‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ – Oscar Wilde
Genre: Social Comedy No. pages: 98
Oscar Wilde is one of my favourite playwrights, and my love of classic literature grew from his play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, so it’s only right for Wilde to be one of my first reviews. Wilde (1854-1900) wrote many plays, novels and short stories during his lifetime, including ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and ‘A Woman of No Importance’ and often used comedy to question and mock societal conventions. Arguably, Wilde may be most well-known for his imprisonment due to ‘gross indecency’ (homosexuality), where he was sentenced to two years of hard labour. Wilde was released from prison in 1897 and sailed to France where he spent the remainder of his life under the name Sebastian Melmoth, until he died on 30th November 1900 of meningitis.
The play itself is incredibly difficult to explain; it surrounds the protagonist Jack Worthing who intends to marry Gwendolen. Jack claims to have a brother named Ernest, although this is only his alter-ego which he uses to swap between his high-profiled life as a landowner and guardian (Jack) and an irresponsible pursuer of pleasure (Ernest). Algernon, Jack’s friend, is also a notable character who intends to marry Jack’s ward, Cecily, and claims to know an invalid named Bunbury, who he uses as an excuse to go down into the country. Full of lies, deceit and comedy, Wilde’s play introduced me into my love of satire, which lead me into studying English literature at A Level where I was further introduced to both playwrights and novelists who weren’t afraid to question societal norms and values.
There are many themes noted within ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, arguably one of the most evident themes is Wilde’s view on proposals and marriage. Whenever we think of a satirical and comedic proposal, Austen’s Mr Collins' proposal comes to mind, yet I believe Jack’s proposal to Gwendolen is also a notable one. Wilde reverses traditional gender roles within Jack’s proposal to Gwendolen, with Gwendolen deciding to take control. During the Victorian era, men were expected to take the lead, and to propose confidently, yet Jack is nervous during the proposal and doesn’t have control over the situation ‘ever since I met you I have admired you more than any girl . . . I have ever met since . . . I met you’. The use of ellipsis further highlights this to demonstrate Jack’s uneasiness, allowing Wilde to parody the rituals and expectations of proposals through the use of comedy and therefore is mocking Victorian gender roles. This results in Gwendolen taking the lead ‘Mr. Worthing, what have you got to say to me?’ which goes against the expected gender roles of the time, as Jack demonstrates the expected feminine characteristics of the time -nervousness and uncertainty – and Gwendolen is demonstrating the expected masculine characteristics of the time - confidence and authority. However, Wilde distances himself from the satire through Jack being of a lower class to Gwendolen.
Wilde may also use his play to mock Victorian views on marriage. Jack explains that he had ‘come up to town expressly to propose to her’ (Gwendolen) to which Algernon argues ‘I thought you had come up for pleasure?... I call that business’. This highlights differing views on whether someone should marry for love alone or to marry for money/status. Lady Bracknell’s approach to her daughter Gwendolen’s engagement also highlights this as she immediately begins to question Jack and his background, with questions such as ‘What is your income?’ implying that money is important and he has to have suitable wealth to meet her daughter’s needs. Furthermore, the stage directions are worth noting as they state that Lady Bracknell has ‘[Pencil and note-book in hand.]’ further alluding to the idea that marriage is more about business and social standing than love or affection for one another. In addition, the theme of love at first sight could also link to this, as Algernon explains to Cecily that ‘ever since I first looked upon your…incomparable beauty, I have dared to love you wildly, passionately, devotedly’ implying that he loved her as soon as he saw her. However, despite Algernon meeting Cecily only a few hours earlier, he asked her ‘You will marry me, won't you?’, linking back to the idea that Algernon may see marriage as business rather than pleasure due to Cecily’s large fortune.
Another theme within Wilde’s play is the idea of living double lives. Jack admits that his ‘name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country’, to which Algernon labels Jack as a ‘Bunburyist’ – a term which Algernon invented due to his non-existent friend, Bunbury, meaning to live a double life. The title of the play immediately introduces this idea through the double meaning of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, in the sense of both the name ‘Ernest’ and to be earnest, and adds to the comedy. It could be argued that through both Jack’s use of Ernest and Algernon’s use of Bunbury, Wilde was making a statement about how people in Victorian society live a double life, and could again be alluding to the idea that people see marriage as a way to portray an outward image of respectability and maintain a high reputation yet have a secret double-life of pleasure. Furthermore, it could be argued that Wilde is hinting to his own personal double life, as despite having a wife and two children to demonstrate respectability to society’s eyes, Wilde led a secret life of homosexuality with his lover Lord Alfred Douglas which was illegal at the time.
To conclude, ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is one of my favourite plays due to Wilde’s wonderful use of comedy to form a parody of Victorian society and his influence in challenging societal boundaries. I highly recommend this play and would rate it 9/10.
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Summary for A Level Students (Contains spoilers)
This section of my review is for students studying English Literature who need a quick summary of the quotes and main themes mentioned within the novel. It may be particularly helpful to those studying AQA Love Through The Ages, although feel free to request any novel, play or poem for me to review and summarise for you through my social media or my ‘Contact Me’ page.
‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ was first performed in 1898, nearing the end of the Victorian Era (1832 – 1900).
Themes and Quotes -
Proposals – During Jack’s proposal to Gwendolen, he nervously states ‘ever since I met you I have admired you more than any girl . . . I have ever met since . . . I met you’ resulting in Gwendolen taking the lead in the proposal ‘Mr. Worthing, what have you got to say to me?’, allowing Wilde to mock Victorian gender roles.
Marriage – Algernon believes a proposal is more ‘business’ than pleasure and Lady Bracknell had ‘[Pencil and note-book in hand.]’ when she questioned if Jack was a suitable husband for Gwendolen, through questions such as ‘What is your income?’. This links to the idea of whether you should marry for love/affection or money/status.
Love at first sight – Algernon explains to Cecily that ‘ever since I first looked upon your wonderful and incomparable beauty, I have dared to love you wildly, passionately, devotedly’, linking to the idea of love at first sight.
Double lives – Both Jack and Algernon live double lives, as Jack admits his ‘name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country’. Algernon refers to this as bunburying, due to his non-existent friend who he invented to go into the country named Bunbury.
Similar Texts That Could Be Linked Through Themes
Proposals and Marriage - Play – William Congreve’s ‘The Way of the World’ (Millamant sets conditions of marriage to Mirabell) Novel – Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (Mr Collins' proposal)
Poem – Elizabeth Jennings’ ‘One Flesh’ (Discusses her parent’s marriage) Love at first sight - Play – Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (Romeo loves Juliet at first sight) Novel – Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ (Use of scopophilic tone, to use as contrast) Poem – Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 46’ (about love at first sight)
Double lives - Novel – Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (Alter-ego of Jekyll and Hyde)