The Importance of Being Earnest
The Importance of Being Earnest is Oscar Wilde’s most famous play. Subtitled as ”A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”, the play is known for its high farce and witty dialogue. It concerns the attempts of its protagonists to maintain fictional personas among the social conventions of Victorian London. The title is a pun, using the word "earnest" meaning “honest” and the name "Ernest" which is the name of the alter ego of the main character, Jack Worthing; he uses it to slide away from any responsibilities. But while the play was a huge success, it also proved to be Wilde’s last. On the opening night, his homosexual double life was revealed to the public and he fled to Paris.
Marriage is of paramount importance in the play, both as a force motivating the plot and as a subject for debate. Algernon and Jack, the two protagonists, discuss the nature of marriage when they argue about whether a marriage proposal is a matter of “business” or “pleasure”. Lady Bracknell, meanwhile, describes how it should be “a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be”.
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One of the major topics of conversation is the constraints morality imposes on people and society. Algernon thinks the servant class has a responsibility to set a moral standard for the upper classes, while also complaining that: “More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.” Wilde is less concerned with what is moral than with making fun of the Victorian idea of morality.
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The strict Victorian class system, in which members of the same class marry each other almost without exception, perpetuates the gulf between the upper, middle and lower classes. Snobbish, aristocratic attitudes further preserve the distance between these groups, and this is especially evident in the character of Lady Bracknell, who disapproves of educating the lower orders.
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Wilde sees the nature of many Victorian customs and norms as suffocating. He creates episodes in which the characters live secret lives or create deliberately false impressions to express who they really are. Jack and Algernon both create personas to feel more free. These other lives allow them to neglect their duties, in Algernon's case, or leave their duties and pursue pleasure, in Jack's case.
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The characters’ foolishness is at the very heart of the comedy. It is frequently unclear to the audience whether a character is joking, or whether he or she has unknowingly said something contradictory. One such example comes when Gwendolen flips “style” and “sincerity” when she says: “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing,” reflecting the confusion to come.
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