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The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde

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The Importance of Being Earnest | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What is the significance of Merriman's name in The Importance of Being Earnest?

The name of Jack's butler Merriman could point to an Irish poet, Brian Merriman (c. 1747–1805) and his famous poem Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (The Midnight Court), published in 1850. The plot and thematic similarities between the play and the poem are striking. Midnight Court is considered the greatest comedic poem in Ireland's literary history, and it was well known—and scandalous—in Wilde's own time. The 1,000-line poem is told in four parts. In the first part a young woman calls on fairy Queen Aoibheal to state her case against the young men of Ireland for refusing to marry. In the second part an old man claims unchaste young women have only themselves to blame. He renounces marriage, calls it outdated, and argues in favor of free love—having children without marrying. He demands the queen outlaw marriage. In the third part the woman stands up again, crying out for priests to give up their celibacy because they would make good fathers and lovers. The fairy queen rules all men must marry by age 21, under punishment of being beaten by women if they refuse. She advises women to seek out apathetic, homosexual, and womanizing men first. The narrator realizes he will be the first man to be beaten and then wakes up from his nightmare. The resemblance to Miss Prism coercing the priest to marry is the most striking resemblance to the poem, but Wilde's hidden themes line up perfectly. What is also telling is how Merriman, from the lower class, wrote his bold poem without regard for social consequences, whereas Wilde, part of upper-class Victorian society, had to hide his sexuality and his opinion and rely on clues.

How does Oscar Wilde explore love through the characters of Gwendolen and Cecily in The Importance of Being Earnest?

Gwendolen and Cecily say they had feelings for "Ernest" before each met her "Ernest." But each woman loves Ernest and the name for a different reason. Gwendolen's love springs from her idealism. She tells Jack, whom she believes is Ernest, "We live ... in an age of ideals ... and my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence." In Act 1, Section 3 Jack mentions that Cecily is too fascinated by his made-up brother Ernest, known for getting into scrapes and for bad behavior that attracts Cecily. Her fantasy about Ernest is deep. She has written letters to herself from him and broken their engagement because "it would hardly have been a really serious engagement if it hadn't been broken off at least once." Meant to be humorous, it points to the silliness of romantic conventions. Both characters love an illusion, but Cecily, attracted by darker desires, takes the fantasy much further than does Gwendolen. Even though the light-hearted tone of the play prevents Wilde's insights from sounding harsh and cynical, he is criticizing Victorian conventions of love.

How are Jack's political views significant in The Importance of Being Earnest?

Throughout The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde writes aphoristic lines that negate themselves. He does this to resist moralizing or creating didactic messages. To the modern audience, it may seem as if Wilde is using a similar tactic when Lady Bracknell asks Jack, "What are your politics?" and he replies, "I am afraid I really have none. I am a Liberal Unionist." His response is an example of how Wilde uses illogical statements to annihilate meaning. Such negation, however, does not actually fit the statement here and is definitely reversed when Lady Bracknell says, "Oh, they count as Tories." In general, the upper classes voted Tory (reflecting conservative values) as opposed to Liberal (reflecting labor and middle-class agendas). When the Liberal Party split in 1886, the "Liberal Unionists" left the party and aligned with the conservatives. So Wilde is poking fun at Liberals who switched to Conservative political agendas while operating under a guise of Liberalism.

Why does Lady Bracknell compare ignorance to an exotic fruit in The Importance of Being Earnest?

In Act 1, Section 3 Lady Bracknell asks Jack if he is the kind of man who knows everything or nothing. After some thought Jack says, "I know nothing, Lady Bracknell" and she approves, saying, "I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone." Wilde's play on words loosely reverses the Old Testament idea that knowledge is a temptation. The idea comes from the story of Adam and Eve, in which Eve is tempted by a snake to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. After doing so, Adam and Eve lose their innocence and learn the difference between good and evil. In the play the exotic and tempting fruit is ignorance. The question is why would Wilde turn this idea upside down and make it into an illogical riddle. Lady Bracknell is actually saying she approves of remaining ignorant, so how can ignorance be like a fruit that once touched will not bloom? Perhaps Wilde wanted to illustrate that it is ridiculous to view knowledge as a temptation, or he wanted to show how pervasive—and hypocritical—the ideology was in Victorian society. In Victorian-era England opportunities for the poor to be educated were scarce and often provided through religious institutions. However, the wealthy had schools or governesses and instruction in languages and classics. Since Wilde is satirizing the aristocracy throughout the play perhaps he is commenting on the educational disparity between the poor and the wealthy. It was in the upper class's best interest to keep the poor uneducated. And Lady Bracknell's take on education right after she talks about the fruit of ignorance is: "Fortunately in England ... education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes."

Which character is more earnest, Jack or Algernon, in The Importance of Being Earnest?

Wilde cleverly sets up the two characters in Act 1, Section 3 to make it seem as though Jack is more honest and sincere than Algernon, a dubious Bunburyist who cannot pay his bills. Viewed through the lens of Wilde's critique of Victorian conventions, however, Algernon emerges as more honest and earnest because Jack plays by Victorian-era rules of respectability. Jack pontificates on his "high moral responsibility" and "duty" toward Cecily. When Algernon asks Jack if he has told Gwendolen the truth about Cecily, Jack says he has not. Jack's marriage proposal exemplifies the Victorian tendency to avoid speaking directly, and ultimately Gwendolen must force him into proposing. Algernon and Jack may both pose as "Ernest" and practice Bunburying, but Algernon speaks more directly than Jack and is unsentimental about family and duty. All Algernon's behaviors suggest he is true to himself. The way Wilde juxtaposes the two characters is interesting because Jack is the main character who, without family lineage, appears less aristocratic than Algernon. None of the other characters doubt Algernon's social status, but he mocks his own class more than Jack does. Algernon wants to explore the world and have adventures, but Jack says he loathes listening, talking, and even looking at things. In the end Algernon does not abide by Victorian social conventions, and that is what being "Earnest" means in The Importance of Being Earnest.

In The Importance of Being Earnest what is the significance of the allusions to India?

Wilde mentions India twice. In Act 2, Section 1 Miss Prism tells Cecily, "The chapter on the Fall of the Rupee you may omit. It is somewhat too sensational." In Act 3, Section 3 Lady Bracknell tells Jack about his father: "He was eccentric ... and that was the result of the Indian climate, and marriage, and indigestion, and other things of that kind." Nothing comes of the references except that India can be either ignored or blamed. That the allusions go nowhere is important. With years of colonialism and war in India, the British continued to rule, seeing themselves and Western culture as superior to all things Indian. Queen Victoria was crowned empress of India in 1877, and England controlled Indian resources and land. Through Miss Prism's saying that Cecily can skip the lesson on the fall of the rupee, Wilde hints that society viewed India, its currency, and its people as insignificant. Wilde once wrote, "It is only the superficial qualities that last. Man's deeper nature is soon found out." Wilde turned out to be right. While he avoided directly criticizing the Crown or opening himself to public scrutiny, he planted two"superficial" references, allowing history and time to uncover the truth.

How is religious hypocrisy explored through Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble in Act 2, Section 3 inThe Importance of Being Earnest?

The idea of hypocrisy in Christianity refers to teaching or preaching a moral standard but living another: saying one thing but doing another. Dr. Chasuble, an Anglican priest and pretentious country vicar, and Miss Prism, a thwarted novelist who claims moral superiority throughout, both speak lines that negate the ideals they profess to believe. Although other characters may display religious hypocrisy, Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble represent religion in the play, and Wilde purposely uses language to show how they contradict either themselves (Miss Prism) or Christian doctrine (Dr. Chasuble), particularly by making class distinctions between the rich and poor. When Dr. Chasuble speaks to Jack about christening him, he says he has to perform two ceremonies for "a case of twins that occurred recently ... Poor Jenkins," implying having children, especially twins, for the poor is comparable to a medical affliction, which is not a priestly attitude at all. Miss Prism similarly degrades the poor for having children, saying christening is "one of the Rector's most constant duties ... I have often spoken to the poorer classes on the subject. But they don't seem to know what thrift is." Here Wilde is mimicking the aristocratic attitude toward the poor. Soon after, Miss Prism says people who live entirely for pleasure usually are unmarried, yet she is unmarried herself. The comment raises the question about which is the right way to live: marry and raise a family or live for pleasure? For the poor both are negative in Miss Prism's opinion, and that opinion is hypocritical. Having one set of standards for the poor and another for the wealthy goes against Christian doctrine, which considers the pursuit—or worship—of wealth as evil and unspiritual, whereas helping the poor is a sacred duty. Through the two characters, Wilde touches on this type of hypocrisy permeating Victorian-era society.

Why is French culture mocked in The Importance of Being Earnest?

French music, French theater, a French servant, Paris, and the French Revolution are all mocked in The Importance of Being Earnest. It is difficult, however, to determine whether Wilde is mocking the French along with his Victorian audience or is mocking his Victorian audience for their views of the French. The French and English were long-standing rivals, and Victorians obsessively compared themselves to the French. Lady Bracknell says of the French Revolution: "To be born, or at any rate bred, in a hand-bag, whether it has handles or not, seems ... to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution." This seems to deride the English, as they typically viewed the French as warlike and saw themselves as politically superior. Yet John Stuart Mill (1806–73), one of the most influential English thinkers of his day, praised the French for their encouragement of intellect, sense of equality for the lower and middle classes, broad-mindedness, and ability to enjoy life. Perhaps Wilde might have agreed with Algernon's dig at French theater since The Importance of Being Earnest mocks Melodrama, whose structure and style were imported from France. When Algernon tries to convince Jack to become a Bunburyist, inventing a sick friend as an excuse to have affairs and avoid social commitments, Algernon tells him "in married life three is a company and two is none." Jack responds, "That ... is the theory the corrupt French Drama has been propounding for the last fifty years." In Act 2, Section 3 Wilde takes another dig at the French through Dr. Chasuble's comment that Ernest, Jack's invented wayward brother, could not have been in "any very serious state of mind" if he wanted to be buried in Paris. Likely this is a jab at Victorian stereotypes and feelings of superiority over the French for not being as serious minded as the Victorians.

What is the significance of beauty and pleasure in The Importance of Being Earnest?

In Act 2, Section 3 Miss Prism tells Cecily she need not engage in the utilitarian act of watering the flowers. Utilitarianism is a philosophy advocating that the only moral imperative is to establish the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Wilde agreed with Aestheticism's doctrine of "art for art's sake," that beauty is a sufficient reason to create. These views complement each other. Through his characters Wilde exemplifies the beautiful and pleasurable, both leading to happiness. However, the references are obscured by humor, as they contradict audience viewpoints on duty and responsibility. Algernon declares he never lets duty interfere with pleasure, saying it is his duty not to. In Act 2, Section 2 Cecily encourages Algernon to miss his business meeting to retain "the beauty of life." Here Wilde is contradicting Victorians' preoccupation with conducting business and accumulating wealth. Miss Prism adds that unmarried people live for pleasure. Dr. Chasuble calls Cecily's helping to reconcile Algernon (as Ernest) with Jack "a beautiful action." This comment, unlike others, does not mock or negate. Finally Gwendolen and Cecily agree when the lovers reconcile that "the wonderful beauty" of an answer is more important than the truth.

Does Algernon truly fall in love at first sight with Cecily, or is he just Bunburying, and what does his action suggest about love in The Importance of Being Earnest?

In The Importance of Being Earnest Wilde's take on marriage, Victorian social conventions, class distinctions, and religious ideologies is mostly satirical and perhaps even cynical. However, Algernon's story line suggests that Wilde viewed love—if not marriage—favorably and left room for a softer, romantic interpretation. Algernon is the only character who changes over the course of the drama, and the choice is significant. At the beginning of the play Algernon is a "serious" Bunburyist, which, though it may allude to homosexuality in the context of Wilde's personal life, in the context of the play means a womanizer. There is more to suggest, however, that Algernon truly falls for Cecily and will stop Bunburying now that he has met her. He is willing to change his name to Ernest for her. He also tells Lady Bracknell that he does not care if she has "social possibilities" in her profile, as Lady Bracknell disparages Cecily's looks and describes Cecily's hair as natural and her dress plain—not even remotely the Victorian ideal of beauty. Yet Algernon, generally franker than Jack, says she is the most beautiful girl he has ever met. Furthermore, Algernon had no way of knowing about Cecily's enormous wealth when he proposed. Some evidence, however, points to Algernon's proposal as a fake. In Act 1, Section 3 Gwendolen mentions how her brothers practice proposing on her friends, implying that proposal is a means of seduction. And in Act 2, Section 3 when Jack is forcing Algernon to leave, he mentions he has to set up another Bunbury, but Algernon changes his mind and doesn't leave. When Jack tells Algernon his Bunbury has been unsuccessful, Algernon declares, "I think it has been a great success. I'm in love with Cecily, and that is everything." For a character like Algernon, who does not hesitate to tell Jack of his exploits, it does sound as if he has fallen for Cecily. Although as Wilde has set it up, Algernon will probably continue to Bunbury after he is married.

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