Love is perhaps the most actively sought moral objective of one’s life. And though marriage is often thought to be the logical consequence of love, it is Oscar Wilde’s contention in his satire, The Importance of Being Earnest, that love begets bliss and marriage thwarts this course of bliss. Algernon Moncrieff spends very little time falling in love and the rest of the time striving toward engagement. Wilde demonstrates through him that once one becomes intent upon achieving a goal, the individual’s motivation becomes a matter of action rather than truth. Algernon is no longer driven by a moral objective; instead, he becomes intent upon achieving a societal standard. “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple” (35). Love is truth. Marriage results in the systematic complication of love. Algernon becomes disillusioned in the process of seeking truth. In defining Algernon’s preconceived notion of marriage and then describing the subsequent earnest pursuit of engagement, Wilde achieves a consequential climax that satirizes marriage.
Algernon is a pompous man of seemingly strong, albeit unconventional, convictions. Wilde uses him for the sole purpose of mocking the sanctimonious institution of marriage. In the beginning of the play, Algernon considers Jack’s intent to propose to Gwendolen to be “business,” not “pleasure” (30). Yet eventually Algernon also resolves to propose to Cicely, discrediting his own established belief: “I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty” (30). Algernon clearly, at one point, sees marriage as a means to an end. Once he meets Cecily, however, the idea of maintaining truth above reality is hard to rationalize; he wants only to move forward in the proper manner established by society.
Upon initially hearing about Cicely, Algernon is intrigued. She is no more than a name on a cigarette case. After intense probing, Jack discloses Cicely’s identity. Algernon then tells Jack, “I would rather like to see Cicely” (51). She suddenly becomes more of a name to Algernon, and he begins to pursue her as more than a person; she becomes his moral objective. When Jack reveals to Gwendolen his address in the country, Algernon secretly “writes the address on his shirt-cuff” (53) in hopes of going to meet Cicely. Shortly after his first encounter with her, he reveals to Jack, “I am in love with Cicely, and that is everything” (71). This newfound love is his truth. He admits to her, “Cicely, ever since I first looked upon your wonderful and incomparable beauty, I have dared to love you wildly, passionately, devotedly, hopelessly” (73). Yet Algernon quickly abandons the truth imbedded in love, his moral objective, and instead opts for convention. “I don’t care for anybody in the whole world but you. I love you, Cecily. You will marry me, won’t you?” (74). The irony displayed through Algernon’s self-contradiction is the pivotal progression that eventually results in Wilde’s intended resolution of the play
Algernon reveals he “simply wanted to be engaged to Cecily” (88) to Jack, who quickly dismisses him. “There is certainly no chance of your marrying Miss Cardew” (88). It is this obstacle, and its respective denouement, which outlines the basis of Wilde’s thematic emphasis. Prospective marriage, by means of engagement, serves not only as an obstacle but also a resolution. In Algernon’s view, “Cecily is the sweetest, dearest, prettiest girl in the whole world. And [he doesn’t] care twopence about social possibilities” (98). In actuality, however, it is the promise of social possibilities that motivate him to an end. For, it is his eventual conformity to societal norms that destroys the moral truth he once held dear. By the time Wilde establishes definite engagement for the couple, Algernon and Cicely embrace, and the play ends. As Algernon said in Act 1, “The excitement is all over” (30). This anti-passionate climax epitomizes Wilde’s sardonic wit, humoring a societal institution. Algernon achieves what he believes he wants, but loses his motivation in the process. Marriage, at one point, “seem[ed] to be very problematic to” Algernon. His only hope is to abandon the social expectation of him as a husband and return to his life of “Bunburying” (36).
“It is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth” (108). Though Algernon, by the play’s close, does not realize this, it is the inevitable that he will eventually realize that the truth is no longer with him. For, Algernon initially speaks nothing but the truth. Yet on his path toward achieving his moral objective, he becomes so intent upon the actions that he loses the truth; Algernon is so set on becoming engaged that he forgets that divorces, not marriages, “are made in heaven” (30). Wilde’s initial intention is for Algernon to appear to be the antithesis to society’s spokesperson. As Algernon, contrary to expectation, abandons his own truth, and the play ends happily ever after, Wilde reveals to the reader his view that marriage is ridiculous.