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The Use and Abuse of Secrets in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest

There are no shortage of secrets in The Importance of Being Earnest. There are minor secrets: from the loyalty of a butler to deceptions about age. Major secrets include Jack’s unknown true identity and Miss Prism’s twenty-eight year secret about her abandonment of a baby. As might be expected in comedy, secrets are revealed following a trail of misdemeanours and deceptions. Bennett and Royle suggest that, “Every narrative can be defined as a process of unfolding and revelation” (p. 223). “The Importance of Being Earnest” is not only a comedy, but also a mystery: clues are given to the audience, who slowly piece together the enigma of Jack’s identity.


The word ‘earnest’, as it is used in the title, denotes sincere. Jack and Algernon are deceitful characters who assume the name of Ernest; Jack so he can get away to London; Algernon so he can meet Cecily by pretending to be Jack’s brother. The play on words, Earnest and Ernest, is a double deceit as neither Jack nor Algernon is ‘earnest’ and both lie about their identities. These lies are discovered as the play progresses.


However, some secrets take a long time to be revealed. A cigarette case is a prop used in order for Algernon to interrogate Jack on the question of “Cecily” (p. 299). Algernon reads the inscription and asks Jack who Cecily is: Jack replies “Cecily happens to be my aunt” (p. 299) and a long comical discussion follows until Algernon finally discovers that Cecily is Jack’s eighteen-year-old ward.


Lane has a “true secret”. Quoting J. Hillis Miller, Bennett and Royle state “A true secret…is not hidden somewhere…A true secret is all on the surface” (p. 227). Lane’s secret is that he has been married once and that it was a “consequence of a misunderstanding” (p.296). Lane’s role is peripheral, and the exposure of his secrets would distract from the main plot. Lane keeps Algernon’s secrets - such as when Algernon has eaten all the cucumber sandwiches.  He covers up for his employer and suggests “[t]here were no cucumbers in the market this morning” (p.304). This comment reinforces Algernon’s image as a rogue and Lane’s image as a discreet and trustworthy employee: one who can keep a secret.


Wilde reveals secrets in stage directions. Lane introduces “Mr Ernest Worthing” (296) but the stage directions state “Enter JACK” (p. 296). Ernest is not in the character list for the play and therefore his identity is a mystery. The audience, at this point, can be forgiven for being confused. Bennett and Royle define a “consumerist reading” as a surface interpretation (Bennett and Royle: 222). A “consumerist reading” of the play will not disappoint the reader: all the important mysteries will be solved as the play progresses. The enigmatic character of the play is light hearted and comical to such an extent that, although there are mysteries to be solved, reader’s curiosity is only mildly aroused: the play is not a cliff-hanger.


Dramatic irony is another way in which Wilde plays with secrets. Algernon “Exchanges glances with JACK” (304) after telling Lady Bracknell that he can not attend her dinner party because his friend Bunbury has taken a turn for the worse. The secret passes between Jack and Algernon through the “glance”. The audience knows that Bunbury does not exist. A further example of dramatic irony is when Algernon, while eavesdropping, discovers the address of Jack’s country home. Stage directions show him “[smiling] to himself” as he “writes the address on his shirt-cuff” (315). Algernon tells Jack that he is “a little anxious about poor Bunbury” (316). It is clear that Algernon is planning to visit Jack’s home in order to meet Cecily.


Some secrets are shared rather than private. Before Jack proposes to Gwendolen she confesses that she is “fully determined to accept” (307). Therefore Jack is under no apprehensions about her reply. The audience is not kept in suspense as comedy rather than mystery is the key element of this play: the secret is shared with the audience. Another example of a shared secret can be found when Algernon asks Jack if he has told Gwendolen the truth about his identity. Jack replies, “The truth isn’t quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl” (313). In their attitudes to truth and gender Wilde’s male characters uphold patriarchal values.


Just as one enigma is solved, another is revealed. Who is Jack?  Jack has two names, but he doesn’t know his true identity. He tells Lady Bracknell, “I don’t actually know who I am by birth” and that he was found in a “handbag” (310). If Jack is not Jack, and Jack is not Ernest, then who is he and who did the handbag belong to?  These are just two of the questions placed in the audience’s minds as the enigma continues to be revealed while holding the audience in suspense.


Individual characters keep intimate secrets. Dr Chasuble tells Cecily that “Were [he] fortunate enough to be Miss Prism’s pupil, [he] would hang upon her lips” (319). Suspicions are placed in the audience’s minds about his true feelings for Miss Prism. She later tells Dr Chasuble “You should get married” (322). As Miss Prism is single it would be reasonable to assume that this is not only a hint, but also a flirtatious marriage proposal: one of Miss Prism’s secrets is her feelings for Dr Chasuble.


Personal diaries hold another kind of secret. Intimate secrets are hidden in the contents of Cecily’s diary. When Algernon proposes to Cecily she informs him that they “have been engaged for the last three months” (p.330) and shows him the entry in her diary. Not only are they engaged but Cecily has also fabricated love letters from Ernest to herself. Cecily is “worn out” by Algernon’s “entire ignorance” (p. 330) of her existence. How could he have known?


The process of revealing the truth begins in Act Two. Cecily confides to Gwendolen that she is engaged to Ernest Worthing (335). Gwendolen tells Cecily that she is engaged to Ernest Worthing. Cecily is referring to Algernon but Gwendolen assumes that she is talking about Jack / Ernest. Gwendolen discovers that Cecily is Ernest’s ward, and that he has an older brother. As Gwendolen discovers more about Ernest, she describes him as “secretive” (334). This is certainly true. Cecily tells Gwendolen “…it is not Mr Ernest Worthing who is my guardian. It is his brother – his eldest brother” (p.335). By not choosing to call him Mr Jack Worthing, Wilde prolongs the confusion between the girls. The audience, of course, knows the truth already: a further example of dramatic irony.


Bribery purchases another secret. Lady Bracknell bribes Gwendolen’s maid, “whose confidence [she] purchased by means of a small coin”, (p. 346) in order to discover the whereabouts of her daughter. This bought secret is effectively the beginning of the end as all major characters are now together. Lady Bracknell asks, “who is that young person whose hand my nephew is now holding” (347)?  She discovers that Algernon is engaged to Cecily and that Gwendolen still intends to marry Jack: the secret is out.


Ladies lie about their ages. Cecily tells Lady Bracknell that she is eighteen, but “admits to twenty” at evening parties. Lady Bracknell approvingly suggests that “London society is full of women…who have…remained thirty-five for years (p. 351). Deceptions about age in the play do not add to the plot: their role is to entertain rather than to advance the narrative. The deceit is clear and the deception serves no purpose other than to satisfy vanity. Lady Bracknell’s age remains a secret but Wilde implies that she is ancient when Jack asks, “You don’t think there is any chance of Gwendolen becoming like her mother in about a hundred and fifty years, do you, Algy?” (p. 312). This comment does not flatter Lady Bracknell, but rather serves to underline her distance from the other characters.


At the end of the play the exposure of one secret leads to the revelation of another, rather more important. When Lady Bracknell discovers Miss Prism at Jack’s home she demands of her “Where is that baby?” (p. 353)  When Miss Prism reveals her twenty-eight year old secret, a further enigma is clarified: Jack’s origins and identity. The audience is able to put two and two together: Jack was an abandoned baby. It would be difficult not to comment on the secrets of an invisible character.


Lady Bracknell refers to Lord Bracknell on several occasions. She mentions “his ailment” (p. 305) and adds that he will decide on a marriage for his daughter “should his health permit” (p. 308), but the audience do not discover the secret of his illness. Oddly enough, Lady Bracknell refers to another invisible character as suffering from “curiously bad health” (304); although in reality Algernon created him. Algernon’s friend serves to establish his roguish personality and Lady Bracknell’s husband helps to show her masculinity and control: her husband has no say as he is not well enough.


Gwendolen informs Cecily “Outside the family circle, Papa, is entirely unknown” (334); he is also unknown to the audience of the play. Lady Bracknell deceives her husband. He is under the impression that Gwendolen is attending a lecture and Lady Bracknell does “not propose to undeceive him. Indeed [she has] never undeceived him on any question” (p. 346). Lady Bracknell keeps secrets from her husband and he in turn is kept secret from the audience.


In conclusion, the only character without a secret appears to be Merriman. Bennett and Royle define hermeneutic questions as questions associated with the unravelling of the narrative (Bennett and Royle: 223). Examples include the discovery of Jack’s identity, the ownership of the cigarette case and the prospects for Gwendolen and Cecily to find out the truth about their Ernests. These mysteries are revealed comically and slowly as the play concludes. Why Miss Prism abandoned a baby and kept quiet for twenty-eight years is a true secret; it is on the surface, but the answer will never be known. Coincidences such as, Jack and Algernon being friends, Miss Prism being employed by the baby she abandoned, and Gwendolen and Cecily both wishing to marry a man named “Ernest” add to the comedy rather than the mystery. Perhaps the biggest secret of all is unravelled by one of the central characters:


“…it is a terrible thing” says Jack to Cecily “for a man to find out that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth” (p. 357)


In the tragic narrative of his own life the author of “The Importance of Being Earnest” might have wished he could say the same.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:


Bennett. A. and Royle. N. 1999. Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. (2nd Edition).

London: Prentice Hall Europe.


Oscar Wilde. A. 2000. The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays. London: Penguin.



 By Penelope Page

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