“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15)
Jesus’ words ring especially true of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, for this memorable play is most definitely a wolf masquerading in sheep’s clothing. The mood of the work is light, witty, satirical, even playful, yet it engages in the most deliberate and determined subversion of traditional mores and values of the Victorian age and our own. It is no wonder that George Bernard Shaw penned a scathing review denigrating Wilde’s work as “real degeneracy.”
Throughout the dark comedy, Wilde’s twin dandies, Algernon and Jack, act as flippant false prophets of self-indulgent behavior whose aphoristic repartees and banter openly mock the most cherished of institutions, marriage. There is a certain discomfort in laughing at Wilde’s jokes because the message between the lines is that most, if not all, marriages -- or at least Wilde’s for that matter-- are shams propped up by social strictures, Bunburying, or self-delusion. Perhaps this is true for some, but certainly not for all… right?
The comedy’s ironic inversions, wordplay with earnestness, and emphasis on nonsense all serve to underscore the hypocrisies and absurdities of Victorian society. This is not all bad of course. Rigid social structures based upon artificial class distinctions are certainly not impervious to critique. I do not take umbrage with this particular aspect of the work; in fact, quite to the contrary, I share Wilde’s sentiment.
Wilde’s play continues to enjoy great popularity and an enduring appeal for modern audiences because his aesthetic preferences and disregard for ethics and truth, while progressive, even radical, for his day, are much more mainstream and normative today. Sadly, the state of marriage has only worsened since the nineteenth century, and it does not show any signs of recovery in the immediate future. Most audiences probably miss the iconoclastic nature of Wilde’s humor; this is just a testament to the fact that we are so jaded and accustomed to sin that we enjoy living in the ruins and shambles of broken homes.
At the end of the day, Wilde is a false prophet of the sort that Jesus described because he would have us believe that marriage is a joke, worthy of a laugh but not much more consideration than that. Marriage certainly has its ludicrous moments that warrant a hearty chuckle, but the last laugh, or perhaps cry is a better word for it, is on Wilde and others like him who settle for mediocrity disguised as self-satisfaction rather than the striving for something greater than oneself that marriage ultimately represents. It is in this sense that marriage is a foretaste of Heaven.