Manners and Sincerity
The major target of Wilde’s scathing social criticism is the hypocrisy that society creates. Frequently in Victorian society, its participants comported themselves in overly sincere, polite ways while they harbored conversely manipulative, cruel attitudes. Wilde exposes this divide in scenes such as when Gwendolen and Cecily behave themselves in front of the servants or when Lady Bracknell warms to Cecily upon discovering she is rich. However, the play truly pivots around the word “earnest.” Both women want to marry someone named “Ernest,” as the name inspires “absolute confidence”; in other words, the name implies that its bearer truly is earnest, honest, and responsible. However, Jack and Algernon have lied about their names, so they are not really “earnest.” But it also turns out that (at least in Jack’s case) he was inadvertently telling the truth. The rapid flip-flopping of truths and lies, of earnestness and duplicity, shows how truly muddled the Victorian values of honesty and responsibility were.
As a subset of the sincerity theme (see above), Wilde explores in depth what it means to have a dual identity in Victorian society. This duality is most apparent in Algernon and Jack’s “Bunburying” (their creation of an alter ego to allow them to evade responsibility). Wilde hints that Bunburying may cover for homosexual liaisons, or at the very least serve as an escape from oppressive marriages. Other characters also create alternate identities. For example, Cecily writes correspondence between herself and Ernest before she has ever met him. Unlike real men, who are free to come and go as they please, she is able to control this version of Ernest. Finally, the fact that Jack has been unwittingly leading a life of dual identities shows that our alter egos are not as far from our “real” identities as we would think.
Critique of Marriage as a Social Tool
Wilde’s most concrete critique in the play is of the manipulative desires revolving around marriage. Gwendolen and Cecily are interested in their mates, it appears, only because they have disreputable backgrounds (Gwendolen is pleased to learn that Jack was an orphan; Cecily is excited by Algernon’s “wicked” reputation). Their shared desire to marry someone named Ernest demonstrates that their romantic dreams hinge upon titles, not character. The men are not much less shallow-Algernon proposes to the young, pretty Cecily within minutes of meeting her. Only Jack seems to have earnest romantic desires, though why he would love the self-absorbed Gwendolen is questionable. However, the sordidness of the lovers’ ulterior motives is dwarfed by the priorities of Lady Bracknell, who epitomizes the Victorian tendency to view marriage as a financial arrangement. She does not consent to Gwendolen’s marriage to Jack on the basis of his being an orphan, and she snubs Cecily until she discovers she has a large personal fortune.
Idleness of the Leisure Class and the Aesthete
Wilde good-naturedly exposes the empty, trivial lives of the aristocracy-good-naturedly, for Wilde also indulged in this type of lifestyle. Algernon is a hedonist who likes nothing better than to eat, gamble, and gossip without consequence. Wilde has described the play as about characters who trivialize serious matters and solemnize trivial matters; Algernon seems more worried by the absence of cucumber sandwiches (which he ate) than by the serious class conflicts that he quickly smoothes over with wit. But Wilde has a more serious intent: he subscribes to the late-19th-century philosophy of aestheticism, espoused by Walter Pater, which argues for the necessity of art’s primary relationship with beauty, not with reality. Art should not mirror reality; rather, Wilde has said, it should be “useless” (in the sense of not serving a social purpose; it is useful for our appreciation of beauty). Therefore, Algernon’s idleness is not merely laziness, but the product of someone who has cultivated an esteemed sense of aesthetic uselessness.
The most famous aspect of Oscar Wilde’s literature is his epigrams: compact, witty maxims that often expose the absurdities of society using paradox. Frequently, he takes an established cliché and alters it to make its illogic somehow more logical (“in married life three is company and two is none”). While these zingers serve as sophisticated critiques of society, Wilde also employs several comic tools of “low” comedy, specifically those of farce. He echoes dialogue and actions, uses comic reversals, and explodes a fast-paced, absurd ending whose implausibility we overlook because it is so ridiculous. This tone of wit and farce is distinctively Wildean; only someone so skilled in both genres could combine them so successfully.
Little Words, Big Ideas
The big question The Importance of Being Earnest raises is whether marriage is pleasurable or a restrictive social duty. In general, the older generation thinks of marriage as a means to an end.
Respect and Reputation
In this play, the upper classes care about being respectable – so much so that they do a lot of lying about it. In general, Victorian upper-class society holds slightly different expectations from those below.
Society and Class
The Importance of Being Earnest reveals the differences between the behavior of the upper class and that of the lower class. Members of the upper class display a great deal of pride and pretense.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, the question of each gender’s role in society often centers on power. In the Victorian world of this play, men have greater influence than women.
Versions of Reality: Romance
In The Importance of Being Earnest, pampered young women have a skewed sense of reality, inspired by romantic novels. When real life gets too boring, these women decide to take matters into their own hands.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, it is often hard to distinguish Wilde’s notion of romance from that of real love. Readers must settle for a decidedly un-modern definition of love.
Foolishness and Folly
In The Importance of Being Earnest, the characters’ foolishness is the core of the comedy. Often, we don’t know whether a character says something contradictory or randomly in a serious way.
Morals and Morality
Much of The Importance of Being Earnest’s comedy stems from the ways various characters flaunt the moral strictures of the day, without ever behaving beyond the pale of acceptable society. The use of the social lie is pervasive, sometimes carried to great lengths as when Algernon goes “Bunburying” or Jack invents his rakish brother Earnest so that he may escape to the city. Another example is Miss Prism’s sudden headache when the opportunity to go walking (and possibly indulge in some form of sexual activity) with Canon Chasuble presents itself.
Love and Passion
One of Wilde’s satiric targets is romantic and sentimental love, which he ridicules by having the women fall in love with a man because of his name rather than more personal attributes. Wilde carries parody of romantic love to an extreme in the relationship between Algernon and Cecily, for she has fallen in love with him—and in fact charted their entire relationship—before ever meeting him. She writes of their love in her diary, noting the ups and downs of their affair, including authoring love letters to and from herself.
The play’s action is divided between the city and the country, London and the pastoral county of Hertfordshire. Traditionally, locations like these symbolize different attitudes toward life, contrasting, for example, the corruption of urban living with the honesty and simplicity .of country life
TO BE CONTINUED…..
- Waec/neco Literature Exam: the Complete E-text (act 3) of “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde(94) (lagosbooksclub.wordpress.com)
- Waec/neco Literature Exam: the Complete E-text (act 1) of “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde(92) (lagosbooksclub.wordpress.com)
- Characterization in the Play “The Importance of Being Earnest” for Waec/neco Literature Exams (88) (lagosbooksclub.wordpress.com)
- Analysis of “The Importance of Being Earnest” (act 3) for Waec/neco Literature Exams (86) (lagosbooksclub.wordpress.com)
- Analysis of “The Importance of Being Earnest” (act1) for Waec/neco Literature Exams (84) (lagosbooksclub.wordpress.com)
- Introduction to the Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde for Waec/neco Literature Exams (80) (lagosbooksclub.wordpress.com)
- Analysis of “The Importance of Being Earnest” (act 2) for Waec/neco Literature Exams (85) (lagosbooksclub.wordpress.com)