Oscar Wilde’s comedy ‘The Importance of being Ernest’ is entwined around the concept of mistaken identity. It shows the irony of a group of friends, within a Victorian society, meddling with the truth to make themselves more appealing to each other. Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff are good friends of an upper class society. Jack is known in the town as Ernest and in the country by his real name Jack. He is in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, who only knows him by ‘Ernest’.
In the country he is known as Jack and said to his ward Cecily Cardew there that Ernest is his mischievous brother in the town. Algernon too is in the game of deception. He brought to life a character called Bunbury that no one has met, whose health seems to be declining, to excuse him from engagements he has made. He also disguises himself as Jack’s brother Ernest when he goes down to the country, where he falls in love with Cecily, who also only knows him as ‘Ernest’ and not by his true identity. Both men pretend to be called Ernest and both women want to be in love with a man called Ernest.Order now
The concept of identity is important in this satire as it brings humour to the play by mocking the intelligence of these upper class characters, but on the serious side exploits the irony and narrow mindedness of society. Both women in the play admire the name ‘Ernest’ as it brings to mind someone whose is ‘earnest’ and honest, yet both men are far from it. Jack and Algernon’s preoccupation with the name Ernest is driven by their love for Gwendolen and Cecily who also are preoccupied with the name ‘Ernest’ believing that it prescribes the men earnest nature, ‘my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest.
There is something in the name that inspires confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you’. Wilde mocks them by showing how deep their love really is. The too women are only in love with the name, a superficial detail, before they have even met the men, and the men are willing to change theirs to impress! Algernon fabricated his ‘invaluable permanent invalid’ friend Bunbury to escape engagements in the town to visit him in the country.
Lady Bracknell, his aunt, invites him to dine with her but he tells her he can’t as Bunbury’s condition is getting worse and needs to visit him in the country. However, adding to the humour, Lady Bracknell answers with the ironic ‘I think that its high time that Mr Bunbury made up his mind whether he going to live or dieâ€¦I should be obliged if you would ask Mr Bunburyâ€¦ to be kind enough not to have a relapse on Saturday, for I rely on you to arrange my music. ‘ As if his illness is far less important than her reception. In Act I Jack proposes to Gwendolen.
Jack is truly in love with her and she accepts his proposal but to his dismay exclaims ‘My own Ernest’ as if she is only accepting him on the basis that he is called Ernest. She knew she was destined to marry a man called Ernest before she had even met him. Jack is alarmed by this and uncertainty runs through his mind, ‘you mean to day that you couldn’t love me if my name wasn’t Ernestâ€¦I think Jack, for instance, a charming name’, the fact that he does not find insulating her un-satisfaction with the name Jack and preoccupation with the name Ernest adds to the humour ad further mocks the ignorance of the characters.
Gwendolen assures that names actually bear some weight with regard to the determination of character forcing the audience to reassess whether she really loves Jack. Once Jack and Gwendolen’s engagement was announced to her mother Lady Bracknell she found it to interrogate Jack to check his suitability for her daughter. In this scene Wilde explore the absurdity of the institution of marriage. It gives the impression that society only marries for status rather than love. Lady Bracknell is a good example of Oscar Wilde’s cutting satire at work.
She is arrogant, snobbish, conservative and obsessed with high culture and excellent behaviour. She is the perfect caricature of the stereotypical Victorian aristocrat woman. She investigates his wealth and social occupations. He fulfilled all her requirements regarding wealth and social activities yet the fact that he suffered a misfortune of losing both his parents was considered ‘carelessness’. Mistaken identity plays its part in this scene where Jack does not know who his real parents are. His parents abandoned him as a baby at a train station. He was named after a seaside resort ‘Worthing’.
The way she vehemently disapproves of this is ironic as it was in fact her brother that lost the handbag. The fact the Jack and Gwendolen love each other seems to have no significance when his background and status do not approve. Act II is set in Jack’s home in the countryside. Algernon comes down to the countryside pretending to be Jack’s brother Ernest where he falls in love with Cecily. Cecily had fallen in love before she had even met him merely for the fact that she was in love with the name and with his ‘wicked’ behaviour. They engage in a flirtatious conversation before jack arrives at the house.
When he arrives he is wearing mourning clothes for the death of his brother Ernest only to realise that Algernon had arrived before him pretending to be Ernest. However he still plays along in the identity game adding to the humour of the story. The audience by this point know all real identities of the characters and their mistaken identities so watching the characters meddle between themselves in confusion makes this humorous. Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell also arrive at the country house to add to the confusion. Her and Cecily reside in the garden to get to know each other.
Gwendolen remarks that she likes Cecily and that her ‘first impressions of people are rarely wrong’ which is ironic when indeed she has got Jack completely wrong. Throughout the play Wilde has portrayed the upper class as ignorant and preoccupied with trivial and beautiful things. The dialogue between Cecily and Gwendolen is no exception. Merriman brings them their tea where they strongly disagree about preferences. Cecily offers her sugar but Gwendolen replies that ‘sugar is not fashionable anymore’ and when offered cake or bread and butter she replies ‘cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays’.
There could be nothing more trivial than having fashion in food. Cecily is irritated by Gwendolen’s snobbish behaviour. Amidst this fatuous conversation they stumble upon the fact that they both engaged to Ernest Worthing. Although they don’t yet realise they are engaged to different men they begin to argue. Before long they realise that they had been mistaken as Jack and Algernon both enter. At this point in the scene the two girls unite and mutiny against the two men who they supposedly love after they realise a ‘gross deception’ had been played on them. This is ironic and humorous in both cases.
Cecily fell in love with ‘Ernest’ before she had met him for his wicked character yet when he was ‘wicked’ she did not love him anymore. Gwendolen believed she was a good judge of character and loved her ‘Ernest’ for his honest nature yet it was revealed to her that not is he not called Ernest and he was far from earnest in his character. However they all forgive each other as the two girly see that the two men were willing to christen themselves again for the one they loved, ‘where questions of self-sacrifice are concerned, men are infinitely beyond us’ Gwendolen states as the two men beg for their forgiveness.
Finally in Act III Lady Bracknell arrives. Once again her interrogation of suitability continues as the conflicts that arose before are recalled regarding the issue of consent to marry and the importance of the name Earnest. She disapproves of Jack and Gwendolen’s engagement yet approves of Cecily and Algernon’s after she hears of Cecily’s small fortune in funds as ‘very few girls of the present day have any really solid qualities, any of the qualities that last, and improve with time’. This once again mocks the concept of marriage as it seems to absurdly be based on status and wealth rather than love.
Wilde deliberately satirizes the entire institution. And when Algernon dismisses this idea as ‘Cecily is the sweetest, dearest, prettiest girl in the whole worldâ€¦and doesn’t care twopence about social possibilities’ Lady Bracknell warns him not to disrespect society as only ‘people who can’t get into it do that’. In this epigram Wilde portrays stereotype of the aristocracy of the Victorian society and their snobbish behaviour. However, Jack refuses to give consent for Cecily to marry Algernon if Lady Bracknell does not consent for Gwendolen to marry him.
In the squabble it is found that it was Miss Prism that lost the bag in which Jack was found as a baby. In fact it is revealed that he is he Lady Bracknell’s sisters’ son. This is very ironic as at the beginning Lady Bracknell was disgraced at the fact that Jack was lost as a baby when in fact it was her own sister that had lost him! Jack finally finds out who he is and from whom he has come from. It is exposed that his Christian name really is by chance Ernest so the truth is he was earnest throughout after all.
Throughout this play Wilde has used numerous devices to add to the humour of the play. Wilde’s humour is fundamentally based on a particular dramatic irony, one in which the audience knows that the characters are ridiculously absurd, but the characters themselves are not aware of the fact at all. He mocks the principles of upper class Victorian society and their fashions. Especially on the tone of marriage by indicating that marriage is capriciously subject to all sorts of social factors rather than love. Wilde also uses epigrams as a means of humour.
Sarcastic and witty lines, delivered mostly by Algernon and lady Bracknell, mocking the world around them. ‘If I ever get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact’; ‘divorces are made in heaven’; ‘you don’t seem to realize that in marriage, three is company and two is none’ are example of some the manipulated clichÃ©s. Most of the epigrams abound in the dialogue are reversed conventional phrases, such as ‘Marriage is made in heaven’ and ‘two is company three is a crowd’. They are manipulated traditional clichÃ©s that provide intellectual entertainment by showing how empty those clichÃ©s are.
Wilde uses them to satirize the excess of the elite, but at the same time the ideas Algernon comes up with are not always far off reality. Jack presents us with a pun on the word earnest in the last line of the play as he says, ‘I’ve now realized for the first time in my life, the Importance of Being Earnest. ‘ The simple pun on being earnest and the name Ernest has been used throughout the play. It is important for Jack obviously to be ‘Ernest’ as Gwendolen otherwise will not want to marry him.
However, at the same time that it is important to be earnest in nature. Ernest and Algernon were rewarded with marriage in the end. And although the play unwinds with neither meaning to act earnestly, they were in fact being completely honest the whole time. Ernest was Ernest and Algernon was Ernest’s dashing brother. The final line of the play suggests to the audience that there is a different kind of earnestness, different from the stuffy arrogance of Lady Bracknell, an earnestness that allows for the inconsistencies and whims that inhibit mankind.