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The Importance of Being Earnest | Discussion Questions 1 - 10

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Why do both Jack and Algernon feel the need to invent Ernest and Bunbury in The Importance of Being Earnest?

The social expectations placed on members of the upper class in Victorian-era England were restrictive and intense. Both Jack and Algernon feel the need to create a reason to escape the constraints of their lives because of the taxing nature of these expectations. The many references to the struggle of marriage throughout the play offer one type of social expectation these characters find restricting. Other references are to social functions that people in certain social circles are expected to attend. Jack's invention of Ernest is explainable because he does not live alone and wishes to protect Cecily from knowing about his romantic adventures, which at this point involve only Gwendolen. On the other hand, Algernon, more of an adventurer, explains his invention of Bunbury as a means of avoiding unappealing social obligations, particularly to his Aunt Augusta. Attending to his invalid friend Bunbury paints Algernon as a moral and reliable friend and allows him the liberty to do as he pleases outside of London.

How do the settings of the city and the country reflect the theme of social conventions in The Importance of Being Earnest?

While some literary works may establish city life as corrupt and country life as upright and unspoiled, Wilde reverses these assumptions by making the country life to which society retreats similar to city life as a locale for misadventure. Wilde equates them in Act 1, Section 2 when Jack and Algernon discuss their romantic adventures. Algernon talks of "Bunburying" in the country, meaning he leaves the city to avoid responsibility and to pursue his amusements outside London. Jack, on the other hand, leaves his acceptably upper-class country life to pursue his romantic interests in the city. Later in Act 2, Section 5 Cecily and Gwendolen insult each other's lifestyles, Gwendolen taking jabs at country life and Cecily returning the jabs at city life. Wilde shows neither location as superior. In both places similar conventions prevail, and individuals act in similar ways.

How does the title of the play, The Importance of Being Earnest, and its subtitle, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, establish the work as a satire?

A satire pokes fun at ideas or practices, usually by exaggeration and other comedic devices. One central element of satire is irony. The title of the play, The Importance of Being Earnest, is a pun, which makes use of verbal irony by conveying through language a meaning opposite the literal meaning of the words. The title sets the audience up for an exploration of the Victorian virtue of earnestness; however, the play itself is about a man falsely named Ernest, who is not earnest in the least. Part of the plot involves the importance of the name—a marriage requirement for the two young women as well as the deeds that an earnest, or serious, person would do. The subtitle, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, achieves the same effect. Although the action of the play is indeed comedic and can be perceived as trivial, the central argument of the play is not trivial at all but rather a critique of Victorian social conventions. Wilde deprecates his own creation and flatters his audiences by implying they are serious, thoughtful, earnest people who will understand and appreciate the play.

In The Importance of Being Earnest what is Wilde's central critique of Victorian society?

Wilde reveals the hypocrisy, more than anything else, of conventional Victorian society. From the espousal of sexual denial to the insistence on a strict social code, Wilde emphasizes the disparity between what people say they should do and what they actually do. For instance, the upper class is meant to show good manners and seriousness, yet they are shown as ungracious, prone to undercutting others, and silly. For example, Lady Bracknell, new to the upper class, considers herself part of it, but her behavior shows humbler beginnings and crass behavior that exist just below the surface of her recently acquired status through marriage. She inquires after Jack's financial situation, an impolite intrusion into an area considered personal. When Gwendolen and Cecily engage in polite conversation as Cecily plays dutiful hostess to Gwendolen in Act 2, Section 5, they use conventions particularly insulting to each other as their romances are challenged. Also significant is Jack and Algernon's silly behavior about the cucumber sandwiches. They mock the convention of serving cucumber sandwiches for tea, eat them nonetheless, and fuss about them, shifting blame to the servant. The silliness about such trivia reflects the empty thoughts occupying the minds of others in the circles Jack and Algernon occupy.

In Act I of The Importance of Being Earnest, how do the cucumber sandwiches address elements of Victorian society?

In Act I, Section 2 Jack calls Algernon's display of cucumber sandwiches "reckless extravagance in one so young." This statement demonstrates verbal irony, in which words are used to mean something other than what they say, as cucumber sandwiches are among the most conventional items, neither extravagant nor reckless, to serve at tea. Because the sandwiches are for Aunt Augusta (Lady Bracknell), the irony goes further as Lady Bracknell is not young. The situation also shows a certain hypocrisy in Algernon. While Algernon eats the sandwiches greedily, he scolds Jack for trying to take one. Eventually all of the cucumber sandwiches are eaten before Lady Bracknell arrives. Instead of admitting to having eaten all of them, he has his servant, Lane, lie that there were no cucumbers at the market. Algernon goes so far as to pretend to be "greatly distressed" over the unavailability of cucumbers. The fact that in the end Lady Bracknell is indifferent about the sandwiches underscores the absurdity of the formal extravagance Jack considers reckless. The statement may be extended to imply that Jack believes formal extravagance central to social interactions among the upper class is rash behavior, unconcerned with consequences. Indeed much of the play explores the consequences of this "reckless" formality upon which society insists.

In Act 1, Section 2 of The Importance of Being Earnest, how does the cigarette case establish important plot elements?

Jack accidentally leaves a cigarette case at Algernon's flat, which, of course, Algernon finds and is curious about. He and Jack, who at this point Algernon believes is named Ernest, discuss the cigarette case, which conveniently provides information about characters and situations. The inscription on the case, "From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack," leads to the disclosure of important background information, causing Jack to disclose that he is called Jack in the country and that Cecily is his ward. Discussion of the cigarette case reveals the characters' relationships with one another and Jack and Algernon's lies about Earnest and Bunbury. Additionally Jack's need to explain his relationship to Cecily reveals Jack's backstory as an abandoned orphan. The use of the cigarette case as a prop is a dramatic technique. In a narrative, this background information could be revealed through exposition, but dramatists must reveal all background information through dialogue.

In Act 1, Section 3 of The Importance of Being Earnest why does Jack compare Lady Bracknell to a gorgon?

In Greek mythology gorgons were three female creatures with impenetrable scales covering their bodies and with snakes for hair. Looking at a gorgon would immediately turn a person to stone. The most famous gorgon was Medusa who, unlike the other two gorgons, was mortal. Jack's comparison of Lady Bracknell to a gorgon underscores the degree to which he finds her repulsive and fearsome and suggests that he would rather never look upon her. Like a gorgon she casts a paralyzing glare at anyone who looks at her and exudes merciless fear. Being in her presence frightens Jack so that he cannot think or speak normally.

In The Importance of Being Earnest what is the significance of Lady Bracknell's first name, Augusta?

The name Augusta is based on the word august, meaning "majestic, awe-inspiring, austere, grand, dignified, or formally impressive." The derivation is Latin and comes from the Roman emperor Augustus, who held supreme power over his people. Lady Bracknell's presence in Act 1, Section 3 is certainly imposing and fits all the terms that define august. Jack cowers in her presence, and she is always obeyed without question. Furthermore Lady Bracknell is certainly someone who rules as a dictator in her own circles, and her presence is certainly "august." She presides over the proper execution of social conventions when she scolds Jack for assuming a "semi-recumbent posture," which she finds "most indecorous." Jack's relaxed way strikes her as being in poor taste and improper. She is a dictator in her control over other's lives as well. As she says to Gwendolen, "When you do become engaged to some one, I, or your father ... will inform you of the fact."

In The Importance of Being Earnest how does Lady Bracknell's character illustrate assumptions made by some of the upper class in Victorian England?

In Act 3, Section 1 Algernon declares his love for Cecily, saying he does not "care twopence about social possibilities," meaning that he will marry her even if she does not offer him means to accumulate more wealth and property. Upon hearing Algernon's declaration, Lady Bracknell scolds him with a warning "never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can't get into it do that." Algernon's comment is ironic, especially since he has "nothing but his debts to depend upon" and "half of the chaps who get into the Bankruptcy Court are called Algernon." His social and financial standing will indeed improve after he marries Cecily. Lady Bracknell, having married into money herself, projects the belief that people who critique the lives of those in high society are merely jealous and have no legitimate claim against their behavior. If people outside of "society" can't get into it, it is their own fault. After all, she got in!

How does The Importance of Being Earnest explore the paradox of fidelity in Victorian society?

Victorian social conventions called for two main types of fidelity: fidelity to the ideals of the time and fidelity to one's spouse. Earnestness was of great importance to the upper classes, a notion that is expressed by both Cecily's and Gwendolen's obsession with the name Ernest. The paradox here, however, is that the two women do not demonstrate fidelity either to the quality of earnestness or to the men they believe are named Ernest. This lack is illustrated by Cecily's and Gwendolen's refusals to accept the men with their given names and their insistence that each be christened Ernest. Additionally, the women are anything but earnest in their interactions with each other, finding clever ways to undercut their rival through the polite language of society. Their behavior is often silly, the silliest being Cecily's invented betrothal, demonstrating no personal commitment to real earnestness. Jack's decision to kill off Ernest also establishes the paradox of fidelity. Jack created Ernest so that he could have time and space to be true to himself, or to live in earnest. When he kills Ernest to marry Gwendolen, and then agrees to be christened as Ernest out of fidelity to his fiancée, he has surrendered all fidelity to his true self.

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