Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest
While some critics contend that The Importance of Being Earnest is
completely fanciful and has no relation to the real world, others maintain that
Oscar Wilde’s "trivial comedy for serious people" does make significant comments
about social class and the institution of marriage. These observations include
the prevalent utilization of deceit in everyday affairs. Indeed the characters
and plot of the play appear to be entirely irreverent, thus lending weight to
the comedic, fanciful aspect. However, this same factor also serves to
illuminate the major points that Wilde tries to convey about the English society
in which he lived.
Throughout the course of the play, Wilde portrays each of the main
characters in a way that reflects his views of the English aristocracy.
Algernon Moncrieff and Jack(Ernest) Worthington represent the prototypical male
bachelors. In the opening act, set in Algernon’s flat, the two meet and display
what appears to be their usual daily activities. Neither is employed, and it is
apparent that their only occupation is the pursuit of leisure activities and
social matters, subjects of major importance to them. When Algernon inquires as
to the purpose of Ernest’s visit to town, Ernest replies, "Oh pleasure,
pleasure! What else should bring anyone anywhere? Eating as usual, I see Algy!".
Algeron and Ernest are characterized by their extravagance, a luxury affordable
only because of the money accrued from family inheritance. Neither displays any
notion of an appreciation for money.
In fact, when Algernon’s butler hands him
bills that have just arrived in the mail, Algernon simply rips them up.
Wilde’s conception of deceit as an accepted custom in English
aristocracy is also existent in this scene. The practice of "Bunburying" is
established, an act where each man lies to his family about an imaginary invalid
friend present somewhere else, in an attempt to pursue leisure activities
elsewhere. It is in this discussion that Jack admits to his friend Algernon
that he has been lying to his friend in order to maintain the disguise. Thus,
it seems as though the very relationship between the two men is founded on
deceit. Later in this act, Lady Bracknell and Gwendolyn are introduced.
though Lady Bracknell is married, it is obvious that the two women are merely
female counterparts of Algy and Jack. Both spend the day making visits to
others in their social sphere, as Algy and Jack do, holding these visits with
It is at this point, also, that the reader is presented with Wilde’s
views of marriage practices. Earlier in the scene, when Ernest(Jack) announces
his intention of proposing to Gwendolyn, Algernon does not congratulate him,
rather he denounces the entire institution. At Ernest’s announcement of the
proposal, Algy exclaims, "I thought you had come up for pleasure?- I call that
business". Later, Algy’s comments support the idea of adultery once one is
When Ernest finally does propose to Gwendolyn, he first must proceed
through established flirting rituals followed by a formal proposal. These
rituals, such as Gwendolyn’s demand for a formal proposal, demonstrate Wilde’s
conception of outward appearances being more important than true love. In fact,
Ernest’s love for Gwendolyn seems rather arbitrary while Gwendolyn indirectly
admits that she loves Ernest only for his name. Thus, this relationship, too,
seems entirely based on deceit. This idea is substantiated when Lady Bracknell
re-e nters and informs Ernest of some preliminary qualifications that he must
meet before being engaged to Gwendolyn. These include money, family, and
When Ernest does not meet the qualifications, he is denied Gwendolyn.
In the second act, the relationship between Algy and Jack’s ward, Cecily,
parallel Ernest and Gwendolyns relationship. After certain flirting rituals,
Cecily admits to Algy that she loves him for his name, Ernest, and his image of
being ;wicked;. When Algy proposes, Cecily declares that they had already been
engaged for three months, an engagement that she had imagined. When the
proposal is announced, Cecily is only accepted by Lady Bracknell because she has
enough money to support Algy’s lifestyle. Through the two relationships of
Ernest(Jack) and Gwendolyn and Ernest(Algy) and Cecily, Wilde conveys the notion
that love of such kinds is entirely arbitrary, and relationships are based on
Marriages, he contends, are simply an alliance between families to
preserve the aristocracy.
The end of the play culminates in the planning of marriages of Ernest to
Gwendolyn and Algy to Cecily. These marriages are made available only because
Jack(Ernest) discovers his true identity as one belonging to the Bracknell
family. When this is .