You Are What You Eat An Analysis Of Irony In The Importance Of Being Earnest
Oscar Wilde is best known for his wit, intellectual commentary and irony, whether overt or subtle. In the case of his satirical play, The Importance of Being Earnest (hereinafter Earnest), Wilde uses his gift for puns and irony to create a very blatant ironic comedy. Some of the puns and ironic devices used are extremely obvious; in fact, the name in itself is a pun. Upon further examination, however, one will notice that the entire play is riddled with irony that goes much deeper than the obvious farce and satire that is presented. Of all the symbols and ironic devices Wilde uses, food is one of the most prominent. Food is often used throughout Earnest to symbolise other appetites and indulgences, but with an ironic twist. Where a good meal would represent a good friendship, Wilde twists to do just the opposite.
It is a common literary theory that when one eats, it is to share ideas with another. In the simplest terms, if the meal goes well it is to say ‘I like you’, if the meal does not go well it is to say ‘I do not like you’, and if the meal does not take place as originally planned, it is to say ‘ I hate you.’ In Earnest, however, these conventions are not met. A meal goes awry between two best friends, Algernon and Jack and with ironic reversal once again, a meal takes place successfully between two enemies, Gwendolen and Cecily, and takes place again between to fighting friends, Algernon and Jack. Wilde’s unconventional use of food adds to the subtle ironies of the play, which ultimately add to the obvious puns and wit that make Earnest one of the great satires of the nineteenth century.
A meal that does not take place, as previously stated, suggests that the two parties have a great dislike for each other; however, this is not the case with Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing. The first meal the audience sees opens the play. Two good friends, Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing sit down to talk, upon seeing some sandwiches on the table, Worthing reaches to take one and is then instructed by Algernon “don’t touch the cucumber sandwiches. They are ordered specially for Aunt Augusta.” (Wilde 178). As previously mentioned, a meal that does not take place suggests utter dislike or loathing between the two parties involved. The audience, however, knows this is not the case between Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff as they keep the mood lively with friendly banter between them, Jack even refers to Algernon in the pet name ‘Algy’ (Wilde 179) to suggest a certain comfort level between the two, even after the nonexistent meal. The two friends also address each other using phrases like “my dear fellow” and “my friend” (Wilde 179), after the unsuccessful meal which is believed to indicate hatred towards one another. By no means do the two hate each other, as common literary theory would suggest, and thus proves to be an example of Wilde’s use of irony to add comedic elements to his already chaotic play.
Although though Earnest has a hectic plot, tranquil symbols are used throughout. The second meal the audience sees is ironic in two ways: (1) defying the literary symbolism regarding meals and (2) using ironic symbols to reflect the exact opposite of the plays theme. The first irony takes place between two rivals, Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, both who are engaged to a man they know to be Ernest Worthing. The audience feels the tension between the two women when the following conversation transpires between the two:
Gwendolen: Do you allude to me, Miss Cardew, as an entanglement? You are presumptuous. On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak one’s mind. It becomes a pleasure.
Cecily: Do you suggest, Miss Fairfax, that I entrapped Ernest into an engagement? How dare you? This is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners. When I see a spade I call it a spade.
Gwendolen: [Satirically.] I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.”(Wilde 191)
Although the two feel a particular distaste for each other, they sit down for tea as a common courtesy. The meal is successful, which would suggest that the two have a fondness for each other. This, however, is also reversed, as the two women are in competition with each other for the same, fictional man. According to literary theory, the two rivals should either have a meal that is disastrous, or worse, nonexistent.
It is also interesting to note the foods that are involved in this particular scene. Tea and cakes are mentioned, and all have very significant meanings. Tea, for example, represents tranquility and serenity (Ferber 204). This is ironic because the entire play is chaotic; there is not a trace of tranquility to be found, especially in this scene where Gwendolen and Cecily unknowingly reveal the truth of “Ernest Worthing”. After all discussion of Ernest is exhausted, the ladies try to distract themselves and each other from the issue, while still remaining hostile towards one another. Cecily asks Gwendolen, after insulting each other subtly for quite some time “May I offer you some tea, Miss Fairfax?” to which Gwendolen responds “[With elaborate politeness.] Thank you. [Aside] Detestable girl! But I require tea!” (Wilde 192). Though the scene may be cordial, it is in no way tranquil or serene. Rather, it depicts the tension between the two ladies and the absence of any harmony, and this of course is ironic. The cake, or any pastry involved in a meal, is used to represent communion or break breaking (Ferber 47). Communion, a religious allusion, is commonly associated with welcoming a new relationship. This is also ironic, as the two ladies do indeed begin a new relationship with each other, but it is not as one would expect. While it is true that a new relationship is formed between the two, the ladies did not welcome this relationship. Gwendolen makes this quite clear when she asserts to Cecily “from the moment I saw you I distrusted you. I felt that you were false and deceitful. I am never deceived in such matters. My first impressions of people are invariably right.” (Wilde 195). The use of both tea as a symbol of tranquility and cake as a symbol of communion is ironic in perhaps the most subtle way, and re-affirms how meticulous Wilde is in setting the scene for his plays. It is these subtle ironies the once again add to the overall irony and satirical nature of Earnest.
The last touch of irony through food is the last meal in the play, taking place successfully between the two protagonists, Algernon and Jack. After the two have been caught in their charade between Cecily and Gwendolen, the two sit down with each other to discuss their next plan of action. However, the meal takes place rather calamitously; however, it does take place. Like the meal of Gwendolen and Cecily, one is lead to believe, that since the meal was completed successfully, the two are on good terms with one another. In this last meal, however, the two are bickering with one another about the type of foods they are eating, which results in Jack becoming quite angry with Algernon:
“Algernon: Jack, you are at the muffins again! I wish you wouldn’t. There are only two left. [Takes them.] I told you I was particularly fond of muffins.
Jack: But I hate tea-cake.
Algernon: Why on earth then do you allow tea-cake to be served up for your guests? What ideas you have of hospitality!
Jack: Algernon! I have already told you to go. I don’t want you here. Why don’t you go!
Algernon: I haven’t quite finished my tea yet! And there is still one muffin left. [Jack groans, and sinks into a chair. Algernon still continues eating.]” (Wilde 207)
Though the meal is completed successfully, it is apparent to the audience that the two are irritated with each other. Though the two are good friends, it is at this point that they are not on good terms with one another, and yet the meal is completed successfully. The successful meal is the exact opposite of literary conventions, which lead the audience to believe that since the meal is successful, the two are in harmony with one another. The audience knows, however, this is once again ironic, as Algernon insults Jack’s taste in food, and Jack asks Algernon to leave in a rather irritated tone. It is also interesting to note that these two friends are eating cake, like Gwendolen and Cecily. The audience knows that these long-time friends are not welcoming a new relationship, which also adds to the irony of this meal. Irony is once again used through food to play on the bigger ironies of Earnest.
Earnest is, in fact, known for being one of the greatest ironies/satires of the nineteenth century. This, however, is not because of the obvious puns, situational irony and blatant farce that make the play rather comedic. Rather, it is because every small detail, including food, is ironic, and contributes to make one giant irony. Whether is a meal that does not take place between two good friends, a meal that does take place between two rivals, or a meal that takes place between two friends who are fighting, every meal in Earnest is ironic, right down to the food they eat. The audience learns that in the case of The Importance of Being Earnest, you are not, in fact, what you eat.
Ferber, Michael. A Dictionary of Literary Symbols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest. London: Modern Library, 2001.