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Critical Essay Earnest

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.

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.

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.

Critical Research Paper: The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

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Thesis statement

Honesty is the foundation of human relationships that reinforces success in our daily endeavors.

Thesis outline

With the context of exposing the high melodrama of Victorian society, Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of being Earnest” is considered to be one of the best examples representing the genre of ‘comedy of manners’. The play contains all the characteristic attributes of the society – ranging from self-righteous moralism, hypocrisy, to the triviality and shallowness of human mind. This is Wilde’s best play that mocks humorously at the 19th century English society and life.

The research paper proposes to address two of the most significant aspects of “The Importance of being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde – a) the importance of honesty in relationships as illustrated by Wilde in the play and b) the use of humor exercised in the play. Wilde articulates the sheer artificiality of the Victorian society with perfection through the main character portrayals in “The Importance of being Earnest”, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, and the people related to them.

The pile of lies created by these two young men constitutes the crux of the plot. The duality of their lives is manipulated in order to woo the love of their lives – Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew, respectively. What stimulates the epicenter of this hilarious satire is the fictitious identity of Ernest. It is the name validating Jack’s dual life. Algernon confronts Jack in a self-convincing manner,

“You have always told me it was Ernest. I have introduced you to every one as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life.” (Wilde p. 14)

To which Jack reveals his dual identity,

“Well, my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country.” (Wilde p. 15)

Truth is an element ironically established in the Victorian melodrama. How far honesty can proceed as a high moral tone valued by the society, is a matter of concern. Or, is it that simple? Algernon speaks out in satirical tone,

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!” (Wilde p. 17)

The basic sense of contemptuous humor is situated in the very title of the play. Earnestness or sincerity itself is the greatest enemy of morality in “The Importance of being Earnest” (The Importance of being Earnest 2008). It is interesting to find seriousness and triviality replacing one another in the play.

This is what as demonstrated by Oscar Wilde, comprises the hallmarks of the typical Victorian character. The choice of implicating a variety of contradictory denotations by the term ‘earnest’ is shown in the play, although the word “inspires absolute confidence” believed by the two young ladyloves.

Earnestness can take many forms, including complacency, pomposity, self-righteousness and sense of duty. Jack too believes that the word does not make him eligible to be chosen as his name when he reveals to his love Gwendolen,

“Personally, darling, to speak quite candidly, I don‘t much care about the name of Ernest…I don‘t think the name suits me at all.” (Wilde p. 25)

What is then so special about Ernest, is explained by Wilde in terms of humorous satire in “The Importance of being Earnest”. It is the smugness and sheer arrogance in the form of moralism in the Victorian society that induces Jack and Algernon to invent their imaginative identities of Ernest Worthing in order to escape the rebukes of propriety and decency.

The shallowness of Victorian mind is depicted in a humorous manner in Wilde’s ‘comedy of manners’. Wilde is particularly sensitive about the character portrayals when it comes to describing the typical English society of the late 19th century. Gwendolyn and Cecily are the young ladies who love to express their romantic relationships based on a whimsical fact that they are engaged to men named Ernest.

The consequence becomes hilarious when they both come to the eventual realization that neither is really named Ernest. The characters of Gwendolen and Cecily are significant examples of how frivolous and stupid women were thought to be as well as how humorous their shallow thoughts were (Swenty 2005). Lady Bracknell is another example as described by Jack in front of her nephew Algernon,

“Lady Bracknell is one. In any case, she is a monster, without being a myth, which is rather unfair.” (Wilde p. 34)

Algernon further reveals to Jack the shallowness of relationships, which also ironically represents the essence of the entire Victorian society.

“Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die.” (Wilde p. 34)

The amount of wit and sarcasm practiced by Wilde has hardly any match in any other playwright of his time. Wilde exploits irony and humor in “The Importance of being Earnest” by artistically incorporating them in the conversation as well as the thoughts of the characters. Most of the interactions between the characters exercise the mocking mannerisms of the high-class English society in the Victorian era.

In other words, “The Importance of being Earnest” can be best described as a comedy of manners that satirizes the attitudes and behavior of the fashionable English society in the 19th century (Shyba 2002).

The double life or duality of existence is the central metaphor in Wilde’s “The Importance of being Earnest”. This is personified more specifically by the inventive identity of Ernest Worthing. This duality of hypocrisy in Victorian mindset comes out from the very basic “earnest/Ernest” joke in the play.

The humor is sarcastically aimed at mocking the Victorian notions of respectability and duty. Gwendolyn wishes to marry a man called Ernest simply because the name “inspires absolute confidence”, although the actual person do not necessarily possess the qualities that comprise earnestness. What is more important to Gwendolen is the ideal name than the actual qualities of the man in her life. Gwnedolen’s words speak it so clearly when she reveals to Jack or Ernest,

“For me you have always had an irresistible fascination. Even before I met you I was far from indifferent to you. We live, as I hope you know, in an age of ideals. The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines, and has reached the provincial pulpits, I am told; and my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.” (Wilde p. 24)

What makes “The Importance of being Earnest” is a delightful work of art is the continuous flow of humor maintained by Wilde throughout the play. The witty dialogues and characterizations of Oscar Wilde genuinely evokes the essential elements of the Victorian melodrama. In this context, “The Importance of being Earnest” is the best and well-received play of Wilde. Therefore, in order to conduct a deeper evaluation of the Victorian mindset, a critical analysis of the play makes considerable sense.


Shyba, Lori M. “Oscar Wilde and Joe Orton: Similarities and Differences”. The Gameshow Avatar. 2002: 1-24.

Swenty, Michelle. “Book review: The Importance of being Earnest”. The Missouri Minor. 11 March 2005. 2006. <http://media.www.missouri-miner.com/media/storage/paper426/news/2005/11/03/Features/Book-Review.the.Importance.Of.Being.Earnest-1045124.shtml>.

“The Importance of being Earnest”. Spark Notes. 2008.

“The Importance of being Earnest”. Wikipedia. 2008. 13 Dec 2008

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Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of being Earnest. Iowa: 1st World Publishing, 2004.

Critical Research Paper: The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

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