Romanticism, Forgery and the Credit Crunch: «Paper Promises: Restriction, Caricature, and the Ghost of Gold»

by Ian Haywood
Roehampton University

1.        The topic of literary forgery in the eighteenth century and Romantic period has become something of a boom industry in the last few decades. [1]  Since I published my own studies on this theme in the 1980s (The Making of History and Faking It), scholarly interest in this area has burgeoned and has contributed much to the remapping and redefining of literary history in this period. One reason for this renaissance is undoubtedly that the eighteenth century is so rich in primary sources. The literary forgeries of the “big three” still continue to fascinate scholars: I refer here of course to James Macpherson, who invented an ancient Scottish epic poet called Ossian; Thomas Chatterton, the boy wonder of Bristol who fabricated a series of poems and other documents supposedly written in the fifteenth century; and William Henry Ireland, who “discovered” a new play by Shakespeare,Vortigern and Rowena. Some of the scholarly interest in these figures and other forgers has been motivated by nationalistic affiliations: the “Ossianic Celtic revival” has produced solid studies by, among others, Fiona Stafford and Howard Gaskill, while Mary Ann Constantine has recently championed the Welsh antiquarian scholar-forger Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams). Other work has perhaps been stimulated by post-Foucauldian concerns about the vexed yet intriguing relationship between creative authorship, originality, and authenticity. As Debbie Lee notes in her chapter on «Forgeries» in Romanticism: An Oxford Guide (and this inclusion is itself symptomatic of the resurgence I am describing), “One of the things impostors and forgers make strikingly clear is the period’s idolatrous worship of authenticity and truth” (521). Chief among the iconoclasts determined to expose Romanticism’s “idolatrous worship of authenticity and truth” is Nick Groom, whose bookThe Forger’s Shadow (2002) represents the most sophisticated and searching re-evaluation of the impact of forgery on our conceptions of authorship and authenticity. Groom goes so far as to state that Romanticism “(for want of a better term) would have been very different without literary forgery—indeed it may not have recognisably existed at all” (Forger’s Shadow 15); hence the subtitle of his book, «How Forgery Changed the Course of Literature.»

2.        Groom’s book, together with recent studies by Debbie Lee, Margaret Russett, Jack Lynch and Robert Miles provide clear evidence that forgery studies have expanded well beyond those paradoxically-defined “original” fakes of the Big Three (supposedly ancient or renowned works of the past actually authored in the present and as such qualifying as new, “valid” creative texts). Forgery now embraces aspects of canonical authors’ poetic practice (such as plagiarism), but increasingly there is an interest in the colourful cases of exotic hoaxes and imposture, a tradition which begins with the sprightly career of the “Formosan” rogue George Psalmanazar. Indeed, the Romantic impostor has graduated into the heroic performer of Butlerian, transgressive gender and identity politics, most notably in the examples of Joanna Southcott (who claimed to be the bride of Christ) and the servant Mary Wilcox/Baker, alias “Princess Caraboo of Javasu.” As Groom remarks on Debbie Lee’s Romantic Liars: Obscure Women who became Impostors and Challenged an Empire (2006), “Lee’s impostors are women who disguised themselves to create social opportunities, which they lacked through gender and class prejudice” («Romanticism and Forgery» ). This cast of Romantic impostors continues to grow and is not restricted to one gender. One important and lively figure whom Lee overlooks and who takes the theme of forgery into the furthest regions of the British Empire is George Barrington, a celebrated “Prince of pickpockets” who was transported to Australia in 1791 where he supposedly wrote several pioneering biographical accounts of Botany Bay and New South Wales. As Nathan Garvey’s excellent study shows, these influential books were actually fabrications produced by unscrupulous publishers cashing in on Barrington’s celebrity.

3.        As these examples demonstrate, the subversive credentials of forgery continue to generate historical curiosity and scholarly passions. In Groom’s words, literary forgers are “by turns spectral, mad, illegitimate and elusive; vilified, criminalised, excluded from the canon” («Romanticism and Forgery»). However, one area of Romantic forgery which remains under-explored is financial forgery; to be precise, the massive counterfeiting of banknotes which emerged from the credit crisis of the Romantic period. The contemporary tone of the phrase “credit crisis” is quite intentional, as there are some striking (if depressing) parallels between the collapse of faith in paper money which occurred in the early nineteenth century and the current desperate measures to restore faith in an international monetary system based on credit and colossal levels of national debt. In one sense this recurrence attests to Romanticism’s failure to prevent credit becoming (in Brantlinger’s words) “a basic, unavoidable aspect of modern money and modern economic processes” (139) yet, as Brantlinger’s fine study shows, the Romantic period saw some of the most illuminating analyses of credit by both its supporters (such as Coleridge) and its radical critics (such as Blake, Cobbett and Shelley) (114-35). The stakes were extremely high: the controversy about credit struck not only at the roots of national wealth and security but also at the emerging idea of culture as a civilising force which both resisted and transcended commercialism. “Paper” was therefore a massively ambiguous symbol of both the fraudulent power of the state and the democratic medium of print culture and the press. If the problem for Romantic writers was to try to reconcile this contradiction, one course of action was relatively easy: if “paper” was illusory and dangerous, critics of credit could restate their faith in “real” gold and silver. But a remaining concern for “currency radicals” (Poovey 220) was that the rejection of what Cobbett called the “paper promises” of a debt-ridden system did not necessarily reveal a new source of value outside the (dis-credited) economy: what would be the literary or cultural manifestation of the absent gold standard? Hence the Romantic credit crisis may well have sharpened and deepened the Romantic quest for an “egotistical sublime” and a redemptive concept of culture uncontaminated by materialism, conformity and commodification (Williams, chapters 1-2).

4.        However, it was not the suspension of cash payments alone but another controversy which pushed the paper-money scam to the forefront of public debate: the spectacular increase in the number of executions for forgery. It was the severity of Britain’s “bloody” penal code which heightened and inflamed public opinion about the invidious connections between paper money and unreformed political power. This theme has been neglected by scholars of both Romantic forgery and the credit crisis, so it is to be hoped that the essays in this volume will open up some new lines of investigation and provide some interesting case studies. For opponents of paper money the public execution of hundreds of lower-class victims of petty forgery crimes (the handling of fake one-pound banknotes) was a spectacular display of the evils of an unreformed state which relied on a credit economy to pursue its goals. As the essays in this volume show, the shockwaves of these judicial crimes reverberate throughout the literature and culture of the Regency period and beyond—all that is needed are the methodological sensors to detect the tremors.

5.        My own interest in Romantic financial forgery takes up in a quite literal way the idea that forgery spectacularized the contradictions of the credit economy. The anti-hero of my essay is not the literary forger or bravura impostor but the spectral figure of the engraver: the generic producer of, on the one hand, both genuine and counterfeit currency and, on the other, the “shadow” economy of popular graphic caricatures. By giving the forgery controversy a visual turn, I show that Romantic-period anxieties about authenticity and value achieved a form of visual apotheosis through the “formidable” power of the caricaturist (and the source and significance of that word “formidable” will be revealed later). I propose that Romantic-period caricature actually flourished within the credit and forgery crisis, finding a fertile cultural climate for its own paper economy of “fake” or falsifying representations, and exploring in an inimitably effective way the dubious logic of a system built on “paper promises.”

Romanticism and Restriction


Of Augustus and Rome
The poets still warble
How he found it of brick
And left it of marble.



So of Pitt and of England
Men may say without vapour
How he found it of gold
And left it of paper. [2] 


6.        On 25 February 1797, “a day which will long be remembered”, according to William Cobbett (149), Prime Minister William Pitt went to see the King for an emergency meeting. The country was in a state of national alarm, as news had just arrived of a French invasion at Fishguard. In fact this turned out to be easily repelled (Figure 1), but the incident forced Pitt to consider an option he had resisted for some time. Fearing that there would be a run on the Bank of England which would in turn damage the financing of the war against France, he persuaded the King to issue (what turned out to be) a momentous decree: starting immediately, the Bank would no longer issue specie (cash or metal currency) in exchange for paper banknotes. The Bank Restriction Act, as it later passed into law, is a somewhat misleading title, as it actually led to a massive expansion of paper money. Specifically, the Act authorized the mass production of new £1 and £2 banknotes to replace the withdrawn specie, and it was this literal cheapening of the currency which would prove to be so disastrous in its social consequences. The explosion of paper money was seized on immediately by James Gillray, the period’s leading caricaturist. In his wonderful printMidas, published just a few weeks after Restriction came into force (Figure 2), Pitt is shown as a colossus squatting over the Rotunda of the Bank of England which serves him like a toilet. From both his rear end and his mouth Pitt is showering the Bank with the new low denomination notes which also make up his paper crown. We will return to this image throughout this essay as it forms one of the most iconic responses to the credit crisis, matched only by George Cruikshank’s Bank Restriction Note which we will meet shortly. Note that Gillray foregrounds Pitt’s megalomania and plays down the culpability of the Bank: obviously, at this very early stage he could not have foreseen the Bank’s role in securing convictions for forgery and the ensuing public outrage this engendered. Originally, Restriction was meant to last only six months, but as the credit crisis persisted the Act was renewed continually until specie payment was eventually reintroduced in 1821, by which time the national debt was an astonishing £854 million, or 2.7 times the national income (O’Brien 179). During its 24-year reign (which dovetails quite neatly with a large slice of the Romantic period), Restriction provoked a storm of controversy which is still under-valued in Romantic studies. Though the topic is mentioned in a number of books on forgery, the issue of forgery remains marginal in the seminal studies of the role of credit in British culture. [3]  But in light of the fact that, as Margot Finn notes, an “aversion to paper money” was “deeply rooted in Georgian England” (80) this theme clearly deserves more exploration.

7.        There were two major problems with Restriction. The first was that it seemed to undermine the very system of credit which it was supposedly safeguarding. Charles James Fox called the stoppage of cash payments “the first day of our national bankruptcy” (Richard, 1: 84). But, as we shall see, the Restriction crisis actually exposed deeper contradictions which had bedevilled the British “financial revolution” from its inception in the Restoration period (Dickson, chapters 1-2). The second problem with Restriction was more visible and sensational: London (the primary zone within which the new low denomination Bank of England notes circulated) saw a massive increase in executions for forgery. [4]  This catastrophe had three main causes. First, the vulnerability and gullibility of the lower classes who were unused to dealing with banknotes. [5]  Before this time forgery had been largely a white-collar crime. The best-known eighteenth-century forger was probably the Reverend William Dodd, who was executed in June 1777 for forging the signature of his former pupil Lord Chesterfield on a banknote valued at £4,000. Despite Dr Johnson coming to his aid and writing his pleas for clemency, and despite a large petition of 30,000 signatures in his favour, Dodd went to the gallows. As Boswell puts it in his Life of Johnson, Dodd had committed “the most dangerous crime in a commercial country” (828).

8.        The second contributing factor to the rise in Restriction forgery was the poor quality of the banknotes which made them easily counterfeited (Figure 3). The third factor was something which Gillray could not have foreseen: the ruthlessness of the Bank of England – the “head of all circulation” – in prosecuting offenders. [6]  Indeed, the Bank employed a team of lawyers at great expense to ensure prosecutions. The statistics are dramatic: the period 1783-97 saw only four prosecutions for forgery, but 1797-1821 (the Restriction period) saw over 2000 prosecutions and over 300 executions. The Bank spent thousands of pounds to secure these executions, and in some years such as 1819 this amounted to more than was lost through forgery (McGowen para 4). Almost one third of all executions at this time were for forgery, but the vast majority of these were concentrated in the post-Napoleonic war period, when economic depression and demobilization of thousands of troops and sailors produced ever greater incentives for the forger (Handler, «Forging the Agenda» ). When the government reneged on the original promise to abolish Restriction after six months of peace (which eventually came in 1815), public hostility to the growing body count of convicted forgers and handlers (or “utterers”) became vitriolic. James Mackintosh spoke in parliament of the “course of guilt and blood which had followed the stoppage of cash payments” [7]  while Henry Brougham railed at the “human sacrifices to the Moloch of Paper Credit.” [8]  The resurgent radical press—perhaps drawing on memories of similar injustices against the plebeian body, such as the Waltham Black Acts against poaching, or the widespread practice of press-ganging and crimping – persistently and sensationally exposed the injustices of the forgery trials. Thomas Wooler’s Black Dwarf declaimed that “homicide has been legalized” to defend “the paper bubbles which are dignified with the name of currency” (2 [9 September 1818], 561). In 1818, when almost 30,000 fake banknotes were in circulation, public sympathy for the hapless plebeian forger led to numerous acquittals. [9]  Doubts were also expressed about the competence of the Bank of England in recognising a fake from the real banknote. As early as 1814 an anonymous caricature called A Peep into the Rag Shop in Threadneedle Street highlighted this theme. The print shows a poor forger pleading with Bank of England directors who are examining a bank note. As the speech bubbles make clear, behind their callous bluster is dire ineptitude:

“Upon my soul I have my doubts but at all events—we had better declare it bad.”
“Take him out Thomas !!! he has a d—-d hanging lok.”
“Away with the Vagabond! Do you think we sit here for nothing!”

By the late 1810s, therefore, forgery was no longer, in Handler’s words, a “uniquely subversive” crime which undermined what William Wilberforce called the “vital principle of a commercial nation”, but a dramatic exposure of the eighteenth-century “bloody code” (Handler, «Forging the Agenda,» 264, 263). The response of both the Bank of England and the government to this barrage of criticism was characteristically insensitive: rather than campaigning for leniency, they both launched inquiries aimed at finding a foolproof or “inimitable” design for the banknote. However, the clamour of public opinion was proving to be a formidable force and in 1819 official moves began to review both Restriction and capital punishment.


9.        There could have been no timelier a moment than January 1819, therefore, for the radical publisher William Hone and the leading Regency caricaturist George Cruikshank to issue their own “inimitable” contribution to the Restriction controversy. The Bank Restriction Note and its companion piece the Bank Restriction Barometer (Figures 4 and 5) were published just days after the Bank of England’s inquiry concluded that a forgery-proof design had to be robust enough to withstand the “formidable power of imitation” of the engraver (Times, 27 January 1819). Hone and Cruikshank undoubtedly appreciated this ironic tribute to their joint production, as the Bank Restriction Note takes the form of a mock-submission to the inquiry. [10]  Unlike earlier satirical banknotes which resembled actual counterfeits (Figure 6), the Hone-Cruikshank caricature is more than just a “formidable” imitation which exposes the flimsy authenticity of the original. By using visceral and witty gallows symbolism, Hone and Cruikshank inscribed into the banknote the catastrophic social consequences of its circulation: what Black Dwarf called the “blood-cemented fabric of paper currency” (2 [14 October 1818], 611). Reminiscent of the “blood sugar” anti-slavery propaganda of the 1790s, the Bank Restriction Note defamiliarizes and demonizes everyday consumption, transforming banknotes into emblems of blood money: satirically, this is their true appearance and true value (the Bank’s role as surrogate executioner is evidenced by the replacement of its clerks’ signature with that of Jack Ketch, the notorious hangman of the 1680s).

10.        The national calamity of Restriction can be gauged by comparing Gillray’s efflorescent vision of paper-money inflation with Hone and Cruikshank’s single banknote: with hindsight, Pitt becomes an apocalyptic monster of destruction, spewing out seemingly innocuous and ephemeral scraps of paper which are actually seeds of future calamity. Put another way, Pitt is spreading his malign influence over the Bank to ensure its compliance in devastating the lower classes, those absent or proleptic victims of the new dispensation (Pitt puts John Bull in the Rotunda but he is clearly incongruous). The Midas legend is brilliantly if ironically apt, as the new notes will bring death to those who touch them and ‘restrict’ the body politic in the most debased way possible. Seen in conjunction with Cruikshank’s caricature, the full significance of the catastrophic transformation of “value” under Restriction becomes terrifyingly apparent. In a series of mock-mythic metamorphoses, a whole national narrative of modernity and progress is unravelled: gold transmutes into paper, paper into its forged “shadow”, and this phantom form of circulation is re-incarnated into the “blood” of the nation, an inverted symbol of national well-being. The function of currency as both the literal and symbolic signifier of national wealth and security is systematically dis-credited by satirically re-encoding its semiotic processes as both fantastical and lethal—as if currency is the Gothic alter-ego of caricature itself.

11.        The Hone-Cruikshank prints were an instant success and undoubtedly contributed to raising or inflaming public awareness about the evils of both paper money and capital punishment. [11]  Significantly, it was in 1819 that Peel’s Act finally promised the restoration of specie payment by 1823 (though this was achieved by 1821, when Britain formally adopted the gold standard), and during the same year a parliamentary inquiry into capital punishment focused on forgery as one of the main reasons for reforming Britain’s harsh penal code. In his old age Cruikshank claimed that his print had single-handedly led to the abolition of the death penalty for forgery 13 years later, an exaggeration though a forgivable one. [12] 

12.        But the spectacular achievements of the Bank Restriction Note should not be allowed to overshadow the quiet power of its companion print the Bank Restriction Barometer. Clearly, this print takes a different approach to its companion piece’s mimetic wit. At first sight the Barometer appears to be a simple visual illustration of the radical argument that over-investment in paper currency leads to national ruin, but the satirical dynamic is more complex than this. Many viewers in 1819 would have recognised that the print was a close parody of the Evangelical spiritual barometer of the late eighteenth century (Figure 7). In the caricature, the salutary function of the vertical scale is inverted: the overheated economy replaces sublime spiritual redemption and the gravitational security of gold replaces the sins of the flesh (and note that novel reading is calibrated at minus 40!). This parodic allusion makes clear that the satirical target of the Barometer is the quasi-religious “faith” in paper money which, as we shall see, both underpinned and troubled the “financial revolution” from its Williamite origins. But the process of allusion does not end there, as the spiritual barometer first appears in Hogarth’s anti-Methodist caricature Enthusiasm Delineated (Figure 8). The echo of Hogarth is, I believe, a self-authorizing reference to the English caricature tradition which first accrued substantial cultural authority by critiquing the new monied interest of the early eighteenth century. Like the fake banknote, the satirical print shadowed, mirrored and exposed the new credit economy throughout its history.

Gold into Paper

13.        The Restriction controversy was the breaking point of an ideological instability which lay at the heart of the paper money system. If the Romantic period was haunted by what Shelley in The Mask of Anarchy called the “ghost of gold”, [13]  the earlier eighteenth century was haunted by the transubstantiation of paper. When Charles James Fox remarked that “the solidity of Notes consisted in their being convertible into cash” (Times, 1 March 1797), he identified that magical process of transformation which underpinned the credit economy and which could maintain the illusion that banknotes were “solid” rather than ephemeral and insubstantial. To its many critics, Pitt’s Restriction Act of 1797 jeopardised the nation by undermining the system of credit and national debt which it was supposedly trying to protect. It was this system of deferred payment which lay behind the creation of the Bank of England in 1694 and which allowed Britain to finance wars and imperial gains well beyond its actual stock of bullion—as Roy Porter puts it succinctly, “Britannia”s wars were won on credit” (132). The genius of the “financial revolution” was that it utilized the foundational economic metaphor of circulation to naturalize and anthropomorphize convertibility: [14]  In this imaginary, paper money is the blood which periodically returns to the heart (the Bank’s bullion), to be then pumped out into further circulation, revitalized with “real” value. In the words of one of Thomas Love Peacock’sPaper Money Lyrics:

The paper money goes about, by one, and two, and five,
A circulation like the blood, that keeps the land alive. [15] 

According to the circulatory or anatomical model, the body politic functions healthily so long as this flow of money is neither “restricted” nor inundated: if one nightmare is economic starvation (as seen in the stereotype of the emaciated French), the other danger—as Gillray imagines—is the inflationary overproduction of worthless and wasteful currency. Another way to read Gillray’s Midas is as a scatological parody of the famous cover illustration to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (Figure 9): instead of the monarch comprised of his people, Pitt’s body is a sack of secreted and hoarded gold; the literal and symbolic wealth of the nation becomes the tyrant’s booty, replacing citizens with financial chicanery (Pitt’s incontinent largesse also, unavoidably, brings the current dis-credited euphemism “quantitative easing” to mind). However, behind Gillray’s scatological effects lies a more acute point: by evoking the Midas legend, Gillray exposed the alchemical delusions and perils of the myth of convertibility—indeed, the critique was anticipated in a print of 1796 (Figure 10) which shows Pitt as a megalomaniac alchemist who is converting the national wealth into a throne for himself. As Gillray understood, it was the magical properties of paper money which mystified both economic and political power. Even political economists (whether supportive or not) invariably resorted to pre-enlightenment tropes of what Marx called “primitive economic superstition” (261): alchemy, allegory, magic, blind allegiance. Debacles like the South Sea Bubble and the John Law Mississippi scheme (both collapsed in 1720) fuelled the idea that paper credit was a powerful and potentially dangerous illusion. [16]  Daniel Defoe referred to paper money as a “chimera”; Thomas Mortimer called credit a “standing miracle in politics, which at once astonishes and over-awes the states of Europe” while later in the century Benjamin Franklin boasted that the “wonderful machine” of “paper currency” (in this case the dollar) had enabled America to defeat Britain. [17] 


14.        Like its over-valued material form, the ideological “miracle” of paper credit required constant investment and re-investment. For all its glaring conceptual weaknesses, the financial revolution became an epistemological revolution: in Pocock’s words, the switch to deferred payment was a “momentous intellectual event.” By locating value in an endlessly receding future, credit changed the whole basis of the individual’s relationship with the state, replacing civic humanist duty with an “imagined” community of desiring individuals. [18]  As Brantlinger has shown, this destabilization of what Marx called species being (though perhaps “specie being” is a more appropriate coinage in the current context) both afflicted and empowered the literary imagination (114-35). At the same time as the new monied interest became a regular target for satire, attempts to relocate value outside of the paper economy proved to be difficult and often equally reliant on cultural mythologies: Romanticism’s resort to primitivism (Wordsworth’s “natural” language of the lower classes), and radical nostalgia (Cobbett’s banknoteless past) are just two prominent examples.

15.        Alchemical or transubstantiational delusions were not the only obstacles preventing the full assimilation of paper money into Enlightenment modernity. The “momentous” transition to the credit economy was also undermined by the spectre of forgery. This was both a literal and figurative threat. From its inception, paper money was shadowed by forgery: the first fake banknotes appeared in 1695 within months of the genuine issue. [19]  But the greater damage was ideological, as forgery exposed the essentially imaginary or fictive status of the supposedly authentic original (and it is worth a reminder that a banknote is of course a simulacrum, a copy of a non-existent originating source; there is no such thing, except conceptually, as a unique, single banknote from which copies (legal or illegal) are taken). As Paul Baines notes, “The whole system could be typified by the forgery it naturally engendered” (14). Faced with this perplexing intimacy between financial good and evil, the difference between supporters and critics of the new “system” could only be theological: supporters believed the fiction (or refused to question it), critics exposed it.

16.        A characteristically ambivalent attitude to paper money can be seen in Joseph Addison’s third Spectator essay (Saturday 3 March 1711). The essay takes the form of an allegorical dream vision of the goddess Credit, a deity who sits on a throne in the Bank of England, surrounded by “a prodigious heap of bags of money” and pyramids of gold piled to the ceiling. It is likely that Addison is alluding to the image of Britannia “sitting and looking on a Bank on Money” which was the logo of banknotes from their earliest issue (Keyworth) and which reassuringly emblematized the “real” value of the note in bullion. Hence Addison likens Credit to the “Lydian king”; Credit can “convert whatever she pleased into that precious metal”—in other words she is a transgendered Midas who guarantees the nation’s wealth with her miraculous powers of transformation. However, at the first sign of political and social unrest the goddess shrivels into a skeleton, the bullion becomes “bags full of wind” and the gold changes into “heaps of paper.” Only when order is restored is the goddess resuscitated and restored to her former beautiful but “delicate” constitution (The Spectator, 1: 17-20).

17.        Addison’s nervous allegory of the politically unstable rise of paper rule (a “bag full of wind”) was a vivid and influential expression of residual Enlightenment scepticism towards the new faith of “speculative fantasy” (Nicholson 10). Alexander Pope delivered a poetic broadside against the new orthodoxy in Epistle III: To Allen Lord Bathurst (1733-4):

Blest paper-credit! last and best supply!
That lends Corruption lighter wings to fly! (Butt, 254; lines 69-70)

David Hume referred to paper credit as “counterfeit money” (173), while Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations had to apologize for using “so violent a metaphor” when he compared paper credit to “a sort of waggon-way through the air”, a fantasy of elevated economic activity which he was obliged to qualify by reworking Pope’s trope of tainted flight:

The commerce and industry of the country, however, it must be acknowledged, though they may be somewhat augmented, cannot be altogether so secure, when they are thus, as it were, suspended upon the Daedalian wings of paper money, as when they travel about upon the solid ground of gold and silver. (1: 484)

If the Midas legend provided an aptly mythological vehicle for dramatising the miraculous powers of convertibility, the Icarus myth added the elements of ambition, risk and catastrophic failure. The perils of putting all the nation’s financial eggs into the flimsy basket of credit became only too apparent in the Gordon riots of June 1780. When the Bank of England was attacked, the country faced the prospect of financial ruin:

Let any rational mind figure to itself the confusion that must have ensued, the ruin that would have been spread, the distresses in which orphans, widows, natives, and foreigners, persons of all ranks and conditions, in whatever station, in whatever employment, would have been involved, by the annihilation of so many hundreds of millions of property, and the total abolition of all public credit! Who can but for a moment think on the danger, without looking up to heaven in grateful acknowledgment to the Supreme Being for so signal a national deliverance? (Gentleman’s Magazine, 50 [July 1780], 312)

But if “public credit” narrowly survived the century’s worst outbreak of civil disorder, it faced an even greater threat in the wake of French revolution. On this occasion, the price to be paid for “national deliverance” was regarded by many observers as unacceptably high.


John Bullion

18.        By the revolutionary 1790s, the idea that “public credit” faced an imminent “Daedalian” disaster became a powerful rhetorical tool in anti-government writing. In The Rights of Man (1791-2), Thomas Paine noted that the “English system of funding” was close to bankruptcy; in order to finance overseas conflicts, Britain was “increasing paper till there is no money left” (133). As the war-torn decade progressed and the national debt grew, Paine realised that the principle of convertibility was about to collapse. From this point on, radical discourse configured paper and gold as class enemies. In his pamphletDecline of the English System of Finance, published one year before Restriction in 1796, Paine predicted that gold and silver were about to “revolt against depreciation and separate from the value of paper”, in the process destroying the “popular delusion” of the credit system (Foner, 2: 661, 651-2). [20]  The Restriction Act must have seemed to many a fulfilment of this prophecy and a major boost for the radical critique. The iconoclastic discourse of transparency penetrated so deep into radical thought that it can even be found in a fugitive document issued by the shadowy insurrectionary group the United Britons in 1799. The document calls the English political system as an enormous “Fraud” and adds that

Amidst mock Contentions for Liberty, and real ones for Plunder, [England] vainly imagined herself free, and was thereby induced to pay the Interest of a Debt of greater Amount than the Value of the whole landed Property of the Country, without reflecting that Bankruptcy, however late, must be the consequence of an overstretched Credit. That Bankruptcy has arrived. (Report of the Committee of Secrecy, 68)


19.        Alongside the oppositional analysis, caricature added its own distinctive contribution to the debunking of credit by imagining a new national narrative of conflict between the people and the government: John Bullion versus Paper Pitt. In Bank Notes (1 March 1797), Gillray’s first response to the Restriction Act, John Bull is a hapless yokel caught between the insidious “bullionist” temptations of the Jacobin Foxites and the spectacular “paper” rip-off of Pitt and his ministers (Figure 11). Characteristically, Gillray mocks all three parties and leaves the viewer uncertain about which is the greatest offence: Fox’s disloyalty, Pitt’s tyranny, or Bull’s idiocy. Bull decides “a’ may as well let my Measter Billy hold the Gold to keep away you Frenchmen, as save it, to gee it you, when ye come over, with your domn’d invasion”, but this reluctant compliance with the lesser evil does not defuse the satirical gusto with which Gillray depicts the “delusion” of paper money: the stash of padlocked money bags beneath Pitt’s counter constitutes both a mock-patriotic bulwark against the French and a new symbol of centralised state power (hence in Midas one such money bag is used for Pitt’s body). The hapless Bull fails to notice that in the background ministers are delivering sacks of increasingly low-denominational notes (including one labelled “one shilling”). Their worthlessness is brilliantly echoed in Pitt’s use of an inflationary scoop, a satirical inversion of the Bank of England’s supposedly authoritative and measured release of currency into the economy. Seen alongside Midas, this print anticipates the dangerous consequences of the Restriction Act for the plebeian classes: in another telling touch, John Bull’s coat-buttons look perilously like gold coins, a tempting prize for the voraciously asset-stripping government. Before very long, as we shall see, the caricature narrative of John Bullion’s victimization will take on a much more violent form.

20.        As the cases of forgery multiplied and Restriction became more and more unpopular, the lethal rift between “real” money and paper “delusion” became increasingly exposed in both radical polemic and the caricature imagination. The most successful single radical intervention was almost certainly William Cobbett’s bestseller Paper against Gold, first published in his newspaper the Weekly Register as a series of open letters, and subsequently issued in book form in 1815. Cobbett argued that only “real money” had “real value” (96), but in stating this he was only echoing the Bullion Committee report of 1810 which called cash payments the “natural and true control” against paper inflation. [21] This re-naturalization of gold and demonization of paper gave an additional force to Hone and Cruikshank’s debunking of the official iconography of the nation state in theirRestriction Bank Note. Instead of depicting Britannia staring at a beehive, a symbol of industriousness which replaced the earlier pile of gold, the satirical Britannia is shown as an unnatural mother eating her children, an apt illustration of the state’s dereliction of duty (Figure 12). Reminiscent of the liberticidal monsters of anti-Jacobin caricatures, this grotesque figure reveals that such symbols of authority are now (in Cobbett’s words) a mere “paper promise” of “real value” (98). As Gillray’s successor, Cruikshank was able to see the Restriction narrative through to its grisly end: the cannibalistic Britannia is the tragic climax to the paper assault on John Bullion. The bloated Midas has transmuted into the vampiric mother, and forgery executions are both a literal and symbolic destruction of the democratic body of the nation.

21.        A more optimistic note is struck in another caricature which Cruikshank issued in January 1819. Johnny Bull and his Forged Notes!! or Rags and Ruin in the Paper Currencyshows John Bull as a small tradesman rather than a plebeian or yokel (Figure 13). He is about to be arrested in his impoverished home for hoarding forged banknotes, but as he says to the foppish inspector, “I took all these notes in the way of Trade—I can’t tell Bad Good ones from Good Bad ones. Even those who issue them are frequently mistaken & have been deceived by Forgeries.” The debunking of paper money is wittily conceived by reducing the bank notes to combustible paper—this is now their only value. But the most important feature of this print is its portrayal of the Bull family. Far from being abject, Johnny Bull is defiant, sturdy, patriarchal and ruggedly masculine. He is the personification of the moral gold standard, the “real value” of the national character, and he is protecting his “little platoon” against a cowardly and intrusive government. His defiance reflects the resurgent mass radicalism of the post-war years which later in 1819 will confront the repressive state apparatus at Peterloo. His self-belief is a striking riposte to the more familiar caricature figure of a disempowered John Bullion who is constantly duped, plundered and violated by a paper system of taxes, bills and cheap banknotes. The most striking examples of this extreme exploitation of John Bullion are probably Richard Newton’s The New Paper Mill and The Inexhaustible Mine, both published in 1797 as a response to Restriction (Figures 14 and 15). In The New Paper Mill Bull is being minced by Pitt into paper notes (presumably having been stripped of his gold first, though allegorically Bull himself represents “real” money); in the brutal Restriction age, Pitt’s mincer is the modern state’s industrially efficient yet banal replacement for the alchemical bravura of convertibility. The Inexhaustible Mine is an eye-catching, quasi-pornographic inversion of Gillray’s Midas. John Bull’s spouting orifices are not scatologically rendered: they are the result of a violation which conflates a gang-rape, a mugging and a strip search. The image captures the repressive authoritarianism of counter-revolutionary policy in the 1790s, a period in which “the spirit of despotism” led to “invasions of privacy” (Barrell). With these images (and many others) in mind, [22]  Restriction and the ensuing prosecutions for forgery can be understood as the latest components of a wider, interlocking system of mystification, oppression and exploitation which relied on the state’s monopoly of “paper” power.

22.        The state’s rationale for such infringements of civil liberty was that some personal freedoms had to be surrendered if the nation was to be protected against invasion and conquest. Unless John Bullion surrendered his specie and allowed more paper money to circulate, Britain faced an unthinkable fate. If Britons found cheap banknotes unpalatable, they should consider the Jacobin alternative: the rule of the revolutionary French assignat (Figure 16). The assignat was the paper currency which the French Assembly introduced in 1790 out of the proceeds of confiscated Church property. [23]  The policy quickly led to hyperinflation, and by the time the plates which printed the assignat were publicly burned in February 1796, its value had depreciated by an astonishing 95% (compared to about 30% for the pound in the Restriction period). [24]  For Edmund Burke, the assignat was the epitome of Jacobin mischief and the arch enemy of the gold standard. In Pocock’s opinion, it was the introduction of the assignat, and not the invasion of the Queen’s bedchamber, which was for Burke “the central, the absolute and the unforgivable crime of the Revolutionaries” (197). Throughout his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke rails against the revolutionaries’ decision “to force a currency of their own fiction in the place of that which is real” (261). He declaims that “So violent an outrage upon credit, property, and liberty, as this compulsory paper money currency, has seldom been exhibited” (226). Overall:

everything human and divine sacrificed to the idol of public credit, and national bankruptcy the consequence; and to crown all, the paper securities of new, precarious, tottering power, the discredited paper securities of impoverished fraud, and beggared rapine, held out as a currency for the support of an empire, in lieu of the two great recognized species [gold and silver] that represent the lasting conventional credit of mankind, which disappeared and hid themselves in the earth from whence they came, when the principle of property, whose creatures and representatives they are, was systematically subverted. (126) [25] 

Burke castigated English republicans and revolutionary sympathizers who believed that England should follow the French example and worship the “idol of public credit.” These misguided supporters of paper currency

forget that, in England, not one shilling of paper money of any description is received but of choice; that the whole has had its origin in cash actually deposited; and that it is convertible, at pleasure, in an instant, and without the smallest loss, into cash again. (357-8)

But as Tom Furniss notes, Burke’s method of “projecting a negative aspect of Britain’s own financial revolution which had haunted it from the beginning onto a radical ‘other’ across the channel” simply reproduced those endemic anxieties about an economy based on what Furniss calls “imagination” (241). So it is both ironic and poignant that Burke died in the year in which Pitt introduced the English equivalent of the assignat (Gillray’s Midasillustrates this irony in the way in which the tiny Jacobin demons swarming round Pitt’s head merge into banknotes). In Burke’s own terms, paper money was no longer “convertible, at pleasure, in an instant, and without the smallest loss, into cash again.”


23.        Yet by freeing paper money from convertibility and the gold standard, it could be argued that Restriction was an unconscious act of modernization, as there was no longer a pretence (or “delusion”) that paper and gold were related (this is surely the case today in so far as no one believes the “promise” on British banknotes to “pay the bearer” the equivalent in gold). By converting currency into “imagination” rather than “real value”, the idea of value migrated into the aesthetic realm, the realm of symbolic circulation. But if Romantic writers remained troubled by the loss of the real, this was not the case for caricaturists, whose work was premised on converting political events into an alternative, parallel and usually controversial fantasy. In this sense, caricature’s generically maverick and ungovernable aesthetics were more in tune with a system of “fabricated pieces of paper”. [26] 

24.        The efflorescent character of Gillray’s Midas seems to register this new creative opportunity. Unlike the macabre Bank Restriction Note, Gillray shows that Restriction was actually a dynamic explosion of paper energy. It is as if Gillray found the idea of unconvertible paper currency irresistible, despite the print’s overt political attack on Pitt’s policy. Another way to think about this apparent celebration of paper circulation is to consider how Gillray innovated upon and modernized his satirical sources, so that we understand more clearly how Gillray constructed Pitt/Midas’s bizarre anatomy. The most immediate influence on his fantasy is the figure of the political colossus. This was a well-honed satirical technique which became popular with attacks on Britain’s first Prime Minister Robert Walpole (Figure 17) and quickly became a familiar visual weapon with which to attack overweening ministerial ambitions such as those of the Earl of Bute (Figure 18). Just a few weeks before the introduction of Restriction, Gillray portrayed Pitt as a colossus in The Giant Factotum Amusing Himself (Figure 19), so the novelty of Midasconsisted of the change of venue (from parliament to the Bank of England—a clear hint of the true source of the nation’s ills) and the switch of satirical wit from bawdy pun (‘amusing himself’) to scatological extroversion. For the latter effect, Gillray drew on another popular caricature language in which politicians are depicted scatalogically if not always gigantically. These prints visualize tyranny, patronage and sycophancy by showing the powerful leader shitting or vomiting on hangers-on and suitors. The literary sources of such earthy wit included Rabelais and Swift, but caricature could add the unique extra frisson of visuality. Good examples include anti-Walpolian prints such as The Political Vomit for the Ease of Britain and Idol Worship; or the Way to Preferment (Figures 20 and21) and James Aitken’s Public Credit, or the State Idol—the latter shows Edmund Burke as the arse-licker climbing the mired pole of preferment (Figure 22). Where Gillray innovates on such sources is his remarkable ability to show Pitt/Midas vacating and ingesting at the same time; metaphorically, this strange physiology registers the credit system’s simultaneous mystification and demystification of paper. As the transparent torso shows, this colossus is anatomically far more agile than his scatological predecessors: he is both hoarding and secreting money, an apt image of “convertibility.” This in itself is a considerable artistic achievement, but Gillray goes one step further in his visual dexterity and allusiveness.

25.        Another popular visual source for Midas is the medieval fantasy of the money devil, a diabolical yet faintly comic figure who exposes greed and covetousness by raining coins onto people from all his orifices. The genesis of this creature can be seen in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. Next to the so-called “Prince of Hell” (who sits on a toilet-throne expelling people into a diabolical midden) there is a naked rear end ejecting coins into the same pit, a clear association of lucre and damnation. By the eighteenth century the money devil had become a familiar figure in European and Russian caricatures, some of which Gillray may have known (Figure 23). In Midas, however, the cluster of coins which appear to be dropping from Pitt’s posterior like the money devil are actually defying the laws of gravity; they are being sucked up into Pitt/Midas’s torso while banknotes (the new ‘easing’) now perform the lavatorial function—a brilliant realization of the “delusion” of convertibility. As Marc Shell notes, “many people in the eighteenth-century were used to seeing depictions of a coin-covered money devil” but “they were more puzzled by paper money than by coin, so they were especially leery of the new paper money devil’s graphic powers of production, or poesis” (67). Gillray’s genius lies in his ability to imagine this new “poesis” and make Midas a satirical tribute to “the new paper money devil’s graphic powers of production” rather than to the print’s ostensible theme, the “goodness of guineas” (Cobbett, 204).

26.        This contradiction has a wider bearing on the fraught relations between Romanticism and popularity. On the one hand, as already surmised, the loss of “real” currency and the hike in forgery executions made many thinkers mistrustful of the paper money system and for writers and artists these doubts may have extended to the signifying power of “paper” more generally. Simon During describes the post-Restriction mood for Romantic writers as a strange cocktail of “fearfulness, unpredictability, opportunity and weightlessness” (339), perhaps unintentionally echoing Adam Smith’s trope of credit’s perilous “Daedalian” sublimity. Despite clinging to the secure “weight” of bullion, Romantic writers were also impelled to explore new, relatively autonomous and self-authorizing imaginative paradigms which could keep the vexed issue of the tainted paper economy of print circulation and popularity at arm’s length. Though Shelley ventured into Heavy Metal performances in his satires Oedipus Tyrannus; Or Swellfoot the Tyrant(which has a character called “Banknotina”), Peter Bell the Third (which characterises paper money as expropriated bee-honey), and The Mask of Anarchy (which memorably styles the credit economy the “ghost of gold”), such incursions into popular culture were rare. [27] On the other hand, radical authors like Paine and Cobbett saw the teeming popularity of print circulation as an opportunity for ideological subversion rather than state control. Despite all the government’s efforts to suppress, regulate and neutralize radical writing in the 1790s, Paine was still able to claim (with typical bravado) that Restriction had been precipitated not by the alarm of a French invasion but by the panicky response to cheap editions of his pamphlet Decline of the English System of Finance (Foner, 2: 1387-8). For Paine, cheap radical literature operated like a phoney currency of economic espionage, overloading the system to breaking point. Paper was a medium to be appropriated and carnivalized rather than repressed, displaced or sublimated. When Cobbett asked his readers to flood the market with fake banknotes, he recalled wryly that Pitt had considered deluging France with fake assignats (Black Dwarf, 2 [21 October 1818], 658-9); Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register, 22 August 1818). Like Paine, Cobbett’s phenomenal success cocked a snoop at the new paper economy from within its own ranks: Paper against Goldsold around 150,000 copies, making it, according to Spater, “probably the most widely read book ever written purely on monetary questions” (1: 315). By converting currency into “imagination”, the Restriction Act released its own critique and sowed the seed of its own destruction.

The “formidable” caricaturist

27.        But it was the caricaturists, above all, who could have their Restriction cake and eat it: caricature thrived in a cultural environment in which the boundaries between the “real” and the phoney or fake were being so sensationally and publicly challenged, eroded, undermined and continually flouted. Caricature had a productively contradictory relation to Restriction forgery. To begin with, Horace Walpole’s oft-quoted comment that “all the house of forgery are relations” was much truer of engravers than writers. Walpole made this comment to rebut accusations that his rejection of Chatterton’s request for patronage had led to the latter’s suicide, but he was not alone in seeing a slippage from literary to financial forgery. Joseph Ritson, for example, remarked that “a man who will forge a poem, a line or even a word will not hesitate, when the temptation is greater and the impunity equal, to forge a note or steal a guinea” (Ruthven, 57-9). In fact there was little if no evidence to support this claim, whereas there was abundant evidence that engravers were playing both sides of the law. As noted earlier, the state both relied on and feared the “formidable power of imitation” of the engraver. Ironically, the Bank of England subjected all submitted designs for “inimitable” banknotes to a counterfeiting test by its own engravers: not one design passed the test. [28]  Equally revealing is the fact that one of the eventual solutions to this problem, the use of lithography, was first proposed by the well-known caricature print seller Rudolph Ackermann, yet his suggestion was rejected as “a discovery as applied to the subject of Forgery, infinitely more to be dreaded than encouraged” (cited in Mackenzie, 61).

28.        This takes us the second aspect of caricature’s cultural power. Ackermann undoubtedly knew that the single print caricature functioned like an alternative currency, shadowing and transforming “official” history. [29]  Moreover, society seemed to be imitating art. For critics of the unreformed political system, Regency England had become a caricature of itself, consuming rather than protecting its own children. No event showed this more clearly than the Peterloo massacre of August 1819, an incident which lies at the heart of that extraordinarily productive few years of Romantic literary output which James Chandler (borrowing from Shelley) calls “England in 1819.” But what Chandler fails to note is that these years also represent the crowning achievement of caricature. It is surely no coincidence that the title page of Hone and Cruikshank”s bestselling satire The Political House that Jack Built (1819) shows a pair of scales in which the pen of radicalism outweighs not just Wellington’s sword but a bundle of unjust laws topped by “Bank Restriction” (Figure 24). The image implies that radical critique is the antithesis of Old Corruption’s mystifications, but there could also be an allusion to the Bank Restriction Note of earlier that year. In other words, Cruikshank could be complimenting his own “formidable” imitation of the forged banknotes which (in Baines’ words) were “naturally engendered” by the paper money system and which functioned as an emblem or synecdoche of unreformed political and social structures. This ability to satirically copy a discredited copy of a discredited copy (caricature—forged banknote—original banknote) is a paradigm of the way caricature used its distinctive “imagination” and the medium of paper to critique the “real.”

29.        A third way in which caricature mimicked forgery was that the satirical copy had to be sufficiently life-like so that public figures would be recognised. In essence, this constituted a kind of identity theft in which counterfeit images circulated in place of the original and without the original’s consent. Hone and Cruikshank’s Duke of Wellington is simultaneously real and satirical, his (modestly caricatured) visual identity determined by a few key features such as the hook nose, oversize plumed hat and spurs. Ironically, many Georgian authority figures were known to the public primarily through their caricature representations (Charles James Fox would be the obvious example). As Gombrich and Kris argue, graphic satire’s ability to steal an original identity and manufacture phantom copies tapped into pre-Enlightenment superstitions about magical fetishes which “annihilated” individuality. The reason why “portrait” or personalized caricature appeared so late in history was not, they argue, due to the relaxing of censorship; it has more to do with the secularization of society and the desacralization of the image, its dissociation from actual necromancy. Once this tendency merged with “political allegory”, the result was an explosive release of anti-authoritarian visual aggression (14-17, 26-7). In Vic Gatrell’s words, caricature was “a modernized form of an ancient effigy magic delivered against otherwise unassailable enemies … [a] symbolic defilement anciently embedded in ritual destructions of the defamatory image” (227).

30.        Relatively untouched by legal prosecutions, unburdened by the aesthetics of originality, masterful in creating allegorical fantasies of politics and culture, firmly embedded in reportage and print culture, the single print caricature circulated like a shadow economy of symbolic representation, pumping out “phantom” versions of political leaders, authority figures and celebrities. [30]  Again, there is a useful parallel here with Marx’s theory of the quasi-divine, transformative power of money which “turns real human and natural powers into purely abstract representations, and therefore imperfections and tormenting phantoms, just as it turns real imperfections and phantoms—truly impotent powers which exist only in the individual’s fantasy—into real essential powers and abilities” (378). Perhaps the final irony of the relationship between caricature and forgery is that the restoration of “real value” in 1821 (which in practice meant a return to convertibility and the abolition of the lethal £1 and £2 notes) also marked the decline of the golden age of British caricature. After the success of the campaign to support Queen Caroline, Cruikshank took a huge bribe from the state and retired from the scene.

31.        Paper money, on the other hand, continued to be a controversial issue beyond the Romantic period. In 1830, for example, just two years before the abolition of the death penalty for forgery, the Northamptonshire peasant poet John Clare grumbled that:

The Speculator is looking for a new paper currency which placed a false value on every species of his traffic & thereby enables the cunning to cheat the honest…I would have every bank issuing one pound notes (which is but a shadow of a promise for a substance which the promiser has pocketed) dependent as Branch banks on the Bank of England. (To John Taylor (1 February 1830); Storey, 498-500)

The influence of Cobbett over the next generation of radicals who formed the Chartist movement kept the discourse of ‘paper against gold’ alive. In Thomas Doubleday’s satireThe Political Pilgrim’s Progress (1839), for example, the hero Radical’s main adversary Political Apollyon is a demon composed of paper money (Figure 25). But given that forgery ceased to be a capital offence in the early 1830s, the debunking of credit lost much of its sensationalism.


32.        To conclude: if Niall Ferguson is correct to say that “Money is not metal. It is trust inscribed” (Ferguson, The Ascent of Money, 29-30), then the key issue remains: who, or what do you put your trust in? If, to quote a popular ditty, “One forgery makes a felon –Millions a statesman!” perhaps you would be wise to invest in caricature.

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Richard, Henry, Lord Holland. Memoirs of the Whig Party During My Time. 2 vols. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1852. Print.

Russett, Margaret. Fictions and Fakes: Forging Romantic Authenticity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.

Ruthven, K. K. Faking Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.

Shell, Marc. The Economy of Literature. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1993. Print.

Shell, Marc. Art and Money. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1995. Print.

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Eighth Edition. 3 vols. London: A. Strahan, T. Cadell, 1796. Print.

Spater, James. William Cobbett: The Poor Man’s Friend. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982. Print.

Stafford, Fiona. The Sublime Savage: A Study of James Macpherson and the Poems of Ossian. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1988. Print.

The Spectator 8 vols (1797). Print.

Storey, Mark, ed. Letters of John Clare. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985. Print.

Taws, Richard. «The Currency of Caricature in Revolutionary France.» The Efflorescence of Caricature, 1759-1838. Ed. Todd Porterfield. Farnham: Ashgate, 2010. Print.

Thornton, Henry. An Inquiry into the Nature and Effects of Paper Credit of Great Britain. London: J. Hatchard, 1802. Print.

Times (1 March 1797; 27 January 1819). Print.

Torre, Jose R. The Political Economy of Sentiment: Paper Credit and the Scottish Enlightenment in Early Republican Boston, 1780-1820. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2007. Print.

Trotter, David. Circulation: Defoe, Dickens, and the Economies of the Novel. London: Macmillan, 1988. Print.

Williams, Raymond. Culture and Society 1780-1950. London: Penguin, 1976. Print.

List of Figures

Figure 1: James Gillray, The Table’s Turn’d Published by Hannah Humphrey, 4 March 1797. British Museum Satires 8992. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 2: James Gillray, Midas. Transmuting all into [Gold] Paper Published by Hannah Humphrey, 9 March 1797. British Museum Satires 8995. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 3: Forged banknote from 1819. British Museum Eagleton 2011, 2012. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 4: George Cruikshank, Bank Restriction Note. Published by William Hone, January 1819. British Museum Satires 13198. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 5: George Cruikshank, Bank Restriction Barometer Published by William Hone, January 1819. British Museum Satires 13199. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 6: Satirical banknote, valued two pence, made payable to “William Pittachio”, one of Pitt’s many satirical titles. Published by S. W. Fores, 1 August 1807. British Museum Satires 10753.A. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 7: The Spiritual Barometer. Taken from the Evangelical Magazine 8 vols (London: T. Chapman, 1793-1800), 8 (1800): 526. Courtesy British Library.

Figure 8: John Ireland (after William Hogarth), Enthusiasm Delineated Published by Isaac Mills, 12 November 1795. British Museum Satires 2426. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 9: Abraham Bosse, title page of Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1653). British Museum Lothe 1307. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 10: James Gillray, The Dissolution, or The Alchymist Producing an Aetherial Representation Published by Hannah Humphrey, 21 May 1796. British Museum Satires 8805. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 11: James Gillray, Bank Notes. Paper-money,-French-alarmists,-O, the Devil, the Devil!-Ah! Poor John-Bull!!! Published by Hannah Humphrey, 1 March 1797. British Museum Satires 8990. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 12: George Cruikshank, Bank Restriction Note (detail).

Figure 13: George Cruikshank, Johnny Bull and his Forged Notes!! or Rags and Ruin in the Paper Currency Published by J. Sidebotham, January 1819. British Museum Satires 13197. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 14: Richard Newton, The New Paper Mill or Mr Bull Ground into 20 Shilling NotesPublished by Richard Newton 12 March 1797. British Museum Satires 8998. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 15: Richard Newton, The Inexhaustible Mine Published by Richard Newton, 22 June 1797. British Museum Satires 9025. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 16: Revolutionary French assignat, 1792. British Museum G68/17/3/5 Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 17: George Bickham the Younger, The Stature of a Great Man or the English Colossus Published by George Bickham the Younger, 1740. British Museum Satires 2458. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 18: Anon. The Colossus Published 1767. British Museum Satires 4178. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 19: James Gillray, The Giant Factotum Amusing Himself Published by Hannah Humphrey, 21 January 1797. British Museum Satires 8980. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 20: Anon., The Political Vomit for the Ease of Britain Published in 1742. British Museum Satires 2531. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 21: Anon. Idol Worship or the Way to Preferment Published 1740. British Museum Satires 2447. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 22: James Aitken, Public Credit, or the State Idol Published by William Dent, 3 June 1791. British Museum Satires 7872. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 23: Anon. A Russian print of a money devil, c. 1800-1850. British Museum Popular Prints Russian. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 24: George Cruikshank and William Hone, title page of The Political House that Jack Built Published by William Hone, 1819. British Museum Satires 13292. Courtesy Trustees of the British Museum.

Figure 25: Illustration to Thomas Doubleday, The Political Pilgrim’s Progress, published inThe Northern Liberator 1839. Author’s collection.


[1] From the list of studies in the Works Cited, see the following: Haywood, The Making of History and Faking It; Stafford; Gaskill; Baines; Ruthven; Groom, Forger’s Shadow; Groom, «Romanticism and Forgery» ; Russett; Lee, «Forgeries» ; Lee, Romantic Liars; Constantine; Lynch; Garvey; Miles; and Malton. BACK

[2] Cited Ehrman, 11. BACK

[3] See: Brantlinger, chapters 2-3; Dick, “‘The Ghost of Gold’”; Malton, Forgery, Fiscal Trauma, and the Fauntleroy Case; Gallagher, 17-19. BACK

[4] The problem was focused on London as this was the main zone within which Bank of England notes circulated. Outside of London most people used the notes of private or “country” banks; these were still issuing their own notes in the early twentieth century.BACK

[5] Even one of the Restriction Act’s most fervent admirers had to admit that the enforced introduction of banknotes into the “common class of people” could cause “tumultuous proceedings” (Thornton, 114). According to Jerome Christensen, a review of Thornton’s book in the first issue of the Edinburgh Review was the first recognition of the “revolutionary” impact of paper money on English history (619). BACK

[6] The Bank was called the “head of all circulation” by the Secret Committee of the House of Lords, April 1797 (cited in Ehrman, 7). BACK

[7] Cited in Handler, Forging the Agenda, 256. BACK

[8] Henry Brougham, review of Returns of Prosecutions and Convictions for Forging Notes of the Bank of England from 1783 to 1813, Edinburgh Review 1818; cited in Dick, «The Ghost of Gold,» 390. BACK

[9] See Black Dwarf, 2 [23 September 1818], 593-601, 2 [9 December 1818], 769- 775;Times, 9 December 1818. For a fuller discussion of Black Dwarf’s campaigning zeal, see Alex Benchimol’s essay in this volume. BACK

[10] See Patten 1: 146-7. Hone claimed that he composed the basic visual design for theBank Restriction Note and though Patten is sceptical about this claim he speculates that Hone may well have designed the companion print Bank Restriction Barometer. See also 1: 157-8, 186. BACK

[11] The British Museum has a copy of the Bank Restriction Note in its display of paper currency. BACK

[12] See Handler, “Forgery and the End of the ‘Bloody Code’”; Hackwood, 199, 201-3. BACK

[13] As Ehrman shows, over two thousand tons of copper coins were minted in the first three years of Restriction (13), but low valuation copper coins did not carry the same symbolic significance as the evanescent gold and silver. As John Clapham remarks, “gradually the age became one of banknotes” (2: 4). BACK

[14] According to David Trotter, the metaphor of circulation was the “vital principle” of the eighteenth-century analysis of wealth (62). See also Klancher, 31-4. BACK

[15] “A Mood of My Own Mind”, in Peacock, 16. BACK

[16] In an essay on Defoe, Srinivas Aravamudan notes of these debacles that “Paper was chasing paper without proper collateral” (54). BACK

[17] Defoe is cited in Shell, 68; Mortimer is cited in Dickson, 154. Defoe also called credit “Air Money,” anticipating both Adam Smith and Gillray: see Lynch, 96. Such anxieties can even be found at the inception of western responses to paper money. When Marco Polo reported that paper money was used in the city of Cambaluc in China, he commented that the Emperor must have a power like a “perfect alchemist” (cited in Shell, 13, n.10). The 14th-century Chinese experiment in paper money collapsed after just a few decades when the Ming dynasty’s attempt to replace metal with banknotes resulted in hyper-inflation: see the discussion of the Ming banknote in the Radio 4 series History of the World in One Hundred Objects. BACK

[18] Pocock, 108 and chapter 6 passim. See also Torre, 4-5, 48, 162. BACK

[19] Mackenzie, chapter 1. Jack Lynch refers colourfully to “a strange arms race between the legitimate issuers of banknotes and the counterfeiters” (139). BACK

[20] In one of the many ripostes to Paine’s tract, Ralph Broome admitted that “In trusting to private paper money, we certainly do very often trust to a shadow” (37). BACK

[21] Report from the Select Committee on the High Price of Bullion (8 June 1810), cited in Cannan, 66. Poovey argues that Cobbett used the mode of direct address to his readers as a way to subvert the impersonal paper economy of commercial print culture (181-96). BACK

[22] See for example John Bull at His Studies (1799), The British Lion (1797), and William Holland, Political Hocus Pocus (1802). BACK

[23] See Taws for a discussion of French counter-revolutionary caricatures of the assignat and the similarity between these two forms of “authenticity and falsehood” (104). BACK

[24] Buchan, 159. See also Ferguson, The Cash Nexus, 151-3. BACK

[25] Brantlinger argues that Burke conceived the “financial mysteries” of the State in sublime terms as a “towering phallic menace” which “could only dimly be apprehended through imagination and a suitably terroristic rhetoric” (108)—a useful gloss on Gillray”s mock-sublime Midas. BACK

[26] P. B. Shelley, «A Philosophical View of Reform,» in Leader and O’Neill, 651. BACK

[27] See Hogle, 236-9, Brantlinger 114-19. Significantly, none of these texts was published in Shelley’s lifetime (Swellfoot was published in 1820 but immediately suppressed), nor was the “Philosophical View of Reform”, in which he expounded his critique of credit at greatest length. For a discussion of Shelley’s currency radicalism, which demanded the abolition of the national debt as a condition of returning to the gold standard, see Connell, chapter 4. BACK

[28] The consensus was that the new note should combine, in the words of the Society of Arts report into Restriction forgery, the “highest perfection” of hand engraving with “mathematical accuracy” of “engine engraving” (Report of the Committee of the Society of Arts, 10)—theoretically at least, this fusion of high artistic standards and technological sophistication would put the banknote beyond the reach and resources of the forger. BACK

[29] Gary Dyer confirms that Regency caricature had a much greater impact on “public perceptions” than literary satires (93). BACK

[30] If Julie Carlson is correct to state that Romantic celebrity was about “making a spectacle of one’s self” (503), then caricature celebrity was about making a spectacle of a phantom other. BACK


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Trollope’s Ralph the Heir


Ralph the Heir (1871) is not among the more heralded novels by Anthony Trollope, who wrote 47 of them. Trollope himself called it “one of the worst novels I have written,” that it justified the dictum that “a novelist after fifty should not write love-stories.” In hisautobiography, he notes that the two main heroes — both, somewhat inconveniently, named Ralph Newton — have no life, and he purports not even to remember the book’s heroines. Aside from the usual gratuitous hunting sequences, much of the novel is taken up with a completely detached subplot in which a barrister runs for Parliament in a corrupt election, an account Trollope based on his own bitter electioneering experiences. It’s haphazardly plotted and ploddingly repetitive even by Trollope’s standards — yes, it’s a serialized novel, but the cumbersome reiterations of the characters’ various relations to one another seems more like padding than requisite memory-refreshing.

But even when Trollope is at his most off-putting, he is still masterful at probing the peculiar moral dilemmas that faced the late Victorian gentry in decline. With the commercial classes rising irresistibly, the aristocratic code of conduct that delineated the classes was eroding, leading to much fretting in Trollope’s novels about what constitutes a “gentleman” and what keeps that ineffable designation from being completely arbitrary. Many a Trollope novel is set up to examine how much legal wrangling and is required to maintain the class structure reproduced through primogeniture, and much human sympathy and moral common sense must be suppressed. Usually some technicality involving the legality of a particular marriage crops up that immediately changes a character’s property rights and inheritance prospects (in Ralph the Heir, the two Ralph Newtons temporarily trade places as likely heirs of a large estate), and then everyone’s behavior toward that person changes accordingly. Trollope doggedly illustrates the hypocrisy of this and seems to implicitly condemn it, all while loudly proclaiming its rectitude and necessity. He has a special genius for showing how the twists of fate for these ambiguously placed protagonists affect they way they perceive themselves and the various rationalizations they use to protect their self-esteem.

What seems to haunt Trollope is the possibility that the whole idea of in-bred gentility is a bunch of utter bullshit; his novels often read like his weirdly tortured and not entirely successful efforts to convince himself that it isn’t so. This is especially true of Ralph the Heir,which is entirely preoccupied with moral laziness, entitlement, corruption, and human interchangeability — obviously you don’t give your two main characters the same name by accident. Most of the novel is spent with the “bad” Ralph, who was brought up knowing he was to inherit a fortune and an estate (also called Newton) and thus, we are led to believe, never had to develop any moral fiber. He never adopts a profession other than recreation and quickly falls needlessly into debt buying clothes and hunting horses he doesn’t “really” need. In fact, Ralph needs to go into such debt, because the extent of his credit is precisely the extent of his privilege, which he seems bent on maximizing as a matter of pride. No one outside Ralph’s family is especially surprised at his behavior or expects him to be otherwise. Somehow his moral unfitness seems especially fit for an aristocrat in training.

The “good” Ralph, the son of the bad Ralph’s uncle, would have been the heir to the same estate, but he is seen as a bastard because his mother died before her marriage could be properly certified as legal. Though depicted as reserved and proper and universally respected, this Ralph is also seen as inherently unsuitable to inherit the property — a “travesty.” Trollope has several characters from across the class spectrum show visceral repugnance to the idea, all repeating that it just “somehow” wouldn’t be right. The whole social order is at stake if an estate, which forms the basis of the idealized notion of community, goes to the “wrong” person.

After all, such a property as Newton does not in England belong altogether to the owner of it. Those who live upon it, and are closely concerned in it with reference to all that they have in the world, have a part property in it. They make it what it is, and will not make it what it should be, unless in their hearts they are proud of it. “You know he can’t be the real squire,” said one old farmer to Mr. Walker. “They may hugger-mugger it this way and that; but this Mr. Ralph can’t be like t’other young gentleman.”

That’s among the most reactionary passages in the novel, in which the tenants yearn to be proud of the hierarchy that condemns them to inferiority and are shown to be committed to the gossip-level ideological work to protect it. (It is same spirit that makes contemporary veneration of Britain’s current royals so nauseating. Nothing makes me more proud of being American than evidence of knee-jerk British servility to its royal family.) They will do their best to make sure the good Ralph is miserable is he inherits, because that would imply that mobility is available for some but not others — better that none should have it and the traditional codes be implemented with no respect for the merits or flaws of particular individuals in particular cases.

It’s supposed to be far more obvious how Polly Neefit, the “breeches-maker’s daughter,” is unfit to become the wife of bad Ralph, who is brought to propose to her by her father as a way of settling his debts. “Nothing on Earth could make her a lady,” Ralph’s de facto guardian tells him, saying he would “sooner cut my throat” than marry so beneath him. But like the good Ralph, Polly proves to be a sort of moral exemplar, refusing to marry above her station and choosing instead Moggs, an idealistic, union-organizing firebrand and the only character in the book who shows any convincing passion about anything.

Trollope’s plot seems designed to expose a society that sees it as proper that morally superior characters be barred social advancement — a kind of generalized, complacent corruption that is mirrored by the specific political corruption in the parliamentary election, which results in the borough being stripped of political representation altogether. The cynical implication is that the people of Trollope’s world don’t deserve politics and can’t accommodate merit-based reform. Late Victorian society, in his estimation, has every incentive to prevent merit — or its companion virtue, love — from being socially efficacious. Instead, society is compelled to reproduce itself to try to conserve privilege in the face of the economic shift in power that threatens it. None of Trollope’s characters are willing to understand this shift as anything but the consequence of individual moral failings, a loss of aristocratic nerve or a lapse of gentlemanly conduct in the face of adversity. They refuse to recognize that economic logic can be just as necessary and irresistible as their own supposedly necessary logic linking bloodlines and authority. They become intransigent in their ideology, trying to preserve in etiquette codes and habitus what can no longer be supported by money and political influence. But that doomed fight leads only to a more intense cynicism, all in the name of protecting an order that believes in nothing but the idea that its privilege shouldn’t ever have to be justified.

The only way Trollope has to make the contradiction cohere is evoke the nebulous concepts of the “gentleman” and the “lady” and assert that it has irresistible affective force on those confronted by it. Even the radical Moggs in Ralph the Heir can’t resist it:

Moggs was as true as steel in his genuine love of Labour,—of Labour with a great L,—of the People with a great P,—of Trade with a great T,—of Commerce with a great C; but of himself individually,—of himself, who was a man of the people, and a tradesman, he thought very little when he compared himself to a gentleman. He could not speak as they spoke; he could not walk as they walked; he could not eat as they ate. There was a divinity about a gentleman which he envied and hated.

The habitus of a gentleman —the guarantor of the hierarchy’s perpetuation — appears to be this mix of accent, poise, posture, and material access to the good things in life, but by the end of the passage it has been elevated to pure fetish.

But gentlemen themselves are no less at the mercy of the fetish. The novel culminates in bad Ralph marrying a random daughter of a neighboring aristocrat who is hastily introduced in the waning chapters. We’ve seen how indifferent he is to the ideal of “true love,” proposing to three different women in a span of a few months. He has no particular attachment to any particular woman; he accepts that his station in life structurally demands that someone fill that role of lady for his estate, and he assumes a correspondingly indifferent attitude about her personal qualities. This is what being a gentleman by virtue of inheritance signifies. You aren’t expected to do anything socially significant (like marry someone and set up the next generation of owners) on a merely personal level. The personal sphere for someone of bad Ralph’s stature is strictly limited to pastimes like hunting and drinking. This is a social requirement (though that same society also is ready to demonize that manner of personal expression as moral weakness if necessary). But love is not personal for his class, if it is to survive.

Trollope unfolds this philosophy in a blunt  passage near the end of the book, which shows Ralph’s autonomy vanishing into the generic comforts of a suitable arranged marriage:

Whether marriages should be made in heaven or on earth, must be a matter of doubt to observers;—whether, that is, men and women are best married by chance, which I take to be the real fashion of heaven-made marriages; or should be brought into that close link and loving bondage to each other by thought, selection, and decision….

No doubt there had been very much of heaven in Ralph Newton’s last choice. It may be acknowledged that in lieu of choosing at all, he had left the matter altogether to heaven… Now he had succumbed at the bidding of heaven and Lady Eardham, and he was about to be provided with a wife exactly suited for him. It may be said at the same time that Augusta Eardham was equally lucky. She also had gotten all that she ought to have wanted, had she known what to want. They were both of them incapable of what men and women call love when they speak of love as a passion linked with romance. And in one sense they were cold-hearted. Neither of them was endowed with the privilege of pining because another person had perished. But each of them was able to love a mate, when assured that that mate must continue to be mate, unless separation should come by domestic earthquake. They had hearts enough for paternal and maternal duties, and would probably agree in thinking that any geese which Providence might send them were veritable swans. Bickerings there might be, but they would be bickerings without effect; and Ralph Newton, of Newton, would probably so live with this wife of his bosom, that they, too, might lie at last pleasantly together in the family vault, with the record of their homely virtues visible to the survivors of the parish on the same tombstone. The means by which each of them would have arrived at these blessings would not redound to the credit of either; but the blessings would be there, and it may be said of their marriage, as of many such marriages, that it was made in heaven, and was heavenly.

Their love marks them not at all as distinct individuals; it just assures continuity in the social order until they are corpses in their proper corner of the graveyard. They are unable to frame love as a kind of personal ambition to become something unique, because ambition implies social mobility, which only threatens their entitlement. For Ralph to genuinely love, as an expression of his individual “passion linked with romance,” would require him to show enough courage to resist the social order that is so intent on making him “lucky” and rewarding him for no good reason — or rather for the very good reason of his being exactly the sort of god-graced person who never would think to use his privilege to resist the way things are traditionally done.

By the end Trollope admits that he wrote Ralph the Heir to try to show how someone like bad Ralph, who superficially does what is socially expected of a person in his position of privilege, can nonetheless be a thoroughly rotten person. His inborn gentlemanliness, of which, for ideological purposes, he remains forever the possessor, must be shown instead to be subtly deceptive, a mask over one’s true character rather than a stock description of it.

Ralph Newton did nothing, gentle reader, which would have caused thee greatly to grieve for him, nothing certainly which would have caused thee to repudiate him, had he been thy brother. And gentlest, sweetest reader, had he come to thee as thy lover, with sufficient protest of love, and with all his history written in his hand, would that have caused thee to reject his suit? Had he been thy neighbour, thou well-to-do reader, with a house in the country, would he not have been welcome to thy table? Wouldst thou have avoided him at his club, thou reader from the West-end? Has he not settled himself respectably, thou grey-haired, novel-reading paterfamilias, thou materfamilias, with daughters of thine own to be married? In life would he have been held to have disgraced himself,—except in the very moment in which he seemed to be in danger? Nevertheless, the faults of a Ralph Newton, and not the vices of a Varney or a Barry Lyndon are the evils against which men should in these days be taught to guard themselves;—which women also should be made to hate. Such is the writer’s apology for his very indifferent hero, Ralph the Heir.

Still Trollope reserves his sternest judgment for the failed Parliamentary candidate, Thomas Underwood, whose general ineffectiveness and lack of resolve is exposed as a consequence of his unwillingness to knuckle down and accept modest, achievable purposes. Rather than raise his daughters at home as he should, he spends all his time in his offices in a miserable state of suspended procrastination, pretending to work on a biography of Francis Bacon but never writing a single line. “By Bacon he had justified to himself,—or rather had failed to justify to himself,—a seclusion from his family and from the world which had been intended for strenuous work, but had been devoted to dilettante idleness.” Like Ralph, he is constitutionally unfit to persist in something; he can’t be true to something he imagines he wants (let alone his family, whom he neglects and leaves vulnerable to various emotional mishaps). But he even lacks the excuse of society’s great expectations having been foisted on him. He doesn’t have the courage to enjoy even his own idleness.

So idle as he had been in thinking, so inconclusive, so frail, so subject to gusts of wind, so incapable of following his subject to the end, why had he dared to leave that Sunday-keeping, church-going, domestic, decent life, which would have become one of so ordinary a calibre as himself? There are men who may doubt, who may weigh the evidence, who may venture to believe or disbelieve in compliance with their own reasoning faculties,—who may trust themselves to think it out; but he, too clearly, had not been, was not, and never would be one of these. To walk as he saw other men walking around him,—because he was one of the many; to believe that to be good which the teachers appointed for him declared to be good; to do prescribed duties without much personal inquiry into the causes which had made them duties; to listen patiently, and to be content without excitement; that was the mode of living for which he should have known himself to be fit. But he had not known it, and had strayed away, and had ventured to think that he could think,—and had been ambitious. And now he found himself stranded in the mud of personal condemnation.

It’s better to be utterly conventional, or even idle and irresponsible like Ralph, than be blind to one’s own mediocrity. Trollope would have us believe that ambitiousness is an unworthy gamble, whether you are an aristocrat trying to escape enforced leisure, a tradesman’s daughter who might marry above her station, or a professional trying to make a lasting contribution to human knowledge. All that is frivolity compared with ensuring that the English class structure is guaranteed for another dismal, loveless generation.

Literatura inglesa – novela del siglo XIX – Anthony Trollope



Parody, Paradox and Play in The Importance of Being Earnest

by Burkhard Niederhoff

1. Introduction

The Importance of Being Earnest is an accomplished parody of the conventions of comedy. It also contains numerous examples of Oscar Wilde’s most characteristic stylistic device: the paradox. The present essay deals with the connection between these two features of the play.1 In my view, the massive presence of both parody and paradox in Wilde’s masterpiece is not coincidental; they are linked by a number of significant similarities. I will analyse these similarities and show that, in The Importance of Being Earnest, parody and paradox enter into a connection that is essential to the unique achievement of this play.

2. Parody

The most obvious example of parody in Wilde’s play is the anagnorisis that removes the obstacles standing in the way to wedded bliss for Jack and Gwendolen. The first of these obstacles is a lack of respectable relatives on Jack’s part. As a foundling who was discovered in a handbag at the cloakroom of Victoria railway station, he does not find favour with Gwendolen’s mother, the formidable Lady Bracknell. She adamantly refuses to accept a son−in−law «whose origin [is] a Terminus» (3.129). The second obstacle is Gwendolen’s infatuation with the name «Ernest,» the alias under which Jack has courted her. When she discovers that her lover’s real name is Jack, she regards this as an «insuperable barrier» between them (3.51). Both difficulties are removed when the true identity of the foundling is revealed. It turns out [page 33] that Jack has been christened «Ernest» and that he is Lady Bracknell’s nephew. Thus he bears the name that Gwendolen insists on, and he has also acquired respectable relatives—even Lady Bracknell would find it hard to raise convincing objections against herself.

The anagnorisis comes about through a visible sign, a time−honoured method first discussed in Aristotle’s Poetics. The most famous example of this method, also mentioned by Aristotle,2 is the scar which Odysseus owes to his courageous fight with a boar and which reveals his identity to his nurse Eurycleia when he returns to Ithaca after an absence of twenty years. In The Importance of Being Earnest, the sign that proves Jack’s identity is the handbag in which he was found. His former nurse, Miss Prism, explains how the baby ended up in the bag:

Miss Prism. […] On the morning of the day you mention, a day that is for ever branded on my memory, I prepared as usual to take the baby out in its perambulator. I had also with me a somewhat old, but capacious hand−bag in which I had intended to place the manuscript of a work of fiction that I had written during my few unoccupied hours. In a moment of mental abstraction, for which I can never forgive myself, I deposited the manuscript in the bassinette and placed the baby in the hand−bag.
Jack. (who had been listening attentively) But where did you deposit the hand−bag?
Miss Prism. Do not ask me, Mr Worthing.
Jack. Miss Prism, this is a matter of no small importance to me. I insist on knowing where you deposited the hand−bag that contained that infant.
Miss Prism. I left it in the cloak−room of one of the larger railway stations in London.
Jack. What railway station?
Miss Prism. (quite crushed) Victoria. The Brighton line. (Sinks into a chair)
Enter Jack with a hand−bag of black leather in his hand
. (rushing over to Miss Prism) Is this the hand−bag, Miss Prism? Examine it carefully before you speak. The happiness of more than one life depends on your answer.
Miss Prism. (calmly) It seems to be mine. Yes, here is the injury it received through the upsetting of a Gower Street omnibus in younger and happier days. Here is the stain on the lining caused by the explosion of a temperance beverage, an incident that occurred at Leamington. And here, on the lock, are my initials. I had forgotten that in an extravagant mood I had had [page 34]them placed there. The bag is undoubtedly mine. I am delighted to have it so unexpectedly restored to me. It has been a great inconvenience being without it all these years. (3.344−90)

Even in comedy, anagnorises that bring about family reunions tend to be tearful events, or at least highly emotional ones,3 but the emphasis placed on Miss Prism’s battered old bag undercuts any such sentiments. It introduces the comic incongruity between debased or trivial content and dignified form that figures prominently in most definitions of parody.4 To Miss Prism, the scene is not about the restoration of a lost child but about the recovery of a handbag. The sign whose function it is to identify the hero usurps the status of the hero. Instead of identifying Jack by means of the bag, Miss Prism identifies the bag by means of the «injury» that it received from a Gower Street omnibus—an injury that would appear to be a parodic allusion to the famous scar which shows Eurycleia whose feet she is washing (in both cases, two decades or more have passed when the hero re−encounters his nurse).

Parodies have a metaliterary tendency. By both imitating and distorting a text or a genre, they lay bare its conventions, pulling the audience out of the represented world and making it aware of the means and methods of representation. This is especially true of the anagnorisis of The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde makes no attempt to hide the fact that he is using a literary convention. On the contrary, by offering an extremely ingenious and improbable solution to Jack’s problems he highlights the contrived and artificial character of the convention. A metaliterary note is also struck by the curious replacement of a baby with a manuscript, of a child with a brainchild. While the manuscript obviously stands for literature, the baby represents life in its most pristine and natural form. When Miss Prism puts the former in the place of the latter, literature prevails over life. Perhaps we may even detect an allegory of parody in Miss Prism’s mistake. After all, there are two contents and two containers: a baby who belongs in a pram, and a manuscript which belongs in a bag. Exchanging the baby and the manuscript brings about the very incongruity of form [page 35] and content which is typical of parody. Be that as it may, the metaliterary quality of the anagnorisis is also suggested by the comments of the participants, who talk as if they knew that they are characters in a play. When Jack rushes off to search for the handbag, Lady Bracknell states that «strange coincidences are not supposed to occur» (3.369−70), and Gwendolen adds, «This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last» (3.378)—a paradoxical wish that combines the point of view of a character with that of a spectator.5

The way to the true anagnorisis is paved with a number of ludicrously false ones. After Miss Prism’s assumption that the scene is about handbags rather than about human beings, Jack makes a discovery that is no less ridiculous:

Jack. (in a pathetic voice) Miss Prism, more is restored to you than this hand−bag. I was the baby you placed in it.
Miss Prism. (amazed) You?
Jack. (embracing her) Yes—mother!
Miss Prism. (recoiling in indignant astonishment) Mr Worthing! I am unmarried!
Jack. Unmarried! I do not deny that is a serious blow. But after all, who has the right to cast a stone against one who has suffered? Cannot repentance wipe out an act of folly? Why should there be one law for men, and another for women? Mother, I forgive you. (Tries to embrace her again)
Miss Prism
. (still more indignant) Mr Worthing, there is some error. (Pointing to Lady Bracknell) There is the lady who can tell you who you really are (3.391−404).

Just as in the exchange about the handbag, moods and attitudes are singularly mismatched. Jack feels all the emotions appropriate to an anagnorisis scene. He is so full of joy and gratitude that he is moved to forgive his mother for straying from the path of virtue. But Miss Prism, who has maintained a rigid respectability throughout the play, is highly offended by Jack’s assumption that she has given birth to an illegitimate child. To her, his generous words of forgiveness come as a gross insult. It should be added that the exchange between Jack and Miss Prism amounts to an exercise in self−parody on Wilde’s part. It makes fun of the fallen woman, a subject that he deals with in a serious [page 36] manner in Lady Windermere’s Fan and A Woman of No Importance. Jack’s speech is a comic echo of the message of these earlier plays, including an almost verbatim repetition of Hester’s complaint about the double standard in A Woman of No Importance (2.299−300).6

The scene in which Jack proposes to Gwendolyn provides us with another interesting example of Wildean parody:

Jack. Gwendolen, I must get christened at once—I mean we must get married at once. There is no time to be lost.
Gwendolen. Married, Mr Worthing?
Jack. (astounded) Well … surely. You know that I love you, and you led me to believe, Miss Fairfax, that you were not absolutely indifferent to me.
Gwendolen. I adore you. But you haven’t proposed to me yet. Nothing has been said at all about marriage. The subject has not even been touched on.
Jack. Well … may I propose to you now?
Gwendolen. I think it would be an admirable opportunity. And to spare you any possible disappointment, Mr Worthing, I think it only fair to tell you quite frankly beforehand that I am fully determined to accept you.
Jack. Gwendolen!
Gwendolen. Yes, Mr Worthing, what have you got to say to me?
Jack. You know what I have got to say to you.
Gwendolen. Yes, but you don’t say it.
Jack. Gwendolen, will you marry me? (Goes on his knees)
Gwendolen. Of course I will, darling. How long you have been about it! I am afraid you have had very little experience in how to propose.
Jack. My own one, I have never loved anyone in the world but you.
Gwendolen. Yes, but men often propose for practice. I know my brother Gerald does. All my girl−friends tell me so. What wonderfully blue eyes you have, Ernest! They are quite, quite, blue. I hope you will always look at me just like that, especially when there are other people present. (1.413−40)

Even more than in the anagnorisis scene, in which she and her mother make comments with metadramatic overtones, Gwendolen thinks of the occasion in terms of a script and of a part that has to be played and to be practiced. In this case, the parodic incongruity does not result from a clash between a high, dignified form and a low, ignoble content, but from the contrast between Gwendolen’s formal and artificial script and Jack’s more flexible and spontaneous one. He talks extempore, assuming that there is no need to utter what has already been implied. Gwendolen, however, does not tolerate any deviation from [page 37] her script; she makes her suitor play his part and say all his lines. Paradoxically, her very insistence on following the script brings about a major deviation from it. In a proposal conducted along traditional lines, it is the man who plays the active part, while the woman reacts to his demands. In the case of Jack and Gwendolyn, these roles are exchanged. Not only is Gwendolen in charge of the conversation, she even assumes that ultimate privilege of the male sex, the praise of the beloved’s eyes.7

A final parodic feature of the proposal and other exchanges between Jack and Gwendolen becomes evident if one compares them with similar scenes from the second courtship plot. I have already mentioned the way in which The Importance of Being Earnest parodies Wilde’s treatment of the fallen woman in his previous works. In addition, the play offers something like a parody of itself, with later scenes or speeches providing comic repetitions of earlier ones. Jack’s proposal to Gwendolen is replayed by Algernon and Cecily, with minor variations on the same themes. Cecily also confesses her fascination with the name «Ernest» (2.505); she also admires her lover’s beauty—not his eyes, but his curls (2.489, 2.530)—and she also thinks of the proposal in terms of a script. In her case, this script is not merely a metaphorical or mental one; the story of her courtship by Algernon has literally been written down in her diary. The parodic effect of this has been pointed out by Neil Sammells, who makes a number of perceptive comments on Wildean parody in an essay on Tom Stoppard’s Travesties:

The structure of Wilde’s play is that of a travesty: Jack’s proposal to Gwendolen is played again, and travestied, by Algy and Cecily; Lady Bracknell’s interrogation of Jack in Act One reappears in a different form in her haranguing of Miss Prism. Similarly, individual scenes are themselves structured by travesty with one voice restating and confounding the other. (383)

Sammells does not explain what he means by the latter kind of travesty based on «one voice restating and confounding the other» in a single scene, but the following exchange between Gwendolen and [page 37] Cecily might qualify as an example. It is the quarrel that follows their mistaken discovery that they are both engaged to the same man:

Cecily. (rather shy and confidingly) Dearest Gwendolen, there is no reason why I should make a secret of it to you. Our little county newspaper is sure to chronicle the fact next week. Mr Ernest Worthing and I are engaged to be married.
Gwendolen. (quite politely, rising) My darling Cecily, I think there must be some slight error. Mr Ernest Worthing is engaged to me. The announcement will appear in the Morning Post on Saturday at the latest.
Cecily. (very politely, rising) I am afraid you must be under some misconception. Ernest proposed to me exactly ten minutes ago. (Shows diary)
Gwendolen. (examines diary through her lorgnette carefully) It is very curious, for he asked me to be his wife yesterday afternoon at 5.30. If you would care to verify the incident, pray do so. (Produces diary of her own) I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train. I am so sorry, dear Cecily, if it is any disappointment to you, but I am afraid I have the prior claim.
Cecily. It would distress me more than I can tell you, dear Gwendolen, if it caused you any mental or physical anguish, but I feel bound to point out that since Ernest proposed to you he clearly has changed his mind. Gwendolen. (meditatively) If the poor fellow has been entrapped into any foolish promise I shall consider it my duty to rescue him at once, and with a firm hand.
Cecily. (thoughtfully and sadly) Whatever unfortunate entanglement my dear boy may have got into, I will never reproach him with it after we are married. (2.622−48)

Gwendolen and Cecily imitate each other to an extraordinary degree. They perform the same actions (showing a diary to their rival), strike the same attitudes («meditatively» and «thoughtfully«), and say exactly the same things, a fact that is only highlighted by their elaborate efforts at finding synonyms: «some slight error»—»some misconception»; «I am so sorry»—»It would distress me»; «the poor fellow»— «my dear boy»; «entrapped»—»entanglement»; etc. The parodic effect is brought about in a rather unusual manner in this dialogue. It would be misleading to say that the speeches uttered by one woman are exaggerated, distorted or debased version of the speeches delivered by the other. Instead, the parodic effect results from the closeness of the imitation. Gwendolen and Cecily violate the assumption that [page 38] human beings should be individuals, not Bergsonian parrots who repeat somebody else’s words and actions. If there is an element of parodic debasing, it consists in this reduction of a human being to a puppet. At any rate, the repetitions across or within the scenes from the two courtship plots are similar to the more obvious examples of parody, such as the anagnorisis, in that they strongly emphasize the artificiality of the characters’ words and actions; instead of being spontaneous and unpredictable, these are governed by prior scripts and models.

Before we move on to paradox, a final word needs to be said about the mode of parody in The Importance of Being Earnest. Parodies can be satiric; witness Henry Fielding’sShamela, which ridicules both the literary form and the social values of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela. Richard Foster interprets The Importance of Being Earnest along these lines. He argues that «[b]y exposing and burlesquing the vacuities of a moribund literature Wilde satirizes, too, the society that sustains and produces it» (23). According to this view, the girls’ romantic scripts, which they have imbibed from novels and plays and which they impose on their lovers, are bound up with hollow social values, and the parody of the literary conventions becomes a satiric attack on these values. In my view, however, the play’s parody is ludic rather than satiric.8 The parodic scenes discussed in this essay offer a lot of comic incongruity, but the laughter evoked by this incongruity is not directed at a particular target. It is not satiric laughter that attacks one set of values in the name of another. As Andreas Höfele argues, the play lacks a precondition of effective satire: a standpoint (191). In the proposal scenes, for instance, we laugh at the young women’s infatuation with an artificial social ritual, but we also admire the energy and the inventiveness that they show in shaping this ritual. And we laugh at their lovers just as much as at the young women. It would be simplistic to argue that the proposal scenes ridicule formality and etiquette in order to endorse a more natural and spontaneous way of interacting with other human beings.

[page 40] To clarify what I mean by ludic parody, it might be helpful to borrow a distinction from Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of Irony, a borrowing that seems to me justified because of the proximity of irony and parody. Both of these rhetorical strategies entail the assumption of a voice that is not one’s own; in irony, this voice is usually an invented one that is created by the ironist him− or herself; in parody, it is borrowed from a prior text. Booth distinguishes between stable and unstable irony. Faced with stable irony, the audience notices that the speaker cannot possibly mean what he or she says, and it infers what is meant instead (usually the opposite of what has been said). Faced with unstable irony, the audience notices that the speaker cannot possibly mean what he or she says, but it is incapable of taking the second step, of concluding what is really meant; the speaker does not commit him− or herself to any particular meaning. If we apply this distinction to our topic, stable irony becomes the equivalent of satiric parody, while unstable irony becomes the equivalent of ludic parody. With satiric parody, the audience realizes that the parodist ridicules the parodied text and its values, and it infers what a more natural text and a saner set of values would look like. With ludic parody, the audience notices that there is some sort of comic incongruity (in other words, that there is parody), but finds itself incapable of taking the second step, of inferring a set of values and a text that could replace the parodied text and its values. The experience of watching or reading The Importance of Being Earnest is of the latter sort.

3. Paradox in Wilde

I have given a fairly extensive analysis of parody in The Importance of Being Earnestas this topic has not been discussed by many critics. The topic of paradox in this play and in Wilde’s writings generally has received more attention;9 thus it need not detain us very long. However, before moving on to the connection between parody and paradox we should consider a distinction between two types of paradox that is relevant to Wilde’s use of this device. The first type links opposite terms in a contradictory manner, as in «less is more.» Paradoxes of [page 41] this sort are infrequent in Wilde. He prefers a second type, which consists in stating the opposite of a received opinon; in other words, this second type of paradox contradicts not itself but common sense.10 An example is provided by Gwendolen. As the analysis of the proposal scene has shown, she has little respect for traditional gender roles. This also becomes evident in the following speech: «Outside the family circle, papa, I am glad to say, is entirely unknown. I think that is quite as it should be. The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man» (2.563−65). There is nothing self−contradictory about this speech; what it contradicts is the Victorian view that a wife should be the angel in the house, while her husband goes abroad to fight the battles of the world. A further example of the anti−commonsensical paradox comes from «The Decay of Lying,» an essay that is in the tradition of the paradoxical encomium, a genre that praises what is normally dispraised.11 Wilde’s praise of lying attacks a number of received ideas, in particular the nineteenth−century doctrine of realism. Whereas the realists argue that it is the task of art to imitate life, Wilde claims that the exact opposite is valid: «Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life» (239).

Furthermore, it should be kept in mind that a mere contradiction, of whatever kind, does not amount to a paradox. With both types of paradox, the element of contradiction has to be complemented by the possibility of sense. On the one hand, a paradox startles us with a violation of logic or common sense; on the other hand, it allows and challenges us to make sense of it, to endow absurdity with meaning. If this possibility of sense did not exist, we would not be dealing with a paradox but with mere error and inconsistency.

4. The Connection between Parody and Paradox

Para means ‘beside,’ ode means ‘song,’ and doxa means ‘opinion.’ Literally, a parody is something that positions itself ‘beside a song’ (or, more generally, beside a text), whereas a paradox positions itself ‘beside an opinion.’ This etymological consideration suggests a first link. The text or opinion that parody or paradox responds to must be[page 41] generally known. There is no point in positioning oneself beside something which no one is familar with; if a parody or a paradox are to be recognized as such, the audience must be acquainted with the text or the opinion they are based on.

The preposition para, which is present in both terms, refers to the procedure that parody or paradox apply to a text or to an opinion. If we stick to the principal meaning of para, this procedure places parody ‘beside’ a familiar text, and paradox ‘beside’ a received opinion. In the case of paradox, ‘beside’ does not designate the concept with sufficient precision. The meaning has to be shifted to ‘against’ or ‘contrary to.’ For a paradox is not merely incongruous with a received opinion; it maintains the exact opposite. In the case of parody, the meaning of para cannot be narrowed down in a similar fashion. The preposition has a greater range of meaning as the techniques of parody are various: it can exaggerate the stylistic features of the parodied text, debase its content, or invert one of its elements, turning it into its opposite. In other words, a parody can place itself ‘beside,’ ‘below,’ or ‘against’ a text. Thus there is a partial overlap in the procedures of parody and paradox: inversion, or the change to the opposite, which amounts to the principal procedure of the latter, is at least one of the techniques of the former.

The main difference between the two terms is that between ode and doxa. A parody responds to a song or, more generally, a text, while a paradox responds to a received opinion. However, this difference is minimised if a received opinion is routinely expressed in a particular text, if text and opinion are so closely connected that a response to one entails a response to the other. A connection of this kind exists, for example, in proverbs and idioms, in which a commonsensical notion is coupled with a fixed expression. Interestingly, Wilde has a predilection for taking such an expression and replacing one of its words with its opposite.12 What results is both a parody and a paradox. An example is provided by the following speech from The Importance of Being Earnest, in which Algernon anticipates the tedium of a dinner at Lady Bracknell’s:

[page 43] She will place me next Mary Farquhar, who always flirts with her own husband across the dinner−table. That is not very pleasant. Indeed, it is not even decent … and that sort of thing is enormously on the increase. The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It is simply washing one’s clean linen in public. (1.239−44)

Algernon parodies the idiom to wash one’s dirty linen in public by performing a minimal formal change; he replaces the adjective dirty with its antonym clean. The resulting inversion of the idiom’s meaning also produces a paradox. While common sense maintains that one should not publicise one’s affairs and adulteries, Algernon thinks the same about marital happiness and harmony. He considers it «perfectly scandalous» for a couple to flaunt the lack of scandal in their marriage.

A second example of the combination of parody and paradox from The Importance of Being Earnest is slightly more complex. The received opinion that is targeted here is the notion that a person’s social rank is reflected not merely in birth and possessions but also in his or her manners. The ‘text’ that expresses this opinion is not a fixed string of words but, more loosely, a convention in the characterization of masters and servants in comedy. In this genre, the masters drink, preferably wine or champagne, whereas the servants eat, usually fairly rich food.13 Wilde brings about an exchange of these roles in the first scene of his play:

Algernon. [H]ave you got the cucumber sandwiches cut for Lady Bracknell?
Lane. Yes, sir. (Hands them on a salver)
Algernon. (inspects them, takes two, and sits down on the sofa) Oh! … by the way, Lane, I see from your book that on Thursday night, when Lord Shoreham and Mr Worthing were dining with me, eight bottles of champagne are entered as having been consumed.
Lane. Yes, sir; eight bottles and a pint.
Algernon. Why is it that at a bachelor’s establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne? I ask merely for information.
Lane. I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first−rate brand.
Algernon. Good heavens! Is marriage so demoralizing as that?
[page 44]
Lane. I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.
Algernon. (languidly) I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane.
Lane. No, sir; it is not a very interesting subject. I never think of it myself.
Algernon. Very natural, I am sure. That will do, Lane, thank you.
Lane. Thank you, sir. Lane goes out
. Lane’s views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don’t set 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. (1.8−36)

Wilde parodies the convention by inverting it. The servant drinks champagne, while the master eats voraciously.14 By the time Lady Bracknell arrives, Algernon has devoured all of the cucumber sandwiches, and in a later scene he will make short work of the muffins served at Jack’s country residence. The dialogue between Algernon and Lane nicely illustrates the closeness between parody and paradox in the play, as it culminates in a paradox which is also based on an inversion of the roles of master and servant. Whereas Victorian common sense regards it as a task of the middle and upper classes to set a good example to those lower down the social scale, Jack expects Lane to act as a role model for him: «Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?» One might retort that Lane is still useful to Algernon in serving the cucumber sandwiches, but such mundane considerations are foreign to Algernon, who shares his author’s penchant for sweeping generalisation.

My final and most important argument for the connection between parody and paradox hinges on the concept of play. This concept has already been touched upon in the second section of this essay, where the mode of parody in The Importance of Being Earnest has been described as ludic. This ludic mode should not be confused with recreational drollery. It is not a temporary relaxation from (and thus subordinate to) seriousness. It is rather motivated by a fundamental uncertainty, by a scepticism that finds it difficult to take anything seriously. It is this mode of sceptical play which also characterizes Wilde’s paradoxes[page 44] —at least if we follow the author’s own suggestions. Wilde offers us a theory of paradox in which the concept of play figures prominently. This theory is to be found in the first chapters of The Picture of Dorian Gray, and it is mainly associated with Lord Henry, Dorian’s aristocratic mentor (and tempter). The following passage describes Lord Henry enchanting a dinner−table audience with his paradoxical rhetoric:

«Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.»
A laugh ran round the table.
He played with the idea, and grew wilful; tossed it into the air and transformed it; let it escape and recaptured it; made it iridescent with fancy, and winged it with paradox. The praise of folly, as he went on, soared into a philosophy, and Philosophy herself became young, and catching the mad music of Pleasure, wearing, one might fancy, her wine−stained robe and wreath of ivy, danced like a Bacchante over the hills of life, and mocked the slow Silenus for being sober. […] It was an extraordinary improvisation. (78−79)

Lord Henry’s rhetoric is essentially paradoxical. He starts out by disparaging common sense, the antagonist of paradox, and continues with the paradox that «the only thing one never regrets are one’s mistakes.» In his poetic description of Lord Henry’s talk, the narrator mentions the term explicitly («winged it with paradox»), and he also weaves the title of the most famous paradoxical encomium of world literature, Erasmus’s Praise of Folly, into this description.15 The terms used to characterize Lord Henry’s paradoxical rhetoric emphasize its ludic quality. It is play and improvisation; instead of weighing and pondering his ideas, Lord Henry throws them into the air and juggles them. This intellectual play is slightly mad and inebriated, but it is also far from mere drollery and facetiousness. For all its folly, it maintains the rank of a philosophy.

Lord Henry’s interlocutors frequently claim that he does not mean what he says, or they ask him whether his paradoxes are to be taken seriously (55, 76, 77, 80). He carefully avoids giving a straight answer to this question. If he answers in the affirmative, the ludic quality of [page 46] the paradoxes will be eliminated. If he answers in the negative, the play will be at least diminished, framed and diminished by a context of seriousness. Lord Henry prefers a more radical kind of play, a play which includes seriousness at least as a possibility, which leaves its audience in the dark as to whether, and to what degree, it should be taken seriously. Here is how Lord Henry responds to Basil Hallward’s charge that he lacks sincerity:

«I don’t agree with a single word that you have said, and, what is more, Harry, I feel sure you don’t either.»
[…] «How English you are, Basil! That is the second time you have made that observation. If one puts forward an idea to a true Englishman—always a rash thing to do—he never dreams of considering whether the idea is right or wrong. The only thing he considers of any importance is whether one believes it oneself. Now, the value of an idea has nothing whatsoever to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it. Indeed, the probabilities are that the more insincere the man is, the more purely intellectual will the idea be, as in that case it will not be coloured by either his wants, his desires, or his prejudices.» (55)

Again, Lord Henry carefully avoids stating how serious he is about the claims he has made. Instead, he launches a surprising but not unpersuasive attack on the merits of seriousness and sincerity, thus giving a defence of the cognitive value of intellectual play.

In the following passage, we see two listeners responding to a paradox uttered by Lord Henry at his aunt’s dinner table:

«I can stand brute force, but brute reason is quite unbearable. There is something unfair about its use. It is hitting below the intellect.» «I do not understand you,» said Sir Thomas, growing rather red. «I do, Lord Henry,» murmured Mr Erskine, with a smile. «Paradoxes are all very well in their way …» rejoined the Baronet. «Was that a paradox?» asked Mr Erskine. «I did not think so. Perhaps it was. Well, the way of paradoxes is the way of truth.» (77)

The first response comes from Sir Thomas, the advocate of common sense. At first he finds Lord Henry’s remark so absurd that he fails to understand it; then he grudgingly concedes that it might qualify as a paradox. But the manner in which he phrases this admission—[page 47]«paradoxes are all very well in their way«—indicates that he considers them an aberration from the path of reason and virtue. To him, paradox is a frivolous and inferior mode of speech that should not be admitted into postprandial conversation, let alone into serious intellectual debate. The second response comes from Mr Erskine, introduced by the narrator as a «gentleman of considerable charm and culture» (76). Mr Erskine does not find Lord Henry’s remark absurd. He does not even regard it as a paradox; so convincing does it appear to him. Then he admits, like Sir Thomas but from a very different point of view, that it might be considered a paradox, but he hastens to add that paradoxes lead towards truth. Mr Erskine picks up the image of the way introduced by Sir Thomas, an image that implies movement, and his own response is significantly dynamic, characterized by a to and fro. Lord Henry’s paradox has set Mr Erskine’s mind in motion. This is, on the listener’s part, the same intellectual motion that also characterizes the rhetorical play of paradox on the speaker’s part, a kind of play that embraces seriousness as one possibility among others.16

I would like to make a final stab at defining the ludic mode discussed here by looking at the pun on which the comedy ends. As it plays with a word that refers to the opposite of play, it has an obvious bearing on the present discussion:

Lady Bracknell. My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality.
Jack. On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.

The form of the final sentence conveys the exact opposite of its content. The ludic manner in which it states the vital importance of being earnest amounts to an assertion of the vital importance of not being earnest. Because of this combination of opposites, it amounts to a kind of paradox and provides another example of the link between paradox and play that I have discussed with respect to Lord Henry’s rhetoric. In playing with the word «Earnest,» the final pun repeats what the entire play has done with the name «Ernest» and the concept of seriousness. [page 48] Throughout the comedy, Ernest is only played: it is a fiction invented by Jack, a role used by him and Algernon, a fantasy embellished by Gwendolen and Cecily. When the final twist of the plot reveals that Jack’s name is Ernest after all, it does so in the same spirit of parodic play that we have seen at work in the earlier stages of the anagnorisis, such as the recovery of a long−lost handbag. «Earnest» may be the final word of the comedy, but only according to the letter; according to the spirit, the final word is play.

5. Why Is The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde’s Masterpiece?

The Importance of Being Earnest is generally considered Wilde’s supreme achievement. Some critics have justified this view by arguing that in his earlier plays, and in Dorian Gray, the sophisticated rhetoric of such characters as Lord Henry, Mrs Erlynne or Lord Illingworth is at odds with other elements of the work, whereas in The Importance of Being Earnest this rhetoric is part of a coherent whole.17 Erika Meier describes the artistic discrepancy in the early plays as a clash between witty dialogue and melodramatic plot. Only in his final play does Wilde succeed in fusing action and dialogue:

The surprising events find their counterpart in the unexpectedness of the epigrams; the plot, with its final ironic twist, is complemented by the innumerable paradoxical sayings; and the parallel development of the action (the romance of Gwendolen and Jack on the one hand and of Cecily and Algernon on the other hand) corresponds to the formal and often symmetrical dialogue. In his last play Wilde indeed succeeded in fusing the drama of language (as created in his earlier works) and the drama of action. (195)18

I find myself in basic agreement with Meier’s claims. In fact, the present essay provides an explanation of how «the plot […] is complemented by the innumerable paradoxical sayings.» It is because the treatment of the plot is parodic, and because of the links between parody and paradox pointed out above, that The Importance of Being Earnestis all of a piece. In the earlier plays and in Dorian Gray, the plot is treated in a serious or even melodramatic fashion; these works lack [page 49] the coherence between parody and paradox that characterizes Wilde’s last play.

The incompatibility between playful paradoxes and a serious plot in the earlier works is illustrated by the ending of Dorian Gray. In this novel, the protagonist and his portrait change places in the first chapters. The man remains pure and beautiful like a work of art, whereas the picture turns more and more hideous with every evil act that Dorian commits. When he finally attempts to destroy the portrait, wishing to eliminate the visual record of his sins, he brings about his own death. Portrait and protagonist change places again; the former regains its original beauty, while the latter turns into an ugly and withered corpse. Thus the ending of the novel depicts a punishment of sin; it underlines the allegorical and cautionary character of the plot, whose orthodox morality and seriousness are a far cry from the exuberant and playful scepticism of Lord Henry’s paradoxes.

The incompatibility between the plot and the paradoxes of Dorian Gray is not merely a matter of mode and atmosphere; there are even more specific contradictions between them. At one point, Lord Henry states:

The mutilation of the savage has its tragic survival in the self−denial that mars our lives. We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. […] The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. (61−62)

Whereas common sense maintains that we keep morally pure by resisting temptation and avoiding sin, Lord Henry claims that the opposite is true. Self−denial poisons; sinning purifies. The plot, however, does not follow this paradoxical logic. Every temptation that Dorian yields to leaves its mark on the portrait; every sin that he commits adds another blemish. It is only in Lord Henry’s speech that action is a mode of purification; in the plot of the novel, it remains a mode of defilement. The plot also clashes with the paradoxes of «The Decay of Lying» mentioned in the third section of this essay. Admittedly, there is a temporary period in which these paradoxes seem to[page 50] govern the plot. After the man and the portrait have changed places, life does imitate art in that Dorian is and remains as beautiful as the picture of his younger self. But in the portrait the traditional principles of mimesis and morality are upheld; art imitates life and teaches an ethical lesson in that every sin committed by Dorian is mirrored in the painting. It is the logic of the portrait that prevails in the end. Dorian’s self−fashioning fails; the beautiful lie that his life is built on collapses, while the ugly truth is revealed. To sum up, the ending of Dorian Gray is at odds with the paradoxical rhetoric in this novel and in «The Decay of Lying,» and this discrepancy remains unresolved.

The ending of The Importance of Being Earnest is comparable to the ending of Dorian Gray in that it also concerns the identity of the protagonist and his relationship with a kind of doppelgänger that enables him to lead a double life. In the novel, thedoppelgänger is the miraculously changing image that inhabits the picture painted by Basil Hallward. This image allows Dorian to lead a life of sin because it bears the marks of this life, thus making it possible for him to appear spotless and innocent in the eyes of the world. The ending of the novel shows the tragic folly of this double life; thedoppelgänger is annihilated when the picture returns to its former status as an ordinary portrait that is no longer subject to miraculous change. The doppelgänger of the play is «Ernest,» the role that Jack has invented for the time he spends in London; thisdoppelgänger is surprisingly confirmed by the ending. It is revealed that Jack has indeed been christened «Ernest»; he has invented the truth, as it were. Of course, this confirmation is given in the same spirit of parodic play that characterizes the entire anagnorisis up to the final pun; the doppelgänger is confirmed precisely because he, too, is a manifestation of playing. Thus the ending does not amount to a lapse into seriousness; it is informed by the ludic mode that also inspires the paradoxical rhetoric of the play. The ending is also in tune with the very paradoxes of «The Decay of Lying»19 that are negated by the ending of Dorian Gray. In The Importance of Being Earnest, life imitates art in that «Ernest,» the [page 51] creative lie, turns out to be true. The role is the ultimate reality; the truest poetry is the most feigning.

Ruhr−Universität Bochum


1. The first version of this essay was delivered at the Connotations Symposium on «Sympathetic Parody,» which took place in Mettlach and Saarbrücken in late July 2003. I am grateful to Matthias Bauer for organising this event, which was a felicitous combination of prodesse and delectare, and to the participants for their responses to my talk. I should also like to express my gratitude to Maik Goth, Frank Kearful, Sven Wagner and the anonymous Connotations reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of this essay.
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2. To the best of my knowledge, this connection has not been systematically explored. In «Raymond Chandler: Burlesque, Parody, Paradox,» Winifred Crombie analyses the links between clauses in Chandler’s prose; she touches upon paradox only in the rather remote sense of inter−clausal connections of an illogical kind. She also claims that Chandler parodies the genre of detective fiction, but fails to establish a connection between parody and paradox.
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3. See Poetics 1454b.
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4. A particularly lachrymose example is the anagnorisis in Richard Steele’s The Conscious Lovers (5.3), in which the merchant Sealand is reunited with his long−lost daughter Indiana.
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5. See, for instance, Abrams 26, and Genette 19.
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6. There is an additional metadramatic comment in the original four−act version, which Wilde cut at the behest of the director, George Alexander. After Jack has left the scene to search for the handbag, Lady Bracknell says, rather like an Aristotelian drama critic, «I sincerely hope nothing improbable is going to happen. The improbable is always in bad, or at any rate, questionable taste.» See The Original Four−Act Version of The Importance of Being Earnest 105.
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7. This parodic self−echo is also pointed out by Meier 190 and Gregor 512−13.
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8. Female dominance is not limited to the proposal scene or the relationship between Gwendolen and Jack; it characterizes all of the heterosexual relationships in the play, and some others elsewhere in Wilde’s oeuvre. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, for instance, Lord Henry gossips about a forward American heiress who «has made up her mind to propose» to Lord Dartmoor (76). On female dominance [page 52] in The Importance of Being Earnest, see Kohl, Das literarische Werk 176−77, Parker 176−77, and Raby 63.
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9. I borrow the term ludic from Gerard Genette’s typology of parody and its related modes. One of Genette’s distinctions concerns the attitude that a text may take towards the text(s) that it transforms or imitates. There are three basic modes: first, a satirical or polemical mode in which the source text is ridiculed; second, a ludic mode which creates comic tension between the two texts but no ridicule or derision at the expense of the source; third, a serious mode that translates a text into another genre or cultural context without any comic distortion (33−37). An example of the first mode is Henry Fielding’s Shamela, of the second (as I would like to claim), The Importance of Being Earnest, of the third, Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus. In his important article on parody and comedy, Ian Donaldson makes a distinction which is similar to the distinction between the first two of Genette’s modes: «[M]uch of our delight in watching a comedy comes from our recognition of the presence of time−honoured situations, complications, and resolutions, which are introduced in a spirit not so much of ridicule or burlesque as of playful affection. The kind of comic parody which I want to explore […] is not the open and sustained parody of the better−known burlesque and rehearsal plays, but a parody altogether more genial and gentle, devoid of major satirical intent, playing wryly but nonetheless delightedly with the conventions of the comic form» (45). I am grateful to Ian Donaldson for sending me a copy of his instructive article, which I had difficulties in obtaining.
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10. See, for instance, Catsiapis, Hess−Lüttich, Nassar and Zeender.
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11. On the differences between these two types of paradox and on their ultimate similarity, see Niederhoff 49−52.
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12. On this genre, see Henry Knight Miller and Niederhoff 50−52, where further studies of the genre are listed.
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13. For further examples of this technique, see Donaldson 45 and Ogala 228−29.
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14. Some examples of servants who like to eat: Sosia in the various versions ofAmphitryon; Dromio of Ephesus, who advises the man whom he believes to be his master, «Methinks your maw, like mine, should be your clock, ⁄ And strike you home without a messenger» (The Comedy of Errors 1.2.66−67); Jeremy, who, in the opening scene of William Congreve’s Love for Love, prefers real food to the nourishment of the mind. The link between masters and wine is shown by Congreve’s Mellefont who is praised as «the very Essence of Wit, and Spirit of Wine» (The Double−Dealer1.1.34−35), or by Sheridan’s Charles and Careless who see it as «the great Degeneracy of the Age» that some of their fellows do not drink, that «they give into all the Substantial Luxuries of the Table—and abstain from nothing but wine and wit» (The School for Scandal 3.3.1−5). Another case in point is the debate about the respective merits of wine and women, a debate frequently conducted by young gentlemen in comedy (e.g. by Merryman and Cunningham in Charles Sedley’s Bellamira); the debate is never about food and women.
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[page 52] 15. This inversion of roles is missed by James M. Ware in his article on Algernon’s appetite; Ware relates this appetite to the hedonism of the rakes in Restoration comedy.
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16. This allusion may be more than a passing reference; it may indicate an influence of Erasmus on Wilde or at least a profound affinity between them. The Praise of Follyevinces some very close similarities to Wilde’s writings and to The Importance of Being Earnest in particular. First, it draws on the literary traditions of both parody and the paradoxical encomium, as C. A. Patrides points out in an article on Erasmus and Thomas More (39). Second, the preface asserts that «[n]othing is more puerile, certainly, than to treat serious matters triflingly; but nothing is more graceful than to handle light subjects in such a way that you seem to have been anything but trifling» (3). This seems fairly close to the subtitle of Wilde’s play, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. Third, The Praise of Folly is also informed by a spirit of sceptical play, by the eschewal of a fixed position. As Patrides writes, «Erasmus’s mercurial protagonist is wont to disavow a number of specifically Erasmian tenets, admit as many others, and—more often than not—disavow and admit them at once» (40).
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17. The present explanation of the ludic quality of Wilde’s paradoxes consists in a commentary on some passages from The Picture of Dorian Gray. Elsewhere I have given a more technical analysis of the ludic paradox, which distinguishes it from the comico−satirical paradox on the one hand, and the serious paradox on the other. This distinction is based on the relative weight of the opposites linked in a paradox, on the relative weight of the two principles which are at work in a paradox (contradiction and sense), and on the attitude taken by the speaker; see Niederhoff 60−76.
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18. Ian Gregor claims that Wilde found a fitting dramatic environment for the dandy only in his final play but not in the earlier ones, a claim that is echoed in Raby 34. Norbert Kohl takes a similar view of the earlier plays: «Der grelle Kontrast zwischen Pathos und Paradoxon, zwischen der unvermittelten sprachlichen Melodramatik rührseliger Heroinen und dem artifiziellen Idiom der Dandys resultiert in Disharmonien, die der ästhetischen Homogenität der Stücke nicht eben zuträglich sind» (Leben und Werk 189).
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19. See also Dariusz Pestka, who argues that in the early plays «the plot is not comic at all, and only verbal wit and a few amusing characters counterbalance the serious problems; whereas in the latter [The Importance of Being Earnest] the plot contributes to the playful mood and reinforces other comic devices» (191).
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20. A link between this essay and the play is also established by E. B. Partridge in his article, «The Importance of Not Being Earnest.»
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[page 54]


Abrams, Meyer Howard. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1999.

Aristotle. Poetics: Classical Literary Criticism. Eds. D. A. Russell and M. Winterbottom. The World’s Classics. Oxford: OUP, 1989. 51−90.

Booth, Wayne C. A Rhetoric of Irony. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1974.

Catsiapis, Hélène. «Ironie et paradoxes dans les comédies d’Oscar Wilde: une interprétation.» Thalia: Studies in Literary Humor 1 (1978): 35−53.

Congreve, William. The Complete Plays. Ed. Herbert Davis. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1967.

Crombie, Winifred. «Raymond Chandler: Burlesque, Parody, Paradox.» Language and Style: An International Journal 16 (1983): 151−68.

Donaldson, Ian. «‘The Ledger of the Lost−and−Stolen Office’: Parody in Dramatic Comedy.» Southern Review: Literary and Interdisciplinary Essays 13 (1980): 41−52.

Erasmus, Desiderius. The Praise of Folly. Ed. Hoyt Hopewell Hudson. New York: Random House, 1970.

Foster, Richard. «Wilde as Parodist: A Second Look at The Importance of Being Earnest.» College English 18 (1956−57): 18−23.

Genette, Gérard. Palimpsestes: La littérature au second degré. Paris: Seuil, 1982.

Gregor, Ian. «Comedy and Oscar Wilde.» Sewanee Review 74 (1966): 501−21.

Hess−Lüttich, Ernest W. B. «Die Strategie der Paradoxie: Zur Logik der Konversation im Dandyismus am Beispiel Oscar Wildes.» Semiotics of Drama and Theatre: New Perspectives in the Theory of Drama and Theatre. Eds. Herta Schmid and Aloysius van Kesteren. Amsterdam: Benjamins, 1984. 197−234.

Höfele, Andreas. Parodie und literarischer Wandel: Studien zur Funktion einer Schreibweise in der englischen Literatur des ausgehenden 19. Jahrhunderts. Heidelberg: Winter, 1986.

Kohl, Norbert. Oscar Wilde: Leben und Werk. Frankfurt a. M.: Insel, 2000.

–––. Oscar Wilde: Das literarische Werk zwischen Provokation und Anpassung.Heidelberg: Winter, 1980.

Meier, Erika. Realism and Reality: The Function of the Stage Directions in the New Drama from Thomas William Robertson to George Bernard Shaw. Bern: Francke, 1967.

Miller, Henry Knight. «The Paradoxical Encomium with Special Reference to Its Vogue in England, 1600−1800.» Modern Philology 53 (1955): 145−78.

Nassar, Christopher S. «On Originality and Influence: Oscar Wilde’s Technique.» Journal of the Eighteen Nineties Society 24 (1997): 37−47.

Niederhoff, Burkhard. «The Rule of Contrary»: Das Paradox in der englischen Komödie der Restaurationszeit und des frühen 18. Jahrhunderts. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2001.

Ogala, Aatos. Aestheticism and Oscar Wilde. 2 vols. Helsinki: n. p., 1955.

[page 55] Parker, David. «Oscar Wilde’s Great Farce.» Wilde: Comedies: A Casebook.Ed. William Tydeman. London: Macmillan, 1982. 166−79.

Partridge, E. B. «The Importance of Not Being Earnest.» Bucknell Review 9 (1960): 143−58.

Patrides, C. A. «Erasmus and More: Dialogues with Reality.» Kenyon Review 8 (1986): 34−48.

Pestka, Dariusz. «A Typology of Oscar Wilde’s Comic Devices.» Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: An International Review of English Studies 22 (1989): 175−93.

Raby, Peter. The Importance of Being Earnest: A Reader’s Companion. New York: Twayne, 1995.

Sammells, Neil. «Earning Liberties: Travesties and The Importance of Being Earnest.«Modern Drama 29 (1986): 376−87.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works. Ed. Stanley Wells et al. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1986.

Sheridan, Richard Brinsley. Sheridan’s Plays. Ed. Cecil Price. Oxford: OUP, 1975.

Ware, James M. «Algernon’s Appetite: Oscar Wilde’s Hero as Restoration Dandy.» English Literature in Transition 13 (1970): 17−26.

Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays. Ed. Peter Raby. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: OUP, 1995.

–––. The Major Works. Ed. Isobel Murray. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford: OUP, 2000.

–––. The Original Four−Act Version of The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. Ed. Vyvyan Holland. London: Methuen, 1957.

Zeender, Marie−Noelle. «Oscar Wilde: Le jeu du paradoxe.» Cycnos 10 (1993): 53−61.

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Literatura inglesaOscar Wilde

James Joyce – Myth as Narrative

by Gordon Strong

…a brave man would invent something that never happened!


In both Ulysses, Portrait of the Artist and the prototype of the latter – Stephen Hero – Joyce is concerned with the presenting of ‘truth’.  Not only is he concerned with depicting accurately the mores of Victorian and Edwardian Ireland, he is also determined that his protagonist shall not succumb to the false doctrines that Joyce detected all around him.  Much has been made of the autobiographical nature of Joyce’s work, but he is much too skilled an artist to be content with a roman a clef.

Richard Kearney describes the essence of Joyce’s writing,‘…where simple contingencies of everyday existence can be transmuted into narrative ‘epiphanies’[1], and it seems that Stephen Dedalus is constantly in the throes of some miraculous revelation.  In Ulysses this theme is intensified to the extent that every character seems to be searching their soul in an attempt at self-realisation.


Joyce’s decision to quit his homeland did not mean that he removed himself in his mind from Dublin.  By settingUlysses in that city – both temporally and spiritually – he would be able to combine history and myth.  This would not be exclusively Homeric, Joyce simply chooses to convey the intensity of situations in a fantastic way.  He intends that his readers themselves experience a personal catharsis when presented with tragedy – or conversely, an epiphany.  Kearney is referring here to Tolkien’s view of myth when he states,

The fundamental motivation of all narrative art…is to open up a ‘secondary world’ or ‘sub creation’ which discloses truths and realities normally occluded by the primary world of ordinary perception and opinion.[2]

So effortlessly does Joyce move his characters from one state of reality to another that the reader unquestioningly accepts these shifts in perspective and accommodates the change of focus from subjective to objective.  Joyce amplifies our understanding of each episode no matter how diverse the content may seem to be.  Intimacy is created by distance and, as Mikhail Bakhtin insists, ‘…it is immensely important for the person who understands to be located outside the object of his or her creative understanding – in time, space or culture.’[3]  T.S. Eliot employed a similar dictum when he composed The Waste Land , published in 1922 the same year as Ulysses appeared.  The poet was greatly influenced by the philosopher F.H. Bradley, who proposed that the presence of disparate elements in any account enhanced the reader’s vision.


The ‘truth’ about anything need not be a single statement; it may be a paradox, or a collection of inconsistent statements. Joyce was continually searching for an approach to writing that fulfilled the same role as mimesis in Greek Drama.  Aristotle regarded drama as ‘an imitation of an action’, and here we may discover a clue to Joyce’s intentions – always to create a scene that cannot be ultimately attributed to a particular time or place. As Michael Davis comments, ‘Imitation always involves selecting something from the continuum of experience, thus giving boundaries to what really has no beginning or end.’[4]

Joyce desires to show ‘the essential being’ of any world that he creates and  even objects have a ‘life’ and a character.  This notion of actuality, ‘assembling reality’ in a collection of impressions and separate planes, was at the heart of Werner Heisenberg’s philosophy in the 1950s.

The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole.[5]

Joyce was aware that consciousness is a moveable feast – no individual ever possessing a monopoly on ‘truth’.  He would have agreed with Charles Tart, a researcher in parapsychology, who noted that, ‘all perception is constructed and necessarily inaccurate.’[6]

Joyce also used story-telling in an idiosyncratic manner in order to express the experience of time.   Bahktin refers to the novel as a ‘chronotope’, which he defines as ‘the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature’[7].  As Fred Alan Wolf observes, time is ‘motion, experience and memory’[8]. Joyce not only offers us new ways of regarding the world he reveals its infinite wonder.  As Eliade pronounced, ‘les mythes sont vrai, parcequ’ils sont sacres’.


[1] Richard Kearney, On Stories (London: Routledge, 2002), p.19
[2] Ibid. P. 158
[3] Mikhail Bakhtin, New York Review of Books, June 10, 1993.
[4] Michael Davis. The Poetry of Philosophy: On Aristotle’s Poetics. (Indiana: St Augustine’s Press 1999) p.156
[5] Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (New York: Harper& Row 1958) p.107
[6] Charles Tart, Waking up: Overcoming the obstacles to human potential (Boston: New Science Library 1986) p.63
[7] Mikhail Bakhtin, In The Dialogic Imagination. (Austin: Univ. Texas Press 1981) p. 84.
[8] Fred Alan Wolf, The Dreaming Universe (New York: Simon& Schuster 1994) p.169

 © Gordon Strong  2012.


Literatura inglesa James Joyce

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