Maxims and Masks: The Epigram in The Importance of Being Earnest

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Maxims and Masks: The Epigram in "The Importance of Being Earnest"

Oscar Wilde frames "The Importance of Being Earnest" around the paradoxical epigram, a skewering metaphor for the play's central theme of division of truth and identity that hints at a homosexual subtext. Other targets of Wilde's absurd yet grounded wit are the social conventions of his stuffy Victorian society, which are exposed as a "shallow mask of manners" (1655). Aided by clever wordplay, frantic misunderstanding, and dissonance of knowledge between the characters and the audience, devices that are now staples of contemporary theater and situation comedy, "Earnest" suggests that, especially in "civilized" society, we all lead double lives that force upon us a
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Though both men are "Bunburyists," Wilde holds and heightens dramatic tension through Jack's denial of the fact. The characters are given to hyperbolic conviction in their brief speeches, a fast-paced technique that magnifies the play's distant relationship to vaudevillian humor and reveals another duality within homosexuality; Algernon is perfectly happy to be gay, while Jack is repellent to the idea, perhaps even to the point of self-loathing. Algernon puns on the idiom "to part with," showing his reluctance to remove himself from both the world and the physically splitting position of homosexuality: "Nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury, and if you ever get married, which seems to me extremely problematic, you will be very glad to know Bunbury. A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it" (1634). Jack claims he is going to "kill [his] brother," conflating his sexual duality as all he will kill is a part of himself: "That is nonsense. If I marry a charming girl like Gwendolen, and she is the only girl I ever saw in my life that I would marry, I
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