This Week In My Classes: The Importance of Being Earnest

The thing is, though Wilde means it ironically and makes it seem very funny, I think it is important to be earnest–not all the time, maybe, but in essence, and certainly about important things. And the move from Gaskell’s Mary Barton to Wilde’s play in my survey class this week really made me feel that preference on my reading pulses. We spent Monday on the conclusion of Mary Barton. It’s heavy-handed, sentimental, didactic, and politically compromised, but for all its faults, it’s a rousing rejoinder to Wilde’s quip that “there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book: books are well written or badly written, that is all.” That is not all.  Mary Barton really means what it says, and that sincerity makes it worth my time and argument–that, and its commitment to making people’s lives better by helping them understand each other better. It also finds beauty in acts of common human love and decency, and conveys the richness and variety of human lives even in the face of the most unrelenting circumstances. Wilde may have enjoyed the idea that you need a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing, but I am wholly susceptible to scenes such as this one:

Barton grew worse; he had fallen across the bed, and his breathing seemed almost stopped; in vain did Mary strive to raise him, her sorrow and exhaustion had rendered her too weak.

So, on hearing some one enter the house-place below, she cried out for Jem to come to her assistance.

A step, which was not Jem’s, came up the stairs.

Mr Carson stood in the door-way. In one instant he comprehended the case.

He raised up the powerless frame; and the departing soul looked out of the eyes with gratitude. He held the dying man propped in his arms. John Barton folded his hands, as if in prayer.

“Pray for us,” said Mary, sinking on her knees, and forgetting in that solemn hour all that had divided her father and Mr Carson.

No other words would suggest themselves than some of those he had read only a few hours before:

“God be merciful to us sinners. – Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.”

And when the words were said, John Barton lay a corpse in Mr Carson’s arms.

So ended the tragedy of a poor man’s life. (from the Gaskell Web etext)

Gaskell really wants her writing to be a force for good in the world. That’s not every artist’s goal, and it is a risky one. But despite everything, I am moved by this tableau of the murderer dying in the arms of his victim’s father, both desperate to salvage their humanity from the wrecks of their lives. And in fact, maybe I am moved, not despite everything, but because of everything Gaskell has done to prepare us for this moment. As some parts of Mary Barton show, and as is still better demonstrated by her later novels, Gaskell is capable of much greater restraint, which is what we often take as a key element of ‘artistry,’ but at this moment she  throws that kind of aesthetic caution to the winds: it’s all about the pathos, the regret, the forgiveness. You’re in or you’re out, at this point in the novel. Me, I’m in.

With The Importance of Being Earnest, in contrast, I tend to side with Shaw, who reviewed it in the Saturday Review in 1895:

I cannot say that I greatly cared for The Importance of Being Earnest. It amused me, of course; but unless comedy touches me as well as amuses me, it leaves me with a sense of having wasted my evening. I go to the theatre to be moved to laughter, not to be tickled or bustled into it; and that is why, though I laugh as much as anybody at a farcical comedy, I am out of spirits before the end of the second act, and out of temper before the end of the third . . .

Still, despite resenting my amusement just a little, I did enjoy (and I think the class enjoyed), the clips from the brilliant film starring Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell, who delivers this famous line better than anybody:

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