The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy of dialogue, abounding in the use of paradox, epigram, and irony. All these three devices produce a comic effect in this play, even though it is possible for a dramatist to use these devices for a serious purpose also. There are a number of paradoxical statements, epigrammatic remarks, and ironical or sarcastic remarks, all of a comic nature so” as to amuse us. When the play is presented on the stage, the audience would keep laughing most of the time because of the witty paradoxes and witty remarks of an ironical nature.
Paradoxical Statements Made By Algernon
A paradoxical statement may mean something seemingly absurd yet true in fact ; or it may mean a statement apparently at variance with or in opposition to established principles yet demonstrably true ; or it may mean a statement expressing an idea which is contrary to received opinion. Almost every character in The Importance of Being Earnest makes paradoxical remarks which are witty. At the very outset, for instance, Algernon says that the lower orders of society should set a good example of moral responsibility for the upper classes. This is a paradoxical statement, because the accepted view is that the upper classes should set a good example for the lower classes to follow. Algernon soon afterwards, talking to Jack, makes the statement that more than half of modern culture depends on what people should not read. This is a paradoxical remark because, in actual fact, reading contributes to the development of culture. Another paradoxical statement made by Algernon is that the truth is rarely pure and never simple, the accepted view being that truth can be pure and -simple. Algernon here adds that modern literature would be. a .complete impossibility if truth were either pure or simple, and this is another paradox. Algernon also says that literary criticism should be left to people who have not been at a university, and this too is a paradoxical statement because in actual fact literary critics are people who have had the benefit of a university education. When Algernon demands from Jack an explanation of the inscription on his cigarette-case, Algernon speaks in a paradoxical manner, saying to Jack : “Now produce your explanation, and pray make it improbable,” whereas normally we would say : “Now produce your explanation, and pray make it probable or plausible.” When Algernon describes women’s flirtation with their own husbands as washing their clean linen in public, he is again making a paradoxical statement because the idiom is “to wash one’s dirty linen in public” Another paradoxical statement made by Algernon is that in married life three is company and two is none, whereas the common saying is that two is company and three is none. Algernon again makes a paradoxical statement when he says that people who are not serious about their meals are very shallow-minded, because the accepted view is that people who are too particular about their meals must be shallow-minded and not in the habit of thinking. Algernon also says that he loves to hear his relations abused and that it is the only thing that makes him put up with them at all. This is a paradoxical statement because normally we do not want to hear our relatives abused. Another paradoxical remark from Algernon is as follows : “It is awfully hard work doing nothing.” How can idleness or doing nothing be regarded as awfully hard work ? (This remark has also an epigrammatic quality). When Algernon says that he loves scrapes (or difficult situations) because they are the only things that are never serious be makes a paradoxical statement because scrapes or difficulties are certainly serious matters which give rise to feelings of anxiety in us. Another paradoxical statement made by Algernon is as follows : “Well, one must be serious about something, if one wants “to have any amusement in life.” How can seriousness about anything be a source of amusement ? Yet another paradoxical statement made by him is the following : “When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy.” The real fact is that when one is in trouble or is unhappy, one feels no desire to eat anything.
Paradoxical Remarks Made By Jack
Jack also makes a number of paradoxical statements which are quite amusing. For instance, when he sees tea-cups and cucumber sandwiches on the table in Algernon’s flat, he says to Algernon : “Why all these cups ? Why cucumber sandwiches ? Why such reckless extravagance in one so young ?” In the first place, cucumber sandwiches are no sign of reckless extravagance ; and secondly it is only the young who are recklessly extravagant. Talking of modern culture, Jack says that it is not the sort of thing one should talk about in private. This is a paradoxical remark because there is no reason why modern culture or any other culture should not be talked about in private as well as in public. Jack makes another paradoxical statement when he says that the truth is not quite the sort of thing one should tell to a nice, sweet, and refined girl, because the normal view of the matter is that a nice and sweet girl should always be told the truth and should not be deceived. Talking of Cecily, Jack says that she is not a silly girl, that she has an excellent appetite and takes long walks, adding paradoxically that she pays no attention at all to her studies. Yet another paradoxical statement made by Jack is that it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Why should it be something terrible for anybody to discover that he has been speaking the truth? After making this statement, Jack asks Gwendolen whether she can forgive .him for having spoken nothing but the truth, and this question which he asks her is also paradoxical.
Gwendolen’s Paradoxical Remarks
A number of paradoxical and witty remarks come from Gwendolen also. When Algernon says that he cannot allow Gwendolen to have a private conversation with Jack, Gwendolen makes the following paradoxical remark to Algernon : “Algy, you always adopt a strictly immoral attitude towards life. You are not quite old enough to do that.” Then she makes another paradoxical statement by saying : “The old-fashioned respect for the young is fast dying out.” (Respect is always shown to the elderly people and not to the young). Speaking to Jack, Gwendolen says : “The simplicity of your character makes you exquisitely incomprehensible to me.” (If a man has a simple character, he is fully comprehensible, and not incomprehensible as Gwendolen says). Another paradoxical remark made by Gwendolen is that the home is the proper sphere for a man, while the actual fact is that the home is the proper sphere for a woman. Gwendolen adds that when a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, and this too is a paradoxical remark. A very amusing paradoxical remark is made by Gwendolen when, on being asked by Jack to wait for him till he comes back, she says to him : “If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life.” The two parts of this reply by Gwendolen contradict each other.
Cecily’s Paradoxical Remarks
Cecily makes her own contribution to the paradoxical and witty statements in this play. After her German lessons she becomes less attractive in her appearance, she says to her governess. Memory, says Cecily, usually records the things that have never happened, and could not possibly have happened. When Miss Prism tells Cecily that she had once written a novel, Cecily makes the following paradoxical remark : “I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.” (Why should novels with a happy ending depress anybody ?) When Algernon, after saying that he would like to reform himself, tells Cecily that he is feeling hungry, Cecily makes the paradoxical statement that when one is going to lead an entirely new life one requires regular and wholesome meals. Yet another paradoxical remark that she makes is that it is always painful to part from people whom one has known for a very short time. Speaking of her engagement with Algernon, she says that it would hardly have been a really serious, engagement if it had not been broken off at least once. Cecily also makes the paradoxical remark that, whenever one has anything unpleasant to say, one should always be quite candid. (Actually, of course, when somebody has anything unpleasant to say, we expect him not to say it in a blunt or candid manner).
Lady Bracknell’s Paradoxical Remarks
Lady Bracknell, who has a very fertile and pungent wit, makes a number of paradoxical statements. Speaking of Lady Harbury who has lost her husband, Lady Bracknell says that Lady Harbury is now an altered woman because she looks at least twenty years younger. (Normally, when a woman has become a widow, she looks older on account of her grief at her widowhood). Lady Bracknell, paradoxically enough, does not approve of anything that interferes with anybody’s natural ignorance. She feels happy to note that in England education produces no effect whatsoever. If education were to produce any effect, it would prove to be a serious danger to the upper classes. These are paradoxical remarks because the accepted view is that ignorance should be removed through education, and that education has a beneficial effect upon all classes. When Jack admits that he smokes, Lady Bracknell paradoxically says : “I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind.” (She regards smoking as an occupation). Another paradoxical remark made by Lady Bracknell is that a girt with a simple, unspoiled nature like Gwendolen is not expected to reside in the countryside. Her comments on the death of Mr. Bunbury are also of a paradoxical nature. Mr. Bunbury, she says, seems to have had great confidence in the opinion of his physicians. Lady Bracknell recommends, Algernon as a would-be husband for Cecily by making the paradoxical remark that Algernon has nothing but his debts to depend upon I When Lady Bracknell thinks that a heated argument is going on upstairs, she makes the following paradoxical statement : “I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar, and often convincing.” (Actually convincing arguments appeal to people, but Lady Bracknell finds convincing arguments to be unwelcome).
Witty Epigrams in the Play
Witty epigrams are also contributed to the play by almost all the characters. An epigram is an interesting or amusing thought expressed in a few words. Or, an epigram may be defined as a short, pointed saying, ingenious in thought and clever in expression. Thus Algernon makes an epigrammatic remark when he says that the very essence of romance is uncertainty. He then makes another epigrammatic remark when he says that divorces are made in heaven, thus giving a twist to the well-known saying that marriages are made in heaven. Algernon also makes the epigrammatic remark that the only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her if she is pretty, and to someone else if she is not pretty. Jack gives us an epigram when he says : “When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people.” Again, Jack makes an epigrammatic remark by saying “It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn’t a dentist. It produces a false impression.” Cecily makes an epigrammatic remark when she says: “Of course, a man who is much talked about is always very attractive. One feels there must be something in him, after all.” Then we get a few epigrams from Miss Prism also. “Even these metallic problems have their melodramatic side,” she says with reference to the devaluation of the rupee. By persistently remaining single, a man converts himself into a permanent public temptation, says Miss Prism in an epigrammatic manner, adding in the same style : “Men should be more careful ; this very celibacy leads weaker vessels astray.” Miss Prism gives us a number of epigrammatic statements in one of her speeches “Maturity can always be depended on. Ripeness can be trusted. Young women are green.”
Irony in the Play
There is plenty of irony in this play, and it is comic irony of course. The essence of comic irony is mockery or deception of one kind or another, and its force derives from the pleasure in contrasting “appearances” with “reality”. There are various types of comic irony. The simplest and the most commonly used is verbal irony which occurs when the speaker says the opposite of what he means and yet conveys his real meaning so as to produce an amusing effect. In this case the proper signification of the words constitutes the appearance ; and the destined meaning is the reality. Irony also means a kind of ridicule which exposes the errors or faults of others by seeming to approve or defend them. Irony means, too, pretending ignorance with the intention of irritating or perplexing somebody in agreement or dispute. Jack’s remade to Lady Bracknell : “How extremely kind of you,” when Lady Bracknell says that she is satisfied with certain particulars about Cecily, is ironical. So is Lady Bracknell’s remark : “A life crowded with incident,” when Jack tells her about the certificates which be has got regarding Cecily’s birth, baptism, etc. There is irony in Algernon’s pointing out to his servant that in a bachelor’s house the servants invariably drink costly wines. (In this case Algernon knows the reason but pretends ignorance). There is irony in Cecily’s remark to Miss Prism : “You know German and geology, and things of that kind influence a man very much.” (Here Cecily is ridiculing Miss Prism’s self-conceit about her knowledge of German and geology). Comic irony also exists in a clash between one aspect and another of some double situation, the whole of which is understood by the reader and some of the characters, while other characters are ignorant of it. An obvious example is Algernon’s coming to Jack’s country house under the assumed name of Ernest and pretending to be Jack’s younger brother. Here the reader, as well as Algernon and Jack, knows the reality, but Cecily and the others do not.