We study classics because they tend to have a lot to say, and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is no exception. The plot of Wilde’s play boils down to this: two women, Gwendolen and Cecily, are attracted exclusively to the name Ernest, and two men, Jack and Algernon, do whatever they can to change their names in order to be with them. Of course, this is a bit of an oversimplification of the play, but for the purposes of this article, it works as a summary. There’s a lot of social commentary, but what especially catches my eye is the significance that Wilde places on playing a role – in this case the role of Ernest, among others.
Here, in order for Jack and Algernon, to marry the women they want to, they have to become Ernest. This is much like the process of changing into a more formal version of yourself when you are seeking out a job, or the polite face one wears when greeting strangers or very distant relatives. What my mind especially jumps to, however, is gender. The work of Judith Butler presents gender expression – or how people represent their genders – as a constant performance, though perhaps performance isn’t the best word to use here. What I mean is that people are constantly creating gender through their actions, in much the same way Jack and Algernon demonstrate their roles as wealthy bachelors through their dialogue and behavior. The complication comes with the appearance of the name Ernest. An article by Ruthanne Reid quotes a proverb, stating that people have different faces that they show different people. Gender follows a similar principle. There may be certain behaviors associated with your gender that you don’t feel reflect who you are, but you may preform them for strangers all the same because it’s what’s expected, keeping the nuances of your gender to yourself. Algernon and Jack present themselves as Ernest because it’s what they feel is expected of them, even if it isn’t who they are.
Butler’s theory of gender states that people police gender. A man wearing a dress might receive a lot of backlash from the people around him, for example, because it opposes the prominent image of what a man is supposed to be, and, for many, this serves to deter men from wearing dresses, creating the appearance that men’s opposition to dresses is a natural trait that men have. Since people then believe that disliking dresses is the correct way to go about being a man, they’ll try to “correct” people who don’t share this belief, further adding to the cycle of policing. Jack and Algernon cannot complete their image because of their names, a rule which Gwendolen and Cecily enforce by refusing to marry them unless they are named Ernest. We, the readers, can see that this name requirement is rather silly, but it’s perhaps harder to see the policing of a man in a dress as equally arbitrary because it’s a rule we’ve grown up with in a system we are constantly surrounded by. Jack and Algernon strive for what they see as the ideal version of themselves, just as someone might strive for being an ideal representation of their gender.
But we can clearly see that the absence of the name Ernest doesn’t make Jack and Algernon any less themselves, just as our man in a dress isn’t any less of a man for his fashion preferences. We see in the play also that Jack doesn’t fit the image of a wealthy young man. There’s a scene where Gwendolen’s mother, Lady Bracknell, quizzes Jack on his marriage eligibility, with questions like “how old are you” and “a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?” It’s here we discover that Jack is an orphan who doesn’t know his family, and who was found in a handbag at a train station. Coming at the end of Lady Bracknell’s rather bizarre list of requirements, the handbag issue seems equally foolish. Though, in Lady Bracknell’s eyes, it’s another reason why Jack isn’t an eligible bachelor, it really doesn’t change anything about who Jack currently is, or that until he’d admitted it, Lady Bracknell had been largely impressed with his answers, but it ends up mattering because Lady Bracknell insists that it does. Perhaps our strict policing of gender is the same, where it really shouldn’t matter if people live up to our expectations. In fact, I am of the opinion that the only thing that matters is how any person sees their gender, and that the opinions of people arguing to the contrary need not be taken into account. Having this opinion, however, does not erase the fact that there is a system set in place, conventions we have to follow, that, like Jack and his handbag, will continue to exist. Its existence isn’t necessarily bad but needs to be considerably more flexible so that people don’t have to pretend to be Ernest.