The Importance of Being Earnest

“I do” is a performative speech act. You say it in the midst of a marriage ceremony and then you’re wed. “It’s over” is also a performative speech act—when you say it, the relationship ends. But when I said that my marriage was over, I also had to fly to South Carolina to say it was over again. Then the hard work of disentangling our lives began. There was the separation of all of our stuff, which was swift but filled with regret, the separation of our emotional lives, which was slow and confusing, and so much bureaucracy. The legal procedures and forms necessary to divorce, the refinancing of the house so he could get my name off the mortgage, the refinancing of the car to remove his name from the loan, the trips to the DMV to become a Pennsylvania resident and register the car in state, the calls to the South Carolina DMV to figure out if I still had to pay taxes and whether they wanted the license plate back. The bureaucracy makes you realize how little a marriage is about the relationship between two people: it’s about debt and residency and family phone bills and insurance and taxes and property. When you say it’s over, you’re really just saying you’re willing to do the exhausting work to make your words matter. More importantly, you’re willing to pay for it.

I spent the summer seeking notaries, mailing forms, waiting in lines, on hold with the South Carolina DMV and Geico. Every stage of the process was so sad. I think it was partly the sorrow of recognizing just how hard it is to say what you mean and back it up. You have to be willing to go to the DMV to authorize your speech even when you know that the DMV cannot really capture the nuances of your words.


Figuring out just what words are doing is hard work. Are they acting? Preventing action? Are they distracting us from the actions that matter? This difficulty is one of many reasons why I love teaching literature. My students and I get to work together to understand what words are saying—no easy task—and what they’re doing. Why are we drawn to or repelled by these words? Who are they trying to reach? And who or what authorizes this language—what kind of institutional authority backs these words or leaves them in the cold?

Dramatic monologues provide good material for these questions. In Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” the Duke, the speaker of this poem, declares that he does not have skill in speech but nevertheless conveys to his listener that his words are effective: “I gave commands;/ Then all smiles stopped together.” To put it bluntly, he killed his wife. Skill or not—when he talks, things happen. The Duchess’s visage looks out from the painting the Duke commissioned, but she doesn’t say a word in the poem. Dead women don’t talk. They can, however, throw shade: because of the Duchess’s absent presence, readers learn to distrust her husband.

But few people are as comfortable giving commands as the Duke. And even if they gave commands, no one would listen. Many of us are more like the speaker in “Andrea del Sarto” who laments, “I often am much wearier than you think,” as he tries and fails to communicate with his wife. This poem ends with him giving a command of sorts—he urges his wife to meet her lover, declaring, “Go, my Love.” But this command reflects his resignation rather than his desire. After an entire poem asking his wife to stay with him, he tells her to leave because he no longer has any hopes that his words will work. Although he is the speaker of the poem, he haunts it like the dead Duchess. His speech only leads to action when he gives up on communicating his desire and starts using the language of another instead.

The Duke could give commands and make things happen. I issued a performative utterance and then quickly became overwhelmed by the performances it required. Over the course of my marriage, I had become too comfortable assuming that my words didn’t work. There’s danger in people too easily listening to your words and carrying out your commands, but there’s also a danger in assuming that everything you say doesn’t matter. You begin to forget that you’re an agent—acting through silence as well as speech. I sold myself out by thinking of myself as a listener who could never find the right words to say what I meant. Even worse, like Andrea del Sarto, I learned to speak another person’s desire.

The trips to the notary taught me that I, too, could find my own words and perform my speech. But I also learned that making your words work doesn’t always mean that you get what you want. Who wants to spend the summer crying in line at the DMV?


Unlike dramatic monologues that measure the gap between words and actions, Victorian fiction get a bad rap for being too earnest. I blame Oscar Wilde. Earnest literature isn’t really literary at all: it naively seeks to align words and actions, overlooking art in favor of ethics or, even worse, morality. Irony or hyperbole or language play detached from any explicit action seems far cooler to many people.

But precisely because of this earnestness, Victorian fiction highlights the danger of men who get caught up in the loveliness of their words and forget that they are speaking to another person. These men don’t give commands like the Duke or renounce their desire in order to please another like Andrea del Sarto. They assert their power as a speaker by reveling in what Sara Ahmed calls “non-performative speech acts”: words that work because they have no intention of doing what they say. Non-performative speech acts offer an escape from the ugly realities of the world even as they tend to reinforce the powers that be. But eventually these lovely words begin to haunt you because unlike the man speaking, you remember the actions that they promise but never perform. If you’re like me, you begin to wish that you weren’t such an earnest listener, that you were a better critic of oral communication. You may even become suspicious of art, especially art you love. You begin to believe that nothing lovely can last.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s “The Cold Embrace” warns readers about men who love their words just a little too much. “A young, handsome and eloquent” student is at the center of the story. When he vows to love his cousin Gertrude, he gets so caught up in his language that he promises a death-defying love. Could death part them? He declares that he would return to her from beyond the grave and claims that she’d do the same, too, if she really loved him. She’s not so sure about this declaration—who’d want to return to “the troubled earth?” Wouldn’t it be better to remain peacefully with God in heaven? She’s clearly the practical one in this relationship. And, as Braddon suggests, far more capable of sincere feeling.

Years pass, and the student doesn’t even remember those foolish dreams of his boyhood.” He goes off to Italy and stops writing to Gertrude. He doesn’t love her any longer, so he doesn’t feel the need to answer her letters. Filled with despair, promised to another suitor, Gertrude kills herself. Seeing her corpse, the student doesn’t even grieve. Instead he leaves the city and tries to forget.

Gertrude doesn’t forget, however. She gives the student what he said he wanted in the days of long ago: eternal love. Wherever he goes, her ghost is there. She wraps her arms around his neck in a cold embrace. He begins to seek out crowds to avoid this ghostly caress but he cannot escape her: whenever he is alone, she returns. Her absent presence does more than throw shade from beyond the grave: her haunting kills him. The story ends with his death from “want of food, exhaustion, and the breaking of a bloodvessel.”

Taking his words seriously despite her initial doubts and his utter abandonment of her, Gertrude attempts to prove her love by performing his non-performative speech. But there’s a cost: she loses herself, she loses the promise of peace in heaven, and she terrifies the man she loves. Her earnestness destroys her and then him. The moral of the story remains unclear. Although the narrator questions the student’s heartlessness, maybe Gertrude should have been able to appreciate the loveliness in the moment but been more willing to forget. The story explains why not to mistake “foolish dreams” or beautiful speech for anything other than rhetoric, but it also provides a clear warning to men with a fondness for lovely words detached from action: your speech will eventually kill you.

I sometimes think of my ex-husband as fitting this type—a lovely-words man. He was so eloquent expressing his love, so unwilling to narrate its end. At a certain point in our relationship, he became less interested in trying to communicate through language and more committed to changing how I talked. Like the student in the story, he issued challenges so I could prove my love. When I told the truth and asked him to do the same, I introduced too much ugliness into our lives. I should be less earnest and far more thoughtful about aesthetic effects—I should talk like him. I think he wanted me to revel more freely in “foolish dreams” but be more aware, without him having to say anything, when these dreams ended. I listened carefully every time he gave me advice. Of course, my earnest listening only created more problems. It led to very painful silences as I learned to speak in his beautiful language and quiet my ugly thoughts.

I was a little bit too much like Gertrude. I didn’t feel loved by him, but I still clung to him because I loved him, and he never told me that he no longer loved me. I believed his lovely words even when his actions told me otherwise. Listening earnestly, I tried to perform his non-performative speech. It made me feel like a ghost—a disembodied spirit only capable of throwing shade. I eventually tired of haunting him with my cold embrace. I tried something different: it’s over, I declared. And then I flew to South Carolina to declare it again.


At the DMV, it was easy to mourn the loss of lovely words. There’s no poetry in waiting for hours to complete bureaucratic forms. Trying to make your words work necessarily means engaging with ugliness—the limits of institutions, the tedium of bureaucracy, the complexities of other people’s wants and needs, the inadequacy of language. But there’s a kind of beauty that results from acknowledging this ugliness and still trying to speak and enact your desire. You may not get what you want, but when you stop giving commands, silencing your speech, or believing in beautiful visions that will never come to be, maybe you can build something lovely that lasts.

Mary Mullen writes and teaches in Philadelphia. She is the author of Novel Institutions: Anachronism, Irish Novels and Nineteenth-Century Realism (Edinburgh University Press, 2019) and many academic articles about realism, institutions, publics, the politics of time, colonialism. She has published and forthcoming personal writing in Hyped on Melancholy, The Nonconformist Magazine, and North Dakota Quarterly.

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