The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde

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The Importance of Being Earnest | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


What is the significance of the name of the lecture Gwendolen supposedly is attending in Act 3, Section 2 of The Importance of Being Earnest?

Even though there actually was a University Extension Scheme that offered free lectures to the general public, the name of the lecture, "the Influence of a permanent income on Thought," is something Wilde invented. Here he takes another funny and pointed jab at the idleness of the upper classes, as he does throughout the play, indicating that the results of not having to work are snobbery, deceit, ridiculousness, shallowness, apathy, and delusion. The impression that it is a "more than usually lengthy lecture" enhances the joke, implying that attendees have far more than enough time on their hands. From the perspective of those who must work, however, the absurd lecture title raises the question of why some are fortunate enough to have means of support other than jobs while others are not. The implication is that having a permanent income would benefit serious thinkers who do have to work, thus addressing another thematic reversal of circumstances. The question is a serious one, and Wilde's fictional lecture brings it to the surface.

How is Dr. Chasuble's name significant in The Importance of Being Earnest?

Worn by Catholic or Anglican priests when celebrating mass, a chasuble is a seamless garment representing Christian charity. Wilde names Dr. Chasuble after a piece of clothing to emphasize that the character is a superficial version of a priest—like an outer garment, a priest in name only. The characterization thus mocks religious institutions and their representations. Wilde uses Dr. Chasuble's name and character in reversing social norms to great comedic effect. For example, in Dr. Chasuble's third line of dialogue he says, "Were I fortunate enough to be Miss Prism's pupil, I would hang upon her lips"—an unexpected double entendre from a clergyman. When Dr. Chasuble agrees to christen Jack and Algernon because of expediency, not faith, he again shows his superficiality as a wearer of the chasuble but not as a symbol of it. Wilde later reverses his own reversal. When Jack declares Ernest dead and Miss Prism passes judgment, Dr. Chasuble says, "Charity, dear Miss Prism, charity!" This comment is another reversal because the chasuble specifically represents charity—but then Wilde twists the line back to satire by having Dr. Chasuble say, "None of us are perfect. I myself am peculiarly susceptible to draughts."

Why is Jack's reaction to discovering that Algernon is his brother significant in The Importance of Being Earnest?

Jack's reaction is significant in showing another series of contradictions, or reversal. In Act 1, Section 2 Jack and Algernon seem to know little about each other; by the end of the act Algernon knows much more. In Act 2, Section 3 both characters pretend they are brothers. Algernon's line "I think that Brother John's coldness to me is peculiarly painful" is humorous, but as it relates to Jack's later reaction, the line has poignancy. In Act 3, Section 2 Jack confesses, "I will tell you ... I never had a brother ... and I certainly have not the smallest intention of ever having one." Wilde is setting up the joke. When Jack makes accusations against Algernon in Act 3, he mentions brotherhood: "And what makes his conduct all the more heartless is, that he was perfectly well aware ... that I have no brother, that I never had a brother, and that I didn't intend to have a brother." The contradiction is resolved when Jack discovers he does have a brother: "I knew I had a brother! I always said I had a brother!" Wilde likely uses these contradictions to show how people do not say what they mean or are aware of what they desire.

Why does Lady Bracknell seat Algernon next to Mary Farquhar at dinner parties in The Importance of Being Earnest?

Early in Act 1, Section 2 Algernon tells Jack he does not want to dine with his Aunt Augusta because "she will place me next Mary Farquhar, who always flirts with her own husband across the dinner-table. That is not very pleasant. Indeed, it is not even decent ... and that sort of thing is enormously on the increase." This comment, a reversal of conventional thoughts about marriage, is another barb from the author against accepted institutions and practices. Lady Bracknell's reasons for seating Algernon next to Mary Farquhar may be twofold. First, she may be encouraging—or discouraging—an extramarital affair: discouraging it because Mary Farquhar seems uninterested in anyone but her husband, encouraging it because Algernon might possibly turn her head in his direction. Lady Bracknell likely would not discourage her nephew's properly conducted extramarital affair. Second, if one interprets the play from a gay perspective, Lady Bracknell may be aware of Algernon's homosexuality and seat him beside a woman who will not flirt with him. In either case it seems unusual for Lady Bracknell not to seat her nephew next to an eligible young woman. Algernon is not happy about her choice.

What is the significance of Miss Prism's name in Act 2, Sections 2 and 5 in The Importance of Being Earnest?

The name Laetitia Prism suggests several interpretations. The root of Laetitia is the Latin laeta, meaning "joy." Laetitia is also the name of a minor Roman goddess of joy, fertility, and celebration. These categories seem fitting because Miss Prism is flirtatious in her way and speaks metaphorically about "fruits." Her given name thus hints at her more-than-intellectual relationship with Dr. Chasuble. Made of cut glass, prisms refract light and are used in binoculars to invert images. The name thus connotes vision: inverted and reversed. Miss Prism does not see life as it is; filtered through a "prism" it is distorted. Her intellectual and artistic pretensions, self-delusion, irresponsibility, limited knowledge and imagination, and conventional attitudes show her unrealistic view of the world, with the exception of Dr. Chasuble, another name-based characterization and well suited to Miss Prism's "prismatic" views. Furthermore, Act 2 reveals a connection between Miss Prism's name and Gwendolen's education. Algernon calls Miss Prism short-sighted. Later, nearsighted Gwendolen says, "Mamma, whose views on education are remarkably strict, has brought me up to be extremely short-sighted." Wilde is commenting that educators choose which knowledge to reveal and which to hide, acting as human prisms that invert "light" or truth.

In Act 2, Section 5 of The Importance of Being Earnest what does Gwendolen's attitude toward her father suggest about social conventions?

Through Gwendolen, Wilde addresses gender inequalities. In Act 2 Gwendolen says to Cecily, "You have never heard of papa, I suppose," setting up the audience to expect a typical patriarchal-centered attitude about how important Gwendolen's rich, aristocratic father is. However, Gwendolen defies the audience's expectation by saying, "Outside the family circle, papa, I am glad to say, is entirely unknown." This is exactly the Victorian attitude toward women. There was a "Woman's Sphere" and a "Men's Sphere" and they were entirely upheld and revered. Men were expected to conduct business and create wealth while women's place was in the home working in harmony with her husband to create a picture-perfect "true man" and "true woman." Wilde flip-flops the popular cultural practice as Gwendolen tells Cecily, "And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not?" For the Victorian audience the idea of a man being in charge of domestic duties and becoming effeminate by doing so is ridiculous, but Gwendolen's "nonsense" isn't the true absurdity Wilde is striking at. The modern reader can easily see the depth in the dialogue and how the playwright explores the notion that particular tasks can determine femininity or masculinity, as Wilde exposes the social construction for what it really is. Then he drives his point further with Gwendolen's next line: "I don't like that. It makes men so very attractive." Wilde reverses logic again and thwarts the audience's expectation, highlighting how attraction is subjective, a matter of perspective. In some ways Gwendolen's character acts more like a mouthpiece than a fully fleshed character here, but Wilde reverses his own dramatic construct by making her attracted to effeminate men, which is individualistic.

Why does Dr. Chasuble reference his sermon "the manna in the wilderness" after he discovers Jack's brother "Ernest" is dead in Act 2, Section 3 ofThe Importance of Being Earnest?

The reference comes from the Old Testament. When Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, God sent them quail and manna (bread) every day. Wilde once again is mocking the clergy. Dr. Chasuble says his sermon "can be adapted to almost any occasion, joyful, or ... distressing," thus rendering it meaningless for any occasion. Furthermore, a sermon on heavenly bounties that sustain life is both inappropriate and meaningless on an occasion that involves death. The stage directions read, "All sigh," which to the audience would punctuate the meaninglessness. Dr. Chasuble adds, "The Bishop, who was present, was much struck by some of the analogies I drew." Wilde is using verbal irony to indicate the words mean something different from the speaker's intention. Dr. Chasuble's belief that the bishop was impressed can mean Dr. Chasuble misinterpreted the bishop's good manners or misunderstood whatever the bishop said. Or if the bishop was indeed impressed, then Wilde has mocked the clergy on a higher level as well, while adding another jab in the name and purpose of the charity and another at Dr. Chasuble's name, the chasuble being a symbol of Christian charity.

How do Jack's and Cecily's wealth and lineage serve in determining "worthiness" in The Importance of Being Earnest?

Wilde gives Jack the last name Worthing because it points to a central exploration in the play about what it means to be "worthy" in Victorian-era England, where the upper classes lived off inherited money, land, and titles and enjoyed extraordinary privileges. Those born into the upper classes were considered superior to "commoners" and believed their privilege both natural and deserved. Wilde satirizes this social convention by juxtaposing Jack and Cecily, neither of whom have aristocratic pedigrees, against Algernon and Lady Bracknell. Jack has a considerable amount of money and land but no family lineage or title since he was lost at birth and found in a handbag. Although Lady Bracknell is satisfied with Jack's finances, she looks down at his questionable lineage. Cecily's origins and financial "worth" are unknown until near the end, so she may seem inferior to Gwendolen whose lineage is aristocratic. However, when Cecily's wealth is exposed, it is she who will support Algernon. Which pair, then, is to be considered more "worthy"? If the matter were—without the absurd handbag—the social convention, it likely would not be questioned; audiences would view Lady Bracknell and her nephew Algernon as superior aristocrats (though many would question Lady Bracknell's origins as well). In fact Wilde makes Lady Bracknell speak nonsense and behave rudely, and Algernon is not only deeply in debt but also duplicitous. These contradictions confront the audience, forcing them to consider what they value most—money, love, or status? (Jack is equally duplicitous as Algernon, but he begins to confess his lies, whereas Algernon embraces his.) Wilde makes several points here. As was the case with Lady Bracknell, Cecily can buy her way into London society, should she wish to, so of what value is her origin? The situation also shows how the noble born maintain their leisurely lives at others' expense; they absorb land and wealth through marriages with the upwardly mobile, or romantic, who exchange their money for titles and status. Wilde shows how neither money nor status has anything to do with love.

What does the difference in rank and personality between Jack's and Algernon's servants suggest about Jack and Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest?

Algernon's servant, Lane, is a manservant, or valet; Jack's servant, Merriman, is a butler. In Victorian England hierarchies among domestic workers were as strict as the distinctions within the aristocracy. Both Lane and Merriman are upper-level servants, but a butler would receive a higher salary and more responsibilities, including managing other servants. A valet in Lane's position serves a single gentleman and does not answer to a butler. As a character, Lane is dry, sometimes witty, and seems to have a life outside his occupation. In Act 1, Section 1 he engages briefly in conversation with Algernon and shows worldly experience in his marriage and knowledge of wine. On the other hand, Merriman performs his duties with strict formality. His lines are those of a respectful butler going about his business. There is no banter, no wit, no indication of Merriman's personality or life. Both servants' behavior can be reflected in their employers. Algernon is, on the surface, duplicitous and often flippant, showing little regard for social conventions and what is deemed proper behavior. Lane's behavior reflects Algernon's to a degree. Audiences might wonder at the "misunderstanding" that led to his unfortunate marriage and be amused by his observations on wine. On the other hand, with Jack as his employer, Merriman is never out of character. Audiences can assume that Jack, too, remains in character as he performs his role in the country.

Why does Act 2, Section 1 of The Importance of Being Earnest open with Miss Prism commenting on the gardener, Moulton?

Act 2 opens with Miss Prism scolding, "Cecily, Cecily! Surely such a utilitarian occupation as the watering of flowers is rather Moulton's duty than yours? Especially at a moment when intellectual pleasures await you. Your German grammar is on the table." Unfortunately, Moulton, who was a character with speaking lines in the original version, was cut before the first production in 1895. The name Moulton comes from the Old English word mula, which means "mule" or "from the mule farm," so it is likely Wilde was making a connection to servants being treated like pack animals or farm animals. Miss Prism's comment, "such a utilitarian occupation" seems to fit with the social convention that an upper-class girl should not work. However, Wilde is alluding to an actual philosophy stemming from the writings of Jeremy Benthem (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–73). Utilitarianism has nothing to do with gardening or physical labor. Benthem asserted that nature directs human behavior toward pleasure and away from pain, and that "the community is a fictitious body." Individuals have a right to seek pleasure and not suffer. He believed the only moral obligation is to produce the greatest amount of happiness for the largest number of people. John Stuart Mill, arguably the 19th century's greatest moralist, expanded Benthem's philosophy. He argued against the German, or a priori school, which is reason based on deduction rather than experience. Utilitarianism rejected moral codes that relied on traditions and customs, such as the aristocracy's moral code in the play. He thought the only time power should be used on an individual against his will is to prevent harm to others. Wilde is pointing to this powerful philosophy in the play, perhaps to highlight how the upper class was rejecting it and trying to control the lower class with no concern for their happiness. Perhaps Wilde was questioning the fact that his natural sexuality was illegal in his lifetime. It is profound that Cecily is watering flowers, as flowers are natural and water is nourishing for their blossoming and figurative happiness.

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