I promised myself that if I finished my full cannonball ahead of schedule that I would get at least one classic that I had not read off my TBR list. That brings us to The Importance of Being Earnest, which I was reminded was on my list by Aamil The Camel’s lovely review.
The best part of reading this play, which I’m sure many of you read in high school although I did not, is that it is still laugh out loud funny nearly 120 years after its first performance. The edition I read clocked in at just north of 100 pages, and I read it yesterday afternoon around baking Christmas cookies, and it had me chuckling along as I went. You really can’t ask for more.
Unless, of course, you do. And that’s fine, because there is more here. Wilde can be seen to be critiquing the social order of his time, thus making this work a satire. Wilde’s form throughout is to catch the reader (or viewer) off guard, by creating a sense of security is created as familiar words roll out of various characters mouths and then suddenly comes the jolt. The final few words are changed, made into something unexpected, and both a laugh and a critique have been put into place. An example of this is in describing an off stage character’s change in her widowhood: “I never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger”.
Wilde also turns the expectations of his basic plot on its head. On a surface level The Importance of Being Earnest is a simple tale of two boys meeting two girls and falling in (insta) love. The expectation would be that the ladies will be delicate and the men will be practical and experienced in the ways of the world. Jack’s serious manner and Algy’s slightly cynical, slightly rakish worldliness seem to align with this typical set-up .But, these expectations are completely defied as Gwendolen and Cecily turn out to be hard-headed, cold-blooded, efficient and completely self-possessed and the young gentlemen simply crumple in front of them. In fact, when Jack proposes to Gwendolen she takes matters into her own hands and tells him what to do. Wilde is mocking the idea that Victorian women are to be submissive in their own lives. Wilde is writing The Importance of Being Earnest during the suffrage movement, the rational clothes movement, women in sport, and women at the universities.
I can heartily recommend this one to you, whether you are looking for a quick laugh or a closer look at women and men at the turn of the last century, through Oscar Wilde’s eyes.
This review was completed as part of the Cannonball Read.