Plot Construction of The Importance of Being Earnest

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      The 1890s saw a change in Victorian Literature, and can be debatably called the beginning of modernism. Writers like Oscar Wilde or Bernard Shaw are concerned less with reaffirming the audience's cherished values, as they are with offering shocking ideas, which cause people to question their basic values. Similar to Mrs. Warren's Profession, in which Shaw allows Mrs. Warren to be a successful brothel keeper with no bad consequences, Wilde allows for a ridiculous four-some, who do not value marriage for what it is meant to be, and truly, do not value what they are "supposed" to value - to end happily. Wilde was a proponent of the Aesthetic movement, which celebrated art for art's sake. This movement, while it did not affect poetry in quite the same way, revitalized drama and novels of the late 19th century. This philosophy tended to keep art from preaching about political issues, and serve to entertain and celebrate beauty. Therefore, when analyzing The Importance of Being Earnest, one must consider it is a piece of entertainment, which did in fact delight its contemporary audiences. Wilde is not seeking to convey a deep, complex message. Its value stems from the source of its humor - its absurdities, and its criticisms. Elements of this play were comical to its audience for a reason; these reasons can tell us much about the world of 1890s England.


      The exposition of the play, Act I, introduces the main character, John Worthing - "Ernest" and presents the major conflict: he wants to marry aristocratic Gwendolen but her mother does not approve. Furthermore, she loves him because of his name. Here is the first example of irony. Jack is not really an earnest man, though he calls himself "Ernest," and Gwendolen does not really want to marry an earnest man, but a man "Ernest" is name only.

      We will start with Jack Worthing the play's protagonist. He is a responsible young man who leads a double life. At his country estate at Hertfordshire, he is known as Jack, in London he is known as Ernest. As a baby, Jack was found in a handbag in the cloakroom of Victoria Station by an old man who adopted him and made Jack guardian to his granddaughter. Jack is in love with his friend's cousin Gwendolen Fairfax.

      Next is Algernon Moncrieff who is Jack's friend who like Jack has invented a imaginary friend who appears to be very sick. His friend "Bunbury" allows him to escape from boring or unpleasant things.

      Next is Gwendolen Fairfax who is in love and obsessed with Jack's alter ego Ernest. She is Algernon's cousin and the daughter of Lady Bracknell. Gwendolen is the model of high fashion and high style.

      Lady Bracknell is Algernon's aunt and Gwendolen's hard charging mother. Lady Bracknell epitomizes the greed and silliness of the British aristocracy, from her "list of eligible young men" she obliviously intends that Gwendolen should marry well as did her mother Lady Bracknell.

      The Importance of Being Earnest opens to an unrealistic highly stylized world to which everyone is witty and speaks in elegant tones. In fact Lane's first line "I didn't think it polite to listen, sir". Is actually an insult to Algernon's piano playing skill encased in polite elegant speech. We can further see the unrealistic Victorian world where servants stealing their masters champagne is a everyday happening.

      One of the purposes of the scene is to set up the joke of the cucumber sandwiches. This scene uses food as an allusion to other appetites. In this particular scene it is the idea of sex. The way Algernon eats the sandwich shows his "insatiable appetite, his preoccupation with food, and his habit of wantonly indulging himself politely suggest other forms of voraciousness and wanton self-indulgence." This idea comes to life in the early conversation between Jack and Algernon where they are debating whether Jack should have a cucumber sandwich or bread and butter. Here again food is used as a allusion to social presumption. Algernon may eat the sandwich because he is Lady Barcknell's nephew and Jack cannot because he is not.

      Next we find about the double life that Jack leads is amusing but represents something a little dark about Jack's persona. This reveals the divide between public and private life in Victorian England. We learn of Jack's double life when his friend Algernon begins to ask Jack where he has been. Algernon opens his assault with the line: "I believe it is customary in good society to take some slight refreshment at five o'clock. Where have you been since last Thursday? He asks Jack several more questions about Jack’s whereabouts getting Jack's customary reply: "In the country.'' But Algernon knows Jack is lying through the evidence of Jack's cigarette case which Jack had left at his previous engagement with Algernon. With this knowledge Algernon lets Jack slip deeper and deeper into his lies. We know about Algernon's "Bunbury" from our reading. Algernon's bedridden friend Bunbury merely gets Algernon out of social inconveniences. Jack's alter ego Ernest is a bit more dark in the fact that Jack must deceive the closest people around him.

      Now is the scene when Jack/Ernest professes to his love Gwendolen. This scene showcases the gender roles being reversed. In fact in Victorian society the female is supposed to be weak and submissive to the superior male who should be aggressive and authoritative. Jack falters when the big moment of proposing to his love Gwendolen comes. Jack proposes after some conversation with Gwendolen: "Well...may I propose to you now?" "Now" is when afore mentioned gender role reversal occurs when Gwendolen takes control of the entire situation when she says: "I think it would be an admirable opportunity. And to spare you of any possible disappointment, Mr. Worthing, I think it only fair to tell you quite frankly beforehand that I am fully determined to accept you." This role reversal upsets the whole concept of moral duty, which by the way is a cornerstone of Victorian morality.

      Now we come to the interview of Jack by Lady Bracknell. Lady Bracknell represents the top rung of Victorian society. "Wilde uses Lady Bracknell's interview of Jack to make fun of the values of London society." Lady Bracknell's first questions are not about income or family but whether or not Jack smokes. The fact that she asks such a random question is amusing. The less amusing side of Lady Bracknell's personality shows when she questions Jack about his parents Jack explains the fact that he lost both of his parents. Lady Bracknell's reply is: "Both....that seems like carelessness." This heartlessness was common with the social elite of the Victorian era.

Act II

      The rising action of the plot occurs throughout Act II and is the longest part of the plot. During the rising action Algernon complicates the conflict because he arrives at Jack's country house and calls himself "Ernest." This is an impediment because, soon, Gwendolen arrives, and because Algernon has proposed to Cecily as Ernest, Gwendolen definitely does - first, not want to marry Jack because of his duplicity, and second, find out that his name is really not Ernest.

      Act II opens at Jack's estate in the country. We meet some new characters in this part of the play, Cecily and Miss Prism. Miss Prism is Cecily's ward which is just someone to look after her. Earlier in Act I Jack mentioned that his brother Ernest got into "scrapes" or misfortunes, Miss Prism thinks that these "misfortunes" are immoral or bad. These misfortunes are what make Cecily want to meet with Ernest. She wants to meet a truly evil person.

      The difference between Algernon's "Bunburying" and Jack's alter ego becomes apparent when Jack announces to everyone that Earnest has died in Paris of a "severe chill" Jack has now gone a little overboard with his dual identities now. He comes decked out in full mourning gear, this is a very elaborate affair as with most everything attached to Victorian society. Jack has now gone way to far with his lies. Jack unlike Algernon and his friend Bunbury has lied to the closest people around him. It is true that Algernon approached Cecily pretending to be someone different, but Algernon has not became the identity that he has created as Jack had become. Jack basically has become, for all his good intentions, a common liar.

      The climactic moment comes when the women confront the man about what they have discovered by talking — they cannot both be Ernest Worthing. There are also two major conflicts between that of the two friends Jack and Algernon and the two strangers Gwendolen and Cecily. The conflict that ensues between Jack and Algernon occurs when Algernon tells Jack that he thinks Cecily is a "darling". Jack being Cecily's guardian is very offended by Algernon being disguised as Earnest and for speaking of Cecily as a "darling". Algernon has taken full advantage of Jack's ruinous position. Jack is very angry at Algernon and sends him away on the next train.

      Next is Cecily's immature infatuation with Ernest in her diary. This fictional relationship has gone to the point where she and Ernest are engaged to be married. She is very much like Gwendolen on the fact that she has taken complete control of her romantic life. The other similarity is that Cecily is also obsessed with the name 'Ernest'.


      In the final Act of the play we see some more of the social minded Lady Bracknell in her interview of Cecily and asking her "If she is any way connected with any of the larger railway stations in England". In the end Jack had become his fictional brother Ernest. Through out his years of deceiving his friends Jack had become more Ernest than Jack.

      The women easily forgive the men and the denouement arises with a surprise ending. The ending can be referred to as "Deus ex machina" (God from machine), which is a highly improbable ending. The chance of Jack really being whom he pretended all along, not to mention Algernon's brother, not to mention Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism meeting on this fortuitous occasion - are all unlikely occurrences. Also in the resolution, is an excellent example of the understatement, which occurs throughout. To Miss Prism, it does not seem to be a grave occurrence that she switched a baby and her novel, losing both priceless items.

      This play is equipped with many epithets, paradoxical, witty phrases. These phrases serve to add to the comedy value of the play. An example of one of these phrases is when Cecily says to Algernon: "well, I know, of course, how important it is not to keep a business engagement." (Act II). This is humorous, because to Victorians - as well as to ourselves - it is important to keep business engagements. Yet, this statement is not amusing to the characters in the play.

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