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The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde

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

The Importance of Being Earnest | Themes


Social Conventions

From start to finish, The Importance of Being Earnest satirizes social conventions about class, relationships, acceptable behavior, and art. At times the satire is broad, as in Act 3 when Lady Bracknell suddenly realizes Cecily has extremely "solid qualities" as soon as she learns the girl has a considerable fortune. Lady Bracknell's remark mocks the way people's opinions of character can change once they learn someone is rich.

At other times the satire of social convention is more subtle, as in Act 1 when Jack says, "Some aunts are tall, some aunts are not tall. That is a matter that surely an aunt may be allowed to decide for herself." The joke satirizes the social convention of free choice. Wilde once told a story in conversation about several iron filings in the presence of a magnet, all of whom convinced themselves they were moving toward the magnet by free will when in fact magnetic forces were guiding them. Likewise the plot of this play challenges the social convention that people choose freely—in love or in other matters.


Love, or the desire for it, drives many of the play's characters. While love may be central to Wilde's universe, he presents a version that is shallow and superficial. Wilde's characters fall in love based on hearsay, as Cecily does with Ernest before she meets him, or naming, as Gwendolen does by claiming she will marry an Ernest. Similarly shallow, Lady Bracknell wants her nephew to marry someone rich and physically attractive.

Structurally the play is a romantic comedy. One couple (Jack and Gwendolen) who are already in love must overcome obstacles to their marriage, while another couple (Algernon and Cecily) meet, fall in love, and then overcome obstacles to their marriage. A third couple, Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism, although no less naive or more worldly, exist in an amusing state of denial and blindness. Each has clearly admired the other but neither can make the move to declare attraction. The speed with which love develops in this play is part of the comedy and part of Wilde's satire of romance, as is the ease with which obstacles to love are waved away when the mood is right, as happens when Cecily embraces Algernon at the play's end despite his not being named Ernest.


Language is central to this play. In many ways this play is about language: its power, its flexibility, and the sheer joy it can produce. W.H. Auden called it "the only pure verbal opera in English." Critic Dennis Spininger built on this observation to argue that in this play Wilde creates "a verbal universe," in which language is used to translate life itself "into an aesthetic phenomenon."

Many of the statements in the play are so well formed as to be epigrams—brief, witty statements repeated for their own sake (rather than for the role they play in this drama). These start in the very first scene, as when Jack says, "When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people."

Wilde uses a range of linguistic techniques to create humor. For example, when Gwendolen first appears, she says, "Oh! I hope I am not that. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions," which suggests a double entendre about her physical development or sexual activity.

As Spininger indicates, one of Wilde's major linguistic techniques is juxtaposing something with its opposite. Gwendolen provides a good example of this technique when she tells Jack, "If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life."

The title of the play is, of course, a pun hovering over all its action: there is a continual tension between being earnest and being Ernest. Wilde skillfully maintains this tension throughout the play, resolving it only in the final lines when Jack is revealed as Ernest and realizes the importance of "Being Earnest."

Finally, as Jack and other characters explicitly note, Wilde repeatedly uses "nonsense" throughout the play. While this is sometimes used for satirical purposes, it is more often used, as Robert Jordan suggests, to develop a fantastical alternative to reality. Many of the characters say things that cannot possibly be true, as when Jack says, "Some aunts are tall, some aunts are not tall. That is a matter that surely an aunt may be allowed to decide for herself." Some, especially Lady Bracknell, speak as if their words could completely reshape reality.


The Importance of Being Earnest uses the principle of reversal to satirize Victorian conventions. Nearly all of the main characters express ideals that reverse both social norms and common sense by expressing these ideals as if they were widely known truths. Such reversals start with the play's earliest exchange: Algernon's servant, Lane, says he didn't think it polite to listen to Algernon's attempt to play the piano, and Algernon says that anyone can play the piano accurately. Algernon's comment dismisses pragmatism, or playing notes correctly, in favor of expression.

This reversal continues throughout the play, as characters change opinions (Algernon dismisses marriage but wants to marry Cecily), names (Algernon to Ernest, Jack to Ernest), personal histories and families (Jack gains an entire family), and beliefs. These reversals go so far as to create impossibilities and seemingly logical paradoxes, as when Gwendolen tells Jack in the third act, "If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life."

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Questions for Themes

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In Of Queen’s Gardens , John Ruskin echoes gender norms in the Victorian period. Ruskin states, The man's power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer
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