Food and eating play a surprisingly large part in the play, frequently expressing appetites and emotions that it is not respectable or polite to air openly. In Act 1, Algernon orders a plate of cucumber sandwiches and bread and butter for his expected guests, Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen. He proceeds absentmindedly to devour all the sandwiches before the guests arrive. Jack joins in, eating the bread and butter so greedily that Algernon accuses him of behaving “as if you were married to her already.” In these incidents, the act of eating seems symbolically to stand in for gratification of the sexual appetite, an interpretation reinforced by Algernon’s comment about marriage. The fact that there are no sandwiches left for Lady Bracknell when she arrives and the fact that Algernon invents a “Bunburying” trip in order to get out of dining (eating) with her, underline her exclusion from the world of love and lust inhabited by the young couples.
In Act 2, food becomes part of the polite catfight between Gwendolen and Cecily. Gwendolen declines sugar and cake on the grounds that they are no longer fashionable, and Cecily deliberately gives Gwendolen huge amounts of both. Her action expresses an anger and aggression that upper-class ladies could not admit to feeling.
When Algernon and Jack’s deceptions are exposed to Gwendolen and Cecily and the women scornfully walk off into the house, both men begin greedily to devour muffins. This can be seen as an expression of thwarted sexual appetite; for Algernon, as he says, it is also an attempt to console himself.
The name “Ernest”
The name “Ernest,” because its pronunciation is the same as the word “earnest,” takes on a considerable symbolic weight. “Earnest” connotes elements of conventional morality that the Victorian English prized most: seriousness, solemnity, and respectability. Both Gwendolen and Cecily are fixated on marrying someone with the name of Ernest because it “inspires absolute confidence,” though, in a characteristically subversive twist, Cecily is particularly fascinated by Jack’s fictional brother Ernest because of his legendary wickedness. In fact, neither man is really called Ernest, so both are fakes and deceivers. Thus Ernest symbolically represents both the appearance of respectability that conventional Victorian society held up as the ideal, and the notion that Wilde puts forward in the play that anyone who cultivates such an image is generally being deceptive.
The handbag left at the railway station
The hand-bag in which Miss Prism absent-mindedly places the baby Jack, only to leave him by mistake in a cloak-room at Victoria railway station, becomes symbolic of the kind of uncertain birth and pedigree, bedeviled with suggestions of sexual impropriety and illegitimacy, that in Victorian times could disqualify a person from respectable society. This is summed up in Lady Bracknell’s scandalized exclamation (which has become one of the most famous theatrical quotes), which she utters on hearing about Jack’s origins, “A hand-bag?” (Act 1). Lady Bracknell goes on to say to Jack, “You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter – a girl brought up with the utmost care – to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel?” Lady Bracknell requires a husband for her daughter who comes from a ‘good’ family, with at least one identifiable parent.
Lady Bracknell is particularly concerned by the fact that a cloakroom at a railway station “might serve to conceal a social indiscretion.” For “social,” it is safe to read “sexual.” There is probably a subtext that would have been evident to some of Wilde’s audience. In Victorian times, as in recent history, homosexual activity was illegal, disapproved of, and frequently confined to public toilets. In addition to the subtext of homosexuality, there may also be a suggestion of illegitimate and abandoned babies, who were often abandoned in public places where they would be found by someone who might be willing to look after them. As railway stations were places frequented by people of all social classes, there is also the possibility of cross-class liaisons, a possibility that would appall Lady Bracknell: the survival of her class depended on the continuing segregation of different social groups.
In her fixation on social respectability, Lady Bracknell is unconcerned about Jack’s inner worth or about the undoubted trauma he would have suffered in his early life. Her snobbery is portrayed as heartless, though she remains a likeable character because her attitudes are so outrageous as to be funny. In this way, Wilde encourages his audience to laugh at the pretensions of contemporary high society.
The Wildean epigram
An epigram is a short, ingenious, and witty poem or prose statement. Wilde evolved his own style of epigram, which has come to be known as the Wildean epigram. The Wildean epigram consists of a short, witty, and outrageous statement, which is then expanded upon in an even more outrageous statement. Often, these statements are inversions of some cliché or truism, but they touch on some unexpected truth. In The Importance of Being Earnest, most of the characters, above all Algernon, speak in Wildean epigrams. An example is Algernon’s statement, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!” The first sentence turns clichés such as “the simple truth” on its head. The second sentence implies that much of the interest of life and modern literature depends on the complexity and elusiveness of truth. Such epigrams have two purposes: they amuse the audience and prompt it to think beyond accepted wisdom.