Oscar Wilde was a critic, essayist, poet, and novelist, as well as a playwright. He is most remembered for his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and his most popular play, The Importance of Being Earnest. A brilliant comedy, the play was first performed for the British public in 1895, near the end of the Victorian era, the time in British history when Queen Victoria ruled over a powerful country marked by great wealth and great poverty. The age of Queen Victoria is often noted for its especially rigid code of social and moral behavior; today, the term “Victorian” has become synonymous with prudery and social repression. Human nature being what it is, the behavior of Victoria’s subjects frequently fell short of society’s demands; hypocrisy reigned in England, along with the Queen.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde took satirical aim at the hypocrisies of his society and scored a direct hit. Victorian theatergoers—perhaps finding relief in seeing their societal constraints spoofed—loved the play, and it enjoyed great commercial success. The play is a farce; the characters and their ridiculous situations are delightful. It is made even more entertaining by Wilde’s many satirical witticisms that sparkle throughout the dialog. These epigrams show Wilde to be both clever and humorous in his understanding of society and human nature. Sadly, despite the great success of his play, Oscar Wilde would become a victim of the very society it mocked.
Though Wilde was a husband and a father, he also was physically attracted to men—most notably, to his companion of several years, Lord Alfred Douglas. Disgusted by their relationship, Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, publicly accused Wilde of being homosexual. The playwright sued the Marquess for criminal libel soon after Earnest’s opening. Wilde lost his suit; he was then arrested, tried, and convicted of public indecency and sentenced to two years in prison. Upon his release, Wilde moved to France. His reputation in England was tarnished, his plays no longer performed. He died in 1900, just five years after Earnest’s successful premiere.
Glimpses of Wilde’s double life and his struggle to keep up appearances echo in Earnest. At the time he wrote the play, Wilde was in dire need of money, living with his family in Worthing. (The town’s name became his character Jack’s (and Ernest’s) last name.) He kept Douglas nearby at the Grand Hotel in Brighton. In Earnest, main characters Jack and Algernon create alter egos that offer them relief from society’s rigid expectations. From this premise, Wilde created the biting social criticism that distinguishes the play. The futility of the façade is satirized, as the objects of their affection, Gwendolen and Cecily, care little when the men’s deceit is revealed; the women instead focus on the very superficial issue of the name “Ernest,” the name both men claim is theirs. In addition, the central enforcers of the moral code—Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism—prove to be as corrupt in their own behavior as they are righteous about others’. In the end, the hollow, hypocritical society is humorously allowed to remain intact; whether this is a tragedy or not is subject to interpretation.
The Importance of Being Earnest follows a classical dramatic structure, often known as Freytag’s pyramid. It consists of exposition (an introduction to the characters and themes), rising action (plot complications to keep the protagonist from his goal), climax or turning point (the moment that changes the protagonist’s plight—in comedies, for the better), falling action (the unraveling of the conflict), and resolution or dénouement (the release of tension for a satisfying conclusion). Within this structure, Earnest is packed with witticisms, inverted logic, wordplay, and absurdities. Its humor is as funny today as its underlying message is resonant.
Though we no longer live in an era marked by a Victorian moral code, headlines persist of moralizing politicians’ secret double lives—lives filled with the very acts they have criticized to make successful careers. Hypocrisy, it seems, is ageless. Does moralizing, through its suffocating effects, actually lead the righteous to their downfall? The upstanding citizen falling from his moral pedestal predated Victorian England. Earnest’s character Gwendolen remarks that even noble, moral men are susceptible to straying, adding that “Modern, no less than Ancient History, supplies us with many most painful examples of what I refer to. If it were not so, indeed, History would be quite unreadable.” Earnest’s examination of the timeless theme of hypocrisy reveals that society itself always puts on a play—one in which the participants are both entertained and entertaining.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain how Wilde uses satire to critique Victorian society.
2. Identify the main arguments the play makes about romantic love.
3. Understand why Jack and Algernon felt it necessary to adopt dual identities.
4. Identify where and how gender identities are reversed.
5. Identify several of the play’s most farcical moments.
6. Identify comic stereotypes in the play, suggesting how these stereotypes contribute to the basic comic plot.
7. Recount the plot, explaining how Wilde has structured the play to conform to classical dramatic structure.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Study Guide
• The Study Guide is organized for an act-by-act study of the play. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each act and to acquaint them generally with the content of the act.
• Before Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
• Study Guide vocabulary lists include words from the play that vary in difficulty.
1. The vocabulary lists for each act are sufficiently comprehensive so that shorter lists of vocabulary words can be constructed from them.
2. Working from the vocabulary lists, the teacher also may construct vocabulary studies for individual students, choosing specific words from each act that are most appropriate for them.
The discussion questions vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some questions require higher levels of critical thinking; others engage students with less challenging inquiry.
2. Individual discussion questions may be assigned to students working in pairs or in small study groups; their contributions may then be added to a whole-class discussion.
Test questions also vary in degree of difficulty.
1. Some multiple-choice questions address the factual content of the play; others require students to employ critical thinking skills, such as analyzing; comparing and contrasting; and drawing inferences.
2. The teacher may select specific multiple-choice questions and one or more essay questions to assess an individual student’s understanding of the play.
3. The essay portion of the test appears on a separate page so that it may be omitted altogether in testing.
Before students read through the play, point out these themes, or universal ideas, that will be addressed in it:
- Society, class, and snobbishness
- Country vs. city
- Women’s empowerment
- Morality and truth
- Romantic love
- Male friendship and courtship
Talk with your students about how a motif is a recurring pattern—a repeated action, element, or idea in a literary work. As they read, have them pay attention to the following motifs:
- Food and eating
- Writing and journaling
A symbol is a concrete object or place that has significance in a literary work. Have your students talk about how the author uses the following symbols and look for other symbols on their own:
- The three-volume novel
1. A dandy in Victorian times was a man who cared greatly about appearance and the pursuit of leisure. How has the character of the dandy changed, and where can the stereotype be seen in society today?
2. In Act One, Jack is convinced Gwendolen and Cecily will immediately connect and call each other sister, to which Algernon replies, “Women only do that when they have called each other a lot of other things first.” Is Algernon right, or is Jack? How would you characterize women’s relationships with one another in the play?
3. What do you think might be added to the experience of The Importance of Being Earnest by watching it performed? In what ways does reading it add a dimension that watching it cannot?
4. In Act One, Algernon says: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Discuss the role of truth in the play. Is Algernon’s statement cynical or realistic?
5. A farce is a light dramatic work in which highly improbable plot situations, exaggerated characters, and often slapstick elements are used for humorous effect. Would you describe Earnest as a farce? Why or why not?
6. A satire is a literary work in which human vice or folly is attacked through irony, derision, or wit. What is Wilde satirizing in Earnest? Why is satire an effective means of criticism?
7. Think of a recent situation comedy or romantic comedy you watched. How has humor changed from Wilde’s day, and how is it the same? In regard to the show you watched, is the dramatic structure of the plot similar or different from that of the play?
8. How does understanding Wilde’s biography affect the reading of the play? Which of the play’s characters is he most like?
9. Discuss the significance of the play’s title, and identify the wordplay in it. What is suggested by Wilde’s using the word...
(The entire section is 509 words.)
cloak-room: coat room
Empire: famous music hall
expurgations: cleansing of something morally harmful; censorship of a literary work
fibres: strands of nerve tissue
flat: British apartment
forte: thing or area in which one excels
glibly: easily, informally
Gorgon: Greek mythological monster with serpents in place of hair
lower orders: lower class
morning-room: informal room
poachers: those who...
(The entire section is 1782 words.)
allusion: reference without an explanation
buttonhole: British boutonniere
canonical: approved; conforming to that which is acceptable
chafe: express irritability
constitution: physical strength of the body
crape [crepe]: light cotton, silk, or other fabric with a crinkled surface
dog-cart: light carriage, with compartment for carrying sporting dogs
draughts: draft, currents of air
dressing-case: container that held all the necessary items for a Victorian male’s...
(The entire section is 1374 words.)
abstraction: absence of mind, preoccupation
Anabaptists: sixteenth-century Protestants who denounced infant baptism and insisted adults be baptized a second time
aspect: appearance, manner
celibacy: chastity, purity
credulity: willingness to believe
Funds: government stocks, traditionally a safe investment
heretical: unbelieving, in defiance of accepted beliefs and standards
insuperable: impossible to overcome
(The entire section is 1258 words.)
1. According to Lane, why do servants at a bachelor’s home drink his champagne?
A. Servants work harder than at a married man’s home and need the relief.
B. The champagne at a bachelor’s home is superior to that at a married man’s.
C. Bachelors are more accommodating of intoxicated servants.
D. Bachelors are less likely to notice the disappearance of bottles of champagne.
E. The servants have more time at a bachelor’s home because there’s no mistress.
2. What happens to the cucumber sandwiches prepared for Lady Bracknell?
A. Algernon sends them back in exchange for bread...
(The entire section is 1267 words.)
1. Though England’s monarch was Queen Victoria, women in nineteenth-century England had very little power. Is that true for the female characters in The Importance of Being Earnest? Using the characters of Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen, discuss how women’s power—or the lack of it—is evident in the play.
The Importance of Being Earnest is marked by strong women who have the upper hand in their relationships with men. This strength is particularly clear in the characters of Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen. However, though women have control in their relationships, they must keep up the appearance that they are submissive.
Lady Bracknell has the most power and authority in the play, even though...
(The entire section is 1996 words.)