Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Moncrieff’s flat. Elegant London flat of the bachelor Algernon Moncrieff in which the first act of the play is set. The flat is complete with butler and other accoutrements of a life of leisure. This milieu provides the backdrop for Algernon’s insouciance, wit, and idle life. The drawback to his lovely home is its proximity to the home of his aunt, Lady Bracknell, a dragon lady and master of the non sequitur. Her incursions into Algernon’s life often force him to flee to the country to care for his invalid friend, Bunbury, whom he has invented for this purpose.
Manor House. Hertfordshire home of Algernon’s friend Jack Worthing, who also has a London home. This house provides the setting for the second and third acts of the play. Worthing is the guardian of Miss Cecily Cardew, who is instructed in the German language by her governess, Miss Prism, and in religion by the Reverend Canon Chasuble; they all reside in this rural retreat. Worthing escapes to London by receiving phone calls from an imaginary brother whom he must rescue from scrapes.
While Algernon escapes London to care for his imaginary sick friend Bunbury in the country, Worthing escapes from the country by looking out for his imaginary brother in the city. The two worlds of the play collide and make for comic results when Algernon comes to the Manor House posing as Worthing’s brother Ernest. The arrival...
(The entire section is 268 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
As the nineteenth century drew to a close, England witnessed a cultural and artistic turn against the values of Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901). These earlier virtues, such as self-help and respectability, were widely touted during the boom years of the 1860s and 1870s. However, people were less able to help themselves and raise their social standing in the late 1870s, when farming practices underwent a change which affected society as a whole.
Wheat-fields were converted to cattle pastures on a sweeping scale, and farmers suffered. While farmers were struggling, industrialists were profiting from their factories which employed workers at cheap wages. Factory owners and other businessmen formed the new middle class in England, and as they rose on the social ladder, they desired to imitate the aristocracy by owning houses in the countryside and becoming patrons of art.
As people began questioning the values of the mid-nineteenth century, artists responded in their own way by reacting against the mass-produced goods which were made possible by the Industrial Revolution and technological advances. Artists such as William Morris desired a return to simpler times when handmade furniture, for example, was valued for its craftsmanship. Morris despised the mass-produced objects which filled the Victorian home, fearing that traditional crafts such as woodworking and bookbinding would...
(The entire section is 563 words.)
Most commonly seen in Shakespeare's romance plays like As You Like It or A Midsummer Night's Dream, the plot of a typical romantic comedy involves an idealized pair of lovers who the circumstances of daily life or social convention seem destined to keep apart. Along the way, the lovers escape their troubles, at least for a while, entering an ideal world (like the Garden of Eden) where conflicts resolve and the lovers ultimately come together. The plots of such comedies contain pairs of characters and conclude happily, often exhibiting poetic justice, with the good rewarded and the evil punished.
While The Importance of Being Earnest certainly fits this description, it is a play that is appraised beyond simple romantic comedy. In fact, part of the play's wide and lasting appeal is that it so competently fits into any number of comedy genres, including comedies of manners, farces, and parodies.
Comedy of Manners
Generally set in sophisticated society, this type of intellectual comedy privileges witty dialogue over plot, though social intrigue involving the problems of lovers—faithful and unfaithful—can be complicated. The comedy arises from the critique of the fashions, manners, and behavior of elevated society. While often featuring standard characters such as fools, fops, conniving servants, and jealous husbands, the...
(The entire section is 421 words.)
Compare and Contrast
- 1800s: Theatre is one of the most popular forms of mass entertainment. The number of theatres built in England doubles between 1850 and 1860, and on a given night in London alone, 150,000 people attend the theatre.
Today: While theatre remains an important force in contemporary culture, many more people watch television and films.
- 1800s: Women in England cannot vote or control their own property until a series of Married Women's Property Acts (1870-1908). Though the first college offering advanced education to women is founded in London in 1848, by the 1890s, women can take degrees at twelve British universities, and study, though not take degrees, at Oxford and Cambridge.
Today: British women, like their American counterparts, vote, control their own property, and have all the same legal rights as men, including the right to advanced degrees in education.
- 1800s: During the Victorian period, travel by rail makes business and vacation travel possible. Trains bring city and country closer together, expediting mail service and supplying rural areas with London newspapers and magazines.
Today: Few people in America travel by rail; most drive cars or fly.
- 1800s: Britain has a far-flung imperial empire, with colonies...
(The entire section is 218 words.)
Topics for Further Study
- Wilde's play revolves around the necessity of telling lies in order to keep polite society polite. Is such dishonesty really necessary? What would the world be like if everyone were absolutely honest? What would happen to you if you were honest for one week?
- Many psychologists, sociologists, and literary scholars consider Oscar Wilde's trial as the moment which marks the birth of the modern homosexual identity. Read an account of Wilde's trial or his novel, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and consider the social and aesthetic issues which surround sexual identity.
- In many ways, Wilde's play is a send up of gender roles and a travesty of romantic idealism. Are love and marriage really as simple—or complicated—as they seem in Earnest? How should men and women behave toward each other? What do people really want in relationships? What makes for a successful or unsuccessful marriage?
- In Earnest, people in the country behave—or at least, are expected to behave—differently from their counterparts in the city. Are the stereotypes of city and country life still with us? Identify those stereotypes and consider how population growth, shifting demographics, and urbanization have affected the ways we think about rural and urban life.
- Critics have commented on the "triviality" of Wilde's play—that is, it's celebration of the superficial at the expense of earnest seriousness. As an...
(The entire section is 254 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
- William Congreve's comedy The Way of the World (1700), like The Importance of Being Earnest, features romance, mix-ups, and high comedy, though of a broader and bawdier variety.
- Wilde's novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray has elements of gothicism and melodrama. It tells the story of a corrupt young man who never ages, instead, his portrait ages as he should.
- Noel Coward's plays Private Lives (1930) and Blithe Spirit (1941) have much of the polish and wit of Wilde's writing. Coward was particularly noted for his skill with the comedy of manners.
(The entire section is 89 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Beckson, Karl. "Oscar Wilde." In Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 4: Victorian Writers, 1832-1890. Gale, 1991, pp. 340-55.
Bentley, Eric. The Playwright As Thinker. Reynal & Hitchcock, 1946.
Foster, Richard. "Wilde As Parodist: A Second Look at 'The Importance of Being Earnest.'" In College English, Vol. 18, no. 1, October, 1956, pp. 18-23.
Pountney, Rosemary. "The Importance of Being Earnest." In The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady. St. James Press, 1992.
Reinert, Otto. "Satiric Strategy in 'The Importance of Being Earnest.'" In College English, Vol. 18, no. 1, October, 1956, pp. 14-18.
Roditi, Edourd. Oscar Wilde. New Directions, 1986.
Beckson, Karl, ed. Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage. Routlege, 1970. Focusing on the years 1881 to 1927, this book offers particular insight into Wilde's theatrical writings.
Briggs, Asa. The Age of Improvement. Longman, 1988. A readable, comprehensive history of the mid-Victorian years in England. Useful for understanding the nineteenth century generally, including social history.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. 1988. This is the standard literary biography of Wilde, providing a wealth of detail...
(The entire section is 286 words.)
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. A study that focuses on Wilde’s recklessness, which provides background for The Importance of Being Earnest. Includes detailed references to the play’s creation, variant editions and versions, and amendations. Full of comical, lurid stories that add fodder to the Wilde legend.
Ericksen, Donald H. Oscar Wilde. Boston: Twayne, 1977. Regards The Importance of Being Earnest as the culmination of Wilde’s dramatic creativity. In this play, he integrates his aesthetic principles well despite the contrived language, plot, and characters. Ericksen demonstrates that the play is a satire on the priggishness and hypocrisy often associated with late Victorian high society.
Ganz, Arthur. Realms of the Self: Variations on a Theme in Modern Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1980. Includes two excellent essays on The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as many allusions to it. Discusses the play as a conduit for self-discovery for all ages and lifestyles. Ganz exhibits a firm understanding of theatrical ploys and gimmicks.
Paglia, Camille. “The English Epicene: Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.” In Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New Haven, Conn.:...
(The entire section is 273 words.)