The Importance of Being Earnest

Maxims and Masks: The Epigram in "The Importance of Being Earnest"

Oscar Wilde frames "The Importance of Being Earnest" around the paradoxical epigram, a skewering metaphor for the play's central theme of division of truth and identity that hints at a homosexual subtext. Other targets of Wilde's absurd yet grounded wit are the social conventions of his stuffy Victorian society, which are exposed as a "shallow mask of manners" (1655). Aided by clever wordplay, frantic misunderstanding, and dissonance of knowledge between the characters and the audience, devices that are now staples of contemporary theater and situation comedy, "Earnest" suggests that, especially in "civilized" society, we all lead double lives that force upon us a variety of postures, an idea with which the closeted (until his public charge for sodomy) homosexual Wilde was understandably obsessed.

The play's initial thrust is in its exploration of bisexual identities. Algernon's and Jack's "Bunburys" initially function as separate geographic personas for the city and country, simple escapes from nagging social obligations. However, the homoerotic connotations of the punning name (even the double "bu"'s, which serve mostly an alliterative purpose,...

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