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The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde

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The Importance of Being Earnest | Quotes


When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring.

Jack Worthing, Act 1, Section 2

Jack's comment to Algernon is an example of one of Wilde's epigrams: a brief line or couplet so well written that it is remembered for its wit (and satire) even outside its original context.

In fact, in its original context this line has little or no literal meaning. While Jack is responsible in the country, taking care of his ward, he does not set out to amuse other people (except the audience). In fact, once he is in the country, he repeatedly tries to escape his duties as host and send Algernon packing. He certainly does not amuse Aunt Augusta. Fortunately for the audience, the final line is also wrong: the country is anything but boring.


I really don't see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. Then the excitement is all over.

Algernon Moncrieff, Act 1, Section 2

Wilde reverses social conventions about love and marriage. A proposal does mark a shift in a romance but not a positive one here—an ending to romance rather than the beginning of a new phase of it. A proposal removes the uncertainty and excitement of courtship, and acceptance begins the predictable certainty, permanence, and responsibility of marriage.


Oh! it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn't. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read.

Algernon Moncrieff, Act 1, Section 2

First, Wilde criticizes social conventions that made clear, firm judgments about what people should and shouldn't read. Second, he reverses common wisdom about what is important, or not, to read. Third, while being amusing, Wilde inserts his opinion about literature and censorship. Important works were censored during this time, including Wilde's own Picture of Dorian Gray. Notable, too, is that women were discouraged from reading newspapers.


I have introduced you to every one as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw ... It is perfectly absurd ... that your name isn't Ernest.

Algernon Moncrieff, Act 1, Section 2

Exaggeration is a classic way to generate humor, and Algernon exaggerates here. He greets the revelation of Jack's name with a cascade of Ernest or Ernest-related points. Algernon's comments also accent the centrality of language in the play. He is arguing, essentially, that language and reality should align, even when he knows they often do not.

The situational irony of this statement is profound, even if it isn't revealed until the end of the play: Jack really is named Ernest. Algernon is right, and Jack, who thought he was playing a part, is wrong.


The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!

Algernon Moncrieff, Act 1, Section 2

Algernon's answer goes beyond simply dismissing Jack's statement. Instead it is remarkably self-aware for a character as shallow as Algernon. Not only is the statement profound in itself, but it reflects on the nature of the work in which it appears: this play is fun (and important) because it is neither pure nor simple.


Yes, but it usually chronicles the things that have never happened, and couldn't possibly have happened. I believe that Memory is responsible for ... three-volume novels.

Cecily Cardew, Act 2, Section 1

Cecily provides another profundity delivered as a simple joke. People like to believe they remember events. Even Cecily, who is a silly young girl, knows better. People fool themselves in what they remember and reshape events until they remember the impossible.

The second part of this statement addresses the relationship between the falsification of reality and the arts. People's false memories lead to bad art that falsifies reality.


The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.

Miss Prism, Act 2, Section 1

Miss Prism expresses literary conventions of the time, which Wilde mocks. Popular Victorian fiction often taught explicit moral lessons, and good characters triumphed in the end (after much suffering). These outcomes were expected in fiction. Here, however, the characters whose situations end happily are neither especially good nor industrious. The young couples are rewarded for their charm and good looks; Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism seem to be rewarded for pompousness and negligence.


It is always painful to part from people whom one has known for a very brief space of time.

Cecily Cardew, Act 2, Section 4

This is another instance of reversing common wisdom and making sense. On the one hand Cecily's statement seems logically impossible. How can anyone care enough about a new acquaintance to find pain in parting? On the other hand, if one really believes in love at first sight—or finds the other person really attractive—the statement makes perfect sense.


It is very painful for me to be forced to speak the truth. It is the first time in my life that I have ever been reduced to such a painful position, and I am really quite inexperienced in doing anything of the kind.

Jack Worthing, Act 2, Section 5

Some Victorians raised honesty and earnestness to an ideal. It is therefore that much more extreme for Jack to say this is the first time he has ever spoken the truth—and that he does so only because he is forced. It is one of Wilde's most striking positions in this play.


True. In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.

Gwendolen Fairfax, Act 3, Section 1

Gwendolen's comment aligns perfectly with Jack's statement that he has never told the truth. It subverts Victorian ideals, which would claim sincerity is all, style is nothing. There is truth here, however, especially in affairs of the heart. How a man proposes is considered important, and how a man talks to a woman is considered a direct reflection of his character. Both are matters of social convention. And in fact, if a man addressed some things (like sexual desire) sincerely in his speech, he would be considered no gentleman at all.


Hesitation of any kind is a sign of mental decay in the young, of physical weakness in the old.

Lady Bracknell, Act 3, Section 2

This is another of Wilde's aphorisms. Lady Bracknell, Miss Prism, and Dr. Chasuble are the voices of responsible society and are made to look ridiculous.

This sort of pronouncement is conventionally Victorian in nature. It is black and white and generalizes broadly and falsely. It leaves out any need to gather information or to think.


A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her. Few girls of the present day have any really solid qualities, any of the qualities that last, and improve with time. We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces.

Lady Bracknell, Act 3, Section 2

Lady Bracknell's lines are an excellent example of Wilde's completely exploding social conventions and not being subtle about it. Lady Bracknell is interviewing Jack and Cecily to learn about Cecily's character to determine if she is the sort of person Algernon should marry. Lady Bracknell approves of Cecily, but based on her wealth, not her character.

The verbal irony here is that Lady Bracknell implies her rejection of this "age of surfaces" yet embraces the surface-level aspects of others, such as Cecily's wealth.


Prism! Where is that baby?

Lady Bracknell, Act 3, Section 3

In a play full of witty and convoluting speeches, this accusation stands out because it is so direct. At the same time it is as ridiculous as anything else said in the play. Prism disappeared with the infant 28 years ago, and Lady Bracknell has, by all appearances, forgotten the loss until she is reminded of it.


On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I've now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.

Jack Worthing, Act 3, Section 3

This is the final line of the play and the final joke, truth, paradox, and pun. As Jack notes earlier, he has not told the truth as a matter of habit. One of his lies was about his name, which at times he claimed was Ernest. Now that Jack's family background has been revealed, he really is Ernest, which means the words he thought were lies were actually "in Earnest." He also seems surprised by real emotion rather than playing a role or amusing himself.

By inventing a fictional brother and lying so he could indulge himself, Jack ends up living one of the great conventions of a Romantic work: he thought he had no family but is reunited with his biological family at the end of the play. Now he can marry Gwendolen and live happily ever after.

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