Algernon’s remark in the first act, ‘if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? ‘ is a humorous depiction of class tensions and is funny at the same time because again, it is not the expected viewpoint for the upper class to take. Though both Algernon and Lady Bracknell are both Wilde’s way of portraying the pompous rich characters of the time, Lady Bracknell would take the opposite view, which I think epitomises the typical Victorian view – this contradictive viewpoint would have been humorous to the audience of the time.
Lady Bracknell does in fact mock the professions of the lower classes, ‘trusty maid’. Wilde again uses some of these techniques for creating humour with the cigarette case incident. Jack declares that he has ‘been writing frantic letters to Scotland Yard about it (the cigarette case)’. They also argue about the cigarette case and again they are solemnising a trivial matter, which we find funny.
During this incident, more themes – relating to aristocratic Victorian society are exposed, ‘it is absurd to have a hard-and-fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t.
More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read’. Wilde is showing how society has laws and again he mocks the people’s manners, values and morals. The theme about truth and lies is underlying in this scene as Jack is lying about who Cecily is. Here, we find the wordplay on ‘little’ humorous.
Another example of one of the puns Wilde uses can also be seen: ‘You talk exactly as if you were a dentist. It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn’t a dentist. It produces a false impression’.
By using such puns, Wilde creates audience involvement and although the audience might groan at such a pun, it is still funny at the same time. What we might find particularly funny is how Algernon demands Jack to ‘produce (his) explanation and pray make it improbable’, because this cannot be done. Algernon’s sarcastic response, ‘How immensely you must amuse them! ‘ to Jack’s long-winded talk about the differences between the country and the town and who he amuses others, is another thing that we find funny.
In this scene, Jack not only exposes himself as having a dual identity – one of the themes of the play – but also as a hypocrite when he says, ‘When one is placed in the position of guardian, one has to adopt a high moral tone on all subjects’ because he has just demonstrated that the opposite is true in his case. We are amused when Algernon declares to Jack, ‘you look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest looking person I ever saw in my life’, because surely it is ridiculous for a person to suit their name. Wilde continues the humour using the pun in the title.
In this speech from Algernon, the repeated use of ‘Ernest’ highlights everything. It brings our attention to the importance of the title and how the whole play pivots around the word ‘earnest’. Also, ‘Ernest’ begins to sound wrong, like any word that is repeated does. The talk of dual identities leads to talk about the ludicrous concept of Bunbury, which can be interpreted as having homosexual implications. The mere idea of having this dual identity or alter ego seems totally ridiculous to us yet it is important to these characters and the whole play.
Of these two, Jack seems to use this as an excuse for attending to his romantic life. We might see an interesting contrast of how Jack, a man, can come and go as he pleases where as Cecily, a woman, has to go to arguably more ridiculous lengths to pursue a romantic life. It highlights the inequality of the sexes at the time. She goes to the extent of creating a fictional past to her history with Ernest (Algernon) before having met him. We find it funny when she does meet him and reveal their fictional past because of both the sheer concept and at what she tells him.
Another thing that is humorous is when Cecily explicitly states the main theme to Algernon, not knowing how right she is, ‘I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy’. This is funny because of the dramatic irony. Wilde’s main interest is in those who pretend to be good but are really wicked all the time. His point is that everyone in Victorian society wore some kind of social mask.
We find it funny when Cecily gives specific dates and details relating to their relationship, especially when she quotes, ‘the weather continues to be charming’ because this is of little importance in relation to a major in her romantic life. It also mocks how the English often converse about the weather. It is humorous that Cecily went as far as replying her own letters to Algernon. We find her schoolgirl daydreams quite comical but what is especially funny in our opinion is how both she and Gwendolen are determined to marry a man of the same name -Ernest.
Wilde creates humour when both these women are talking to their different ‘Ernest’s because of the dramatic irony involved when they suggest the possibility of loving a man with their own name to the women. This coincidence of both of them having the same hope perhaps stresses the amusing silliness of marrying for a name. Their desires to marry someone named ‘Ernest’ demonstrates how their romantic dreams are more to do with titles, not character. The two women do meet, after the exit of Algernon and we anticipate that something will happen.
Wilde uses the introduction to the Cecily and Gwendolen scene to create humour as well. After the previous scene the audience anticipates trouble and again dramatic irony is involved. The audience everything is leading to confusion and anticipate a humorous scene. When Gwendolen says ‘Cecily Cardew? What a very sweet name! Something tells me that we are going to be great friends. I like you already more than I can say. My first impressions of people are never wrong.
‘, the audience knows this will not be so. Indeed their farcical friendship does escalate to a situation where they are both attempting to out do each other. Despite Cecily’s earlier remark that ‘This is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners’ (page 47), this is exactly what she and Gwendolen both do. They are both superficially polite when speaking to the other. We, however, can see through this mask and are assisted by the stage directions Wilde has provided, e. g. ‘Cecily looks angrily… ‘.
Perhaps Cecily exaggerating putting sugar in the tea could make it even funnier for us. The past audience of the Victorian upper class society that Wilde is mocking in the play, would have found this display of the mask of manners comical: they would have been laughing at an exaggerated version of what themselves did in real life. Even before this bitchy display from Cecily and Gwendolen, Wilde uses dramatic irony to create humour when Gwendolen says, ‘Disloyalty would be as impossible to him (Jack) as deception’.
The audience of course knows that Jack is deceiving the other characters with the story about his brother and so find this funny, for disloyalty is not impossible to him after all. We see definite trouble mounting when Gwendolen uses satire to patronise Cecily. She says ‘I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different. ‘ Here, the ‘restraining influence’ that results from the servant’s presence is also humorous because it again depicts the social tensions between classes.
The first example of Cecily trying to out do Gwendolen comes after this when Cecily tries to prove Gwendolen contradicting herself, when Gwendolen says ‘I hate crowds’ (page 47), Cecily responds sweetly, ‘I suppose that is why you live in town? ‘ The stage directions for Gwendolen ‘Gwendolen bites her lip, and beats her foot nervously with her parasol’ illustrates to us the razor-sharp tension between the two women. The characters however, preserve their elaborate mask of politeness and to give us a break from this bitchiness, Wilde introduces humour in the form of a pun about ‘agricultural depression’.
This ordinary means a slump in farming but Cecily pretends to think it is a state of mind. During this episode, we might also find it funny that Gwendolen declines the offer of sugar because it ‘is not fashionable any more’. Though this shows people’s attitudes at the time and we might also find funny because the nature of Gwedolen’s attitude is still applicable to today. We might remember at this point that Algernon had prophesised that women always call each other many things before they call each other ‘sister’- this adage is certainly proved by Gwendolen and Cecily in this display in Act II.
After this falling out, however, Gwendolen and Cecily are soon reunited. The reversal of attitudes comes when the women have discovered that the men have been deceiving them. Wilde’s uses rapid contrasts and shifts continuously to create humour in particular at this moment. Gwendolen and Cecily change their minds repeatedly at the start of act 3, vowing not to speak to the men before Gwendolen immediately does just that. Another example is when Cecily replies, ‘Yes. I mean, no’, when asked if the men should be forgiven.
Wilde is not just using these reversals for humour but also to show how absurd romantic decisions of the heart become when entwined with even more absurd social conventions. The rapid switching of truths and lies, of earnestness and duplicity could be Wilde ways of showing how muddled the Victorian values of honesty and responsibility were. His characters wear and take off masks of manners whenever it is convenient. I find it particularly funny how the two women appear to have the ability to read each other’s minds and say the same thing without previous conferring.
We might then question the portrayal of the equality of the sexes because of this. In this scene, Wilde parodies christenings similar to how he mocked the institution of marriage earlier. Cecily refers to a christening as a ‘fearful ordeal’, which is quite funny because she makes christenings sound horrific. As the play nears to an end, we begin to see signs that the play might end in the pairing off of characters, which is traditional in the genre of comedy.