Table of Contents
- The Importance of Being Earnest
- Summary of the Play the Importance of Being Ernest
- Themes of The Importance of Being Earnest
- Assessment Questions
- Let us Sum up
- In this unit you have learnt:
- • About the age of Oscar Wilde. You have also become familiar with the main writers and poets of nineteenth-century England.
- • You have learnt about the life of Oscar Wilde. Remember that “Wilde” is spelt with an ‘e’ at the end.
- • You have been made familiar with the summary of the play. Extracts from the play will be given to you in the next unit.
- Let us Sum up
- Summary of the Play the Importance of Being Ernest
The Importance of Being Earnest
In this post, you are going to study the play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest written by Oscar Wilde. This unit will also make you familiar with the age of Oscar Wilde. The summary of the play will enable you to understand the story/plot of the play. The subtitle of the play is “A Trivial Comedy for serious people”.
Characters in the Play
There are eleven characters in this play: These are outlined as:
JACK WORTHING, J.P.
Jack Worthing is the play’s protagonist. As a baby, Jack was found by an old man, Thomas Cardew, in a handbag in a cloakroom at Victoria Station and adopted by him. After the death of Thomas Cardew Jack became the guardian of his granddaughter Cecily Cardew. In order to be an appropriate role model to Cecily, Jack has created a double life. In Hertfordshire, where Cecily lives on his country estate, he is responsible and respectable and goes by the name Jack, whereas in London where he indulges love of high society and the pleasures of the city, he goes by the name of Ernest. He has told Cecily that Ernest is his wayward brother. Jack is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, the cousin of his friend Algernon. The initials JP after his name are to show that Jack is a Justice of the Peace.
Algernon is Jack Worthing’s best friend. He is charming, witty and satirical but also idle and self-absorbed. Algernon is the nephew of Lady Bracknell and the cousin of Gwendolen Fairfax. In order to avoid boring social obligations, Algernon has invented a friend ‘Bunbury’ whose tendency to fall ill offers him a convenient excuse to escape to the country for a while. He has always known Jack by the name of Ernest. To further complicate Jack’s situation he pretends to be Ernest in the second half of the play.
Gwendolen is the daughter of Lady Bracknell, cousin of Algernon and object of Jack’s affections. A member of high society she is self-confident, sophisticated and pretentious. Gwendolen is in love with Jack but knows him as Ernest and declares that she could not marry a man by any other name. She has a quick temper but is equally as quick to forgive.
Cecily is the granddaughter of Jack’s adopted father Thomas Cardew and Jack’s ward. Intrigued by the idea of Jack’s ‘brother’ Ernest, she has invented a courtship and engagement with him and desires to ‘cure’ him of his wickedness. She is regarded by some as one of the more realistic of the characters in the play but she could also be seen as another outrageous romantic.
Lady Bracknell is a mother to Gwendolyn and Aunt of Algernon. She represents the Victorian upper-classes and Wilde’s critique of their conservative values. Bracknell married into the upper-classes and wants her daughter to make a ‘suitable’ marriage as well. She is the antagonist of the play, blocking the marriages of the main characters. She also provides much of the humour of the play although unlike Algernon, she does not intend for her comments to be humorous.
Miss Prism is Cecily’s governess (governess is a lady who takes care of small children and teaches them. In upper-class private households, it was a common practice to employ governesses to teach children. Nineteenth-century upper-class Englishmen followed this practice.) She has romantic feelings towards D.r Chausable but his position as a priest prohibits her from telling him her feelings directly. She demonstrates puritanical values which are sometimes so over the top they invite laughter. Miss Prism also wrote a novel in her youth which has been since lost.
REV. CANON CHASUBLE, D.D.
The Reverend is the rector on Jack’s estate. If he was not a priest he would be a perfect match for Miss Prism. He is approached by both Jack and Algernon who request that he christen them ‘Ernest’. The initials after his name stand for “Doctor of Divinity.” (Reverend is a title for a member of the clergy.) (D.D. means a doctor of Divinity theology)
LANE AND MERRIMAN
Lane is Algernon’s manservant. He demonstrates that he is more than a passive servant by his delivery of droll statements. At the beginning of the play, he is the sole character who is aware of Algernon’s practice of “Bunburying.”
Merriman is the butler (A male head-servant whose duties in club general supervision of the household, especially the serving of food and drinks) at the Manor House, Jack’s estate in the country. His presence, along with another servant, force the quarreling between Gwendolen and Cecily to maintain supposedly polite conversation.
Mr. Grimsby is a solicitor (Solicitor is a lawyer who does not actually appear in court, except in the lower court, but acts as an agent in legal matters and prepares a case for trial)
Moulton is a gardener
ABOUT THE AGE: Nineteenth century England was an age that saw a number of changes taking place in society. Agriculture was giving way to industry in many cities of England. Industries were set up in cities and these industries began employing men, women, and children. In order to improve the condition of the workers, a number of laws were passed.
Nineteenth century England also saw the rise of the Romantic poets. The first generation romantic poets were William Wordsworth, S.T. Coleridge and Robert Southey. The second generation poets were John Keats, P.B.Shelley and George Byron. These writers stressed on values like friendship and freedom. They also praised nature and the magical effect of nature on man.
In the first half of Nineteenth century, the influence of the Romantic poets was remarkable. This period also saw the arrival of humanist like Thomas Carlyle who felt that man should not worship the machine. Important thinkers like Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and James Mill stressed on education of the masses. The utilitarian theory was formulated by Bentham and James Mill supported it. They praised the industrial policy of England.
In 1850, England held the Grand Exhibition. England displayed her wealth before the world. She was now a great and powerful country. Queen Victoria was ruling on the throne and except for the cringer war, no other war was fought during. He time. A number of soldiers died in the Crimean war (1856 – 58). The government decided to improve the medical and health services offered to the people, Florence Nightingale was a young nurse who went to Crimea to treat the patients. The nursing profession gained popularity after this war.
During the time of Queen Victoria, there were two other well-known people. These were Lord Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning. Tennyson’s poems were full of energy and enthusiasm. Browning’s poems recalled past splendor and dealt with death.
The important novelist of this age were: Jane Austin, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Thomas Hardy, Mrs. Gasket and George Gissing. These writers, through their stories, wished to improve society. The common people or the working class was focussed upon in the works of these writers. Two other important writers were Harriet and Matthew Arnold and they also stressed on the importance of education. Arnold was an Inspector of schools and he was keen to promote the learning of the masses.
The influence of Kevel Mory and Frederik Engels was felt in this age. These two communist thinkers called for an overall unity on caught the working class. “The communist manifesto” was written by Karl Marx in 1848.
The best-known plays on two nineteenth century were all written towards the end of the century. Dramatic activities gained importance after years of neglect. The first half of the nineteenth century saw the rise of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction prose. The reason why there was a neglect of drama was that public taste seemed inclined towards weldors rather than various plays. Moreover, the great popularity of Shakespeare prevented many aspiring playwrights from experimenting with anything new. Even Eminent writers like Wordsworth, Shelley, Browning failed to write plays.
In mid-nineteenth century France “well-made” plays and “realistic” dramas were very popular. The influence of the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen was evident in the French plays that were being written. The nineteenth century England drama was developed by T.W. Robertson who wrote the play “Caste” in 1867. Two other dramatists were Henry the play “The Silver Key”. Pinero wrote the play. “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray” in 1893. Both James and Pinero contributed to making use of well dramatic or sentimental effects but with an undercurrent of social significance.
Henrik Ibsen also influences nineteenth-century British drama. Ibsen’s plays dealt with
Social problems. He focussed on the moral role in society in the play Pillars of Society (1877) in Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House (1879). Ibsen created the “New Woman” who had a mind and intelligence of her own. In England, Ibsen’s most ardent admirer was George Bernard Shaw. Shaw added his own rich wit and humour to the ideas derived from Ibsen.
Oscar Wilde’s plays were extremely well constructed (well – made plays). The plots had elements of suspense and surprise. Wilde also focussed in his plays on the double standards of morality in society. The speech, manners, and attitudes of the upper class are all very well presented in Wilde’s plays. In Wilde’s plays, there are influences of the comedy of manners. The comedy of manners first become popular during the Restoration period in seventeenth-century England. King Charles II had enjoyed these types of plays during his years of exile in France. On his return to England, he wanted these types of plays to be written. As its name suggests, this form of comedy delights in holding up a mirror to society and laughing at the follies of humanity especially of the aristocracy. These plays revolve around certain basic themes like sex (friendship, marriage, divorce, jealousy), money and the conflict between generations. Wilde presented before the viewers a tiny cross-section of society and the viewers could recognize their manners and customs. There is satire in these plays. Values and social norms like propriety and respectability are upheld. Wilde’s plays are simple and easy to understand.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854. His father Sir William Wilde was a reputed eye and ear specialist. He was said to have invented the operation for Cataract. Dr. William Wilde was awarded the title of Knighthood for his services to medicine. (The King or Queen of England gives this honour of Knighthood. After receiving that honour “Sir” is added before the name of the person.)
Sir William Wilde’s wife Lady Jane Francisca Wilde was a very educated lady. She wrote articles and poems for the Irish nationalist newspaper The Nation.
Until the age of nine, Oscar Wilde studied at a go, me. Thereafter he went to school. Later he studied at Trinity College of Dublin where he won the Berkeley gold medal. He was awarded a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford. He studied here from 1874 to 1878 and came under the influence of the Aesthetic movement. ( a movement that popularized the theory of art for art’s sake. The movement was a reaction to John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham’s policy of utilitarianism. Bentham and Mill attached importance to things that were useful and material.)
After graduating from Oxford. Here he falls in love with Florence Balicombe, but she did not marry him. She got engaged to another person. On hearing of her engage, Wilde decided to leave Ireland permanently. The next six years were spent in London, Paris and United States where he travelled to deliver lectures.
In between Wilde’s lecture tours, Wilde found time to meet poets like Henry Long fellow and Walt Whitman. In Wilde’s lectures, the influence of John Ruskin (The British writer) and Walter Pater (The British poet) was much noted. While lecturing at London, Wilde met constancy Llyed, daughter of Horace Llyed, Queen Victoria’s council. In 1884, constancy was visiting Dublin, when Oscar Wilde was in the city to give lectures, he proposed to her and they got married on May 29, 1884. Constancy was an educated person. She spoke several European languages and was outspoken in her views. The couple had two sons, Cyril (born in 1885) and Vyuyan (born in 1886).
Oscar Wilde’s reputation as a writer made him aware of the importance of the year. He used words with great care and his writings were full of wit. From 1887 to 1889 he served as editor of The Woman’s world and became interested in the concept of the ‘new woman’ popularized by Henrik Ibsen (Norwegian dramatist) and G.B. Shaw (British dramatist).
In 1894, Oscar Wilde brought out Lord Arthur Samile’s crime and other stories. A house of Pomeranians as well as a collection of short stories.
In 1892, Oscar Wilde made an importance entry into London’s theatrical world with the production of “Lady Windermere’s fan”, which he described as ‘one of those modern drawing room plays with pink lamp school.
Oscar Wilde’s next English play was titled A Woman of no importance. It was staged in London in 1893. In 1895 Oscar Wilde’s third major play. An Ideal Husband was produced. The Importance of Being Ernest, the most famous of Wilde’s plays, was stayed on 14 February 1895 in London.
At Oxford Wilde came into contact with Alfred Douglas. History records that Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas had a very close friendship and close physical relationship. Alfred’s fallow John Sholto Douglas, 9th morgues of Queensberry did not approve of this friendship. He tried to break up Wilde’s and Alfred’s friendship. History records that Wilde forced a trial for his relationship with Alfred. Wilde was sent to prison in 1895. He was sentenced to two years hard labour. The prison was unkind to Wilde’s health. He was released on May 19, 1897. He spent his last three years penniless, in self-imposed exile from society and artiste cereals. On his death bed in Paris, he was Baptised and made a member of the Roman Catholic Church. He died of cerebral meningitis on 30 November 1900.
Oscar Wilde was much influenced by John Ruskin and William Morris. The aesthetic movement represented by William Morris and the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti was much popularised by Wilde.
Wilde was a supporter of socialism. He and George Bernard Shaw both advocated for socialism. Like Shaw, Wilde also was extremely witty. His quick repartees won him a lot of admirers. Oscar Wilde’s rich and dramatic Portrayal of human condition during the reckon with. Wilde wrote many short stories, plays, and poems that continue to inspire millions around the world.
Summary of the Play the Importance of Being Ernest
The Importance of being Ernest is a play by Oscar Wilde. It was staged on February 14, 1895, at the St. Jame’s Theatre in London. It was Wilde’s most popular play. The summary of the poem is given as follows:
ACT 1 • SCENE 1
The play opens in Algernon’s “luxuriously and artistically furnished” flat with a short conversation between Algernon and his manservant Lane.
Mr. Worthing arrives and Algernon explains that he is expecting his Aunt Lady Bracknell and his cousin Gwendolen soon and that Worthing should leave as his aunt doesn’t approve of his conduct towards Gwendolen.
However, Worthing explains that he has come to town with the intention of proposing to Gwendolen and the two men discuss marriage. Algernon has found Mr. Worthing’s cigarette case and has discovered a message in it for someone by the name of Jack from someone called Cecily. This forces Worthing to reveal that despite being known as Ernest in town he goes by the name Jack in the country and pretends to have a brother by the name of Ernest that he uses as an excuse to leave the country for town. Furthermore, Worthing reveals that he is the guardian of a girl called Cecily who lives with him in the country. Algernon then explains that he used a similar excuse to the leave town; he has invented a comparable lie about a fictitious friend called Bunbury who is regularly unwell.
ACT 1 • SCENE 2
Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen arrive and Algernon tells his aunt that he is unable to dine with her that night because his friend Bunbury is sick and needs his attention. Algernon and his aunt retire to another room to discuss music; leaving Worthing and Gwendolen alone. Worthing attempts to propose to Gwendolen but his stammering attempt means that she takes charge of the situation and declares her love for him also. To Worthing’s discomfort, Gwendolen reveals that she has always fantasised about being with a man named Ernest and could not love a man of any other name.
Lady Bracknell interrupts the couple and is unhappy to discover their engagement and questions Worthing about his suitability, finances, habits, and property. All is going well until Mr. Worthing reveals that he was found as a baby in a handbag at Victoria station and is unaware of his parentage. Lady Bracknell, therefore, denies his proposal and tells him to attempt to find a parent as soon as possible and exits.
Gwendolen re-enters to ask Worthing for his country address and Algernon secretly writes it down. The act ends with Algernon telling his manservant lane that he is about to spend the weekend Bunburying.
ACT 2 • SCENE 1
The second act is set in the garden of Worthing’s country house where Cecily is being taught by Miss Prism. The two women discuss Jack’s brother Ernest and how Cecily wishes to set him a good example. Canon Chasuble enters, he and Miss Prism are clearly attracted to each other and Cecily manages to convince them to take a walk together.
Algernon arrives pretending to be Jack’s brother Ernest and after flirting they enter the house. Miss Prism and Chasuble return from their walk and meet Worthing who informs them that his brother has died. Jack asks Chasuble to christen him later on that day so that he can change his name to Ernest. Cecily then re-enters and announces that Jack’s brother Ernest has arrived and is therefore not dead.
Worthing is furious that Algernon is there and impersonating his non-existent brother and he tells Algernon that he must leave.
ACT 2 • SCENE 2
Algernon disobeys Worthing and proposes to Cecily who reveals that she has always dreamed about being in love with a man by the name of Ernest and has in fact created a romance with Ernest over the last few months, including writing herself letters from him and creating an imaginary engagement between them. This incites Algernon to go in search of Chasuble to christen him Ernest.
Gwendolen arrives and meets Cecily and they argue because they both believe themselves to be engaged to Ernest Worthing. Their row is settled by the arrival of both Algernon and Worthing who reveal the truth. The two women are furious with the revelation and go inside the house to get away from the men. The men eat muffins whilst rowing about each other’s behaviour.
ACT 3 • SCENE 1
The final act of the play is set in the Manor House where Cecily and Gwendolen are watching the two men outside as they eat muffins. The men approach and explain that their behaviour was in the pursuit of gaining the girls love and the women are satisfied with their explanations. However, they feel that the men’s Christian names are “insuperable” barriers in their relationships but the men appeal by explaining that they plan to be christened that afternoon and all is well.
Lady Bracknell arrives abruptly and is deeply unhappy with Gwendolen’s behaviour. On enquiring, if this is the house where Bunbury lives, Algernon ‘kills off’ Bunbury. She is still not happy with Gwendolen’s intention to marry Worthing but is also distressed to discover Algernon is now engaged to Cecily. Lady Bracknell questions Worthing about Cecily much in the same way that she quizzed him earlier to ensure that she is worthy to be her nephew’s wife and is satisfied. However, Worthing will not give permission for Cecily to be married unless Lady Bracknell will give permission for him to marry Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell will not change her mind.
Chasuble enters and is ready for the baptism and is disappointed to find out the christening may not be going ahead.
He mentions that Miss Prism is waiting in the vestry and suddenly Lady Bracknell is struck by the name Prism and calls for her immediately.
ACT 3 • SCENE 2
Miss Prism enters and it emerges that she used to work for Bracknell and almost thirty years previously had mixed up her novel with a baby, placing the novel in the baby carriage and the baby in the handbag which she then lost. Worthing is struck by this news and runs off the stage. Jack returns with the handbag that he was found in and it is revealed that he was the child lost by Miss Prism. Therefore, Worthing is Algernon’s brother and his real name is in fact, Ernest. Which means he was actually telling the truth when he thought he was lying. This also means that the couples can all get married and the play ends.
The Gist of The Importance of Being Earnest
Algernon, an aristocratic young Londoner, pretends to have a friend named Bunbury. Bunbury loves in the country and is frequently in ill health: Whenever Algernon wants to avoid an unwelcome social obligation, he makes an ostensible visit to his “sick friend”. He calls this practice ‘Bunburying’.
Algernon’s best friend Ernest Worthing lives in the country but makes frequent visits to London. When his friend leaves his silver cigarette case in Algernon’s morning room, Algernon finds and inception on it: “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her clear uncle Jack.”
Algernon’s friend goes by the name of Jack while he lives in the country. Jack pretends to have a brother by the name of Ernest. Ernest is supposed to reside in London. Jack gives the impression that Ernest requires frequent attention. When Jack is in London, he assumes the name of Ernest. Jack is also a ‘Bunburyist’.
Jack wants to marry Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen, but he cannot do so for two reasons. First, Gwendolen seems to love him merely for his name, Ernest, which she thinks to be the most beautiful name in the world. Second, Gwendolen’s mother, the terrifying Lady Bracknell, does not approve of Mr. Worthing. She is horrified to learn that Jack was adopted as a baby after being discovered in a handbag at a railway station.
Jack’s description of Cecily appeals to Algernon and Algernon is keen to meet her. Jack opposes this. One day Algernon comes to Jack’s house. Algernon pretends to be
Ernest because Cecily has imagined herself to be in love with Ernest. Cecily falls for Algernon who is disguised as Ernest.
Jack meanwhile, decides to do away with Bunburying and returns to his country estate with the news that his brother Ernest has reportedly died in Paris. He (Jack) is forced to abandon this claim by the presence of “Ernest”. Algernon who threatens to expose Jack’s double life if the latter does not play along.
Gwendolen runs away from London and her mother to be with her lower. When Gwendolen and Cecily meet for the first time each insists that she is the one engaged to Ernest. Lady Bracknell arrives in pursuit of her daughter Gwendolen. She refuses to allow Jack’s marriage with Gwendolen (remember Jack pretends that his name is Ernest): Jack does not agree to grant permission to Cecily to marry Algernon who also pretends that his name is Ernest.
The situation is saved by the appearance of Cecily’s governess, Miss Prism. As she and Lady Bracknell recognise each other with horror it is revealed that, when working many years previously as a nursemaid for Lady Bracknell’s sister, Prism had inadvertently lost a baby boy in a handbag. When Jack produces the identical handbag, it becomes clear that he is Lady Bracknell’s nephew and Algernon’s older brother.
With Jack’s identity proven, only one thing now stood in the way of the young couple’s happiness: Gwendolen insistence that she could only love a man named Ernest. The question is what is Jack’s real first name? Lady Bracknell informs him that he was named after his father, a general, but cannot remember the general’s name.
Jack looks eagerly in a military reference book and declares that the name is, in fact, Ernest after all. He has all along been telling the truth inadvertently.
“The happy couple namely Gwendolen and Jack, Cecily and Algernon, Miss Prism and the Reverend Canon Chasuble embrace one another. Lady Bracknell complains to Ernest,
“My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality,” Ernest replies to Aunt Augusta,
”I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital importance of being Ernest.”
Themes of The Importance of Being Earnest
Throughout the play, Wilde explores the idea of marriage, especially as a social tool. Lady Bracknell has married into high society and wishes for her daughter Gwendolen to have an equally ‘suitable’ marriage. The involvement of parental approval and the social standing and parentage of potential suitors is an obstacle in the marriages of the play as Lady Bracknell says:
“An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be.
It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself…”
Wilde is showing the Victorian notion of marrying for political and social reasons rather than love and affection: “To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other’s character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.” (Lady Bracknell)
Algernon is very skeptical of marriage until he meets Cecily:
Jack: “I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her.”
Algernon: “I thought you had come up for pleasure? …I call that business.”
Jack: “How utterly unromantic you are!”
Through Algernon Wilde explores the Victorian hypocrisy around marriages for social standing, where those within the marriage may seek genuine affection and entertainment elsewhere, whilst keeping up appearances:
Algernon: “Nothing will induce me to part with Bunbury, and if you ever get married, which seems to be extremely problematic, you will be very glad to know Bunbury. A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it.”
Jack: “That is nonsense. If I marry a charming girl like Gwendolen, and she is the only girl I ever saw in my life that I would marry, I certainly don’t want to know Bunbury.”
Algernon: “Then your wife will. You don’t seem to realise, that in married life three is company and two is none.”
Cecily and Gwendolen have highly romantic notions of marriage which are based on their ‘idea’ of what it should entail. However, both women go against the Victorian ideal of being a woman by taking charge in matters of their own engagements. Cecily has played the role of herself and ‘Ernest’ in their courtship and engagement:
Cecily: “It would hardly have been a really serious engagement if it hadn’t been broken off at least once. But I forgave you before the week was out.”
Gwendolen takes over from the stammering Jack to make sure the proposal goes smoothly:
Gwendolen: “And to spare you any possible disappointment, Mr. Worthing. I think it only fair to tell you quite frankly before-hand that I am fully determined to accept you.”
Note: Both women have fixated on the importance of marrying someone called Ernest. The fact that the name is more important than anything else demonstrates Wilde’s attitude to the superficiality of Victorian morals around marriage. This is enhanced by the use of the joke around the name Ernest when the two men pretending to be called Ernest are not being earnest.
Lady Bracknell epitomizes what Wilde sees as the hypocrisy and shallowness of Victorian upper-class society. She is concerned with the family background and wealth of any potential marriage partner for her daughter Gwendoline. It is significant that she is herself of ‘lower’ class background, having married ‘well’.
Algernon and his servant Lane show the class divides of the time with Algernon having no interests in Lane’s personal life and Lane covering for Algernon’s indiscretions. However, this relationship is also used for satire with Lane unashamedly stealing champagne from Algernon and Algernon stating:
“Really if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them.”
The importance of class and social standing in the marriages of the main characters plays with and also adheres to the class conventions of the time.
The dual identities taken on by Jack and Algernon are linked to Wilde’s critique of Victorian morality and sincerity. Both men assume a different identity to get what they want and then continue the lie when in fear of being found out. Jack could be seen as less moral than Algernon as he lies to his ward and the woman he loves, whereas Algernon lies to a woman (Cecily) whom he has only just met. Jack’s deception also suggests he has a darker, side, and it demonstrates the separation between private and public life in upper-middle-class Victorian England.
It has also been interpreted that the use of dual identities ‘Jack in the Country, Ernest in the city’ is both linked to marital infidelity and homosexuality. Homosexuality was not approved of in Wilde’s time and was to be kept as a secret dual identity. Wilde even married a woman to maintain the illusion of heterosexuality himself.
Wilde critiques Victorian morality by exposing the hypocrisy that underpins it. For example, Lady Bracknell pertains to be morally upright whilst showing a harsh disregard for the life of ‘Bunbury’ and cruel indifference to the loss of Jack’s parents, other than that it is socially unacceptable.
Both Jack and Algernon demonstrate the hypocrisy of Victorian morality in that they are able to live the life that they wish to as long as appearances are preserved.
MANNERS AND SINCERITY
The play uses Victorian manners as a basis for humour. When Cecily and Gwendolen are forced to behave politely to one another because the servants are present they continue to serve tea and cake but their anger is only very thinly veiled and they show their displeasure by serving the ‘wrong’ items.
Lady Bracknell speaks in what would seem to be very highly mannered ways but her disregard for people’s feelings and her prioritising of the trivial over serious matters shows her true colours. The fact that she suddenly warms to Cecily on discovering her fortune shows Wilde’s cynicism at the sincerity of the manners in Victorian society.
The pivotal action of the play centres around the name Ernest and the pun that this has with the idea of someone being earnest. Both Gwendolen and Cecily are devoted to the idea of loving someone with this name. The irony being that both men have lied about their names, so are not in fact ‘earnest’ at all. Then it turns out that Jack has actually been telling the truth when he thought he was lying and is in fact called Ernest. This muddling of truth and lie serves to show how muddled Wilde considered Victorian morals around honesty and sincerity. Worthing’s apology to Gwendolen because is “a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth” is a characteristic inversion of conventional morality by Wilde and also a final dig at the hypocrisy of Victorian society.
IDLENESS OF THE LEISURE CLASS AND THE AESTHETE
Wilde himself indulged in the lifestyle of triviality which Algernon does and as such he mocks it in good spirit. Wilde was an Aesthete (a philosophy of Walter Pater) which calls for art to be about beauty and not reality. Algernon’s interest in trivial things such as cucumber sandwiches can thus be seen to show him as a character who successfully cultivates aesthetic uselessness.
FARCE AND EPIGRAMS
Wilde uses compact witty maxims known as Epigrams which use paradox to expose the absurdities of society. For example, he may take an established cliché and twist it about so that it could be seen to make more sense than the original, for example “in married life three is company and two is none” captures the monotony of monogamy by subverting the commonplace “two is company, three’s a crowd.”
In The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde also uses Farce, known as ‘low’ comedy by using comic reversals, repetitions of dialogue and actions and absurdity. These would have been familiar devices for his Victorian audience but what elevates the device is the combination of Wilde’s wit through Epigram and the ridiculousness of the fast-paced farce.
Q. 1. What does Algernon mean by the term “bunburing”?
Answer: Whenever Algernon wants to avoid an unwelcome social obligation, or whenever he wants to get away for the weak end, he says that he must visit his friend named ‘Bunbury’ who lives in the country and is frequently in ill health. He pretends he has a friend in the country (away from London). He calls this practice ‘Bunburying’.
Q. 2. When and where was the play the importance of Being Ernest stayed?
Answer: The play was stayed on February 14, 1895, at St, James theater in London.
Q. 3. Who is Algernon’s best friend?
Answer: Algernon’s best friend is Ernest Worthing who lives in the country. Ernest is also called Jack.
Q. 4. Who is Gwendolen? Whom does she love?
Answer: Gwendolen is Algernon’s cousin and Lady Bracknell’s daughter. She loves Ernest Worthing to Jack.
Q. 5. Who is Cecily? Whom does she love?
Answer: Cecily is Ernest Worthing or Jack’s niece. Cecily is in love with Algernon who pretends to be Ernest.
Q. 6. Where was Jack discovered (found)?
Answer: Ernest Worthing or Jack was discovered in a handbag at a railway station.
Q. 7. Who is Miss Prism?
Answer: Miss Prism is Cecily’s governess.
Q. 8. How is Jack related to Lady Bracknell?
Answer: Jack is actually Lady Bracknell’s nephew and Algernon’s older brother. Many years ago when Miss Prism had worked as a nurse maid for Lady Bracknell’s sister, Miss Prism had lost a baby boy is a handbag. That baby boy is Jack.
Q. 9. What is Jack’s father’s name?
Answer: Jack’s father’s name is Ernest and Jack was named after his father.
Q. 10. What does the word “earnest” mean?
Answer: In this play, Ernest is a fictitious character at first. Later on when the play ends the reader that Jack was named after his father Ernest. The word “earnest” means someone who is sincere and eager to learn something or know something.
Let us Sum up
In this unit you have learnt:
1. ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is truly a very humourist play. Explain with examples from the play.
2. Oscar’s play is an exquisite work of wit and comic revelry. Elucidate.
3. The Victorian mannerisms and pompous life has been remarkably presented by Oscar’s flamboyant witty style and aphorisms. Explain with example.