A "Revolutionary Outrage": The Importance of Being Earnest as Social Criticism
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A “Revolutionary Outrage”:
The Importance of Being Earnest as Social Criticism

I propose that The Importance of Being Earnest allows for two readings: one can assume the role of the narrator of "The Portrait of Mr. W.H." (Wilde) or that of Lady Bracknell. Both readings have their limits and privilege the performance either of class or of sexuality in the play. In "The Portrait of Mr. W.H.," Wilde's narrator undertakes a project that is essentially one of recovery – a counter-reading in the face of the heterosexist narratives that have effaced the homosexual desire at the heart of Shakespeare's sonnets.1 This same assumption informs the arguments of Christopher Craft, Patricia Behrendt, and Joel Fineman; they look in Earnest for representations of a fully formed gay masculinity – a "Uraniste" in Ernest (Behrendt 172–73).2 They begin with a "positivist desire for proof in the pudding" (Craft 120) and find a current of same-sex desire running through the play that destabilizes various heterosexual assumptions. But it all begins with the assumption that there are representations of gay masculinities in the play; it begins with a theory, like Wilde's narrator's project – that there was a boy actor named Willie Hughes who was the object of Shakespeare's desire. Reflecting on this theory, the narrator reviews Shakespeare's sonnets and finds his proof in the pudding: "Every poem seemed to me to corroborate Cyril Graham's theory. I felt as if I had my hand upon Shakespeare's heart, and was counting each separate throb and pulse of passion. I thought of the wonderful boy-actor, and saw his face in every line" ("Portrait" 323).

Later, the narrator reflects on his scholarly project and declares that "the one flaw in the theory is that it presupposes the existence of the person whose existence is the subject of dispute" (334). In the context of Earnest, this person is the fully formed, self-identified male homosexual – a type of masculinity that was only emerging through events like the Wilde trials.

It is the argument of Alan Sinfield's book-length study, The Wilde Century, that the codes of behavior we have come to view as stereotypes of male homosexuality [End Page 659] were constituted primarily through Wilde's exposure in the trials of 1895 and do not necessarily prefigure the trials. In his introduction, Sinfield argues explicitly against reading Earnest as a play about homosexual desire although he remains sympathetic toward the impulse to provide such a reading:

Many commentators assume that queerness, like murder, will out, so there must be a gay scenario lurking somewhere in the depths of The Importance of Being Earnest. But it doesn't really work. It might be nice to think of Algernon and Jack as a gay couple, but most of their dialogue is bickering about property and women; or Bunburying as cruising for rough trade, but it is an upper-class young heiress that we see Algernon visiting, and they want to marry.

(vi)

Sinfield is almost certainly responding to Craft, Behrendt, and Fineman when he argues that identifying a fully constituted homosexual subject in the play is anachronistic. In his essay, "'Effeminacy' and 'Femininity': Sexual Politics in Wilde's Comedies," he isolates one particularly anachronistic claim that is made by Fineman and rearticulated by Craft – that Bunbury "was not only British slang for a male brothel, but is also a collection of signifiers that straightforwardly express their desire to bury in the bun" (Fineman, qtd. in Sinfield "'Effeminacy'" 34). "Bun" does not signify "buttock" in any of the dictionary records that Sinfield reviews – that is, until it assumes that meaning in United States sometime in the 1960s (35).

In point of fact, Fineman's argument on the nature of Bunburying is a relatively minor point in his larger psychoanalytic reading of the play; for him, the shape of the bun and the image of "burying in the bun" (89) in psychoanalytic terms are more important than how the word "bun" might have been deployed at the fin de siècle. Sinfield's attention to this single detail of Fineman's argument may be overblown, and...