As a leader of the Aesthetic movement, Wilde was especially interested in the relationship between life and art, pondering the eternal question, “Does art imitate life, or life imitate art?” Wilde explores this relationship in The Importance of Being Earnest through the conflict that arises when fact collides with fiction. The conflict between fact and fiction is driven by Algernon and Jack’s lies about their respective identities, specifically the fictional personas they create in order to mask their doings, shirk their duties, and deceive their loved ones.
Jack invents his brother “Ernest” so that he can excuse himself from the country, where he serves as Cecily’s guardian. Under such pretense he can escape to town, where he can court Gwendolen and entertain himself with extravagant dinners. Similarly, Algernon invents his invalid friend “Bunbury,” so that he has an excuse to escape from the city when he does not care to dine with his relations. Fact and fiction collide when Algernon arrives at Jack’s country estate, pretending to the elusive “Ernest”. His arrival upsets Jack’s plan to kill off his fictional brother and nearly derails Jack’s real engagement to Gwendolen. That Algernon coins the terms “Bunburying” and “Bunburyist” after his imaginary invalid to describe such impersonations highlights the deceptive, as well as the fictive quality of Jack and Algernon’s actions.
But Algernon and Jack are not the only characters that craft careful fictions. Cecily innocently creates a detailed backstory to her engagement to “Ernest,” (himself a fictional entity), writing in her diary that she has not only been engaged to her beau for three months, but that they have been engaged in an on-again-off-again romance. When Cecily recites this revelation from her diary to Algernon, he continues this fiction by believing in it as earnestly as Cecily believes in “Ernest’s” authenticity. Algernon’s willingness to participate in Cecily’s fictional engagement, so that he might actually become engaged to her, parallels Jack’s eagerness to change his name to “Ernest,” so that reality might more closely align with Gwendolen’s matrimonial fantasies. Algernon pretends to be “Ernest” in order to actualize his engagement to Cecily, while Jack will verily transform into “Ernest,” (if only in name), so that Gwendolen’s fantasies may be fulfilled. Ultimately, the play’s main characters participate in the fine art of fabrication not just to deceive, but also to create a reality that is more like fiction. The line between fact and fiction blurs when the fictional name of “Ernest” turns out to be Jack’s real birth name. In this way, Wilde doesn’t just question whether art imitates life, or life imitates art, but suggests that life itself is an artifice, quite literally a making of art.
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction ThemeTracker
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction Quotes in The Importance of Being Earnest
Jack: When one is placed in the position of guardian, one has to adopt a very high moral tone…And as a high moral tone can hardly be said to conduce very much to either one’s health or one’s happiness if carried to excess, in order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger borther of the anem of Ernest…who gets into the most dreadful scrapes. The, my dear Algy, is the whole truth pure and simple.
Algernon: The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility.
I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose.
The good end happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.
If you are not [wicked], then you have certainly been deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner. I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.
Few girls of the present day have any really solid qualities, any of the qualities that last, and surfaces…There are distinct social possibilities in your profile. The two weak points in our age are its want of principle and its want of profile.
Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.