Theme of Love and Marriage in The Importance of Being Earnest

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Three Couples

      There are chiefly three couples of lovers in The Importance of Being Earnest i.e. Jack and Gwendolen, Algernon and Cecily Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism. There is no serious hindrance in their way to marry except in the case of Gwendolen and Cecily because both of them have fallen in love with a man named Ernest. And this gives rise to a number of comic situations that are simply hilarious.

Jack's Proposal of Marriage and Gwendolen's Acceptance

      Jack is in London with the purpose of proposing marriage to Gwendolen. He tells Algernon about his objective, on which Algernon comments:

"I really don't see anything romantic in proposing marriage. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal."

      He also says that all the excitement comes to an end with the acceptance of the proposal of marriage. And that if he ever happen to marry, he will try to forget the fact.

      Jack is Cecily's guardian in the countryside. He has invented a very useful younger brother called Ernest whose wicked deeds and absurd manners of living often take him to London. Thus, he gets an opportunity to woo Gwendolen, the daughter of Lord and Lady Bracknell. Jack expresses his love for Gwendolen and she comes up with a favourable reply. She tells him:

"My ideal has been to love someone of the name of Ernest. There is something in this name that inspires absolute confidence."

      She tells Jack that she cannot possibly think of the idea marrying with some other name. When Jack says that this name does not suit him she retorts:

"It perfectly suits you. It is a divine name. It has music of its own. produces vibration."

      She further expresses her thoughts at the name Jack:

"Jack? No there is very little music in the name Jack' if any at all, indeed. It does not thrill. It produces absolutely no vibration.....I have known, several Jacks, and they all, without exception, were more than usually plain. Besides, Jack is a notorious domesticity for John! And I pity any woman who is married to a man called John. She would probably never be allowed to know the entrancing pleasure of a single moment's solitude. The only safe name is Ernest."

      Jack suggests that they must get married at once and makes a formal proposal which is immediately accepted by Gwendolen.

Lady Bracknell's Adverse Attitude towards Jack's Proposal of Marriage

      When Lady Bracknell comes to know about this love affair she comes up with certain questions to scrutinize Jack in order to examine his suitability for her daughter's hand. He informs her that his age is twenty-nine, he does not smoke, his income is between seven and eight thousand pounds a year and has a country house with some land attached to it. She is quite satisfied at all this information. Now she asks him about his parents and Jack tells her. that he does not know anything about his parents. He further informs her that he was found by Mr. Thomas Cardew, who gave him the name 'Worthing'. Lady Bracknell feels totally annoyed and tells him that she cannot allow her daughter to make an alliance with someone who was found in a clock-room. And she advises him "to produce one parent of either sex at any rate."

      When Jack tells her that it is not possible for him to do so, she replies:

"You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter — a girl brought up with the utmost care — to marry into a cloak-room and form an alliance with parcel?"

Algernon and Cecily's Love-affair

      Cecily is the ward of Mr. Jack Worthing and resides in the countryside. As Gwendolen has fallen in love with the name 'Ernest', similarly she too falls in love with the name. Algernon happens to know about her by the inscription on Jack's cigarette-case. He overhears Jack's countryside address when he was telling it to Gwendolen. He has noted it on the cuff of his shirt. He visits Jack's country in the disguise of Jack's wicked younger brother Ernest (who is completely an imaginary invention of Jack's mind and who is bestowing ample of excuses on Jack to visit London in order to woo Gwendolen). Algernon falls in love with Cecily sight. When he praises her beauty she tells him:

"Ever since dear Uncle Jack first confessed to us that he had a younger brother who was very wicked and bad ... I fell in love with you, Ernest."

      She tells him that she has been discussing his wicked ways with her governess Miss Prism. She tells him that she has got engaged to him three months ago, on 14th of February, the next day she brought an engagement ring and a bangle with a lover's knot which she promised always to wear. She had been writing letters to herself on his behalf, as revealed from her conversation with Algernon:

CECILY: ... and this is the box in which I kept all your dear letters.

ALGERNON: My letters! But, my own sweet Cecily, I have never written you any letter.

CECILY: You need hardly remind me of that, Ernest. I remember only too well that I was forced to write your letters for you. I wrote always three times a week, and sometimes oftener."

      Once she had broken off this engagement but she had forgiven him very soon and the engagement had been restored. She tells him that she always had a dream to marry someone with the name of Ernest, because this name "inspires absolute confidence." When Algernon tries to convince her that Algernon is an aristocratic name, she unmovingly tells him:

"I might respect you, Ernest. I might admire your character, but I fear that I should not be able to give you my undivided attention."

      Algernon decides to undergo a christening ceremony in order to please Cecily because she had a great fascination for the name 'Ernest'. Now both the gentlemen are willing to be christened as Ernest. It is one of the absurd elements of the play that both of them are loved not because of their own persona but because of a name that none of them actually bears.

Discord between the Two Girls

      Now this is clear to all of us that both the girls are in love with somebody called Ernest. As we are aware of the fact that Jack pretends to have a brother named Ernest who resides in country, Algernon developed interest in Cecily and reached countryside impersonating Ernest in order to woo Cecily. She is already in love with the wicked brother of Jack Worthing (Ernest). He proposed marriage to Cecily. As a matter of fact she is already engaged to him in her imagination and readily accepts his proposal.

      While on the other hand Gwendolen accepts Jack's proposal of marriage. Both of them are believing that they are going to marry to Ernest because both the young men pretend to be Ernest (who is completely an imaginary character). Due to this misunderstanding they exchanged heated words. But they both discovered that neither of their lover has the name Ernest and the misunderstanding is cleared. Jack confesses that he has no brother at all and Algernon also admits that his name is Algernon and not Ernest and the misunderstanding is cleared. Both the girls are shocked to hear that none of them will be able to marry Ernest because there is no one called Ernest. They behave as if they are greatly annoyed by the exposure of this fact. However, they admire their lover's spirit to sacrifice as both Algernon and Jack are ready to undergo the christening ceremony to appease their beloveds:

"How absurd to talk of the equality of the sexes! Where questions of self-sacrifice are concerned, men are infinitely beyond us."

Lady Bracknell Gives Her Consent to Algernon's Marriage with Cecily

      Lady Bracknell reaches countryside in order to take her daughter Gwendolen to London as she has come here because her mother is opposed to her marriage to Jack. She learns that Algernon, her nephew, is interested in Cecily. She inquires various things about Cecily. Jack informs her that Cecily has a large amount of money in her name. Lady Bracknell feels fully satisfied with Cecily's suitability as her nephew's wife and gives her approval to their marriage. But she is still not in favour of her daughter Gwendolen's marrying Jack as his parentage is not known. Therefore, she refuses to give her consent to marriage. She tells Cecily about Algernon:

"Dear child, of course, you know that Algernon has nothing but his debts to depend upon. But I do not approve of mercenary marriages. When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way. Well, I suppose I must give my consent... Cecily you may kiss me! .... You may also address me as Aunt Augusta for the future."

      Jack Worthing, who is Cecily's legal guardian refuses to give his consent to this marriage. But this obstacle is cleared by Miss Prism who informs everybody that Jack is Lady Bracknell's late sister's son and is the elder brother of Algernon. After the discovery of this fact Lady Bracknell can possibly have no objection to the marriage of Gwendolen to Jack.

Love-affair Between Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble

      The third and the last love-affair in this play is between Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble. They both are interested in each other. As we know that Miss Prism is the governess of Cecily and Cecily is smart enough to find out that Dr. Chasuble, the Rector, and Miss Prism are taking interest in each other but social inhibitions prevent them and that is why she suggests that Miss Prism should go for a walk with Dr. Chasuble as she is suffering from headache. She pretends to be shocked to hear the following words from Dr. Chasuble's mouth "Were I fortunate enough to be Miss Prism's from Dr. Chasuble's mouth "Were I fortunate enough to be Miss Prism's pupil I would hang upon her lips." She suggests him to get married soon and tells him:

"You are too much alone, dear Dr. Chasuble. You should get married. A misanthrope I can understand — a womanthrope, never!"

      Dr. Chasuble replies that the Primitive Church is unfavorable to matrimony, so he has chosen to remain unmarried. Her quick reply to this statement:

"This is obviously the reason why the Primitive Church has not lasted up to the present day. And you do not seem to realise dear Doctor, that by persistently remaining single, a man converts himself into a permanent public temptation. Men should be more careful; this very celibacy leads weaker vessels astray."

      This love-affair between Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble leads to a happy ending. And at the end of the play when Gwendolen and Cecily accepts their respective lovers, Dr. Chasuble embraces Miss Prism saying, "At last". And the play ends on a happy note.

University Questions

Discuss the elements of romance and love affairs and the way the couples are happily united in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Discuss the treatment of the theme of love in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Describe the matrimonial deadlocks and the way they are resolved in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Comment on the comic treatment of the theme of love and marriage in The Importance of Being Earnest.
Discuss the interweaving of the various love-affairs in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.
How far Wilde succeeded in his act of arousing humour with the theme of love and marriage in the play?

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