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It has been noted that the eponymous characters of Ernest and Tiffany never actually appear in

the texts to which they have given their names.

Compare and contrast the presentation of identity in The Importance of Being Earnest and

Breakfast at Tiffanys.

The main irony of each text is that we never meet the eponymous protagonists; in Oscar

Wildes play he is merely a figment of imagination whilst in Truman Capotes novella Tiffanys

is the name of a shop. Wilde uses the pun of Earnest/ Ernest to indicate concepts of identity and

the idea of what is real or what is not. Bunburying (the made-up escape of identity by

Algernon) sets in motion the events and unravels the twisted plot with numerous mistaken

identities. Capote plays with the names in his novella and so as a reader we can see that his focus

is also identity. Tiffanys is the one constant in the text, the shop itself doesnt actually ever

change, whereas everybody else around it does.

For Jack and Algernon creating alter egos for themselves helps to avoid social obligations

and to impose upon people that do not know them. As Jack explains to Algernon in Act 1, My

name is Ernest in the town and Jack in the country. Jack uses two names so that he can protect

the entity of his niece Cecily, and prevent Gwendolen from discovering his true family history.

Algernon also invents another phantom identity called Bunbury and the derivation of this name

was significant insofar as Bunbury is a small village located in Cheshire where a few prominent

gentleman of the country drew up the Bunbury Agreement. This tried to ensure that Cheshire

would stay neutral at this time. Perhaps Wilde chose this name because their plan failed as

national interests overruled local ones, much like Jacks plan to avoid conflict between his city

life and his country life also did not work. 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. The

use of the verb choose emphasises the control that the characters have in creating two identities.

Algernon often dislikes the idea of socialising with people like his Aunt Augusta, so has created

an imaginary friend to avoid these events. Both alter egos are a way of freedom for each


Similarly, Lulamae Barnes in Breakfast at Tiffanys invents an alternative persona when

she moves to the city and becomes Hollie Golightly. We only discover late in the novella, from

her estranged husband Doc Golightly, that she created an identity in order to start over and live a

life that satisfied her more. In addition, in Breakfast at Tiffanys each character seems to use a

different name for each other, depending on their mood: Holly is referred to as many names such

as Lulamae, Okie, phony, wild thing, the blonde and beautiful actress and, fragile

eyeful. These nicknames vary from compliments to insults to mere observations due to her good

looks. The narrators name is never discovered and he too is referred to as many things such as

Cookie, Fred, and Buster. It is almost as if everything is made up in Hollys and the

narrators worlds, nothing is real or permanent. The fact that we never discover the narrators

name highlights the readers sense of him as an outsider of both society and the narrative itself.

He doesnt seem to belong in Hollys world. . Wilde also understands the need to take on a

different persona as he creates different characters in each of his stories, and he himself showed

his true desires with his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. Having to hide his affair and please Douglas

meant that his behaviour was different publicly and privately, similar to the nature of Jacks

dissimulation about his name with his family and with his social group.

Set in post-war America, Breakfast at Tiffanys shows that there was hope for the future,

although it was also a time of domestic affluence but international uncertainty because of the

Cold War. Holly seems to fit in well with this era as she has no future planned and does not wish

for that to change; being wild and free is what Holly is known best for. Wildes play, set fifty

years earlier within the confines of the English aristocracy and very aware of class differences,

necessarily deals with a society that is snobbish, dominant and wealthy. This kind of society

could not be much more different from that depicted in Breakfast at Tiffanys where we see a

much freer and much more fluid society. Lady Bracknell is a typical matriarch, attempting to

marry-off her daughter Gwendolen to the most suitable man possible, as we can see in Act II

when Jacks identity is finally revealed and she exclaims: You can hardly imagine that I and

Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter to marry into a cloak-room and form

an alliance with a parcel? The word parcel creates humour as she compares Jack to an

inanimate object. This shows the intense class consciousness that was common at this time. She

could not imagine Jack marrying her daughter as he does not have stable, noble connections and

she thinks that women marry to improve social status- something that she believes could not

supply. Lady Bracknell makes it very clear from the outset that she does not approve of Jack as a

husband for Gwendolen and is appalled by his upbringing. This shows the ultimate

ineffectiveness of concealing a true identity as in this case the truth about Jack surfaced.

Just as Lady Bracknell to some extent misjudges the true character of Jack, so Madame

Spanella in Breakfast at Tiffanys also misjudges the true identity of Holly by referring to Holly

as a whore and pointing the police in the direction of her flat when they come to arrest her. She

even goes as far as organising a petition in an attempt to evict Holly from the building as the

young socialite is morally objectionable and the perpetrator of all-night gatherings that

endanger the safety and sanity of her neighbours. Sanity is a word used loosely as Madame

Spanella herself was an irrational eccentric and a lunatic. Unlike Lady Bracknell in Wildes play,

Madame Spanella has a small part in the novella, but her character is memorable as the narrator

remembers nobody living there except Madame Sapphia Spanella, a husky coloratura who

every afternoon went roller-skating in Central Park. At this point the narrator is no longer living

in the flats so this indicates he is still aware of her presence and she seems to be the only person

he remembers, most likely due to her quirky personality and character. It could even be

suggested that Spanella is a hypocrite and a misogynist as she criticises Holly for her unruly

behaviour but when Quaintance Smith acts in a similar way she accepts it because she likes him.

This demonstrates how subjective the question of identity can be.

We see such subjective attitudes in Lady Bracknells character as she shows favouritism

to her nephew Algernon, who is often up to no good. She has nothing bad to say about him- [he]

is an extremely, I may almost say an ostentatiously, eligible young man. Yet when discussing

her thoughts on Jack, who has no financial troubles due to a substantial inheritance, she is quick

to deny him the opportunity to marry her daughter because of his lack of connections. Lady

Bracknells famous response when discovering that Jack was an orphan, suggesting that a lack of

parents was carelessness on his part, emphasises her snobbery, but also one of the many

comical sides of the play. The word carelessness evokes humour; it is a euphemism to make

the absence seem gentler. Jack has not literally lost his parents and Wilde is merely mocking the

manner in which society sugar coats an unusual upbringing- which to Lady Bracknell is a Jacks

orphan state. Her absurd remark reveals a lot about her character and how she is a product of her

class and time. She even admits with unconscious hypocrisy that she came from nothing: When

I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of

allowing that to stand in my way. The use of the conjunction but emphasises the humour that

Wilde integrates. Her identity, therefore has been changed during the course of her marriage to

Lord Bracknell, as she has found status and a name within the society of the city and she is

happy to leave Lord Bracknell in the background.

Although there are indisputable similarities between Lady Bracknell and Madame

Spanella, there are also large differences. For example, Spanella becomes hysterical when Holly

lashes out in her apartment and causes disruption: Run, shrieked Madame Spanella, pushing

me. Tell the police murder! Again, this is further example of Madame Spanellas eccentricity

and irrational behaviour as she shrieks and becomes aggressive. She consistently becomes

frustrated with Hollie and has a wild temper. In comparison, we feel that Lady Bracknell would

never become frantic or uncontrollable; it was not in her nature and it could have damaged her

reputation. This is not to say that Lady Bracknell is lacking emotion, as she does seem to become

increasingly irritated and a little flustered with Jack when he reveals to her he was found in a

handbag and had no family that he knew of: I would strongly advise you, Mr Worthing, to try

and acquire some relations as soon as possible, and to make a definite effort to produce at any

rate one parent, of either sex, before the season is quite over. She does not care about the gender

of the parent, merely that one is present for her to probe his background. Here, Wilde is using

Lady Bracknell as before to mock this social class, as her impossible wishes for Jack drive the

action of the play. Like Spanella, Lady Bracknell judges the youth of the play and all the while

comments on their actions. This constant judging allows the audience and the reader to have

more of an understanding and perhaps sympathy towards the other characters in the texts.

Language informs identity, and in Breakfast at Tiffanys it mostly consists of thoughts

from the narrator and speech from Holly. As the text is a novella we get to know each character

in a different way from the play by Wilde, and Capotes text is designed by be read by an

individual rather than an audience. Capotes tone is blunt and very to-the-point, much like Lady

Bracknell but in a modern idiom. Holly often scrutinises other characters without much thought

and what she says often shocks the reader. She generalises largely about the population of gay

women and uses multiple derogatory terms: I simply cant afford a maid; and really, dykes are

wonderful home-makers, they love to do all the work, you never have to bother about brooms

and defrosting and sending out the laundry. Her use of the word dykes alone is enough to

devalue gay women, furthermore allowing her to be viewed as unintelligent and outspoken. This

is especially shocking to a modern audience as the term is no longer socially acceptable. She

gives the narrators book a cold review and thinks nothing of it yet becomes offended when he

reminds her that her marriage to Rusty Trawler was only for money. Her dialogue reminds us of

the naivety of many young uneducated women who, like Hollie, dont understand the hardship of

discrimination. Michael Billington from The Guardian even goes as far to refer to her as

hedonistic and a capricious fantasist. The style of the text used by Capote to portray Hollys

character shows that she is brutally honest and straight to the point- something the reader can

either love or hate about her character. Bede Scott suggests the narrator chose style over

substance with his writing and chose more to deal with the great basic things in life. Hollys

character, like the style of writing, does not voice her opinions of real world problems and most

of what she discusses is superficial- I thought writers were quite old. Of course Saroyan isnt

old. I met him at a party, and really he isnt old at all. In fact, if hed give himself a closer

shave by the way, is Hemingway old? She often rambles about nothing and switches topic

rapidly. Holly does not appear to be shy and she is one of the most vocal characters, whereas the

narrator is quite the opposite. He is a good listener with much less to say so he may come across

as boring, or alternatively he could merely be uncomfortable around Holly and never at ease.

In contrast, the language in The Importance of Being Ernest is often formal and

metaphorical, with many humorous situations that seem too absurd or too serious at the wrong

times. Wildean epigrams are used consistently throughout the play, particularly by Algernon:

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. Thats his. We learn

from this that Algernon is actually more intelligent than he is given credit for and he can be

honest when it is required, as we would expect from a Wildean epigram. Despite the comic

overtones this statement does touch on some truth. The wittiness of the remark allows the

audience to understand more about the female characters of the play and what may be expected

from them. To a certain extent Wild presents women within the conventions of the Edwardian era

they have a lack of independence, for example, both Gwendolen and Cecily identify with their

guardians. Cecily shows an imagination like her uncle Jacks when she invents her relationship

with Ernest. This exchange between Algernon (Ernest) demonstrates this strength of


I don't seem to care about anything anymore... I only care for you. I love you Cecily. Will you

marry me?

Why, of course! We've been engaged for the past 3 months!

Wilde uses her diary to create imaginary scenes which believes have actually happened, in a

similar way to Jack becoming wrapped up in his fake identity of Ernest. Wilde shows here the

confusion of identity is not limited to the male characters. Gwendolen is also fairly similar to her

mother as she is hard-headed, determined and forceful. When asked if she would marry Jack if

his name was not Ernest, she replies that is clearly a metaphysical speculation, and like most

metaphysical speculations have has very little reference at all to the actual facts of real life as we

know them. Just like her mother she has a high status in society and cannot afford for anything

to make her name look bad- image means everything. Here Gwendolen questions the entire

subject of metaphysics and Wilde asks if what we inherit from our parents is really that

important. Just like her mother, she has a high status in society and cannot afford for anything to

make her name look bad. Image and a largely false identity means everything.

The character of Lady Bracknell in particular uses the typical language of her class. Her

selection of words is very precise, indicating that for her, part of identity is found in the way one

speaks. An example of this would be when she says A hand-bag?- her most famous line. The

way she structures her speech and responses to Jack and the other characters shows evidence for

her sensitivity of the tone and substance of her speech, for instance, Pray allow me to detain you

for a moment. This matter may prove to be one of vital importance to Lord Bracknell and myself.

Is this Miss Prism a female of repellent aspect, remotely connected with education? Lady

Bracknell chooses repellent aspect to insult Miss Prism: it highlights her lack of beauty in a

seemingly polite but also vicious and sadistic way. Although at the time of the early 20th century,

dialogue was civilised and upper-class in comparison to modern language of today, Wilde does

not make Lady Bracknell lose her conventional upper-class Victorian respectability. She cares a

lot for how people are recognised in society and their family background- I feel bound to tell

you that you are not down on my list of eligible young men, although I have the same list as the

dear Duchess of Bolton has. We work together, in fact. However, I am quite ready to enter your

name, should your answers be what a really affectionate mother requires. She has no care for

the individual but only the world around them. Lady Bracknell is not interested in the true

person, but only the presentation of an acceptable identity.

In contrast, in Breakfast at Tiffanys, Holly and her brother were brought up without

being shaped for a specific lifestyle as they had no parents to take care of them. In consequence,

their identities are much more fluid and enjoy a freedom that none of Wildes characters really

do. Although we never meet her brother Fred, he reminds us of a time before Holly became a

typical New York girl. We only really see a sweet, sentimental side of Holly when Doc Golightly

arrives at her apartment, revealing her past with him. Doc and Fred are two characters who are

assumed to be minor and of not much importance, but when Holly hears of the death of her

beloved brother she finally loses her calm and confident persona and goes mad- I followed them

into the apartment which was tremendously wrecked...Even the icebox had been emptied, its

contents tossed around the room: raw eggs were sliding down the walls, and in the midst of the

debris Hollys no-name cat was calmly licking a puddle of milk. Amongst all the excitement,

the cat remains composed and unfazed, suggesting that Hollys life is rapidly collapsing. She

holds Fred close to her heart and often talks of how wonderful life would be when he returns

from the army. We see her have little patience with other peoples peculiar mannerisms but she

seems to have an understanding with Fred; a side we rarely see with Holly.

Hollys identity is in a constant state of flux: Holiday Golightly is used as a pun from

Capote as Holly has a (somewhat unclear) strategy of avoiding stability and responsibilities in

her life when they threaten to ruin her chances of freedom. Capote makes her character transient.

She sees herself as an artificial object, an artwork of her own creation and in this way she

constructs an idealised identity. She does not give her own cat a name because like her, he does

not belong. Cats have an independence and aloofness about them, whereas people rely on

permanence to give them identity, something that Jack, in The Importance of Being Earnest

also lacks after being found in a station waiting room. Holly changes her identity literally and

metaphorically as she becomes Holly from Lulamae, but is transformed from a country girl to a

city girl. She becomes Holly in order to prevent people from discovering she was from

impoverished roots, which says a lot about her true character. Dina Smith argues that Hollys

metamorphosis is a reflection of part of the American Dream for women and it signifies the

sanctification of the capitalist ideology. She is a major symbol for the novella as her persona is

entirely self-constructed, much like Jacks, and her signature appearance is a result of deliberate


These two texts rely heavily on the presentation of identity, much like Sarah Waters

novel Tipping the Velvet. Nan and Kitty both make a living by creating new identities and

keeping who they really are hidden to others around them, just like Holly and Wilde himself.

Furthermore, Waters protects Nans relationship with Kitty due to the harsh realities and

discrimination against women, particularly for gay women in the late 20th century. Identity is

important as it creates a sense of and belonging in society, expressed through language, clothing

and social status. Capote and Wilde use different identities to express each characters

personality and hide the persona that society does not want to see. Although Wildes hilarious

play mocks the rules and expectations of society, it allows the audience to think about real life

issues people have identifying themselves with a particular group or society. Capote also allows

the reader to create an understanding of the behaviour from certain characters, sympathising with

them after he reveals their true identity.


Otto Reinert- Satiric Strategy in The Importance of Being Ernest (1956)