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be discovered through an examination of its structural codes was challenged by the maxim of “undecidability” or “free play”; a text has many meanings, and therefore no definitive interpretation is possible. In this respect, a new approach to reading, deconstruction, asks a different set of questions, endeavouring to show that what a text claims it says and what it actually says are discernibly different, and also “literary language constantly undermines its own meaning” (Eagleton 145). In his writings, Jacques Derrida never states the encompassing tenets of his critical approach. He claims that his approach to reading and literary analysis is more a “strategic device” than a methodology, more a strategy or approach to literature than a school or theory of criticism (Bressler 118). Derrida goes further by studying Ferdinand de Saussure’s ideas on sign and difference, and he accepts Saussure’s assumption that the linguistic sign is both arbitrary and conventional. It is this concept that meaning in language is determined by the differences among the language signs that Derrida borrows from Saussure as a key building block in the formulation of deconstruction. According to Derrida, Western metaphysics has invented a variety of terms that function as centres: God, reason, origin, being, essence, truth, humanity, beginning, end, self, etc. In his Structure, Sign, Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences, Derrida claims that “it would be possible to show that all the names related to fundamentals, to principles, or to the centre have always designated the constant of a presence-eidos, arche, telos, energeia, ousia (essence, existence, substance, subject) aletheia [truth], transcendentality, consciousness, or conscience, God, man, and so forth” (249). Each can be regarded as self-sufficient and self-originating. Bressler asserts that each of these is created by the tendency of logocentrism: the belief that an ultimate reality or centre of truth exists and can serve as the basis for all our thoughts and actions (120). The logocentric habit of thinking operates in accordance with “binary oppositions”. This is the either/or mentality that inevitably leads to dualistic thinking and to the centring and decentring of the transcendental signified. Some of the traditional binary oppositions are God/human, speech/writing, light/dark, man/woman, etc. In a pair of oppositions one is always privileged and the other is unprivileged. Binary oppositions are conceptually established and become the basis of one’s world view. Therefore, Derrida wishes to dismantle or
deconstruct the structure of such binary oppositions. As Selden puts, “To succeed in twisting free of the logocentric tradition would be to write, and to read, in such a way as to renounce this ideal [a struggle to break out of language]. To destroy the tradition would be to see all the texts of that tradition as self-delusive, because using language to do what language cannot do. Language itself, so to speak, can be relied upon to betray any attempt to transcend it” (173). Deconstruction in Derridean sense does not only mean to read a text according to certain ways and strategies but it also shakes the ground of the primary interpretation of a given text. Through deconstruction Derrida tries to expand the conceptual limits of the meaning of the text compelled by metaphysics, and he explores meaning in the margin of the text through unrestricted semantic play and limitless interpretation. Therefore, it can be said that “For de Man, as for his colleague Hillis Miller, literature does not need to be deconstructed by the critic: it can be shown to deconstruct itself, and moreover is actually ‘about’ this operation” (Eagleton 145). Derrida seeks to subvert the intentions of texts that are caused by metaphysical oppositions through deconstruction. The aim of deconstructive reading is not destroying the primary intention of the text and offering a new unifying final truth. On the contrary, it discloses the ‘unproductive’ text by giving access to new spaces or alternatives. In other words, deconstruction deals with the inspiring others which are repressed or delegitimized in the text. Therefore, each text can be read employing a deconstructive mode, The Irish playwright Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest has always been handled as a criticism of the late Victorian society. As Alex Thomson claims, “Much of the humour of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest depends on the comic inversion of the usual ways we interpret the world, ways which are consistent with the underlying philosophical framework that we have been discussing here” (310).Being a play which throws the reader into the realm of complex, contested, symbolised and interactive, it cannot be simply deconstructed but it naturally deconstructs itself due to its own instability. If one follows some methodology s/he can reveal how the text of The Importance of Being Earnest deconstructs itself.
The Nature of Reality and Knowledge in The Importance of Being Earnest:
The concept of reality as displayed in the play is a problematized one, because deconstruction reveals other alternative facts that are ignored by traditional and Romantic theories of literature although the text itself flaunts this problem. It is demonstrated through several scenes in which in which “objective reality” cannot be known. Moreover, as deconstructive reading implies there is no transcendence, and the universe is a closed system, so the play proves to show that the reality is entirely subjective. As reality is a construct created by people, the knowledge they acquire is also another conception relying on that constructed reality. In the play characters create their own reality and Oscar Wilde shows their “real” concepts in a parodying manner. To begin with, the wealthy London bachelor character Jack/John Worthing creates an imaginary brother named Ernest in order to come up to town as often as he likes. When his rich friend Algernon finds out the inscription on his cigarette case; “from little Cecily with her fondest love to her dear uncle Jack” (5), he finds out his true name, which is Jack Worthing. Believing his manners and his words Algernon protests him:
You have always told me it was Ernest. I have introduced you to every one as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life. It is perfectly absurd your saying that your name isn’t Ernest. It’s on your cards…I will keep this as a proof that your name is Ernest if ever you attempt to deny it to me (Italics are mine) (IBE 6).
The impossibility of attaining reality is underlined through Algernon’s reliance on a card as a “proof” of reality. Then Jack explains why he has lied about his real name: “Well my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country, and the cigarette was given to me in the country” (6). This scene clearly shows that whatever is created as reality by a person or a group of persons is believed to be knowledge for others. Like Jack, Algernon also creates an imaginary friend that is called Bunbury so that he can get rid of his “aristocratic” aunt’s tedious dinners and receptions:
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. Bunbury is perfectly invaluable. If it wasn’t for Bunbury’s extraordinary bad health, for instance, I wouldn’t be able to dine with you (Jack) at Willis’s to-night, for I have been really engaged to Aunt Augusta for more than a week (IBE 8).
The knowledge the other characters get from these young men is not reliable at all. To illustrate, Cecily, Gwendolen and her mother Aunt Augusta always rely on these men’s words but, in fact, they merely interpret realities according to their expectations. In other words, it can be said that knowledge is limited within the interpretation of the knower. Thus it is always sceptical. In this sense, one can investigate both of the girls’ reactions to the name “Ernest”; their obsession with the name reflects how their understanding the reality is problematic. Firstly when Gwendolen is with “Ernest/Jack” she frankly confesses:
Even before I met I was far from indifferent to you. We live, as I hope you know, Mr Worthing, in an age of ideals. The fact is constantly mentioned in the most expensive monthly magazines, and has reached the provincial pulpits, I am told; and my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence…I knew I was destined to love you (IBE 13-4).
Cecily’s inclination about the name Ernest is not less interesting than Gweldolen’s. When Algernon pretends to be Jack’s irresponsible brother Ernest, she verbalizes her ideas about this name too:
Why, we have been engaged for the last three months…I dare say it was foolish of me, but I fell in love with you, Ernest…You must not laugh at me, darling, but it had always been a girlish dream of mine to love someone whose name was Ernest. There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence. I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest (IBE 43).
These women believe in the validity of words/signs, and these words count for them as the name Ernest empowers both of the girls. They are under the influence of the conventional preoccupations of Victorian society, such as social position or income. Therefore, they can accept only what they want to choose as reality. Another matter concerning knowledge is Algernon’s subversion of some English proverbs such as washing one’s clean linen in public(9) or three is company and two is none(9). Algernon’s altering these proverbs functions as a refusal of common knowledge. In the general knowledge the proverbs is ‘to wash one’s dirty linen’. In the play Algernon contemplates on the behaviour of married couples in dinner parties, and objects to uninteresting romanticism of married couples. He shortly finds marriage an uninteresting and unromantic activity: “You don’t seem to realise, that in married life three is company and two is none” (9). According to the common knowledge, it is ‘two is company and three
is none’. He means in every marriage one of the couples inevitably cheats on the other. By using the thoughtful play of contradictions he subverts the commonly believed knowledge or the domineering authority in its many forms in order to provide a free space for other alternative suppressed ideas. The climax of the play is the scene in which how Miss Prism lost Jack at Victorian Station is explained. The scene reverses the generally-accepted rules of reality, and consequently becomes funny, because upon learning to have been found in Miss Prism’s handbag Jack immediately calls her “Mother” (70). The play obviously makes fun of the reality by underlining the slippery ground where reality is situated. In The Importance of Being Earnest, reality and knowledge are two concepts that are always unreliable and can be reconstructed according to people, time and place.
The Nature of Language in The Importance of Being Earnest:
As Derrida underlines, language is a system constructed on the foundation of arbitrary symbols. That is, texts are collections of words and pictures/‘signifiers’ that have no inherent meaning or connection to the objective world of things or objects/’signified’ (Of Grammatology 127). Then one can say that since language is the medium for communication or since its constructions are unstable, then interpretation is also uncertain. In other words language can never convey reality but it can only convey social or cultural biases, that is, “the effect of the real” (127). Moreover, as Mark Poster claims about language and the relationship between language and the subject:
Language is not a simply a tool for expression; it is also a structure that defines the limits of communication and shapes the subjects who speak. Since Saussure, structuralists emphasize that language is a system that defines the subject. Mikhail Bakhtin adds that all linguistic phenomena are dialogic, part of an infinitely continuous web of communications whose meanings are not determined by the individual but are always open to redetermination by others… [Language] is not simply a vehicle of individual expression, a tool to facilitate action, a means to determine truths and falsehoods. It is instead an internally complex yet open world inextricably tied to social action (129).
Accordingly, in The Importance of Being Earnest there are flying signifiers but no signified. As Derrida points out, every signified is another signifier, or every sign is always “a sign of a sign” (Of Grammatology 43). In this respect, every sign is forever caught up in a “play” or “network” of differential relations with other signs. To illustrate, the name Ernest is ironically used by two irresponsible, idle and pragmatist characters. However, they use it to overcome the authority figures or concepts in their lives. That is, it is their way of escaping social obligations and limitations.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, several binary oppositions which have been established and used by society to categorize many concepts are also subverted through language. At the beginning of the play when Algernon speaks to his manservant, Lane, the binary between the master and servant is reversed by depicting such a smart servant and such a childish master:
Lane’s views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don’t set up us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility (IBE 2).
Algernon also subverts the roles between the intellectual and ordinary men by stating,
The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!… Literary criticism is not your forte, my dear fellow. Don’t try it. You should leave that to people who haven’t been at a University. They do it so well in the daily papers (IBE 8).
Both male characters, Jack and Algernon, try to be christened as Ernest because their beloved ones demand it. Both Gwendolen and Cecily believe the name Ernest to be a reliable sign of an earnest nature as if a signifier could signify the essential attribute of that to which it refers. In this sense, language, particularly “naming” something or someone is essential. As Martin Heidegger claims, man does not speak language, but “language speaks us” (124). Thus the idea of re-naming someone shows the constructedness of reality or knowledge through language which is also another social construct. It is not their personality, not their sense of morality but their names the girls care about and give great importance. The play, moreover, subverts the homonym earnest/Ernest. As the title foreshadows being ‘earnest/Ernest’ is a very important feature for both of the male characters in the play:
The Importance of Being Earnest might not enjoin us to be true to ourselves, but reminds us that there is really no difference between being earnest and being called Ernest, between being true and stimulating truth, at least in a world where people believe that names actually ‘mean’ something (Thomson 310).
However, they are really neither ‘earnest’ nor ‘Ernest’. The word earnest/Ernest creates a thoughtful play of contradiction because the homonym is used to both undermine the title’s apparent moralism and to reveal the hypocrisy of the characters. During the interview Jack is found out to be “originless” (IBE 18). Not having an origin is clearly a reference to the constructed nature of language and all the other binary systems.
The Nature of the Subject in The Importance of Being Earnest: In The Importance of Being Earnest the other construct displayed is the ‘myth’ of the
individual identity. As Poster asserts,
Michel Foucault’s problematic of the constitution of the self is a promising starting point. Foucault’ position is that the subject is neither fixed (as in phenomenology) nor marginal (as in structuralism)… The individual was now theorised as a process in which the self was constituted through the mediation of discourses/practices. The individual in this view is neither an ontological centre nor a passive, marginal “bearer” of other levels of analysis… Subject is a constituted phenomenon, undermining the illusory assurance of the fixed, defined individual (139-40-41).
In this sense, it can be said that the subject is a constructed entity, rather that a stable one. Thus, characters in The Importance of Being Earnest only achieve their identities through their groups or culture. So for Derrida there is no origin except the originary difference, which is what Rousseau was able to ‘say without saying’ (Of Grammatology, 215). In this respect Jack is called Ernest when he is in the town. On the one hand his friends and his new life in London grant him a double life. On the other, Cecily and Miss Prism know him to be Jack Worthing. Then if the identity of an individual depends on the knowledge of other people around him it is quite obvious that individual identity is just a myth as it may differ from one group to another. The ironic end of the play also displays the concept of the constructed subjects. The Cartesian terms of the subject, whish is “a mind that confronts material objects or other minds” (Poster 138), is destabilised in the play. As in the Cartesian world, only individual minds have knowledge, rest of nature is dumb. However, now When Jack is informed to be Lady Bracknell’s sister’s son, and consequently Algernon’s elder brother, his Christian name, Ernest, is learnt from ‘the Army Lists’ that have long rested in the bookcase of Jack. When the subject has access to a data that ‘data’, here it is an old army record, makes him/her passive or its object (Poster 138). At the end, Jack “finds out that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth” (IBE 72). Here the sentence again deconstructs itself when the word “truth” is concerned, because all the efforts and investigation help the subject discover his/her being constituted or unfixed as an entity.
The Effect of Knowledge in Moral Decision-Making in The Importance of Being Earnest:
Anything that is totalizing is a great challenge to deconstruction. It can be said that many totalizing tendencies are parodied in the play. The time known as Victorian was controlled by a very powerful society. As a man of great intelligence and wit, Wilde is able to observe his society and its corrupt sides: “the uncomfortable experience of living a double life must have been an everyday concern for Wilde: a gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal” (Thomson 311). In deconstructive reading knowledge is something which closes active interpretations. However, “will to ignorance opens itself to uncertainty, to the chance- or trace-like structure of the disorder of the things as they are, a sort of structure-without-structure that can never be revealed in the disclosure of truth as a presentation of the thing itself” (Lucy 130). To illustrate, Aunt Augusta also underscores the meaning of ignorance during the interview with Jack:
…a man should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know? Jack: (after some hesitation). I know nothing, Lady Bracknell. Lady Bracknell: I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever (IBE 17).
In the play the wooing scenes of lovers can be considered to be examples of moral and social conventions of Victorian Age. For instance, when Jack declares his love to Gwendolen her response is:
We live, as I hope you know, Mr Worthing, in an age of ideals. The fact is constantly mentioned in the most expensive monthly magazines, and has reached the provincial pulpits, I am told; and my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest (IBE 13).
Gwendolen as a young and naïve woman is clearly controlled by the conventions of her society in choosing her husband. Therefore, she insistently wants Jack to make ‘the pose’ during his proposal. Cecily too, has some ideas about a ‘proper’ engagement and marriage that are deduced from the conventional norms of the society. For all characters of the play these important ‘rules’ stand for the moral-making and totalizing concepts. They create the illusion of reality for them and ‘order’ their lives according to these moral rules. Their constructed nature or artificiality is revealed through parodies and pastiches by the playwright. The social codes are not only influential in society but they are also made visible to be satirized and parodied or ‘deconstructed’ by the text itself.
To sum up, The Importance of Being Earnest is quite a self-deconstructive text as it problematizes the totalizing concepts, the validity of language and reality, binary oppositions, the concept of origin, and it ceaselessly questions conclusions. Moreover, as Thomson claims,
The play itself warns us that to uncover the truth about it might turn out to be simply the simulation of earnestness, the invention of a stylish claim to deep insight! Any attempt to stabilise this problem and offer an interpretation of the play by appealing to Wilde’s intentions, to his critical writings, or to his audience’s expectations, will narrow and reduce our experience of the text as contradictory or paradoxical. What makes the play literary is its resistance to any attempt to reduce it to being the vehicle for one message or another (311).
The play testifies to the statement that no matter when and why a text has been written it is constantly open to interpretation, and as a text is a network of arbitrary signifiers it can never be stabilized/frozen by one authoritative interpretation.
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