Craftsmanship of Plot Construction in The Importance of Being Earnest

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Closely Knitted or Well-constructed Plot

      At the very beginning of the play one comes to know that the charisma and charm of The Importance of Being Earnest lies primarily in its dialogue, which is distinguished by an abundance of wit and humour. There, is undoubtedly little action in the play. But this very little of action has been developed in a perfectly logical manner. Once we are able to recognise that absurdity is the keynote of the play, we shall find no fault with the way the plot develops. Although the plot is flimsy, yet it is closely knit and skillfully developed. For various reasons, this play is superior to the other plays written by Wilde, but one reason for its superiority is the excellent craftsmanship.

The Love Story of Jack and Gwendolen

      The play consists of two major and one minor love affairs. In the opening act the love affair between Jack and Gwendolen develops. For some time Jack has been a frequent visitor at his friend. Algernon's house. There he is known by his pseudo-name Ernest. In the first act we see him visiting Algernon's house and after meeting him cousin Gwendolen he proposes to her which is readily accepted. Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen's mother, on the other hand rejects Jack as her future son-in-law. The reason of her rejection is Jack's unknown parentage.

Algernon’s Keen Interest in Cecily

      Algernon's persistent questioning to Jack reveals Jack's true identity and his connection with Cecily who is his ward and lives with him under the charge of governess Miss Prism. This piece of information arouses Algernon's keen interest to meet Cecily. Jack's discouraging remark that he would ensure Algernon could not meet this beautiful young lastly, Cecily, makes him more determined and he notes down the address of Jack's country-house when the latter tells it to Gwendolen. Thus, from the very outset Wilde adeptly hints at another possible love-affairs.

The Secondary Love-affair Blossom

      Wilde shows his mastery in developing a secondary love-affair between Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism. Their mutual interest evolves into love when Cecily gives them an opportunity for a class-interaction while taking a stroll together. Miss Prism shows her sympathy to Dr. Chasuble's lonely heart suggesting him to marry. Her concern suggests her weakness for Dr. Chasuble. Both being playing their respective roles in the main plot, their love-affair between them perfectly fits into the story, not just remains a stray incident.

Cecily - Algernon’s Love Blossoms

      Algernon meets Cecily at Jack's country-house. He introduces himself as Jack's younger brother Ernest. In the mean time, Jack comes back from London and declares untimely death of his brother Ernest since the existence of this fictitious character is no more required to Jack. This triggers off a funny situation when Ernest's alias Algernon is very much present there. Jack is embarrassed as well as peeved by Algernon's presence but remains calm to avoid further blunders. After meeting Algernon alone he expresses his annoyance and tells him to leave the place which Algernon declines and manages to propose Cecily privately. Cecily readily accepts the proposal for his very name 'Ernest' and also for his unscrupulous nature that fascinates her so much.

Gwendolen's Sudden Visit to Jack's Country-house

      Defying Lady Bracknell's instruction, Gwendolen arrives at Jack's country-house to meet him. Her arrival brings the two love affairs in close proximity. At first a confusion arises from the name 'Ernest' since both of them are betrothed to the person by this name. However, confusion recedes with the arrival of their respective lovers. But, they feel cheated for the lies being told by their lovers.

The Mystery of Jack's Parentage Unravelled

      Gwendolen's arrival is followed Lady Bracknell's appearance at the spot. This is also followed by her chance-meeting with Miss Prism thereby the Linr a veiling of Jack's parentage. Lady Bracknell comes to Jack's country-house in search of her daughter Gwendolen. In the final act all the major characters meet and the complicacies are disentangled thus lending the story with meaningful end.

Inter-mingling of the Plot

      Wilde deftly connects the two major love affairs. Jack falls in love with Algernon's cousin and proposes whereas Algernon is besotted by Cecily's beauty and ingenuousness proposes immediately after meeting her at Jack's country-house. Cecily is Jack's ward. Thus both the love-affairs blossom in a common circle and they are not some isolated incidents. Their happy unions are also made possible by mutual acknowledgment of opposing individuals. Jack agrees to give consent to the marriage of Cecily to Algernon only on the condition that Lady Bracknell should at first accede to his marriage with her daughter, Gwendolen. Jack's true identity comes out only when Miss Prism reveals his parentage and gives an account of how he was lost. She was once the governess of little Jack, who is actually nephew of Lady Bracknell. The accidental meeting of Miss Prism and Lady Bracknell is caused by Dr. Chasuble who mentions the name 'Miss Prism' in presence of Lady Bracknell. Lady Bracknell being acquainted with the name shows natural inquisitiveness to meet the woman. The meeting ultimately brings the truth in spotlight. Miss Prism is responsible for divulging the secret and also indirectly Dr. Chasuble plays a significant role in bringing Miss Prism into the focal point. Thus, both of them are somehow connected to the main action of the play. This is Wilde's mastery in making the two primary love-affairs dependant upon the secondary love-affairs.

Similarities Noted in the Play

      Jack Worthing, the hero of the play, and his friend Algernon have some striking similarities in their nature. Both of them invent the fictitious characters like Ernest and Bunbury. Jack’s ’Ernest’ provides him with the excuse to visit London often and to meet Gwendolen whenever he wishes. Algernon's invalid friend 'Bunbury' helps him to evade the boring dinner-parties thrown by his aunt Lady Bracknell and to visit country-side as a relief from social obligations of city life. This strain of similarity can be seen in Gwendolen and Cecily also. Their similarities lie in their ardent appreciation for the name 'Ernest'. Both the ladies enjoy keeping diary though they have the different purpose. Gwendolen likes to read her diary on railway journeys to shun boredom and Cecily writes diary to keep record of "the wonderful secrets" of life.

Use of Deceit

      Perhaps his frequent use of the convolutions of deceit and misidentify as comic device was as much inspired by the rigid masks imposed in post Victorian society as it was by the Shakespearean 'Comedy of Errors' tradition he admired. Wilde's characters in Earnest are the "UN-earnest," idle rich, with abundant time and money at their disposal to make intricate messes out of their lives. It is only through the most amazing good fortune - often appearing in the writer's plays as obvious contrivances - that they are able to get past their own foolishness and flippancy (follies which typified Wilde's own tumultuous life) to achieve their desired ends.

Interesting Use of Dialogue

      Wilde has adroitly used dialogue to create comic effect of the play. It is not the situation but the dialogue that is the primary interest of the play. Wilde has used the short as well as long speeches as his comic device. We can note the wit in Lady Bracknell's dialogue when she spurns Jack’s' proposal to marry Gwendolen. She tells: "...A girl brough up with the utmost care - to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel?" Humour is also present when Cecily tersely reacts upon hearing Gwendolen's wonder at abundance of flowers available at country. Their conversation goes as given below:

Gwendolen: I had no idea there were any flowers in the country.

Cecily: Oh, flowers are as common here, Miss Fairfax, as people are in London.


      The primary purpose of these themes is to provoke laughter from the audience. They can do so because they are testing the social values of their time. Wilde is able to satirize the upper classes by placing this play in an upper class social arena. Next he fills the characters language with epigrams, which make them seem ridiculous. Because the characters constantly contradict what basic values in their speech, or do not base their statements on any logic at all they lose credibility as real-life, believable people. This works to Wilde's advantage because, despite what he may or may not think about the upper class, he wants his play to be funny and not overtly offensive; they are, after all, the patrons of his show. Finally, Wilde makes the major issue of the play marriage. Marriage is an excellent way to poke fun at the aristocracy for two reasons. First, it is a traditionally sacred ceremony: second, he can highlight the importance of wealth and status among the upper classes, which often view marriage as a financial contract.

University Questions

"The Importance of Being Ernest is brilliant in its construction, with several moments of stage mastery." Substantiate.
In The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde achieved what is a perfect form of art. Do you agree? Give reasons for your answer.
Oscar Wilde displays an extraordinary skill in constructing the play The Importance of Being Earnest. Do you agree with this view? Give reasons for your answer.
Evaluate Wilde's craftsmanship as shown in The Importance of Being Earnest.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a different, unique and an extraordinary play with a closely knitted plot. Do you agree? Give reasons.
Critically analyse the plot construction of The Importance of Being Earnest. Do you think it is justified to call it a masterpiece?

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