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Ernest as a Modernist in The Importance of Being Earnest

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Oscar Wilde differs from other modern dramatists, and such difference makes him distinctive as a modern writer. Not only the themes in his works but his life shows his modernity, and he benefited from the modern flow in the British theatrical world in the 1800s. One of his most famous plays, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, he brings up the topic of modernity. Oscar Wilde satirizes his time through the characters’ constant reference to modern life. The features of modern society narrow down to complexity and the existence of Ernest and Bunbury reflects individuals’ response to such a society. Oscar Wilde’s ultimate purpose through this play is to suggest a solution for the new era. Wilde had used exterior masks to expose ulterior truth. Oscar Wilde expands the meaning of being earnest to being modernist by indicating the importance of abandoning one’s mask and finding his true self. 

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” 

The play starts with Jack, Mrs. Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolen visiting the home of Algernon living in London. Jack lives under the name ‘Ernest’ in London and his real name ‘Jack’ in his hometown. Gwendolen dreams of falling love with a man whose name is ‘Ernest’ and really falls in love with him. Algernon also acts as if his name is ‘Ernest’, but Cecily, Jack’s ward, falls in love with Algernon because of the name ‘Ernest’. Like this, Jack, Gwendolen, Cecily, and Algernon fall in love through the name ‘Ernest’. 

At this time, Gwendolen’s mother, Mrs. Bracknell, tries to find out whether Jack is suitable for Gwendolen. She soon finds us that Jack is an orphan who was found in a storehouse in a train station. She, as a result, doesn’t accept the marriage between Jack and Gwendolen because of the reason that Jack’s background doesn’t suit her aristocratic background. However, in Act III, Bracknell finds out that Jack is Moncrieff’s son. Moncrieff is Bracknell’s poor sister. In other words, Jack is Algernon’s brother and Bracknell’s nephew. Moreover, Jack is proved to be a real ‘Ernest’ by the fact that he was baptized under the name of his father. Gwendolen was happy to marry the name she has dreamed of. All the problems are solved. This play ends the curtain with Algernon and Cecily, Jack and Gwendolen hugging each other. 

What are Modern works of literature? There are several characteristics of Modern pieces of literature. First is ‘Individualism’ as mentioned above. In Modern literature, writers emphasized on how individuals adapted the rapidly changing society. Modern literature, individuals are more emphasized than society. Modern writers have presented society as a challenge to the integrity of their characters. One of the best-known writers as Ernest Hemingway, who had written ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, is known for vivid characters who had agreed their circumstances at free value. Second is ‘Experimentation’. Modern writers had rejected to follow an old form of writing. In this era, we can find out there are lots of poems that had broken the rule of traditional rhymes and writings with mixed images. Authors James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, along with poets T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, are well known for their experimental Modernist works. The third is ‘Absurdity’. Many writers had passed away due to World War I. At the same time, global capitalism was influencing society at every level. Because of the wars, many people had lost their humanity. Modernist authors depicted this absurdity in their works. Forth is ‘Symbolism’. The Modernist writers infused objects, people, places, and events with significant meanings. Their particular use of symbols was an innovation. By using such symbols, they had let the readers imagine the writings. James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ is the best example of it. Last is ‘Formalism’, many of the writers saw literature more as a craft than as creativity. The belief of literature as a craft led the Modernists’ desire for creativity and originality. The poet E.E. Cummings abandoned all structures and spread his words all across the page.

Ibsen and Strindberg were people who had marked a watershed moment in dramatic history that began the era of modern dramas. Ibsen has developed realism in structure, changing from the dominant frame of the well-made play structure. Strindberg has contributed to the modernization of dramatic form by flexibly borrowing from realism.

 However, Oscar Wilde was an exception in terms of modern dramatists, at least when the standard of modernity in dramas revolves around the influence of Ibsen and Strindberg. First, it’s because he represented the spirit of aestheticism whose credo is “art for art’s sake,” a perspective opposing that of Ibsen and Strindberg. When other writers only wrote about tragic plays, Wilde has only stuck to comedy in most of his plays, often showing a negative reaction to general seriousness. Wilde’s plays are differently classified from the realism plays influenced by other writers in that Wilde exaggeratedly used the well-made play form. Moreover, he has attempted to keep his thematic distance from Ibsen by showing his critical view on some of Ibsen’s works. 

Modernity is the main theme in Wilde’s writing. Experiencing an inevitable transformation as an individual and an author at the hands of a rapidly changing society, Oscar Wilde’s work is one of the most sensitive illustrations of the modernization. In ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’, he had created characters who shared a clear recognition of living in the modern world. By doing so, he not only had dealt with the features of modern times but indirectly presented potential solutions for the new era based on his diagnosis of the issues which can be adopted even to the present time. 

In my opinion, Oscar Wilde a person who is extremely hard to categorize. His lifetime perfectly fits into the Victorian age, which was between 1837 – 1901. However, many scholars classify him as a modern writer rather than a Victorian era’s writer because the late Victorian era can be called “the first of the ‘modern’” in English literature. I think it is because of his experimental and aesthetic approach to art might have created the necessity for a new movement. In addition, his works succeeded Ibsen’s appearance in the theatrical world, which naturally puts him in the category of modern dramatists. Moreover, Wilde consciously rejected coming within Ibsen’s orbit, and instead persisted in the conventional form of a well-made play or an absurdity. His adherence to Victorian conventions in drama, however, does not mean that he had failed to keep abreast of the movement toward modern times. He employed the traditional mode but expressed it in an exaggerated way that contained subversive elements. Oscar Wilde’s conventional plays had become more like parodies of them in terms of form. In short, the modernity in Oscar Wilde’s writings can be discovered more in the divergent point than the convergent one in the circle of modern writers. 

Although his plays often appear in literary criticism books, few authors comment on the reason why he is categorized as a modern writer except for the time he had lived in. Among lots of others, I had found one author who had presented his standard of modernism. Here is what Christopher Innes, the writer of ‘Modern British Drama’, had written on his writings: “The century itself is not a self-contained unit. The ferment of the modern era was already present in the final decade of the nineteenth century, breaking the mold of Victorian certainties. Issues like women’s rights or class justice, which have become major contemporary themes, were already finding reflection on the stage.”

Oscar Wilde’s belief and biographical history explicates his aspects of a modernist. In his another famous book, ‘Five Faces of Modernity’, Matei Calinescu said, “modernity always implies the sense of an ‘antitraditional tradition’ and this accounts for, among other things, modernism’s famous capability of rejecting itself – its various historical ‘traditions’ – without losing its identity”. This seems ironic to me. The ironical combination of an antitradition and a tradition shows in Wilde’s use of the unconventional convention in dramatic form, his marriage life as a homosexual, and his tendency of anarchy – oriented socialist, all of which more or less link to his creed in the importance of wearing a mask and pass through ‘The Importance of Being Ernest’.

References

  • Lorcher, Trent. “Modernism in Literature: What Are Characteristics of Modernism in Writing?” Bright Hub Education, 4 Oct. 2019, www.brighthubeducation.com/high-school-english-lessons/29453-modernism-in-literature/.
  • TheBestNotes.com Staff. ‘TheBestNotes on The Importance of Being Earnest’. TheBestNotes.com. 13 March 2020. 
  • “Oscar Wilde.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 10 Oct. 2019, www.biography.com/writer/oscar-wilde.
  • Anonymous. “What Is Modernism? What Impact Has Modernism Had On Human Society?: History Essays: Essay Sauce Free Student Essay Examples.” ESSAY SAUCE, 5 Dec. 2019, www.essaysauce.com/history-essays/what-is-modernism-what-impact-has-modernism-had-on-human-society/.

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Ernest As A Modernist In The Importance Of Being Earnest. (2021, November 22). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 16, 2022, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/ernest-as-a-modernist-in-the-importance-of-being-earnest/
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Ernest As A Modernist In The Importance Of Being Earnest [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2021 Nov 22 [cited 2022 Aug 16]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/ernest-as-a-modernist-in-the-importance-of-being-earnest/
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