The Importance of Being Earnest as Farcical and Satirical Comedy
The Importance of Being Earnest belongs to a literary genre known as artificial comedy. Unlike traditional comedy, it does not adhere to comical representation of love affairs and follies associated with that. Wilde took the genre of artificial comedy that flourished during the Restoration in England and revived it with a new outlook. This kind of Comedy is entirely lacking in truth to nature, and it creates an artificial, illusory and imaginary world. The Importance of Being Earnest too is deficient in truth to nature. However it is free from the indecency which was a glaring feature of Restoration Comedy. The Importance of Being Earnest is characterized by exaggeration and extravagances both in its plot and its dialogues. In fact, the keynote of this play is absurdity. The proper description of this play is to call it a farce.
Wilde himself described the play as “trivial comedy” and he was right to say so. But he also called it as a trivial comedy “for serious people” which is a paradox characteristic of Wilde. The distinguishing characteristic of a farcical comedy is exaggeration to the point of absurdity. Now most of the situations in The Importance of Being Earnest are absurd and they amuse us by their very ludicrousness. The central situation about which the play hinges in Jack’s having been found in a hand-bag in cloak room of a railway station in London. Jack is thus a foundling. The fact of being foundling is not by itself absurd. What is absurd about it that Miss Prism, the nurse, committed a blunder by putting the child in hand-bag and the three-volume novel written by her in the perambulator instead of putting the manuscripts in the hand-bag and letting the child remain the perambulator. Now it is impossible for us to believe that anybody, no matter how absent-minded, can commit a blunder of that kind. Furthermore, it is incomprehensible that after having committed that blunder, Miss Prism did not go back to her employers to report the loss of child and why she simply disappeared from the scene.
Wilde also uses situational comedy as Mr. Thomas Cardew’s discovery of the foundling is situational and he named the child Worthing because he was traveling to sea-side resort called Worthing. Wilde also creates comedy through powerful and witty dialogues. The absurdity of the manner in which Jack was lost as an infant serves as the basis for a number of witty remarks by Lady Bracknell and also as a basis for her rejection of Jack as her would-be son-in-law. When in the course of her interrogation of Jack, she is told that he does not his parentage, she tell him that she can never allow her daughter “to marry into a cloak-room and form an alliance with a parcel” which is one of her most witty remarks. When Jack asks her what he should do under the circumstances, her advice to him is to try and acquire some relation as soon as possible.
Wilde also produces comedy by effectively employing satirical devices. He makes fun of failings and follies, posing and pretensions and thus creates laughter. Unlike Jonathan Swift, his satire is that piercing and stabbing. His only purpose is to create humor by illustrating the follies of human behaviors and social snobberies. In The Importance of Being Earnest, the principal target of the satire is English upper class of the time, although we have a couple of humorous and satirical portraits of persons belonging to certain different orders of the society, namely those of clergyman and a governess. Oscar Wilde ridicules certain typical representatives of English aristocracy of that time to highlight their ostentatious and pretentious habitual formations, social fixations. Wilde illustrates this too much indulgences in these trivialities in a comical way bth through plot and via dialogues.
The Algernon is typical epitome of English upper class and its shallowness, irresponsibility, extravagances and vanity. All these follies and weaknesses have been exposed in a manner as to make us laugh at this specimen of the aristocracy. If the servants in house drinl his champagne, he treats this matter light-heartedly. He throws lavish parties although he is short of money. Wilde uses Lady Bracknell to pun on him by saying; “He has nothing but his debts to depend upon”. Furthermore, his habit of gluttony too creates laughter. Jack points out that this man is always hungry and is always eating. Further, Algernon is a fashionable man and is always over-dressed. This too is something that creates humor in the play because an aristocratic young man attaches too much importance to his clothes. Lady Bracknell again appears as Wilde’s mouthpiece and comments that “Algernon is nothing but he looks every thing”. Algernon also claims to be always “immensely over-educated”. It must be noted here that unlike traditional comedy where indulgence in amorous affairs and pathos and miseries related to it used to create comedy, Wilde, employ variety of contemporary socio-cultural contexts to extract comical situations. His target is not the follies associated with love but posing and pretensions of the society. Furthermore, Wilde does not aim at reforming the society, his purposes is to create laughter by highlighting the social follies.
Lady Bracknell is the liveliest character in the play. Unlike traditional comedy where pair(s) of lovers and their actions and activities produces comical situations, Wilde utilizes an older non-lover character to produces humorous situations. Lady Bracknell’s witticism remains the mot important source of humor in the play. Beside that she too is indulged in the foibles and follies of her society. She claims to have a taste for music, but she would like her nephew to make the selection of numbers to be played at the party. In other words, her taste of music is only a pretense. But this is only a minor humorous paradox. Her suspicious nature and her mercenary looks remain pivotal in creating humor. Miss Prism amuses us by her literary pretensions. She once wrote a three-volume novel and she lays boast about it.
It is quite possible that Wilde, apart from providing rich comic fare to his audiences, wanted also the serious people among them to derive some food for thought. Wilde has posed a trifler like conventional trifler who portrays love-affairs and follies affiliated with it in a comic manner but Wilde is a trifler with a capacity of thinking. So above-mentioned textual evidence clearly suggest that Wilde’s is a comedy but not in the conventional sense of comedy. Unlike traditional comedy, comedy in The Importance of Being Earnest is derived from satirical attack on social snobbery, class consciousness and shallowness of certain member of the society and it fulfills all the parameters of a successful comedy. In conclusion, it is a “trivial comedy” that is produced by the trivialities of human actions and follies and that forces serious men to contemplate over it.
 A foundling is child found somewhere, having been abandoned or forsaken, most probably because it was illegitimate child and its mother to get rid of it.