Introduction to The Importance of Being Earnest
The Importance of Being Earnest is a play. It was previously titled A Trivial Comedy for Serious People written by the popular British playwright and author, Oscar Wilde. It was first staged in London on 14 February 1895, setting a benchmark for a new breed of popular comedies of those times. The story of the play works within the social conventions of Victorian London and shows the protagonists establishing fictitious personalities to avoid social responsibilities. Since its first on-stage inauguration, the play set records, winning popularity for Oscar Wilde across the globe for its witty dialogues and high farce.
Summary of The Importance of Being Earnest
The story of the play revolves around Jack Worthing, the main character and the guardian of the beautiful girl, Cecil Cardew, the granddaughter of Thomas Cardew. As the adopted son of the Cardew family, Jack now heads the family estate with other responsibilities, including that of the justice of the peace. Besides being a responsible young man, he has also liked playing the role of his brother, Ernest who is a wayward and irresponsible young man. In fact, he merely hides it to enjoy life, becoming an unruly person in London. However, he is also in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, who happens to be the cousin of Algernon Moncrieff (Algy), one of his best friends. When Jack one day confesses to Algernon that he wants to marry Gwendolen, Algy confronts him about the cigarette case presented by someone called ‘Little Cecily.’ He then understands the game being played by Jack, who tells him that he takes up the name Ernest whenever he ventures into the city for fun. Algernon too confesses that he says he is visiting an Imaginary friend called Bunbury whenever he wants to leave the city. Jack also seduces his friend through Cecily’s beautiful description.
Meanwhile, Gwendolen arrives with her mother, Lady Bracknell. Jack, taking it as a golden opportunity, proposes to her and seems astounded at her quick positive response and more astounded at her obsession with Ernest. However, she clarifies to him that she wants to marry a person named Ernest. Jacks makes a mental note of getting rechristened with the name Ernest. Lady Bracknell refutes the engagement and interrogates Jack and inquires about his lineage. He tells her the truth about his having been found at Victoria Station because of which Lady Bracknell immediately rejects the match. She asks Jack to find acceptable parents.
When Gwendolen takes Jack’s return address Algernon overhears and notes down the address. He decides to go “bunburying”. Meanwhile, Cecily was being taught her lessons by her governess Miss Cadrew, who was explaining about good and evil people. Miss Cadrew was referring to Jack as the good one and Ernest as the wicked one. The local vicar, Canon Chasuble arrives and asks Miss Prism to accompany him for a walk. It so happens that Algernon assumes the role of Ernest and visits Jack’s estate, while Jack, on the other hand, is a way to kill Ernest in Paris. Algernon is blinded by Cecily’s beauty and plans to stay over the weekend and leave before Jack arrives.
However, Jack arrives early with the news of his brother Ernest dead when he finds Algernon in this character. He becomes furious and orders a dogcart to send Algy back to London but it is already too late. Algy is in love with Cecily and plans to stay back. When Jack goes out one day, Algy proposes to Cecily who shows him letters and a diary which were filled with her imagination of their marriage. She reveals that she always wanted to marry someone called Ernest. Algernon asks Dr. Chasuble to christen him as Ernest. Meanwhile, Gwendolen visits Jack and meets Cecily in the garden. She is not pleased with Cecily’s beauty and both of them discover that they are both engaged to Ernest Worthing. The situation gets out of hand during the British tea ceremony.
Soon both, Jack and Algernon arrive, oblivious to each other’s christening attempt as Ernest. On the other hand, both ladies are exchanging information about their engagements with the young men, Jack and Algernon, respectively. When both forces Jack to take them to Ernest, his brother, he admits to having no brother. Both of them rebuke him for telling a lie and retire to the drawing-room. When Jack and Algernon arrive, both girls inquire about their respective identities after which both of them admit that they are going to be christened as Ernest. The women then forgive them for this waywardness.
Finally, Lady Bracknell also arrives after discovering her daughter’s escapade and questions her arrival at the Manor House, rejecting Jack. Her further questions of Cecily sends Jack into a rage at which he becomes sarcastic when responding to her. When Lady Bracknell comes to know about her (Cecily’s) inheritance, she agrees to Algernon’s engagement to Cecily. However, Jack does not give his consent and refuses the union. Lady Bracknell appeals to Jack about reconsideration. At this point, Jack points out his own case of marrying Gwendolen, a proposal that is immediately met with rejection. However, when Dr. Chasuble arrives and mentions Miss Prism, Lady Bracknell is shocked to hear the name Prism. When she confronts Miss Prism, Lady Bracknell accuses her of fleeing her sister’s house along with her baby. Miss Prism apologizes and narrates her own story of having lost the baby in a handbag at the railway station. Meanwhile, Jack brings the handbag that she identifies and Jack cries out “Mother” to Lady Bracknell who proves to be his real aunt, the sister of his mother, and Algernon as his elder brother. It also transpires that he is actually Ernest John. Now Jack states that he understands the importance of being earnest.
Major Themes in The Importance of Being Earnest
- Manners and Sincerity: The play shows the theme of manners and sincerity through the characters of Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen, and including Cecily. Lady Bracknell entirely rejects Jack’s proposal to Gwendolen twice. Once at her home and once at the mansion of Jack but insists that her proposal of Algernon should win acceptance from the same Jack. Similarly, both Gwendolen and Cecily are vying to marry Ernest as the name exudes confidence for them but it turns out that Jack is Ernest despite the lies of both Algernon and Jack and that Ernest does not exist separately. Later, it turns out that all of them have lied except Jack who, despite his lies, has proved true that his name is ‘ernest’. This hypocrisy and lying show the manners of Victorian society.
- Dual Identities: Oscar Wilde presented the theme of dual identities through the characters of Jack and Algernon and the dual play through the character of Lady Bracknell. Both Jack and Algernon show that they are Ernest, though, both know the secret behind it. Algernon, therefore, calls it “Bunburying” in the case of Jack. Yet, Jack does not understand and when both of them becomes Ernest, it transpires that now Lady Bracknell took that identity by rejecting Jack and then accepting him as her sister’s son, especially when it is disclosed that he is her son, Miss Prism forgot a long time ago when she escaped.
- Social Conventions: The play demonstrates the thematic strand of social conventions through class, behavior, and social relations. When Lady Bracknell comes to know that Cecily is going to have a fortune, she instantly changes her behavior toward her, considering her having sound qualities. Once again, Lady Bracknell, who spurns every offer of Jack to marry Gwendolen, immediately consents to this proposal and forces it upon Cecily and Algernon when she comes to know that Jack is her sister’s son and that he is going to inherit a good fortune. These Victorian conventions of joining the elite class and forming social relations based on status and fortune have come to the fore through Lady Bracknell and the final disclosure of Miss Prism.
- Marriage: The obsession of Gwendolen and Cecily to marry someone having the name Ernest shows that the Victorian norm of marrying with titles instead of honest or good nature humans. Although it seems that Algernon too is shallow, Jack shows his romantic desire to marry Gwendolen and chase his dream despite rejection from Lady Bracknell. When Lady Bracknell comes to know the truth about Jack and the reality of Ernest, she immediately consents to this match, knowing that he is her own flesh and blood as well as a man of fortune. This also emphasizes Victorian morality of giving priority to the financial status of a person.
- Love: The theme of love is obvious in the play through the shallow and superficial passions people have for each other. Cecily loves Ernest because of the name and Gwendolen claims to love Ernest for the same reason. Lady Bracknell, on the other hand, does not love her nephew to marry some poor person just based on love but approves this love when she comes to know Cecily going to have a fortune.
- Language: Through the play, The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde showed that language could be molded into any matter a writer wants to convey to his readers. He also uses a pun on its title and made it rich with meanings. The Importance of Being Earnest is neatly and humorously tied to Ernest with whom both, Gwendolen and Cecily, want to marry, and by the end, it proves that there is no person named, Ernest and that Jack and Algernon both want to change their names. The play also shows witty and humorous usage of language such as about the height of aunts and age of Gwendolen.
- Idleness: The theme of idleness in the play emerges through the aristocratic characters such as Algernon, who only knows pleasure and enjoyment instead of cultivated and restrained life. It seems at a point that Algernon has no greater worries than his desire to have cucumber sandwiches.
- Reversal: The play shows the use of reversal to criticize the Victorian period for its false notions about superiority, class consciousness as well as status. Lane does not approve of Algernon’s piano mastery but Algernon is hellbent on stressing his notion of having the expertise of anyone in playing it. Similarly, Algernon’s stress to marry Cecily and Cecily’s stress on marrying Ernest backfires as he wants to change into Ernest and vice versa in the case of Gwendolen. This reversal goes until Gwendolen tells him that she can wait for him longer than anyone should.
- Absence of Emotions: The play also shows the theme of the absence of real passions and emotions, specifically, associated with death and illness. Lady Bracknell’s comments about Bunbury’s death show this when she says that he has acted appropriately. This self-absorption is also evident in the case of Gwendolen.
Major Characters of The Importance of Being Earnest
- Jack Worthing: Jack Worthing is John Jack, the protagonist of the play and the representative of ideas and notions of love. He wants to be married in a good family, and yet plays duality by taking up the role of Ernest and then spreading the rumor of the young man as his unruly brother of whom he has had to take care of. His oxymoronic and paradoxical statements create wit and humor when the subject turns to seriousness. At Lady Bracknell’s question about his pedigree, he merely trivializes it in a serious way that he needs correction in wealth and parentage. His countermeasures against Algernon’s humor are intended to be direct and straight but in reality, they sharpen his humor and wit further. Despite his behind-the-scene duality, he represents the life of a responsible young man yet not without some tinge of Victorian morality. He finally turns out to be the lost son of Lady Bracknell who was truly named Ernest at the time of his birth.
- Algernon Moncrieff: A charming young man and idle bachelor, Algernon Moncrief is witty and humorous yet highly selfish when it comes to his own love life. Although he sees Jack hiding his brother, his own invention of his friend, Bunbury, gives his character a unique touch in a way that he represents freedom. It means a person can enjoy the stifling ethical framework of Victorian society. His allusions and references to food and eating show his hedonist nature as well as a penchant for pleasure. His advances to Cecily, however, also show another side of such dandified young men of the Victorian era, who are attracted to beauty and unconventionality.
- Lady Bracknell: The source of main satire in the play, Lady Augusta Bracknell, is an epitome of the double standard and superficial morality of the Victorian age, bearing titles on her sleeves to show to the people. Belonging to the upper crust of the social fabric, Lady Bracknell developed ruthless and highly conservative morals not easy to avoid. When she comes to know about Jack’s proposal of Gwendolen, she immediately rejects but when it turns out that Jack belongs to her, she accepts it, showing a double standard. The same goes for Algernon and Cecily. However, her seemingly not-so-flexible position becoming highly flexible shows her social mobility in the Victorian class system.
- Gwendolen Fairfax: A young and vibrant woman, Gwendolen, represents Victorian conventions in the choice of marriage as well as morality. She attends moral lectures but she is also prone to self-improvement when it comes to pretensions and superficiality of the age. Since the beginning of the play, she is obsessed with Ernest, knowing that Jack is the same guy to whom she desires to marry as Ernest exudes pure confidence that she acknowledges. This blindness in accepting the finality of the name’s nuance makes her a strong-willed girl who just wants to excel not only in her fashion but also in her likeness.
- Cecily Cardew: Cecily Cardew is under Jack’s guardianship on his mansion, who is a model of innocence and also a pure child of nature. However, she is as much obsessed with Ernest just as Gwendolen is, but it is intriguing that she falls in love with Jack’s supposed brother. As a fantasist, she has created her own romantic story with Ernest as Jack has created his character and waywardness. Although she invites rejection of Lady Bracknell at Algernon’s proposal in the earlier scenes, finally she wins her acceptance when it comes to class mobility.
- Miss Prism: Though working as a governess for Cecily, Miss Prism pokes her nose in every affair of Jack. She takes the responsibility approving his behavior and berating the waywardness of his supposed brother. However, it later proves that she is also soft-hearted under the garb of a rigid governess as she has lost Jack when she used to work for Lady Bracknell’s sister. She has good emotions about Dr. Chasuble, though, she does not explicitly express them.
- Dr. Chasuble: Better known as Rev. Canon Chasuble, Chasuble is a rector in the estate of Jack where he preaches religion. Both the male characters, Jack as well as Algernon, call for him to christen themselves as Ernest on the desires of their sweethearts. He also harbors romantic feelings for Miss Prism.
- Lane and Merriman: As the butler of Algernon, Lane represents the lower Victorian class that knows the taste of gentry and enjoys at its expense even to the point of mocking their masters. Algernon trusts him and keeps Lane with him even though he knows his sense of dry humor. Compared to him, Merriman is Jack’s butler but his role is quite minimal in the course of the play.
Writing Style of The Importance of Being Earnest
An icon of the Victorian period and deep observation of its morality, Wilde adopted a highly humorous and witty style in The Importance of Being Earnest. Although the sentence structure is not highly complicated, he has used words to his advantage, often playing upon them, proving his dexterity in the usage of language to his own end. The dialogues suit the character and give unique identities to their specific nature. For literary devices, Wilde turns to metaphors, wit, puns, and satire.
Analysis of the Literary Devices in The Importance of Being Earnest
- Action: The main action of the novel comprises the duality of Jack, the love of Gwendolen, and the manners of Lady Bracknell, the representative of the Victorian elite. The rising action occurs when Algernon comes to know about the dual life of Jack. The falling action occurs when all of them come to know the reality of Jack and how Miss Prism abandoned him mistakenly and that he is the real brother of Algernon and nephew of Lady Bracknell.
- Anaphora: The play shows examples of anaphora such as,
i. When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring. (Act-I)
ii. Horrid Political Economy! Horrid Geography! Horrid, horrid German! (Act-II)
These examples show the repetitious use of “When one is” and “Horrid.”
- Allusion: The play shows good use of different allusions as given in the examples below,
i. Her mother is perfectly unbearable. Never met such a Gorgon—I don’t really know what a Gorgon is like, but I am quite sure that Lady Bracknell is one. (Act-I)
ii. My sermon on the meaning of the manna in the wilderness can be adapted to almost any occasion, joyful, or, as in the present case, distressing. (Act-II)
iii. I have the gravest doubts upon the subject. But I intend to crush them. This is not the moment for German scepticism. (Act-III)
The first example shows the reference to a Greek myth, the second to a religious metaphor of manna, and the third to German philosophy.
- Antagonist: The antagonist of the play is Lady Bracknell who blocks all potential matches until she is satisfied after it transpires that Jack and Cecily are also of the same class.
- Conflict: The play shows the conflict in the shape of obstacles that Lady Bracknell raises in the marriage of Jack and Gwendolen.
- Characters: The play, The Importance of Being Earnest, shows both static as well as dynamic characters. The old lady, Lady Bracknell, is a dynamic character as she shows a considerable transformation in her behavior and conduct by the end when she comes to know the reality of Jack and Ernest. However, all other characters are static as they do not show or witness any transformation such as Algernon, Gwendolen Fairfax, Cecily Cardew, and Merriman.
- Climax: The climax in the play occurs when it transpires to Lady Bracknell that Jack is not Jack but Ernest and that Ernest does not exist, at least until the end of the play. Jack also admits it and comes to know that he is Ernest in reality as Miss Prism admits her mistake of losing him during childhood.
- Foreshadowing: The play shows many instances of foreshadows such as,
i. Oh! one doesn’t blurt these things out to people. Cecily and Gwendolen are perfectly certain to be extremely great friends. I’ll bet you anything you like that half an hour after they have met, they will be calling each other sister. (Act-1)
ii. If you don’t take care, your friend Bunbury will get you into a serious scrape some day. (Act-II)
The mention of being sisters and then serious scrape shows that both times Jack is foreshadowing as he knows the reality of both of these things.
- Hyperbole: The play shows various examples of hyperboles such as,
i. I certainly won’t leave you so long as you are in mourning. It would be most unfriendly. If I were in mourning you would stay with me, I suppose. I should think it very unkind if you didn’t. (Act-II)
ii. If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated. (Act-II)
iii. Exploded! Was he the victim of a revolutionary outrage? I was not aware that Mr Bunbury was interested in social legislation. (Act-III)
These examples exaggerate things as mourning, education, dressing, and outrage have been exaggerated.
- Irony: It means to use words other than their actual meanings as given in the below example,
i. Did you really, Miss Prism? How wonderfully clever you are! I hope it did not end happily? I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much. (Act-II)
This example shows that Cecily does not mean what she says; rather, she means quite opposite of it.
- Metaphor: The Importance of Being Earnest shows good use of various metaphors as given in the examples below,
i. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. (Act-I)
ii. Maturity can always be depended on. Ripeness can be trusted. Young women are green. (Dr Chasuble starts) I spoke horticulturally. My metaphor was drawn from fruits. (Act-II)
These examples show that several things have been compared directly in the play such as the first shows comparing ignorance to fruit and the second ripeness to women.
- Mood: The play, The Importance of Being Earnest, shows a very serious mood but suddenly turns ironic and sarcastic as it progresses further and ends on a happy note.
- Motif: Most important motifs of the play, The Importance of Being Earnest, are death, dandy, and puns on words.
- Protagonist: Jack Worthing is the protagonist of the play. The play presents his life story, his romance, his mansion, and his final proposal as well as his disclosure of having no brother Ernest but himself Ernest.
- Pun: The play uses puns in a few places to add additional humor as given in the below examples,
i. They are approaching. That’s is very forward of them. (Act-III)
ii. Jack: On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest. (Act-III)
iii. I always told you, Gwendolen, my name was Ernest, didn’t I? Well, it is Ernest after all. I mean it naturally is Ernest. (Act-III)
These examples show the use of puns on “forward” and “Earnest.”
- Setting: The setting of the play, The Importance of Being Earnest, is London, the capital of the United Kingdom.
- Simile: The play shows good use of various similes as given in the examples below,
i. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. (Act-II)
ii. Because you are like a pink rose, Cousin Cecily. (Act-II)
These are similes as the use of the word “like” shows the comparison between different things.