Élodie Gaden (août 2007)

Oscar Wilde, The Importance of being earnest

Lady Bracknell. [Sitting down.] You can take a seat, Mr. Worthing. [Looks in her pocket for note-book and pencil.]

Jack. Thank you, Lady Bracknell, I prefer standing.

Lady Bracknell. [Pencil and note-book in hand.] I feel bound to tell you that you are not down on my list of eligible young men, although I have the same list as the dear Duchess of Bolton has. We work together, in fact. However, I am quite ready to enter your name, should your answers be what a really affectionate mother requires. Do you smoke?

Jack. Well, yes, I must admit I smoke.

Lady Bracknell. I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is. How old are you?

Jack. Twenty-nine.

Lady Bracknell. A very good age to be married at. I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?

Jack. [After some hesitation.] I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.

Lady Bracknell. 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?

Jack. Between seven and eight thousand a year.

Lady Bracknell. [Makes a note in her book.] In land, or in investments?

Jack. In investments, chiefly.

Lady Bracknell. That is satisfactory. What between the duties expected of one during one’s lifetime, and the duties exacted from one after one’s death, land has ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure. It gives one position, and prevents one from keeping it up. That’s all that can be said about land.

Jack. I have a country house with some land, of course, attached to it, about fifteen hundred acres, I believe; but I don’t depend on that for my real income. In fact, as far as I can make out, the poachers are the only people who make anything out of it.

Lady Bracknell. A country house! How many bedrooms? Well, that point can be cleared up afterwards. You have a town house, I hope? A girl with a simple, unspoiled nature, like Gwendolen, could hardly be expected to reside in the country.

Jack. Well, I own a house in Belgrave Square, but it is let by the year to Lady Bloxham. Of course, I can get it back whenever I like, at six months’ notice.

Lady Bracknell. Lady Bloxham? I don’t know her.

Jack. Oh, she goes about very little. She is a lady considerably advanced in years.

Lady Bracknell. Ah, nowadays that is no guarantee of respectability of character. What number in Belgrave Square?

Jack. 149.

Lady Bracknell. [Shaking her head.] The unfashionable side. I thought there was something. However, that could easily be altered.

Jack. Do you mean the fashion, or the side?

Lady Bracknell. [Sternly.] Both, if necessary, I presume. What are your polities?

Jack. Well, I am afraid I really have none. I am a Liberal Unionist.

Lady Bracknell. Oh, they count as Tories. They dine with us. Or come in the evening, at any rate. Now to minor matters. Are your parents living?

Jack. I have lost both my parents.

Lady Bracknell. To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. Who was your father? He was evidently a man of some wealth. Was he born in what the Radical papers call the purple of commerce, or did he rise from the ranks of the aristocracy?

Jack. I am afraid I really don’t know. The fact is, Lady Bracknell, I said I had lost my parents. It would be nearer the truth to say that my parents seem to have lost me . . . I don’t actually know who I am by birth. I was . . . well, I was found.

Lady Bracknell. Found!

Jack. The late Mr. Thomas Cardew, an old gentleman of a very charitable and kindly disposition, found me, and gave me the name of Worthing, because he happened to have a first-class ticket for Worthing in his pocket at the time. Worthing is a place in Sussex. It is a seaside resort.

Lady Bracknell. Where did the charitable gentleman who had a first-class ticket for this seaside resort find you?

Jack. [Gravely.] In a hand-bag.

Lady Bracknell. A hand-bag?

Jack. [Very seriously.] Yes, Lady Bracknell. I was in a hand-bag—a somewhat large, black leather hand-bag, with handles to it—an ordinary hand-bag in fact.

Lady Bracknell. In what locality did this Mr. James, or Thomas, Cardew come across this ordinary hand-bag?

Jack. In the cloak-room at Victoria Station. It was given to him in mistake for his own.

Lady Bracknell. The cloak-room at Victoria Station?

Jack. Yes. The Brighton line.

Lady Bracknell. The line is immaterial. Mr. Worthing, I confess I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it had handles or not, seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. And I presume you know what that unfortunate movement led to? As for the particular locality in which the hand-bag was found, a cloak-room at a railway station might serve to conceal a social indiscretion—has probably, indeed, been used for that purpose before now—but it could hardly be regarded as an assured basis for a recognised position in good society.

Jack. May I ask you then what you would advise me to do? I need hardly say I would do anything in the world to ensure Gwendolen’s happiness.

Lady Bracknell. I would strongly advise you, Mr. Worthing, to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible, and to make a definite effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over.

Jack. Well, I don’t see how I could possibly manage to do that. I can produce the hand-bag at any moment. It is in my dressing-room at home. I really think that should satisfy you, Lady Bracknell.

Lady Bracknell. Me, sir! What has it to do with me? You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter—a girl brought up with the utmost care—to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel? Good morning, Mr. Worthing!

[Lady Bracknell sweeps out in majestic indignation.]

Situation of the passage : Jack has just demanded Gwendolen to marry him. But she must ask the permission to her mother. Lady Bracknell prefers asking some questions to Jack. In this scene, Jack and lady Bracknell are alone and she puts a lot of strange questions to Jack in order to know more about him, as he is interested in her daughter.

We can wonder how the construction of the scene allows Wilde both to create the laugh of the reader and to have a satirical aim concerning the upper class with the character of lady Bracknell.

So, we will study firstly the comic of the scene, with is based on play on words. Then, the aspect of the social origin. And finally, we will wonder how the dice are loaded : the laugh is also Wilde's laugh !

I. A comic scene based on play on words

The situation is comic : because lady Bracknell and Jack are alone. She evoks the « list » on which she writes the name of the young men that represent a good match for her daughter. It seems as if it was an interrogation as we can see in the beginning of the scene : she says : « You can take a seat » : it is as a stage direction which shows the authority of lady Bracknell. We get the impresion that she is a sort of judge and SHE also have the impression of being important !

She quotes a lot of questions to him, but the content of these questions is sometimes totally absurd :

The interrogation is informal, not organized and it lacks of realism.

The form of the interrogation, that is to say the way lady Bracknell is speaking is in contrast with the content of the subject, that is to say the ideas : it is fancyful and really comic. Moreover, there is another contrast between the sollenity of the interrogation (lady Bracknell is really serious) and the questions which are frivolous. Wilde teases out the logic of seemingly illogical claims.

This aspect is also visible in the fact that lady Bracknell says some obviousnesses : « I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing » : there is a play on words. The use of the modal verb « should » is really comic because it contrasts with the phrase « either nothing or everything. » Then, she also says : « ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit » : it seems that she wants to be poetic and to perfectly use the language. But she is ridiculous because of the use of the adjective « delicate » which is completely banal. Lady Bracknell is a person of the upper class, and she lays the emphasis on the importance of being rich, and on the social origin.

II. The question of the social origin

This theme is represented by Jack since lady Bracknell asks him if their parents are living : she attaches importance to the birth.

But this theme is ridiculed since Jack explains that he has been « found ». The term « found » is really important : it includes a part of fate (hasard) instead of the roots. Wilde is moking the importance of having roots.

Moreover, we learn that Jack was found in a hand-bag : this hand-bag is the symbol of wandering which is opposed to aristocratic roots. And it builds an opposition between the two characters, as far as the social origin is concerned. It is a bit exaggerated, burlesque and it is rather satirical.

Particularly in the climax of the scene when lady Bracknell says to Jack : « to make a definitive effort to produce at any rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over » : there is a gap between the solennity, the content of her demand and the allusion to the season. It is quite ridiculous, and not realistic ! It is a paradoxical sayings. Then, at the end of the scene, we can see the pointed remark, very ironical, but it is just an allusion : when she says, speaking about Gwendole : « a girl brouht up with the utmost care – to marry into a claok-room and form an alliance with a parcel. » = Jack is compared and assimilized with the parcel, that is to say with a thing : behind the laugh, there is a satirical irony : she doesn't realise what she is saying, she is totally cut from the realities and even with the respect of Jack. He is a sort of puppet.

So we see that if there is a comic appearance, there is also some satirical aims. The text shows the conflict between upper and lower classes and the impossibility of communicate. In an other version of the text, we can find an allusion to the conflict betweet upper and lower classes : since lady B. asks Jack if he is a socialist.

III. The dice are loaded

The laugh in the scene and in Wilde's drama in general, is a sort of Shakespearien laugh : that is to say, the laugh has the power to demystify the illusion, the theater both creates an illusion and demystify it : we can see it in the contradictions in the character of lady Bracknell : when she says : « land has ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure » and further, when Jack tells her that he owns a country house, she exclaims : « A country house!... » = she is a sort of changeable character.

So she is full of contradictions, and we can say that she is a sort of incarnation of the illusion because she seems to play a rôle in life : her language is a bit precious and her behaviour is very theatrical. That's an important point : this character is stereotyped and she is a « personnage-charge. » It is reinforced by the theme of appearances and fashion : she blame the fact that the house of Jack is in the « unfaschionable side » of the street. Only appearances are important for her.

Moreover, Wilde gives in this passage some indications which allows to understand the rest of the play and the character. For example, laby Bracknell evokes the theme of education : she says that it is better not to educate young girls because it would be a danger for the upper classes = it is very comic and seems ridiculous. But this sentence explains why Gwendolen is so stupid as we noticed last week. It is an indication let by the author to understand the character of Gwendolen.

Finally, we also can see that this scene echos another one at the end of the play : we learn that Jack is the son of lady B.'s sister, that is to say, lady Bracknell is Jack's aunt ! So there is some retroactive dramatic irony for the reader because we understand that Jack belongs to the upper class, and the fact she blames Jack not to have parents is very ironical because in fact it is as if she blamed herself !

We could maybe make a parallele with the tradition of the found children, in literature : for example, Henri Fielding wrote a book, Tom Jones, a Foundling. Tom Jones is found at the beginning of the book, when he is still a baby, in a bed. And everybody thinks that he is the son of the servant. And at the end, we finally learn that Tom was the son of his sister, so her nephew. The plot is very similar to Wilde's play.

To conclude, we can say that there are some levels to interpret this passage : the laugh is certain but behind the laugh there are some stakes as the theme of the social origin, and the irony of Oscar Wilde against the character of lady Bracknell and eveything she represents.