Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest

Clifton Snider
English Department, Emeritus
California State University, Long Beach


Synchronicity and the Trickster in

The Importance of Being Earnest

    The idea that Wilde wrote to subvert received ideas--the zeitgeist or spirit of the age--is not new. Jack Zipes asserts, for example, Wilde's "purpose" in writing his fairy tales was "subversion": "He clearly wanted to subvert the messages conveyed by [Hans] Andersen's tales, but more important his poetical style recalled the rhythms and language of the Bible in order to counter the stringent Christian code" (114). In Wilde's masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, Christianity is certainly one of the prevailing ideas Wilde subverts, but I contend that the entire play is a subversion of prevailing scientific ideas about how the universe works, the Newtonian notion that the universe is governed by immutable laws of cause and effect. As Allan Combs and Mark Holland maintain, "the mechanistic mythos of the Newtonian cosmos . . . presents itself in awesome and austere beauty, but at the same time robs us of a sense of wonder about the small events of everyday life. Improbable coincidences are diminished to the trivial" (xxix). Perhaps Wilde had something like this idea in mind when he subtitled his play, "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People." In any event, the subtitle, like the play itself, is an elegant joke.

  Wilde, of course, was not the first Victorian writer to make havoc with a rigid world view. Before him, and certainly influencing him, came Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and W. S. Gilbert. As the editors of The Oxford Anthology of English Literature put it, the world of Earnest is "the world of nonsense" (Trilling and Bloom 1130). And, as I have shown in my study of the work of Lear, the world of nonsense is the world of the Trickster archetype (Snider, "Victorian Trickster"). Furthermore, "Of all mythological characters," as Combs and Holland write, "it is the Trickster who is most associated with chance and synchronicity. . ." (xxxix). Synchronicity, a word coined by C. G. Jung, refers to "meaningful coincidence[s]" that have an "acausal connection," yet are "numinous" (Jung, "Synchronicity" 426; emphasis Jung's). One method of making sense of the nonsense of Wilde's great play is to examine the subversive ways Wilde uses, consciously or not, synchronicity and the Trickster to create a pleasing psychic wholeness at the play's conclusion.

    The Importance of Being Earnest is most obviously a comic critique of late Victorian values. Some sixty years ago, Eric Bentley wrote that the play "is about earnestness, that is, Victorian solemnity, that kind of false seriousness which means priggishness, hypocrisy, and lack of irony" (111; emphasis Bentley's).1 As a work of art, Wilde's last play has been recognized from its first performance on 14 February 1895 as a masterpiece of comedy,2 one of the supreme examples in English of the genre, and consequently it has been interpreted from a variety of critical points of view. Although Richard Aldington, writing about the same time as Bentley, claimed the play "is a comedy-farce without a moral, and it is a masterpiece" (40), Katherine Worth does see a moral in her Freudian/existential/New Critical analysis. In Earnest, she writes, "the pleasure principle at last enjoys complete triumph" (153; this triumph is an aspect of the Trickster archetype). Worth continues: "As well as being an existential farce, The Importance of Being Earnest is . . . [Wilde's] supreme demolition of late nineteenth-century social and moral attitudes, the triumphal conclusion to his career as revolutionary moralist" (155).

    Various deconstructionists and Lacanians have dismantled the play, and perhaps the foremost queer critic, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, tackles the play in a piece called, "Tales of the Avunculate: Queer Tutelage in The Importance of Being Earnest." After covering the deconstructionist and Lacanian territory as explored by Christopher Craft, Joel Fineman, and Jonathan Dollimore, Sedgwick, in one of her more lucid pronouncements, declares:

            As we have seen, the indispensable--but, I am arguing insufficient-- deconstructive reading of
always seems, like the play's hero, to have its origin in a terminus. It doesn't pass Go;
            it doesn't collect $200; it heads straight for the end-of-the-third-act anagnorisis (recognition
            or de-forgetting) of the Name of the Father. (195)

Instead of the Name of the Father, Sedgwick would have us consider the aunts and uncles (the "avunculate" of her title). Leaving aside the fact that her discussion of the "family" as an issue in current politics (and in Wilde's play) is already dated (same-sex marriage is on the political menu now), Sedgwick's article, while providing certainly a legitimate approach to the play, alas vacillates between diction that is clear and semi-colloquial (such as the allusion to Monopoly above) and hyper-academic diction that violates the spirit of Wilde's comedy (besides "anagnorisis," for which she feels she must provide a definition, consider "avunculosuppressive" (199) or "Uncle is very different [from "Aunt"], not a persona or type but a relation, relying on a pederastic/pedagogical model of male filiation to which also . . . the modern rationalized inversion and 'homo-' models answer only incompletely and very distortingly" (197; emphasis Sedgwick's).

    Personally, until I noticed the predominance of the Trickster in The Importance of Being Earnest, I found myself agreeing with Peter Raby: "The play's success and originality do not make it easier to discuss" (120). The comic social satire is obvious; so are the many examples of Wilde's masterful use of language, from paradox and parallelism to litotes and understatement. As for the homosexual subtext, it is not immediately easy to uncover any more than a traditional Jungian discussion of archetypes is easy. Yes, we have the Great Mother archetype, embodied by Lady Bracknell, but to uncover Jung's concept of Individuation is more difficult. However, I believe I have found a way (not the way) to unravel the nonsense of the play, at least so that the nonsense itself is meaningful.

    One of the problems of an archetypal interpretation of Earnest which is at the same time informed by contemporary queer criticism is that the play is so much of its time and place (if you consider time to include the previous hundred or more years and the following more than a hundred years). I tend to agree with Camille Paglia: "Lord Henry [of The Picture of Dorian Gray], with the four young lovers of The Importance of Being Earnest, belongs to a category of sexual personae that I call the androgyne of manners, one of the most western of types" (531). Lady Bracknell is also "an androgyne, a 'Gorgon' with (in the original script) a 'masculine mind'" (535). A western type is not in itself an archetype; an androgyne is. Androgyny ought to imply psychic wholeness, what Jung calls the Self, yet despite the allusion to a character from Greek myth, among these specific characters we have at best shallow images of traditional archetypes, a wholeness only latent until the play concludes. They are indeed universal beneath the surface, but a more insightful method of viewing them is to explore how the Jungian concept of synchronicity and the archetypal Trickster work in the play to bring about a kind of wholeness at the play's end.

    "Synchronicity," Jung says, "tells us something about the nature of . . . the psychoid factor, i.e., the unconscious archetype (not its conscious representation!)" (Letter to Michael Fordham 508; emphasis Jung's). Moreover, as Combs and Holland note, "Synchronicity itself implies wholeness and, therefore, meaningful relationships between causally unconnected events" (xxxi). As well, Jungian therapist and author Robert H. Hopcke maintains that synchronistic "events" have four aspects:

            First, such events are acausally connected, rather than connected through a chain of
            cause and effect that an individual can discern as intentional and deliberate on her or
            his own part. Second, such events always occur with an accompaniment of
            deep emotional experience . . .
Third, the content of the synchronistic experience,
            what the event actually is, is always symbolic in nature, and almost always, I have
            found, related specifically to the fourth aspect of the synchronistic event, namely,
            that such coincidences occur at points of important transitions in our life.  A
            synchronistic event very often becomes a turning point in the stories of our lives.
            (23; emphasis Hopcke's)

Jung's comment, cited above, that synchronistic events are "numinous" is what Hopcke means by "deep emotional experience."3 Archetypes (universal ideas, themes, patterns, characters, etc., that reside in and whose images stem from the collective unconscious), Jung maintained, are "the sources of synchronicity" (Combs and Holland 57). The archetype most closely related to synchronicity is the Trickster, and the Trickster Combs and Holland see as the best example of this relationship is Hermes.4 Among many other attributes, Hermes "symbolizes the penetration of boundaries--boundaries between villages, boundaries between people, boundaries between consciousness and unconsciousness" (61-62). These boundaries are analogous to the transitions Hopcke refers to, and they are keys to the appearances of the Trickster in Wilde's Earnest.

A Greek Hermes, from about
100 BC, illustrating the sexual
nature of the archetype.

    Two important boundaries in the play are those between Algernon and Cecily and Jack/Ernest and Gwendolen. One of the most amusing scenes in the play is that in which Cecily reveals to Algernon, just after they've met, that they have been engaged "for the last three months" (Wilde 395). One might say that the Trickster, Hermes, "who personifies the imagination" (Combs and Holland 88), has been the catalyst for the synchronistic event taking place here: the actual appearance of the man Cecily has imagined as her fiancé and who, subsequently, becomes in fact her fiancé. In a less dramatic fashion, Gwendolen too has imagined before meeting him her engagement to Jack, who she believes is really named Ernest. She tells him: "The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you" (Wilde 362). Although logic suggests that the meetings of the two couples are not accidental (and therefore not synchronistic), their mutual attraction is both intentional and acausal, one of the play's paradoxes. In a Newtonian cosmos, one can not force love. In a Looking-Glass world, love flowers for the most superficial reasons even before the lovers meet. We have here a pair of, to use Jung's words about synchronicity in another context, "parallel events," which are "utter nonsense . . . looked at from the causal point of view" (C. G. Jung Speaking 314). The world Wilde has created is a world of nonsense. Synchronicity gives meaning to the nonsense of these crazy, child-like characters to whom love and marriage depend on the name of the men and the physical attributes of the women. Their comical meetings and engagements are as numinous they can be in their Looking-Glass world.

    The most obvious cluster of synchronistic events comes in the final act with the appearances of Miss Prism (the dark side of the Great Mother archetype, for unlike Lady Bracknell she has not only committed a serious crime but also moralizes in a way foreign to the aristocratic Aunt Augusta), Lady Bracknell, and the famous handbag. That Miss Prism, of all people, should be the tutor of Cecily, ward of the grown-up baby Prism had abandoned, is in itself a synchronistic event. The discovery of her identity and of the handbag that solves the mystery of Jack/Ernest's identity coming at the same time is, of course, a brilliant theatrical device. Lady Bracknell tells Dr. Chasuble, "in families of high social position [such] strange coincidences are not supposed to occur" (428). But of course they do occur, and collectively they make a splendid example of synchronicity. Together, these events symbolize the wholeness of Jack/Ernest's life story (as well as the life stories of the other lovers, including those of Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble). Coupled with the confirmation of his real given name, these events confirm and give meaning to his personal myth.

    The trickster myths of native North America, as recounted by Paul Radin, fit Wilde's play as much as the myth of Hermes does (in fact, being an archetypal trickster, Hermes is not unlike native North American tricksters himself):

            The overwhelming majority of all so-called trickster myths in North America . . .
            have a hero who is always wandering, who is always hungry, who is not guided
            by normal conceptions of good or evil, who is either playing tricks on people
            or having them played on him and who is highly sexed. Almost everywhere
            he has some divine traits. (155)

Both Algernon and Jack use their fictitious friend or brother, Bunbury and Ernest, to wander from the city to the country and vice versa. Algernon, for instance, declares he has "Bunburyed all over Shropshire on two separate occasions" (355). And, of course, he, among the several tricksters in the play, is the one with the unquenchable appetite.

    None of the major characters is governed by conventional morality. Indeed, part of the humor--the play, as it were--of Earnest is the inversion of conventional morality. "Divorces are made in Heaven," says Algy (350). Both he and Jack are ready to be christened, not on grounds of faith but on their perceived need to change their names to Ernest. One of the chief reasons Cecily is enamored with Algernon/Ernest is that she thinks he is leading an evil life: "I hope you have not been leading a double life," she says to him, "pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy" (382). And Lady Bracknell, who views christening as a "luxury" (431), also views Cecily as a suitable bride for Algernon only after she learns how much money Cecily has.

    As for the sexual aspect of the trickster, this is a vital subtext of the play. More so than he does in The Picture of Dorian Gray or Salomé, Wilde keeps sex implicit in Earnest. His characters are too child-like for readers or audiences to imagine them actually having sex. And it should be said that the child-like playfulness of the Trickster is part of the action, appealing to the reader/viewer's inner child. Such play, Jung found, is necessary for wholeness and psychic healing (see Rosen 128-132). For queer critics the most obvious example of the embedded sexuality is Bunbury, a play on various dimensions of homosexuality in Britain, including sodomy, male bordellos, and Wilde's own sexual practices (see Craft 28 and Fineman 89). Craft asserts that

            serious Bunburyism releases a polytropic sexuality so mobile, so evanescent
            in speed and turn, that it traverses, Ariel-like, a fugitive path through oral,
            genital, and anal ports until it expends itself in and as the displacements of
            language. It was Wilde's extraordinary gift to return this vertigo of substitution
            and repetition to his audience. (29)

If Craft's assertions seem too broad, one should recall the unrestrained sexuality of the Trickster, whose "unbridled sexuality" is one of his chief traits (Radin 167). Remember that one of Hermes's functions is that of boundary marker, and "boundary marking," according to Jungian analyst Eugene Monick, "is itself a phallic expression" (78), to which the ancient Grecian herms attest.5 Bunburyism allows Algy to cross boundaries and thus free himself to pursue his pleasures, just as Jack's invention of a brother does for him. Bunburyism is, then, tricking par excellence.

    By necessity Wilde had to dress his characters up as heterosexuals; hence a great deal of the sexual comedy at least seems heterosexual. Surely the humor of Gwendolen's comment to Jack about her being "quite perfect" depends on its sexual connotations:

            JACK: You're quite perfect, Miss Fairfax.

            GWENDOLEN: Oh! I hope I am not that. It would leave no room for
            developments, and I intend to develop in many directions.
            (Wilde 358; emphasis Wilde's)

During her mock tea table battle with Cecily, Gwendolen declares: "I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train" (403). Of this passage, Paglia writes: "The life recorded by her diary is, says Gwendolen, 'sensational,' a source of public scandal and eroticized fascination. To find one's life sensational is to be aroused by oneself" (540). Again the Trickster is at play, for few if any in Wilde's initial audience would have recognized the erotic humor here.

    Lady Bracknell, whose knowledge of the world befits her role as matriarch of the play, responds to Jack's revelation of the place the handbag in which he was found was located thus:

            As for the particular locality in which the hand-bag was found, a
            cloak-room at a railway station might serve to conceal a social
            indiscretion--has probably, indeed, been used for that purpose before
            now. . . . (Wilde 368)

Clearly for "social" we can read "sexual" here and, more specifically, "heterosexual," albeit homosexual indiscretions are surely hinted at as well. Miss Prism, perhaps the chief moralizer and hypocrite of the play, ironically responds "bitterly" to Jack's admission that his brother Ernest was unmarried: "People who live entirely for pleasure usually are" (387). The bitterness of her reply is no doubt due to the fact that she, an unmarried woman, has been not able to live for pleasure. That the pleasure is at least in part of a sexual nature we can take for granted.

    The Importance of Being Earnest has been performed by all-male casts, a kind of conscious "trick" on the audience, who would be well aware of the casting. Paglia declares: "The play's hieratic purity could best be appreciated if all the women's roles were taken by female impersonators" (535). I maintain another purpose would be served, and that is to reinforce the shape-changing aspect of the Trickster. Will Roscoe discusses this aspect of the Scandinavian trickster, Loki, who, among other shapes, changes himself into a woman in several stories (184). While having female impersonators play the women's roles would reinforce Paglia's thesis about the androgynous nature of the characters, it would also bring to the surface the homosexual subtext of the play and the corresponding Trickster role. In fact, dual identity is a Trickster theme throughout the play, with Jack/Ernest, Algernon/Bunbury, and even with Gribsby/Parker in the excised "Gribsby Episode" (Wilde 440). The idea is played with in Act I when Jack and Algernon argue about the identity of Cecily.

    One more aspect of the Trickster needs to be mentioned: his "divine" aspect (Radin 155). The "divine" nature of The Importance of Being Earnest derives from its numinous quality, the satisfaction the characters, along with the reader/audience, receive when, at the play's conclusion, three couples are united. If they are, in Lady Bracknell's words, "displaying signs of triviality," the signs are psychologically meaningful. For the moment at least, each couple forms a psychic whole, a fulfillment of their personal myths, wrought by synchronicity and the Trickster archetype. Indeed, the entire play can be viewed as a performance of the Trickster, the masterwork of the last great Victorian Trickster himself.


 1Writing shortly after Bentley, Edouard Roditi takes an opposing approach: "In spite of the polished brilliance of its paradoxical dialogue and the sure pace of its surprising action, The Importance of Being Earnest . . . never transcends, as a work of art, the incomplete or the trivial.  Its tone is that of satire, but of a satire which, for lack of a moral point of view, has lost its sting . . ." (94).  To the contrary, Wilde's contemporary achievement (or "trick") was to draw to the theatre the very people he satirized and make them laugh at themselves, as it were, at their own moral shortcomings.  I agree with Isobel Murray that Earnest provides "a version of life with great similarities to London Society, but with a few 'Through The Looking-Glass' qualities" (xix).  Subsequent criticism has shown Roditi's assessment of Wilde's masterpiece as wrong-headed, to say the least.

  2Richard Ellmann writes: "Everyone liked the play except Shaw, who thought it all froth and no pith. Thank God for froth. The New York Times, not given to praising Wilde, announced next day, 'Oscar Wilde may be said to have at last, and by a single stroke, put his enemies under his feet'" (430-31).

  3Hopcke says, "Numinosity is that experience we have when we feel that we are undeniably, irresistibly, and unforgettably in the presence of the Divine, our experience of something which transcends our human limitations" (30).

  4Combs and Holland point out that "the Trickster is often connected with storytelling, and in the case of Hermes with writing" (112-113). Among Wilde's possessions was "a large plaster cast of the Hermes of Olympia" (Ellmann 258), and he surely was aware of the myth. He would not, however, have been aware of Jung's ideas about synchronicity and the Trickster, nor would such a knowledge have been necessary for him to have employed these concepts in his play. Although Jung coined the term, synchronicity has existed as long as the human psyche has existed, as has the Trickster, whose pre-human genesis among animals is hinted at by the Native American stories of the coyote, raven, and so forth. The archetypes are primal; they derive from our pre-human, animal ancestors.

  5Rafael López-Pedraza suggests that "this god, Hermes, 'Lord of the Roads' as he came to be known . . . marks our psychological roads and boundaries; he marks the borderlines of our psychological frontiers and marks the territory where, in our psyche, the foreign, the alien, begins" (14).

Works Cited

Aldington, Richard, and Stanley Weintraub, eds. The Portable Oscar Wilde. Revised
    Ed. New York: Penguin, 1981.

Bentley, Eric. "The Importance of Being Earnest," from The Playwright as
(New York: Reznal & Hitchcock, 1946). Oscar Wilde: A
    Collection of Critical Essays.
Ed. Richard Ellmann. Englewood Cliffs,
    NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969. 111-115.

Combs, Allan, and Mark Holland. Synchronicity: Through the Eyes of Science,
    Myth, and the Trickster.
New York: Marlowe, 1996.

Craft, Christopher. "Alias Bunbury: Desire and Termination in The Importance
    of Being Earnest.
" Representations 31 (1990): 19-46.

Dollimore, Jonathan. "Different Desires: Subjectivity and Transgression in Wilde and Gide."
Genders 2 (1988): 24-41.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Fineman, Joel. "The Significance of Literature: The Importance of Being Earnest."
15 (1980): 79-90.

Hopcke, Robert H. There Are No Accidents: Synchronicity and the Stories of Our
. New York: Riverhead, 1997.

Jung, C. G. C. G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters. Ed. William McGuire
    and R. F. C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977.

---. Letter to Michael Fordham. The Symbolic Life: Miscellaneous Writings.
    Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1967. Vol. 18 of The Collected
    Works of C. G. Jung.
Ed. Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, and Gerhard Adler
    (CW). 508-509.

---. "Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle." The Structure and
    Dynamics of the Psyche
. 2nd ed. Trans. R. F. C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton UP,
    1967. Vol. 8 of CW. 417-519.

López-Pedraza, Rafael. Hermes and His Children. 1977. Einsiedeln, Switzerland:
    Daiman Verlag, 1989.

Monick, Eugene. Phallos: Sacred Image of the Masculine. Toronto: Inner City, 1987.

Murray, Isobel. Introduction. Plays, Prose Writings, and Poems. By Oscar Wilde.
    London: Dent, 1975. vi-xx.

Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson.
    1990.  New York: Vintage, 1991.

Raby, Peter. Oscar Wilde. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.

Radin, Paul. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. New York:
    Schocken, 1956.

Roditi, Edouard. Oscar Wilde. New York: New Directions, 1947.

Roscoe, Will. Queer Spirits: A Gay Man's Myth Book. Boston: Beacon, 1995.

Rosen, David. The Tao of Jung: The Way of Integrity. New York: Penguin, 1996.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. "Tales of the Avunculate: Queer Tutelage in
    The Importance of Being Earnest
." Professions of Desire: Lesbian and Gay
    Studies in Literature
. Ed. George E. Haggerty and Bonnie Zimmerman.
    New York: MLA, 1995. 191-209.

Snider, Clifton. "Victorian Trickster: A Jungian Consideration of Edward Lear's
    Nonsense Verse." Psychological Perspectives. No. 24 (Spring-Summer 1991):
    90-110. For a revised version of this article, see

Trilling, Lionel, and Harold Bloom, eds. "Victorian Prose and Poetry." The Oxford
    Anthology of English Literature
. Vol. II. Ed. Frank Kermode and John
    Hollander. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.

Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. The Plays of Oscar Wilde. New
    York: Vintage, 1988. 345-432.

Worth, Katharine. Oscar Wilde. New York: Grove, 1983.

Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for
    Children and the Process of Civilization
. New York: Methuen, 1983.

--Copyright © Clifton Snider 2006

This essay originally appeared in The Wildean: A Journal of Oscar Wilde Studies 27 (2005), published by the Oscar Wilde Society  <www.oscarwildesociety.co.uk>.

Return to Top.

Read about Snider's book of literary criticism, The Stuff That Dreams Are Made On: A Jungian Interpretation of Literature.

See also Queer Persona and the Gay Gaze in Brokeback Mountain: Story and Film.
Oscar Wilde, Queer Addict: Biography and De Profundis.
The Vampire Archetype in Emily and Charlotte Brontë.
Emily Dickinson and Shamanism.
Edward Lear: Victorian Trickster.
Psychic Integration in Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market.
Eros and Logos in Oscar Wilde's Fairy Tales.

To learn more about the poetry of Clifton Snider, see Clifton Snider, Poet, The Alchemy of Opposites, and Aspens in the Wind.

To read about his novels, see Loud Whisper, Bare Roots, and Wrestling with Angels: A Tale of Two Brothers.

Read his story, "Hilda."


Page last revised: 23 August 2009