Oscar Wilde Double Review: ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ and ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’
I read the play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ when I was in my late teens. Having very little knowledge of Wilde at the time, I had no idea I was about to read such a funny, witty and thoroughly enjoyable play. The plot line; a man leading a double life, is in itself an intriguing idea, and Wilde spins within it his tongue-in-cheek humour and Shakespearesque confusion. From the very beginning lines such as the one below gave me a glimpse of the comedy and nonsense that was to come:
Jack: …some aunts are tall, some aunts are not tall. That is a matter that surely an aunt may be allowed to choose for herself. You seem to think that every aunt should be exactly like your aunt…
The play is about the double life of Ernest. But who is Ernest? Jack Worthing who lives in the country and becomes Ernest Worthing when in town? Or townsman Algernon Moncrieff who goes to the country as Jack’s own creation; Ernest Worthing?
The two men not only pretend to be another person; both men also pretend to have obligations to another person:
Algernon: You have invented a very useful younger brother called Ernest, in order that you may be able to come up to the town as often as you like. I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may go down into the country whenever I choose. (Act 1)
What makes ‘The Importance of being Earnest’ so good?
Witty dialogue: Lady Bracknell: 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… (Act 1)
Cheeky conversation: Gwendolen: Had you never a brother of any kind?
Jack: Never. Not even of any kind. (Act 2)
Tongue-in-cheek humour: Lady Bracknell: …he was eccentric… and that was the result of the Indian climate, and marriage, and indigestion… (Act 3)
And high farce: (The two young women both have dreams of marrying a man named Ernest)
Jack: But you don’t really mean to say that you couldn’t love me if my name wasn’t Ernest? (Act 1)
Cecily: I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest. (Act 2)
Although I enjoyed ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ so much that I rang my granny once I’d finished to tell her how good it was, I didn’t read Wilde again for a few years (as I’ve said before – so many books, not enough time). Then, earlier this year I picked up ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’; a book waiting on my bookshelf many years for my attention. This is a very different book from ‘Earnest’. Apart from it being a novel, it is dark, peculiar, and has none of the humour of ‘Earnest’ (but all of the fascination with the London upper class circles). Like Jack and Algernon, Dorian also leads a double life, although far less innocent. The double life of Dorian is steeped in corruption, disrepute, blackmail and scandal.
‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ has an unusual plotline. All the signs of age, signs of a cruel or sinful person, grow on a painting of the protagonist, instead of on his own face:
“…the face appeared to him to be a little changed…there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth.” (Chapter 7)
All physical unpleasantness appears only on the painting, allowing Dorian to become as despicable as he pleases, as few people would believe a man with a lovely face could be so corrupt:
“Those finely-shaped fingers could never have clutched a knife for sin, nor those smiling lips have cried out on God and goodness. He himself could not help wondering at the calm of his demeanor, and for a moment felt keenly the terrible pleasure of a double life.” (Chapter 15)
What makes ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’ so good?
Murder: “…and dug the knife into the great vein that is behind the ear…” (Chapter 13)
Suicide: “She had no right to kill herself. It was selfish of her.” (Chapter 8)
Hedonism: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield it.”(Chapter 2)
Loose morals: “A man maybe happy with any woman, as long as he does not love her.” (Chapter 15)
While ‘Earnest’ is a light-hearted, comical play, ‘Dorian Gray’ is a dark, and gripping novel. Both stories are masterfully written. Ernest will leave you laughing, while Dorian will leave you thinking. Well worth reading.
Importance of Being Earnest