Title: The Importance of Being Earnest
Author: Oscar Wilde
Date of Publication: 1898, First Performed 1895
Genre: Satire, Comedy of Manners
Biographical information about the author (for my knowledge only, but very helpful):
Author, playwright and poet Oscar Wilde was a popular literary figure in late Victorian England, known for his brilliant wit, flamboyant style and infamous imprisonment for homosexuality. Known for satirical and comedic writing. His lover’s father had him tried for “indecency” for being homosexual. He died two years after leaving prison with a broken spirit, broke, of cerebral meningitis. He was a proponent of aestheticism and thought art should be made for art’s sake.
Information about the literary period (for my knowledge only, but very helpful):
Victorian period, responsibility to society and moral values were extremely important. Etiquette and proper behavior were key, and they would often avoid using words with sexual connotations. During the time period, prosperity flourished and the Victorians were self-assured and self confident. People started to question Christianity, moving towards more scientific thinking. In households, males were the dominant authority and women were to be submissive. However; unmarried women had more power than married women.
The play begins in the city, when Jack stops by Algernon’s place and is questioned about a cigar case that is found by Algernon with an inscription written on the inside addressed to Jack from a woman named Cecily. Algernon is baffled by this since Jack is completely infatuated by Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen. This is where Jack’s identity is discovered, and where Jack learns about Bunburying. Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell, and his cousin, Gwendolen, stop by for a visit and Jack reveals the real reason why he stopped by for a visit. Jack and Gwendolen find themselves alone, and Jack proposes to her. Lady Bracknell forbids the marriage because Jack
does not know his parents. Jack decides to kill of his Bunbury Ernest because he is becoming troublesome to him. He goes back to his home in the country, however, to his surprise, Ernest is already waiting for him at home. Algernon claims to be Jacks brother Ernest and has fallen desperately in love with Jacks charge, Cecily. But just like the good father figure he is, Jack refuses to allow his charges marriage. The situation deteriorates when Gwendolen arrives looking for her fiance, Ernest. The two infatuated girls icily argue over who has the proper claim to their lover, who they believe to be the same Ernest. The two Ernest’s arrive near the end of the argument, where Gwendolen and Cecily quickly realize that they have been deceived: each man has falsely claimed to be Ernest to suit their Bunburyist purpose. The men explain that they used their false names to meet their women. Though Cecily and Gwendolen forgive the men’s treachery, they are reluctant to marry men of such ordinary names. Jack and Algernon explain that they have made appointments to be christened Ernest, and all is forgiven. Lady Bracknell shows up, and forbids the two weddings until she learns Jack’s noble heritage, and the wealth Cecily would bring to her struggling nephew, Algernon. Jack learns that he is Algernon’s older brother, and that in fact his given name is Ernest. Jack learns his identity, and the the love interests finally come together.
Memorable quotations significant to meaning:
- “The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.”
- “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.”
- “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.”
- “I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them.”
- “I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.”
- “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”
- “I never change, except in my affections.”
- “My dear fellow, the truth isn’t quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl. What extraordinary ideas you have about the way to behave to a woman!”
Significance of opening scene:
In the opening scene, we first meet Algernon and Jack. We learn about their personalities, about Algernon’s flippant ridiculousness, and how Jack is pretending to be his fictional brother Earnest. We also learn about the concept of “Bunburying”, where someone creates a fictitious person or situation in order to avoid engagements or undertake merriment with little to no social or personal consequences. This theme will follow the protagonists throughout the play.
Significance of closing scene:
In the closing scene, we learn the truth about Jack (or really, Earnest’s) origins. We learn he is actually named Earnest and is the elder brother to Algernon. The end scene sees the happy resolution of many conflicts. Gwendolen and Jack are to be married, it appears so are Chasuble and Miss Prism, and Jack knows who his family is. No one has faced any consequence for their previous deceitful behavior, showing how Victorian Society concerned itself only with appearances and not actual deeds.
- Jack – Protagonist, Gwendolen’s suitor Deceitful, irritable, exasperated
- Algernon – Cecily’s suitor, Jack’s friend, pretends to be Ernest Flamboyant, flirtatious
- Gwendolyn – Algernon’s cousin, engaged to Jack
- Cecily – Engaged to Algernon, Jack’s ward, Delusional and superficial
- Lady Bracknell – Algernon’s aunt, Gwendolyn’s mother, Superficial, self-confident, society-focused
Hertfordshire and London. London is the City in which Jack pretends to be Ernest, and where Lady Bracknell resides with Algernon and Gwendolen. The city is a symbol for high society, and those who live within it are portrayed as superficial and somewhat whimsical in their likes and actions. In the country is where Algernon pretends to be Ernest.
Food – Excess/Overindulgence
Tea Service – Societal conventions concealing other motives or attitudes Christening – Fluid nature of identity
Diaries – Fiction versus Reality
Themes for discussion:
The importance of Being Earnest, The importance of adhering to Society, Lies and deceit, Marriage, Respect and Reputation, Society and Class, Gender, Love.