Notes on Earnest

So, I reread/rewatched the Importance of Being Earnest…in that I began rereading, got tired, and just netflixed the excellent 1952 version (  I’ve read the play several times before, and even tried out for the part of Ms. Prism in a college production (I didn’t get the part—though I think I would have done an infinitely goofier job), but I think I’d forgotten the best scenes.  The scene where Gwendolen and Cecily, both thinking they are engaged to the same man, antagonize each other over tea is just priceless. 

Gwendolen.  You have filled my tea with lumps of sugar, and though I asked most distinctly for bread and butter, you have given me cake.  I am known for the gentleness of my disposition, and the extraordinary sweetness of my nature, but I warn you, Miss Cardew, you may go too far.

Cecily.  [Rising.]  To save my poor, innocent, trusting boy from the machinations of any other girl there are no lengths to which I would not go.

It just doesn’t get more tense than that.  😉 

Throughout the course of the play, Wilde uses a distinct repetition of nearly exactly the same lines, when Jack proposes to Gwendolen, as when Algernon proposes to Cecily:

Gwendolen: …my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest.  There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence….


Jack.  But you don’t really mean to say that you couldn’t love me if my name wasn’t Ernest?

Gwendolen.  But your name is Ernest.

Jack.  Yes, I know it is.  But supposing it was something else?  Do you mean to say you couldn’t love me then?


Cecily.  You must not laugh at me, darling, but it had always been a girlish dream of mine to love some one whose name was Ernest.  [Algernon rises, Cecily also.]  There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence. I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest.

Algernon.  But, my dear child, do you mean to say you could not love me if I had some other name?

Cecily.  But what name?

Algernon.  Oh, any name you like—Algernon—for instance . . .


Not only is the phrase: “there is something in that name that inspires confidence” repeated, but the gist and tempo of these conversations is exactly the same: what do you mean you couldn’t love me? Huh? What if my name was this? Nope.  This repetition results in great humorous effect—both men are in exactly the same position of having to lose their names to get the girl, and the absurdity of two girls insisting on one name is amplified through repetition.  There is also a nice gender reversal in having the men give up their own names in order to be suitable for marriage rather than the women, and perhaps a Shakespearean reference?  “A rose by any other name” apparently does not smell as sweet to these girls.

Of course, to call this repetition self-plagiarism would be absurd.  It has great poetic effect within one work; the author did not copy with merely the effect of repetition, but of poetic emphasis, amplification, and comic effect.  We do not call poets who repeat lines for poetic effect self-plagiarists, so nor should we call Wilde a self-plagiarist here.

But this got me thinking.  Is it fair to leave boundaries between works?  In other words, if repetition is not self-plagiarism if it occurs in one work, what if it occurs in works by the same author, which are tied together in some way?  The line “The road goes ever on and on” is used throughout several books in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings as well as the Hobbit, and these are separate books, but I don’t think anyone would call this self-plagiarism either—it is a useful repetition, with unifying effects. 

OK—so, what about works with the same setting, but different plots, then?  Can these be not self-plagiarisms, but references within the same world, pointing to a unifying source, to amplify its origin point or to tie together pieces which would have been separate threads?


I’ve noticed a couple types of self-plagiarism in Wilde’s plays. 

  1. A product placement type.  An idle conversation in A Woman of No Importance talked about the concept of the Ideal Husband, which is the name of another Wilde play—it’s as if he were putting in references which would play well to his audience of theater-goers and advertise himself, and his plays as a product in a meta way.  The audience could chuckle in the same way that a hammy scene of a superhero tossing a Pepsi to a kid.
  2. The repetition of his epigrams.  In Ernest there is the line: women becomes like her mother… This line is also in in and blank. 
  3. Reoccuring themes/situations/ideas.  I don’t think we can blame Wilde for this—it seems as though some artists are painting the same subject for their entire careers—is it self-plagiarism, maybe not, but it may turn out to be only one work in the end.


Looking at type 2, if we saw these as occurring in the same work, they would be repetition, perhaps self-referencing, unifying devices rather than self-plagiarisms.  In that way, type 2 becomes much more like type 1, self-advertisements.  References to his prior wit and witticisms, appealing to repetition of message, like good billboards, he advertises through recognition.  His genius is his product.


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