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The Importance of Being Earnest | Discussion Questions 21 - 30

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Which elements of satire are introduced in Act 1, Section 1 of The Importance of Being Earnest?

Irony, puns, and hyperbole are important elements of satire, conveying humor that pokes fun at ideas or ways of life. All three elements are present in the opening action of Act 1. Algernon makes several statements that demonstrate dramatic irony. One of those is his claim that he keeps science for Life. The statement is ironic because the audience comes to see very quickly that Algernon is not a bit concerned with what is considered "science" and the truths it leads to. Perhaps it is more the "art" of life that interests him. A pun is then created from this phrase when Algernon says, "Speaking of the science of Life, have you got the cucumber sandwiches cut for Lady Bracknell?" Although not a literal, simple pun, the phrase could be said to satirize the precision with which people must execute the details and motions of their lives to meet social conventions. Lane's claim that he never thinks of his family life is an example of hyperbole in this scene. Not only is this statement untrue because Lane has just been speaking of his family life, requiring him to think of it, but the use of never is hyperbole.

How is the symbol of the christening developed in Act 3, Section 3 of The Importance of Being Earnest?

In Act 3 both Jack and Algernon want to be christened with the name Ernest to marry Gwendolen and Cecily, who foolishly insist on marrying them on the basis of their names. In the Christian tradition, christening is a rite of passage in which a baby (or adult) is named and brought into the faith. During the rite of christening, holy water is used to cleanse original sin. Jack and Algernon are both adults and have not paid much, if any, attention to religion until this moment; indeed it is not religion or faith that draws their interest but rather a quick fix to satisfy a whim. Wilde is making fun of the tradition, and by extension religion in general, as he shows the lack of seriousness with which some people approach it. Among those opposed to the christening is Lady Bracknell, who finds their behavior irreligious (but does not hesitate to mention the waste of money). Even more satiric, however, is the willingness of Dr. Chasuble to go along with the men's request, which shows his belief as shallow, allowing his faith to be used as an expedient and thus trivialized. But in his favor, perhaps, he is sublimely unaware of what is going on around him, as his head is in his "unpublished sermons" and desire to return to Miss Prism.

In The Importance of Being Earnest how does Wilde use the character of Miss Prism to poke fun at conventional Victorian education?

Wilde uses Miss Prism's foolishness, incompetence, and lack of imagination to represent what is wrong with education. Cecily is "under the charge of her admirable governess, Miss Prism," who scolds Cecily for engaging in a "utilitarian occupation" like watering flowers (there are servants to do that) and for writing imaginatively in her diary, which, according to Miss Prism, is meant for recording memories. Her discouraging of Cecily's creativity is a noteworthy example of dramatic irony, where the audience understands something the character does not, because, as the audience later learns, Miss Prism has written an unpublished novel, which the audience understands as unworthy of publication and the cause of her carelessness in abandoning Jack. Miss Prism also says of Jack's brother that she doubts "even I could produce any effect on a character that according to his own brother's admission is irretrievably weak." Here Miss Prism shows herself as a corrector of character (although her own character needs correction as well) and likely how Victorian society viewed her role. Wilde is satirizing the education system by demonstrating its narrowness, with appearances and decorum more valued than exploration and creativity. Lady Bracknell voices Wilde's critique, saying, "The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound ... [it] produces no effect whatsoever." Characteristically, she believes this is positive.

What is the significance of Miss Prism having mistaken her manuscript for the baby in Act 3, Section 3 of The Importance of Being Earnest?

Wilde is known to have said, and liked to demonstrate, that one should aim to have one's life imitate art. This position reverses the conventional thought of the time, which was that art should imitate life. Miss Prism mistakes the weight of her three-volume novel as the weight of a baby in her handbag. In this reversal Wilde makes literal his belief that life imitate art by replacing the "life" of a baby with the "artistic creation" of the three-volume novel. One possible suggestion Wilde makes through this reversal is that the creation and preservation of art are more vital than the creation and preservation of a single human being. Or it is simply a statement equating Miss Prism's incompetence as a writer with her incompetence as a nursemaid: incompetent behavior imitates incompetent art.

How does Lady Bracknell's preoccupation with Jack Worthing's wealth in Act 1, Section 3 of The Importance of Being Earnest reflect her character and social position?

When Lady Bracknell hears of Jack's intention to marry Gwendolen, she does not ask about love or offer congratulations as most people would. Instead she inquires about Jack's financial status, asking directly, "What is your income?" Then she wants to know whether his income comes from land or investments. When Jack says investments, Lady Bracknell is relieved, for she believes that "land has ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure." When Jack mentions his country house, Lady Bracknell must know how many rooms it has. She also must know where in London his townhouse is located. Lady Bracknell's attention to the details of Jack's wealth underscores her tenuous social position. Although she has money and seems content with the social engagements she hosts and attends, she is not "old money" and lacks the manners and "breeding" of upper-class women, who would never make direct and ill-mannered inquiries, although the interest and necessity to do so would still be there. She has yet to learn "delicacy" and accepted behavior. Lady Bracknell will learn that others are employed to attend to financial matters, as servants attend to mundane matters at home.

Why might Wilde have rearranged the subtitle of The Importance of Being Earnest from A Serious Comedy for Trivial People to A Trivial Comedy for Serious People?

Though Wilde originally gave the play the subtitle A Serious Comedy for Trivial People, he decided to change it to A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. The art of satire is to ridicule ideas, conditions, or social conventions with which the audience is familiar (or even practices and supports) without alienating that audience. In order for Wilde to reach audience members, they must attend the production. If Wilde openly and publicly insulted them by referring to them as "trivial people," they would not attend and might even react more forcefully. Despite his efforts, however, people did indeed realize he was calling them trivial through his comedy, and in part this caused the play to be banned.

Given the subtitle, what is serious in The Importance of Being Earnest?

Jack is the first character to use the word serious when he tells Algernon why he goes by the name Ernest: "Algy, I don't know whether you will be able to understand my real motives. You are hardly serious enough." Jack elaborates on why it is his duty, as a guardian, to adopt a high moral tone. But Jack is not entirely serious; or if he is he reverses it, going on to say a "high moral tone" is not good for "one's health or one's happiness." Yet a few lines later, he reverses his reversal when Algernon suggests life would be tedious and fiction impossible if the truth were pure and simple; he says, "That wouldn't be at all a bad thing." No joke, no reversal, just a straightforward comment. The few times Algernon uses the word serious, however, it is anything but. He says of dinner, "Yes, but you must be serious about it. I hate people who are not serious about meals," which is obviously a stab at upper-class social conventions about dining and its rules. The word soon reappears, however, when Jack warns Algernon, "Your friend Bunbury will get you into a serious scrape some day." The implication is that Algernon's behavior could involve a certain degree of danger, as it may be unacceptable. Then in Act 2, Section 1 Cecily's second line of dialogue is, "Dear Uncle Jack is so very serious! Sometimes he is so serious that I think he cannot be quite well." If any character can be said to reflect the word serious, it is Jack, though Wilde hid the seriousness of the play so thoroughly it may be hard to find. One such moment occurs in Act 2, Section 4 when Jack, not being even slightly funny or ridiculous, tells Algy what he really thinks: "Your vanity is ridiculous, your conduct an outrage, and your presence in my garden utterly absurd." There is no joke, no reversal, just a straightforward comment.

In what ways is the Importance of Being Earnest a feminist or a misogynistic play?

Miss Prism makes an important statement in Act 2, Section 3: "A misanthrope I can understand—a womanthrope, never!" If taken as Wilde's viewpoint, the statement may suggest that cynicism is acceptable toward humankind but not toward one sex or the other. In the play male and female characters are mocked equally and are equally silly or disreputable. As much as Jack and Algernon lie, Gwendolen and Cecily delude themselves and choose not to hear. Therefore, the play is definitely not misogynistic. The play lacks a real hero or morally superior character. Male characters have equally foolish counterparts, even if Lady Bracknell only mentions her ridiculous husband. Jack and Algernon become brothers, and Gwendolen and Cecily become sisters. Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism are equally prudish, repressively lustful, and colossally boring. Although few barbs are directed against one sex or the other, one that stands out and remains famous is Algernon's observation about Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell: "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his." The logic almost negates itself, but not entirely; it implies that men could incorporate the feminine into their personalities to their benefit. With this in mind, the feminist interpretation overshadows the misogynistic.

How are Lady Bracknell's comments about illness and death significant in Act 1, Section 3 of The Importance of Being Earnest?

Lady Bracknell's first lines address Lady Harbury's "poor husband's death." Lady Bracknell typically mentions how Lady Harbury looks 20 years younger, poking fun at serious matters, in this case marriage and widowhood. She continues to do so when discussing Algernon's invented invalid friend Bunbury, saying she does not approve of having sympathy with invalids, and "illness of any kind is hardly a thing to be encouraged in others. Health is the primary duty of life." When Lady Bracknell asks Jack if his parents are living, he says, "I have lost both my parents," and Lady Bracknell takes Jack's euphemism for death literally. She replies, "To lose one parent ... may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." Although witty, Lady Bracknell consistently takes the attitude that health and death are choices, an attitude that trivializes them and shows how far polite society will go to avoid unpleasantness and truth. Wilde satirizes this attitude in Lady Bracknell's avoidance and trivialization of the topics. Death is too grim to discuss openly, so people in Lady Bracknell's circles seek to deny it and may even try to convince themselves they can control it.

What do Lady Bracknell's suspicions about Algernon's disappearances and the existence of his invalid friend Bunbury reveal about her in The Importance of Being Earnest?

Lady Bracknell knows, or at least strongly suspects, Bunbury is not real. When discussing Bunbury, Lady Bracknell becomes insightful. In Act 1, Section 3 she says, "I should be much obliged if you would ask Mr. Bunbury, from me, to be kind enough not to have a relapse on Saturday, for I rely on you to arrange my music for me." In Act 3, Section 2 when Algernon explains how Bunbury died, Lady Bracknell seems to humor him with the first half of her retort: "I am glad, however, that he made up his mind at the last to some definite course of action." She then asks Jack whom Algernon is holding hands with nearby, showing how observant Lady Bracknell really is. She reveals soon after that when she was young, she forced her way into a profitable marriage, reminding the audience she was once youthful and on the prowl too. Her brashness does not lessen her perception.

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