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The Importance of Being Earnest’ is a comedy of manors written by Oscar Wilde. He makes use of epigrammatic talk in the play to create humour. Initially in the conversation between Algernon and Lane that opens the play. Lane is shown to be a witty character in this scene as he almost undermines a lot of Algernon’s comments with disagreements. The wit is introduced in the fact that Lane undermines Algernon in such a way that Algernon himself does not realise. Algernon says, “Good heavens! Is marriage so demoralizing as that?” and Lane replies, “I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir.” Lane’s use of the noun ‘sir’ makes Algernon believe he is being polite, however we know that Lane is undermining Algernon’s apparent views on marriage.
Study the linguistic analysis of turn-taking in this scene we can see that Algernon seems to control the conversation but Lane’s statements are very short and blunt. However, instead of being polite when Lane replies ‘yes sir’ it is meant sarcastically to undermine Algernon. Wilde uses Lane’s wit at the very opening of the play to make a controversial statement on how he thinks the upper class are dim-witted. He shows Algernon to be slow on the uptake compared to Lane, the mere servant, to be quick witted and undermine Algernon without him even realising it.
The next scene I would consider uses epigrammatic talk is the scene where Cecily and Gwendolen discover they are both engaged to Ernest. The girls have a war of words making offensive remarks while the other shoots straight back with an even more offensive comeback. One example of this is when Cecily is talking about being able to see five counties from the top of the hill. Gwendolen remarks, “Five counties! I don’t think I should like that; I hate crowds.”
This remark is meant to demoralize Cecily’s view of her previously complimented grounds and house. However, Cecily quickly replies saying sweetly, “I suppose that is why you live in the town?” Cecily’s witty comeback is supposed to offend Gwendolen but Wilde meant it to be spoken in such a way that it sounds perfectly innocent. Linguistically the scene is rather absurd. They completely disregard Grice’s maxim of relevance.
The girls rapidly change the subject in order to find something new they can undermine the other in. This results in a bizarre sounding conversation which seems to jump suddenly from one subject to another. Unlike a normal argument the girls obey perfectly the other maxims, however, and take turns to speak letting each other make an equal contribution and not interrupting. Wilde has chosen to do this to make the argument sound strangely civil. Wilde does this purposefully to exaggerate his own view on how the upper class are obsessed with keeping up appearances at all times, even in a full blown argument Cecily and Gwendolen remain collected and don’t appear to loose their tempers.
Furthermore a lot of the epigrammatic talk in this same scene is also verbal irony. Wilde would have intended almost the whole of this scene to be read with a sarcastic tone of voice. As I mentioned earlier Wilde’s point is that the upper class are obsessed with how they appear to others so in keeping with the polite turn-taking of the conversation the girls must appear polite in what they say. Almost all of the remarks though are meant as verbal irony to undermine each other. One example is when Gwendolen remarks on how well kept the garden is and Cecily says, “So glad you like it miss Fairfax.”
Although the comment could be interpreted as innocent Wilde meant it to be said as sarcasm. In this way verbal irony is linked very closely with epigrammatic talk in the play. Using the two devices together Wilde creates humour throughout the play. In an unusual way Wilde is creating his own ironic situation, knowing that the people coming to see this play would be mainly upper-class. The upper-class would laugh at the girls’ civil yet absurd sounding argument but were unknowingly laughing at themselves. The majority of the audiences would have been obsessed with keeping up appearances much like the girls and Wilde therefore created his own irony by making his audience laugh at themselves without even realising it.
Moreover in this same scene Wilde uses plays on words to create quick witted humour. Gwendolen is talking about the flowers in the garden. Cecily remarks, “Oh, flowers are as common here, Miss Fairfax, as people are in the town.” The adjective ‘common’ here is ambiguous. Although Gwendolen interprets it as an innocent comparison Cecily meant it to offend town people by calling them lower-class. It is therefore an incredibly witty way of offending her. Wilde has chosen to use ambiguity in this scene to once again create wit through offensive remarks that could also sound perfectly innocuous. Witty, ambiguous remarks are used frequently in the play to create humour. The title itself is ambiguous playing on the word/name Ernest/Earnest to create humour.
What’s more the conversation between Jack and Algy at the beginning of the play uses epigrammatic talk cleverly. I think that throughout the play Wilde tries to show how the upper-class try to show status in conversation by trying to outwit each other. Much like Cecily and Gwendolen’s conversation Jack and Algy seem to compete with words in this scene to prove they are sharper than each other.
Linguistically unlike the conversation between Cecily and Gwendolen, however, sentence structure is very crucial to create humour. One example is when Jack is talking about love and marriage, Algernon quickly replies, “Divorces are made in Heaven.” Rather than padding this sentence out to explain exactly what Algy meant Wilde chooses a short sentence structure. Wilde has done this to make sure that the joke flows. Similar to the punch line of a joke the characters’ comebacks must be quickly delivered so that the joke does not drag on and loose the humour. In this way epigrammatic talk is delivered quickly to create humour throughout the play. In conclusion, therefore, I agree with this summing up of the play. Wilde uses quick comebacks, verbal irony, short sentences and ambiguity in a brilliantly witty way throughout the play. This is why I believe the play uses “Brilliant epigrammatic talk”.