Themes of The Importance of Being Earnest

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      Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work. Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest has verity of themes. Wilde named The Importance of Being Earnest as "A Trivial comedy for Serious People", the sub-title is an ironic comment upon various aspects of Victorian society which because of Wilde's farcical treatment adopts a triviality in their attributions.

      The major theme of this play is the satire of the upper classes. This is particularly appropriate theme for Wilde to choose because of his experience among upper class people. Wilde's leisurely setting, the country, where almost no action takes place - is a perfect backdrop, because it insinuates that the wealthy - do nothing with their time. His characterization is also clever. None of the upper class characters have any real depth, which suggests a one-dimensional nature. They are trivial, and shallow as well. An example of this can be found in the interaction between Gwendolen and Cecily, who immediately profess their admiration for one another and then, suddenly, turn on each other when they are at odds over "Ernest." The only characters that can be seen working are Lane, Merriman, and Ms. Prism, who are not of the upper class. To further this theme, Wilde incorporates many mini-themes, such as the absurdity of social life, the triviality of the wealthy, the importance of money, and the lack of reverence for marriage.

Mask of Manners

      The major target of Wilde's scathing social wit is the hypocritical mask of society. Frequently in Victorian society, its participants comported themselves in overly sincere, polite ways while they harboured 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, but 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 truly "earnest." But it also turns out that they were both inadvertently telling the truth (or most of it, at least). The rapid flip-flopping of truths and lies, of earnestness and duplicity, show how truly muddled the Victorian values of honesty and responsibility were; its characters don and take off their masks of manners whenever it is convenient.

Dual Identities

      Through dual identities, a subset of the "Mask of manners" theme, 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 episodes of "Bunburying," or their creation of an alter ego to allow their own evasion of responsibility. Wilde drops some hints that Bunburying may describe homosexual liaisons, or at the very least is an escape from the oppression of marriage. As a closeted homosexual most of his life who was also married, Wilde was well aware of the dual identities of sexual orientation. But other characters go beyond this; just as Algernon and Jack seemingly "write" their fictional personae of Bunbury and Ernest, so does Cecily literally write correspondence between herself and Ernest (before she has ever met him), unlike the men who are free to come and go as they please, she must be mentally satisfied with this fictional identity. That Jack truly 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.

Critique of Marriage as a Social Tool

      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 aroused by learning that Jack was an orphan; Cecily is excited by Algernon's "wicked" reputation). Their desires to marry someone named "Ernest" demonstrates how their romantic dreams hinge upon titles, not character. The men are better, though not by much, Algernon proposes to the young and 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, these ulterior motives are dwarfed by those 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.

Idleness of Leisure Class and the Aesthete

      Wilde good-naturedly exposes the empty trivial lives of the aristocracy, for Wilde also indulged in the aristocratic bounty of the day. Algernon is the greatest example of a hedonist who likes nothing better than to eat, gambol, and gossip without consequence. Wilde has described the play as about characters who trivialize serious matters and solemnize trivial matters; we can see these conditions, for example, in the way that Algernon is aghast by the absence of cucumber sandwiches (ones he ate), or by the serious class conflicts that are quickly smoothed over by Wit. But Wilde has a more serious intent: he subscribes to the late-19th-century philosophy of aestheticism espoused by Walter Pater and others that 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.

Comedy of Manners and Farce

      When people think of Oscar Wilde, they invariably think of his epigrams, his compact, witty maxims that often paradoxically expose the absurdities of society. Frequently he takes an established cliche and alters it to make its illogic somehow more logical ("in married life three is company and two is none"). While these gems are in place for 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 generes could combine them so successfully.

Perfection

      When Jack praises Gwendolen for her perfection, she immediately rejects his claims, and for a rather nonsensical reason -

JACK: You're quite perfect, Miss Fairfax.

GWENDOLEN: Oh! I hope I am not that. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions.

      In his earlier fairy tale, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, Wilde presented us with an apparently pure and perfect girl, Sibyl, with whom Arthur was very much in love. Sibyl's physical and spiritual perfection meant that Arthur had to purge himself of evil before he could marry her. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde parodies Sibyl through Gwendolen, who is deeply vain and bad-tempered. When she discovers that Jack is a liar who periodically goes up to London on pleasure trips, she quickly forgives him and agrees to marry him: she is not spiritually perfect, so does not require a pure husband. On the contrary, she finds the idea of perfection rather amusing and nonsensical.

      When Algy makes a similar remark to Cecily in Act II, he is faced with a similar reaction that surprises him - echoing an establishment reaction to this subversion of the archetype of Sibyl.

      Throughout The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde undermines the more chaste 'perfection' of his earlier works. His presentation of Jack and Algy, for instance, is a reduction to absurdity of the serious, sinful and dangerous life led in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Nonsensitivity

      The Importance of Being Earnest is a nonsense play, and in it Wilde renders absurd the various serious ideas he had expressed in his earlier works. In The Soul of Man Under Socialism. Wilde argued in favour of the abolition of private property and stated rather wittily that this is in the interests of the rich since the ownership of large stretches of land is a great bother. In The Importance of Being Earnest, lady Bracknell, the main representative of the British aristocracy, is obviously a capitalist, inflexible in her insistent preservation of the class system. However, in Act I, she seems to agree with Wilde's views on private property:

LADY BRACKNELL: What between the duties expected of one during one's lifetime, and the duties exacted from one after one's death, land has ceased to be a pleasure or a profit. It gives one position, and prevents one from keeping it up. That's all that can be said about land."

      Even the language here is nonsensical. Money is of no use to anyone after death.

      Wilde thus ridicules both this earlier, heavier works and the fashionable ideas of the day by reducing them to farce. A good example is his treatment of determinism. In Lord Arthur Saville's Crime, Arthur was presented as predetermined by an external force. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian is predetermined by an inner force, his characters and appetites. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Algy proposes to Cecily only to discover that he is already engaged to her, and receives a detailed history of their engagement. Algy’s future is so predetermined that it can occur without him.

The Nature of Marriage Theme

      Theme of Marriage is of paramount importance in The Importance of Being Earnest, both as a primary force motivating the plot and as a subject for philosophical speculation and debate. The question of the nature of marriage appears for the first time in the opening dialogue between Algernon and his butler, Lane, and from this point the subject never disappears for very long. Algernon and Jack discuss the nature of marriage when they dispute briefly about whether a marriage proposal is a matter of "business" or "pleasure," and Lady Bracknell touches on the issue when she states, "An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be." Even Lady Bracknell's list of bachelors and the prepared interview to which she subjects Jack are based on a set of assumptions about the nature and purpose of marriage, in general, these assumptions reflect the conventional preoccupations of Victorian respectability-social position, income, and character.

      The play is actually an ongoing debate about the nature of marriage and whether it is "pleasant or unpleasant." Lane remarks casually that he believes it to be "a very pleasant state," before admitting that his own marriage, now presumably ended, was the result of "a misunderstanding between myself and a young person." Algernon regards Lane's views on marriage as "somewhat lax." His own views are relentlessly cynical until he meets and falls in love with Cecily. Jack, by contrast, speaks in the voice of the true romantic. He tells Algernon, however, that the truth "isn't quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl." At the end of the play, Jack apologizes to Gwendolen when he realizes he had been telling the truth all his life. She forgives him, she says, on the grounds that she thinks he's sure to change, which suggests Gwendolen's own rather cynical view of the nature of men and marriage.

The Constraints Theme of Morality

      Morality and the constraints it imposes on society is a favourite topic of conversation in The Importance of Being Earnest. Algernon thinks the servant class has a responsibility to set a moral standard for the upper classes. Jack thinks reading a private cigarette case is "ungentlemanly." "More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read," Algernon points out. These restrictions and assumptions suggest a strict code of morals that exists in Victorian society, but Wilde isn't concerned with questions of what is and isn't moral. Instead, he makes fun of the whole Victorian idea of morality as a rigid body of rules about what people should and shouldn't do. The very title of the play is a double-edged comment on the phenomenon. The play's central plot-the man who both is and isn't Ernest / earnest-presents a moral paradox. Earnestness, which refers to both the quality of being serious and the quality of being sincere, is the play's primary object of satire. Characters such as Jack, Gwendolen, Miss Prism, and Dr. Chasuble, who put a premium on sobriety and honesty, are either hypocrites or else have the rug pulled out from under them, what Wilde wants us to see as truly moral is really the opposite of earnestness: irreverence.

Hypocrisy vs. Inventiveness

      Algernon and Jack may create similar deceptions, but they are not morally equivalent characters, when Jack fabricates his brother Ernest's death, he imposes that fantasy on his loved ones, and though we are aware of the deception, they, of course, are not. He rounds out the deception with costumes and props, and he does his best to convince the family he's in mourning. He is acting hypocritically, in contrast, Algernon and Cecily make up elaborate stories that don’t really assault the truth in any serious way or try to alter anyone else's perception of reality. In a sense, Algernon and Cecily arc characters after Wilde's own heart, since in a way they invent life for themselves as though life is a work of art. In some ways, Algernon, not Jack, is the play's real hero. Not only is Algernon like Wilde in his dandified, exquisite wit, tastes, and priorities, but he also resembles Wilde to the extent that his fictions and inventions resemble those of an artist.

The Importance of Not Being "Earnest"

      Earnestness, which implies seriousness or sincerity, is the great enemy of morality in The Importance of Being Earnest. Earnestness can take many forms, including boringness, so pomposity, complacency, smugness, self-righteousness, and sense of duty, all of which Wilde saw as hallmarks of the Victorian character, when characters in the play use the word serious, they tend to mean "trivial," and vice versa. For example, Algernon thinks it "shallow" for people not to be "serious" about meals, and Gwendolen believes, "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing."

      For Wilde, the word earnest comprised two different but related ideas: the notion of false truth and the notion of false morality, or moralism. The moralism of Victorian society, its smugness and pomposity, impels Algernon and Jack to invent fictitious alter egos so as to be able to escape the strictures of propriety and decency. However, what one member of society considers decent or indecent doesn't always reflect what decency really is. One of the play's paradoxes is the impossibility of actually being either earnest (meaning "serious" or "sincere") or moral while claiming to be so. The characters who embrace triviality and wickedness are the ones who may have the greatest chance of attaining seriousness and virtue.

Conclusion

      The Importance of Being Ernest is a witty comedic smear of rigidity and greediness of Victorian era. With the use of triviality and satire Wilde creates this engaging and entertaining drama.

University Questions

Write a note on the important themes that the Importance of Being Earnest deals with.
Or
How Oscar Wilde has treated various aspects of human life of Victorian society in The Importance of Being Earnest?
Or
Discuss the major themes of The Importance of Being Earnest.

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