The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest.

The Importance of Being Earnest | Symbols



The handbag Miss Prism accidentally abandoned at the railway station years ago is the only physical symbol in the play, and it appears only at the very end. There is a long tradition in myth and fairy tale of babies who are meant for greatness who are intentionally abandoned, such as the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus, or the Trojan War hero Oedipus. Some of these babies are even abandoned in containers that take on symbolic significance, like the biblical Moses in the basket. The handbag is a parodic version of this tradition: baby Ernest is not abandoned because of a prophecy or because of some threat to his existence but because his nurse (Miss Prism) is distracted. This handbag therefore parodies the importance or significance of one's circumstances.


Bunbury is Algernon's imaginary invalid friend. Algernon uses Bunbury's illness as an excuse when he needs to get out of social obligations. This device is parallel to Jack's use of the double identity of Jack and Ernest, which he uses to carve out blocks of time free from such obligations. Bunbury does not exist physically but becomes a verbal symbol—and a verb—representing the act of telling small, useful lies as a way of navigating one's way through, or out of, social conventions. Contemporary critics might also see it as indicative of a double life—one of deception and lies, such as the one Wilde practiced because of his sexual orientation.


No one is actually christened in this play. Once the young women indicate how important the name Ernest is to them, however, christening is continually referenced, and it carries considerable symbolic weight (even if it is comic in the moment). The rite is important in Christianity. As children are named and baptized they are welcomed as members of the Christian community. In this play christening is part of the satire of social conventions. Algernon and Jack both plan to have themselves christened to rename themselves. Adult christenings do occur, but these are generally part of religious conversions. Jack's and Algernon's desire to be renamed has nothing to do with joining a religious community but with joining the social community of marriage. Both men want to change their names to please the women in their lives. Because Dr. Chasuble is willing to go along with this endeavor, the play mocks the practice of religious ritual by drawing parallels with social rituals.

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