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The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde

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The Importance of Being Earnest | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


How does dramatic irony drive the plot in Act 2, Sections 2–5 of The Importance of Being Earnest?

A number of events that occur in Act 2 depend on dramatic irony, meaning the audience and/or some characters have knowledge that other characters do not. When Algernon enters Jack's house pretending to be Ernest to woo Cecily, the audience knows the truth of Algernon's identity, whereas Cecily does not. Another instance of dramatic irony in this act is Jack's announcement that his brother Ernest has died. Algernon, Jack, and the audience know that Ernest was never alive. Additionally the audience knows that Algernon has just told Cecily he is Ernest, another situation that makes Jack's announcement ironic. Finally, when Gwendolen and Cecily realize they are both engaged to Ernest Worthing, the audience knows that neither man is named Ernest; indeed no one is! The movement of the plot toward resolution depends on these instances of dramatic irony. The truth must first be confounded to create conflict and tension, as well as humor, and then the confusion must be reversed to resolve the conflict.

How are the tone and mood of the play established in the opening scene of Act 1, Section 1 of The Importance of Being Earnest?

Although the themes Wilde explores in The Importance of Being Earnest are serious, the tone he establishes in the opening of Act 1 is light. Immediately Algernon and Lane engage in trivial dialogue that confirms the play is concerned with triviality, as its subtitle suggests. Not only does the conversation focus on trivialities, such as the silly exchange about Algernon's piano playing and the quality of wine in the homes of bachelors as opposed to married couples, but also, more significantly, Algernon and Lane, a servant, are having a discussion on seemingly equal terms, with both men's comments and comebacks equally amusing. Such comedic interactions between master and servant establish levity. Like the tone, the mood is also light. Though Algernon and Lane discuss marriage (Lane's being the result of a "misunderstanding"), their superficial conversation centers around points of hosting and entertainment. They move lightly and engage in fast-talking banter and one-line barbs. At the end of the scene, Algernon makes fun of Lane and the class-based society in which they live. Though the play takes on major social concerns, it reflects a lighthearted mood for the purpose of addressing these issues through entertaining an audience.

In The Importance of Being Earnest how are Cecily and Gwendolen different and similar?

Cecily and Gwendolen can be considered complements of each other. They may not look alike and Cecily is younger, but they share behaviors and beliefs. Gwendolen is a stereotypical shallow, young society woman, sophisticated and raised in the city. Like Lady Bracknell, she appears refined yet frequently behaves in a way atypical for her station in life. Cecily, on the other hand, was raised in the country and is more sheltered than Gwendolen. Under the tutelage of Miss Prism ,however, she is learning the ways of society. Unlike Gwendolen, who obeys her mother without question, Cecily shows some resistance to convention. For example, she writes secrets and fantasies in her diary, disobeying Miss Prism's instruction that the diary is meant for real memories. Despite these differences, Cecily and Gwendolen both are obsessed with the name Ernest, valuing the name more than the quality of earnestness. Both women also are capable of cruelty: Gwendolen insults Cecily for serving cake, insisting that bread and butter are fashionable; Cecily fills Gwendolen's coffee with sugar against her wishes. Rather than draw the two characters as foils, Wilde demonstrates how the trivialities of the Victorian upper class are embodied in different women from different places.

In Act 3 of The Importance of Being Earnest how does Gwendolen and Cecily's conversation about Algernon's motive for pretending to be Ernest illustrate ideas of the Decadent movement?

One of the tenets of the Decadent Movement was that art be judged on its beauty, not on how closely it imitated life. The Decadents believed that art served no moral purpose; its reason for being was itself: art for art's sake, not to teach or illustrate accepted values. Once his identity is revealed in Act 3, Section 1 Algernon explains that the reason for his deception was to meet Cecily. Cecily, testing whether to accept this rationale, says to Gwendolen, "That certainly seems a satisfactory explanation, does it not?" Gwendolen answers,"Yes, dear, if you can believe him," and Cecily responds, "I don't. But that does not affect the wonderful beauty of his answer." Cecily's humorous response captures a central idea of the Decadent Movement: art need not be true, it need only be beautiful. Gwendolen then affirms this belief when she says, "True. In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing."

In what way does Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest contradict itself regarding the Aesthetic and Decadent movements?

The Aesthetic and Decadent movements were characterized by a belief that art is at its best when it is created for its own sake. The value of art is in its individuality, sensuality, and passion. This belief challenged Victorian aesthetic ideas that art should offer some moral guidance, that it should instruct in some way. Although The Importance of Being Earnest is far from being a morality tale in any traditional sense, it still has a didactic purpose, even if it is not immediately obvious: to teach its audience the ideas of these movements. At various points in the play, characters make assertions about style and truth that reflect the tenets of both movements. In Act 1, Section 1 for example, Algernon states that his inability to play the piano correctly is not a shortcoming: rather it is the expressiveness, or passion, that is important, not correct notes and rhythm. Cecily's and Gwendolen's acceptance of Algernon's rationale for pretending to be Ernest reflects artifice over truth: Cecily does not believe Algernon but is impressed by his invention. Therefore, while it is to be enjoyed for itself, the play becomes, in part, a vehicle for transmitting Wilde's aesthetics.

How does Algernon's imaginary friend Bunbury function in more than one way throughout The Importance of Being Earnest?

At its most basic level, the invention of Bunbury gives Algernon a reason to leave London to indulge in a secret life. He tells Jack he has spent time in Shropshire and leaves London any number of times under the pretext of caring for his invalid friend. The audience can infer his absences are romantic. But the evolution of the imaginary character's name into a verb that means "to make up small lies for the sake of evading social responsibilities" complicates the issue. Algernon "Bunburies" and makes the claim that "one has a right to Bunbury anywhere one chooses." With this declaration Algernon absolves himself from any unpleasant obligations, meaning those that are requirements of social conventions, such as dinners that bore him. As Wilde mocks such conventions, Algernon's "Bunburying" allows him to avoid them at any given time. In response to Algernon's explanation, Jack calls Algernon a scoundrel and insists no "Bunburying" be done at his house. While the action in the play (Algernon's lies to Cecily) points to Bunbury as a small lie, the larger context of the play may point to another meaning, if the play is read as a work of gay literature in which "Bunburying" and its components are euphemisms for a hidden homosexual life.

Which elements of the comedy of manners genre are exhibited in The Importance of Being Earnest?

The comedy of manners was created specifically to critique or satirize the social conventions of class-based societies. Characteristic of this genre are intricate and often ridiculous plots, stock characters, and witty dialog. These elements are present in The Importance of Being Earnest, and Wilde uses them in creating his own 19th-century comedy of manners in which he makes fun of hypocrisy and pretense among the upper classes. The plot is certainly contorted and confusing, based on multiple identities and deceptions. It goes so far as to have the careless nursemaid who left the infant Jack at the railway station turn up years later as his ward's governess (out of all governesses in England), and then even further to find out that Jack is Lady Bracknell's nephew. Furthermore, Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell are characters that could reappear in any comedy of manners. Lady Bracknell is a brash upstart; Gwendolen is a very ordinary, unimaginative, and pretentious young woman. Witty dialogue appears in almost every line, whether it is a barb or pun about social conventions, individuals, or contemporary thought.

What role does speed play in courtship in The Importance of Being Earnest?

In the play two young couples—Jack and Gwendolen and Algernon and Cecily—openly sprint in pursuit of love. Algernon and Cecily, for instance, fall in love in a matter of minutes. The older couple, however—Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism—stumble toward it blindly. Regardless of the progress made by each pair during the play, all three couples pair off in a mad rush in the last scene. This happens despite the fact that plot points have not been resolved: Cecily's objection to Algernon's name has not been removed, and Miss Prism has been accused of a crime. Wilde's satire of romance clearly embraces the notion that love conquers all.

What is the significance of Algernon's dialogue with Lane about marriage in Act 1, Section 1 of The Importance of Being Earnest?

When Lane mentions to Algernon that the champagne in married households is rarely of high quality, Algernon asks, "Is marriage so demoralising as that?" Algernon pokes fun at marriage as a religious and moral convention while he also trivializes it by supposing that a decline in the quality of champagne in a household is a reflection of the value of a marriage. Lane then relays that he was married because of a misunderstanding, not love. From this revelation Algernon concludes that the "lower orders" (represented by the servant Lane) have "absolutely no sense of moral responsibility." His comment is verbally ironic, saying something other than what the words mean, in that it was expected of the upper classes to show moral responsibility for the "lower orders" to emulate. Once again Wilde satirizes the class structure of English society in which the "upper orders" often showed disdain for the lower classes and at the same time held themselves responsible for demonstrating moral and genteel behavior. This scene shows some reversal of roles. First, servants do not habitually drink their employers' champagne (at least not openly and frequently and still keep their positions), and Lane's judgment about wine here reveals him perhaps too knowledgeable about wines in other people's homes. Second, Lane speaks of an unhappy marriage that he cares little about and that may well be ended. Such low regard for marriage on Lane's part is a poor reflection on the values of marriage supposedly, or officially, held by those in Algernon's circles. Significant is that the conversation about marriage never mentions love or anything beyond a misunderstanding. The scene thus establishes two unconventional views of marriage: it may be demoralizing and may be the consequence of misunderstandings.

In Act 2, Section 5 of The Importance of Being Earnest what does Cecily and Gwendolen's argument over tea reveal about the characters and social conventions of the time?

In Act 2 Gwendolen and Cecily engage in humorous banter that reflects haughty airs commonly adopted during social calls; however, the dialogue becomes a series of veiled attacks when the women believe they are rivals. For example, after Gwendolen praises the pleasant walking areas and well-kept gardens and flowers, she adds the barb, "Personally I cannot understand how anybody manages to exist in the country, if anybody who is anybody does." Here Gwendolen implies that Cecily is not "anybody." Cecily, a match for Gwendolen, responds that people in the city are suffering from agricultural depression, a serious condition, perhaps even an epidemic. This comment lets Gwendolen know that Cecily believes her to be depressed and unhealthy. As tension increases Gwendolen insinuates that Cecily is out of date by claiming the cake she serves "is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays" and that "sugar is not fashionable." Meanwhile, Cecily purposely adds sugar to Gwendolen's tea against her wishes and serves cake instead of the bread and butter she requested. This exchange shows the degree to which society ladies perfected the art of genteel aggression by using the language and mandates of social conventions to undercut and infuriate one another.

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