust:

Wilde's Pun Burying in The Importance of Being Earnest

by Jaimie Crawford

The true test of comedy is that it shall awaken thoughtful laughter.

-George Meredith

The contribution made to the comic from the realm of the
unconscious is always either exposing or obscene; aggressive
or hostile; cynical, critical, or blasphemous; or skeptical.
Every joke contains an element of seriousness; a joke is never just a joke.

-Sigmund Freud

“The Importance of Being Earnest”—the words conjure up visions of sermons, self-righteousness, diligence. With such a serious title we expect “a significant anti-comic element: earnestness,” but the only earnest element in the play is a distant “homophonic cousin” Ernest, a name which both leading characters use dishonestly (Finney 643). This first pun, a taste of those to follow, has the flavor of rebellion. Wilde's satirical comedy, however, goes one step further. It rebels and reflects. While exploring the idea “that truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style,” Wilde premises that “the importance of being is neither X nor Y, male nor female, Jack nor Ernest...but that identity has been mislaid somewhere between these culturally productive binarisms” (Craft 23). His witty puns permit his audience to vicariously participate in a sparring contest between “X” and “Y.” These points and counterpoints fluctuate until their blurred differences create an alternative “other.”

Wilde's triads jolt the status quo. In three acts he forms three unions: one heterosexual, one asexual, and one implicitly homosexual. In his triangular punning style the reader fills in the third angle. For each “point” Wilde includes a contrasting “counterpoint,” and his mirrors, role reversals, and foils ignite implicit “thrusts” of reality. The cumulative sum of these “thrusts” yields the perception that truth exists not in the either/or but in the in between. In other words, Wilde's style (point, counterpoint, point, counterpoint... insinuated thrust) mimics his message (neither “X” nor “Y” but other).

The initial lines of Wilde's drama exemplify this relationship between language and meaning in dialogue which is simultaneously frivolous and insightful. Reminiscent of the game of vapours in Jonson's Bartholmew Fair, Wilde's opening scene flippantly touches on marriage in an argument where the opponents switch sides not once, but three times:

Algernon: Is marriage so demoralizing? (point)

Lane: ...I believe it is a very pleasant state... (counterpoint)
I have only been married once...as a consequence of a misunderstanding. (point)

Algernon: I don't know that I'm interested in your family life... (counterpoint)

Lane: No, sir. It is not a very interesting subject. I never think of it myself. (point).

Algernon: Lane's view on marriage seem somewhat lax... (counterpoint)

The exchange of words between Lane and Algernon seems a witty satire of the servant/master relationship, but their discourse also provides a taste of the multi-layered satire in Wilde's play. Lane parries Algernon's mock-serious interrogation (marriage is demoralizing, isn't it?) with an immediate comeback: “it is a very pleasant state”(no, it's not demoralizing). Then, awkwardly, Lane contradicts himself, implying that to be married many times is the decadent social norm and admitting that he, himself, married not for love, but as “a consequence of a misunderstanding” (yes, it is demoralizing). Algernon attempts to brush the subject back under the rug (it is not demoralizing, and I don't care to talk further about it), and Lane pulls it back out with an innocent mimicry of his master: “I never think of it (my marriage) either” (marriage is demoralizing, and I am proof). While Algernon perches arrogantly above the subject and is unwilling to discuss it, Lane seems to hover under it, ignorantly mimicking Algernon.

Algernon's final words degrade Lane's poor marriage skills, but not for the reasons we would expect. Algernon does not wish to talk about marriage—not because Lane's immorality bothers him, but because it bores him. Algernon does not find fault with Lane's irresponsible position on marriage, but with this position's “bad example” for his own upper class. Wilde buries under a surface satire of marriage, a scathing commentary about the upper classes' blind self-absorption. Algernon's use of the word “somewhat” (“Lane's views on marriage seem somewhat lax”) echoes his earlier patronizing nonchalance (“Is marriage so demoralizing?”), and this final counterpoint brings the argument full circle to it's point of departure: a question.

Wilde dizzies his audience with this type of dialogue throughout the play, and anyone looking for a definitive answer will be disappointed. But there is a method to his madness: marriage is neither demoralizing nor virtuous; life is neither cruel nor just; Algernon's superficial concern about marriage's plight is neither better nor worse than Lane's honest irresponsibility. The two characters oscillate between views of marriage but provide solid support for neither argument. Wilde's “thrust” of reality or “thoughtful laugher” results from a negative space, a space between two unattractive opposites: Lane's ignorance and Algernon's insensitivity.

Wilde uses the characters of Jack and Algernon as point and counterpoint as well. Jack's actions mimic Wilde's. Jack as an infant is literally exchanged for a manuscript; Wilde exchanges himself and his sexuality for the “cucumber sandwiches,” “smoking cases,” and “Bunburyism” of his characters. Jack cycles from “just Jack,” to “Jack dishonestly posing as Ernest,” to “Jack honestly named Ernest”, and by the play's final line, the title, The Importance of Being Earnest, has an ultimately vital importance to him as its words are rooted in his own physical survival (Craft 25). Wilde cycles from “just two single men,” to “two single men in love with two single women,” to “two men earnestly married to two women.” For Wilde, as well as for Jack, the title gains significance as the play comes to an end; both the importance of Wilde's drama and his reputation as an author are at stake. The audience plays the role of interrogater in both Jack's and Wilde's triangular cycle, asking “Is Jack really earnest?” and “Is Algernon (Wilde) really straight?” While Jack's actions parallel Wilde's, Algernon's words are the vehicle for Wilde's expression. In the third line of Act I, Algernon, after asking Lane if he has heard his piano playing, notes that “anyone can play (write) accurately,” In Algernon's speech (“I play with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is concerned sentiment is my forte”) Wilde hints that, like Algernon, he will use the tools of expression and sentiment in an attempt to elevate his prose from mere farce to humor evoking self-reflection. Algernon's insistence on Bunburying equates to Wilde's insistence on pun burying. Finally, Algernon's statement that “three's company and two's none” divulges Wilde's dramatic emphasis on triads as well as his own personal triad of self, wife, and lover.

Stokes suggests, “Wilde completely hides his feelings, concentrating instead, through the role playing of Jack and Algernon, on the deceptions that his sexuality forced him to play”(164). Other critics join Stokes in labeling Wilde's “truest self” a mask (Bentley 113, Finney 645, Lydon 7). Wilde does thinly mask his own sexuality with Algernon's Bunburyism and oral fixations, but the discreet rapacity involved in gobbling up muffins and petit fours washed down by bottles of Dom Perignon critiques not only clandestine homosexual activity but also a self-absorbed, verbally-fixated, elitist sublimation focused on skirting the truth. A crucial point to make, however, is that Wilde does not uphold the truth he mocks society for avoiding; instead, he questions its very existence, as he does identity and origin.

Wilde leads his audience in a full circle debate on substance (point) vs. subject (counterpoint). Puns mocking substance, Lady Bracknell's “surface is all” and Cecily's “style not sincerity is the vital thing,” are countered by Algernon's persistence on subject, “the truth is rarely pure and never simple” and “I make up for being overdressed by being overeducated.” Jack's urgent question to Lady Bracknell also addresses the hypocrisy of subject over substance: “I hate to seem inquisitive, but will you kindly inform me who I am?” Will Jack be any different if his name or origin change? Again, the audience plays cross-examiner and adds the third point of Wilde's triangle in the form of a question: does a name equate identity?

Lady Bracknell, herself, is a case of point and counterpoint. While Bracknell's indefatigable set of rules and standards and her imperious use of “should” and “must” smack of the voice of English authority (point), her dialogue and aggressive, masculine control (“You can take a seat, Mr. Worthing”) are unbelievable, thus hilarious (counterpoint). Her character, a fantasy based on paradoxical manly posturing (point) and feminine motive (counterpoint), is Wilde's vehicle for commentary on the ludicrous roles of both sexes, and again the audience vacillates between “X” and “Y.” Although Lady Bracknell's haughty tone, pace, and manner in offering advice to Gwendolyn and Jack about how, whom, and when to marry seem befitting of a matriarch (“An engagement should come on a young girl ...,” “A man should always have an occupation of some kind,” “my eligible list ...the same as the dear Duchess of Bolton,” “A very good age to be married at...” ) (point), her “monster-like” description and queries about money and property seem masculine (counterpoint). The style of her language is familiar (point), but her words throw unexpected daggers: Jack should know “nothing”; his occupation should be “smoking”; an engagement should be a “surprise” (counterpoint). A first chuckle due to these lines' lunacy yields a second more thoughtful one, arising from our “thrust” of reality: it is just as absurd to require a groom to know everything, to insist his occupation be landowner, or to expect an engagement to be public.

Lady Bracknell's final crescendo comes, ironically, after Jack has admitted to knowing “nothing”:

I am pleased to hear it. 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.

What is your income?

In these lines Wilde again displays his deftness at triple-layered satire. The first layer pokes fun at Lady Bracknell's own ironic ignorance as she blabbers away at topics about which she knows little (point). The second layer mocks her self-serving use of Jack (counterpoint). Finally, by switching the word “ignorance” for “innocence,” in Lady Bracknell's speech, Wilde presents a stunning critique of the Victorian idea that women are better left uneducated. While society's cliche, “innocence is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone” euphemistically recalls a rosebud's bloom and the pristine Victorian maidenhead (representing both a virgin's empty “head” and empty “bed”), Wilde replaces “innocence” with “ignorance” which pejoratively degrades, debilitates, and destroys, showing what society has done to its own Victorian female.

Wilde's implied thrust of feminism in no way asserts that education is completely beneficial. He voices education's frightening ability to divide the classes and genders in the pun, “ at any rate, education produces no effect.” The word “rate” brings to mind money-lending, implying the inability of all but the very wealthy to educate themselves, and the word “affect,” a homonym of “effect,” describes emotion and feeling. “That education produces no `effect” implies that the voices of education in Wilde's society neither “produced” nor allowed the sentiment he labels as his talent in the third line of the play. Wilde's language equivocates between education as “advantageous” vs. “detrimental” and marriage as “demoralizing” vs. “sacred”; in neither case does “X” or “Y” receive impunity, and the audience is left to ponder an alternative.

Jack and Algernon's discourse on the topic of Algernon's imaginary, invalid friend, Bunbury, introduces another case of point and counterpoint. Craft explains, “As a character always somewhere else at present, Bunbury has been devised by Wilde to inhabit the interstices of the double bind” (32); the secrecy of Bunbury marks the establishment of “subject/object, private/public,” and Bunbury's character “operates within society's necessity for order as its hidden supplement” (31). The very existence of this phantom and alter-ego of Ernest, Jack's invented brother, smacks of irony; in Act I Algernon creates “Bunburyism” as an escape from cloying social responsibility but wants Jack's company in his ploy:

Jack: My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist...
It produces a false impression. (point, counterpoint)

Algernon: Well that is what dentists do... I have always suspected
you of being a confirmed and secret Bunburyist; and
I am quite sure of it now. (point, counterpoint).

Jack: Bunburyist? What on earth do you mean by a Bunburyist? (point, counterpoint).

Algernon: I'll reveal to you the meaning of that incomparable
expression as soon as you are kind enough to inform me why
you are Ernest in town and Jack in the country.

The double entendre in Jack's first line berates Algernon for talking “as if” he were a dentist (an orally-fixated professional) by leaving false “impressions”; in this very first line, Jack contradicts himself (just as Lane did earlier). The double negative of Algernon's pretending to be a pretender (like Pynchon's actor who plays a lawyer who's an actor) cancels itself out. Algernon's reply yields another paradox; how can Jack be both “confirmed” and “secret”? But this elusiveness is the nature of Bunburyism—an abstract term based in nothing “sure” at all. Jack's final question, although appearing innocent, is again contradictory; his question (“What on earth do you mean by a Bunburyist?”) makes no sense because “on earth” there is no Bunbury.

And Bunbury's relationship to Ernest? Wilde juxtaposes these two nonentities to contrast “smooth, assured appearances with inner emptiness” and to reveal the often almost imperceptible difference between them (Bentley 115). While Bunbury is a nonexisting distraction, an empty shell, Ernest is a mask, a name symbolizing false assurance and reliability. Algernon doggedly attempts to equate Jack's “Ernesting” with his own “Bunburying”. Although Algy “has Bunburyed (buried his pun?) all over Shropshire,” he finds Jack's Ernest(ness) as intriguing as a new toy and persists in attempting to put his own label upon it: “What you really are is a Bunburyist. I was quite right in saying you were a Bunburyist. You are one of the most advanced Bunburyists I know.”

By repeating this label three times, Algernon proves nothing—the word and man are but empty shells—but leaves “Bunbury” indelibly imprinted in the minds of the audience. Wilde earlier alludes to this power of repetition he mocks, “the Creeds are believed not because they are rational, but because they are repeated” in a refutation of the “plastic power of language”(Craft 23). This imprinting is comically reversed in Jack's later dialogue in which he cannot (more likely, will not) remember the name “Bunbury”: “I strongly advise you to do the same with Mr... your invalid friend...” Through Jack's selective memory Wilde both parodies homophobic avoidance and makes an important distinction between Algernon's honest avoidance and Jack's avoidance of honesty.

This distinction parallels the juxtaposition of earnest (Algernon) with Ernest (Jack); and Wilde's flutter between the two propels his drama. “Bunbury is a pseudonym or alias for oscillation, a constant waffling between Jack and Ernest...In exile Wilde even referred to his play as Bunbury” (Miller 209). In other words, Bunbury represents the space between origin and nonorigin, “X” and “Y,” form and substance, and can be viewed as a metaphor for the entire play.

Unwilling to let the subject rest, Algernon insists that his Bunbury and Jack's Ernest are synonymous (“you have invented a very useful younger brother...I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid...”), but it is Jack who finally states the difference: “I'm not a Bunburyist...If Gwendolyn accepts me, I am going to kill my brother.” That Jack will kill Ernest (take off his mask, accept a real identity) only when Gwendolyn agrees to wed him marks the triple layer of Wilde's satire on marriage. Wilde contrasts Jack's gullible and dishonest belief that marriage can “change him” with Algernon's crass statement that “divorces are made in heaven.” As Jack salivates at the thought of a blissful coupling with Gwendolyn, Algernon reiterates that “nothing will induce [him] to part with Bunbury, and if [he] ever gets married, [he] will be very glad to know Bunbury.” Wilde's use of the word “induce” is both prophetic and ironic because it implies a passivity on Algernon's part which only a drug-like potion will dispel.

This drug-like potion comes in the form of Jack's young and impetuous niece, Cecily. Algernon “fairly leaps into marriage fulfilling, as if by amnesia, the comic topos which dictates that marital conjunction shall close the circuits of desire”(Craft 40), and agrees to marry Cecily just an hour after the two meet. This couple represent a third (but unique) part of Wilde's comic package as he sets up three neat little pairs. The marriages of upper crust dandies, Jack and Algernon to diary-obsessive debutantes, Gwendolyn and Cecily, along with the implied pairing of the self righteous Chasuble with Cecily's prim schoolmarm, Prism, complete his play. The three unions, ironically, represent the farcical, heterosexual closure that Algernon earlier opposes: “You don't seem to realize that in married life three is company and two is none,” and the play's meaning, in a way, hinges upon the interpretation of this piece of dialogue.

Wilde's drama fluctuates between stylistic support and rejection of the British male comedy. Earnest's plot mirrors established comic convention: two single men overcome obstacles (a disreputable origin and a mistaken identity) to marry two single women. Furthermore, the last act embodies the traditional union representative of British male comedy, a union in which “[all characters playing against gender] are allowed brilliance, freedom, and power [until] built-in safeguards against such behavior” manifest with the final act of marital bliss and restored gender roles (Carson 47). Even Algernon's axiomatic transposition, “three is company and two is none,” because of its foolishness seems to speak against a thwarting of the status quo (as it must for Wilde's own safety during the time of his writing.) Throughout the play, Wilde trains his audience to play his game, to ferret out every one of these transpositions and fill in the proper cliches: marriages are made in heaven, two's company and three's none, the home is the proper sphere for a woman.

But in the midst of this game, while superficially conforming to the established rules of British comedy, Wilde balks at convention and these puns (“the home...the proper sphere for the man,” “illness...hardly a thing to be encouraged in others,” “...style not sincerity,” “As a man sows, so shall he reap”), eagerly translated by a willing audience, oscillate in meaning throughout the play until they are frightfully proven true, just as Jack is proven Ernest at the close of the play. Jack's words in Act III are symbolically Wilde's: “It is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.”

The majority of Wilde's puns seem disturbingly true and part of a subtle but scathing satire of Victorian adolescent narrow-mindedness and self centered avoidance, but a few of them, peppered into the rest of the twists and turns of his dialogue, offer a refreshingly modern alternative. The tripod of couples in the final act of Earnest accomplishes this alternative in an interesting echo of the “point, counterpoint, implied thrust” of the dialogue throughout the play. In the third and final act, the couple of Algernon and Cecily represent Wilde's final “thrust.” Jack and Gwendolyn seem destined, however unrealistic their grounding may be, to live in marital bliss. Gwendolyn receives her wish for an earnest Ernest; Jack attains an identity; all is well according to the rules of the comedy Wilde has established: Wilde's first “point.” Conversely, Prism and Chasuble's relationship will be forever unconsummated since as the canon has proclaimed, “I am a celibate”: a “counterpoint” to Gwendolyn and Jack's future sexual union.

Finally, Algernon and Cecily present a unique situation of precarious closure. They represent Wilde's final “thrust” of reality because they whisper a third alternative which lies in the space between their language and their actions. In both Cecily's and Algernon's dialogue Wilde has planted two obstacles which appear as weeds entangling their closure of marital bliss in the final act of the play. The first obstacle lies in Cecily's desperate need to be married to Ernest (“It has always been a dream of mine to love someone whose name is Ernest...I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest...). Her testimony of an inability to love Algernon if his name were not Ernest (“I fear that I should not be able to give you my undivided attention.”) presents a dilemma to the audience's belief in her Utopian coupling. While selective memory may allow us to forget Cecily's speech, her words repeat those of Algernon's, and the second obstacle, his Bunburyism, directly parallels Cecily's “divided attention.” Algernon's insistence on Bunburying as his most serious pastime (“Well, one must be serious about something”) as well as his earlier tirade (“Nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury, and if I ever get married, I will be very glad to know Bunbury”) remain indelibly imprinted in the minds of the audience.

These obstacles to the union of Cecily and Algernon seem to be Wilde's subtle reminder that the characters' attentions will be divided even after marriage. “Bunbury is buried, [but] buried alive” (Craft 43). The farce is over, but, beckoning his audience to look at the spaces in between his language, Wilde ends ambivalently, subjecting himself to posthumous critique. His play which uses the errors of Victorian England as paint on a palette of puns prophetically echoes Neitzche's description of the essence of post modernism: “an unmasking and liquidating of errors by seeing them as the very source of wealth”(170). Wilde's “jokes are not just jokes” but a transition in drama between his turn-of-the-century and ours.

 

Work Cited

Bentley, Eric. “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Richard Ellmann. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1969. 111-115.

Carlson, Susan. “The British Tradition.”Women and Comedy: Rewriting the British Theatrical Tradition. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1991.17-25.

Craft, Christopher. “Alias Bunbury: Desire and Termination in The Importance of Being Earnest.” Representations 31 (1990): 19-45.

Derida, Jacques. “Otobiographies: The Teaching of Nietzsche and the Politics of the Proper Name.” The Ear of the Other. Ed. Christie McDonald. New York: Schocken, 1985. 1-4.

Finney, Gail. “Comparative Perspectives on Gender and Comedy: The Examples of Wilde, Hofmannsthal, and Ebner-Eschenbach.” Modern Drama 37 (1994): 638-651.

Lydon, Mary. “Myself and M/others.” Sub-Stance 32 (1981): 6-14.

Miller, D.A. The Novel and the Police. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988, 201-210.

Neitzche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce homo. Trans. W. Kaugmann and R. J. Hollingdale. New York: Vintage, 1973. 1-15.

Stokes, John. “Wilde Interpretations.” Modern Drama 37 (1994): 159-174.


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