Illustration of Jack Worthing in a top hat and formal attire, and a concerned expression on his face

The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde

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How appropriate is the subtitle "A trivial comedy for serious people" for the play The Importance of Being Earnest?

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Although The Importance of Being Earnest is now Oscar Wilde's most famous play, it is not characteristic of his work as a playwright and marked a new departure for him. Wilde's other social comedies contain plenty of epigrams, but they also make an attempt to address social ills directly, in the same vein as the Shavian "problem play." One of his most frequent themes was sexism, particularly the way in which a hypocritical society judged men and women by different standards. In an interview published in the Sketch in January 1895, Wilde indicated the new direction The Importance of Being Earnest was to take:

Several plays have been written lately that deal with the monstrous injustice of the social code of morality at the present time. It is indeed a burning shame that there should be one law for men and another law for women. I think that there should be no law for anybody.

The subtitle of Earnest is a warning of much the same type. The play is trivial in the sense that it does not deal directly with social ills. However, its anarchic wit delivers something that is ultimately more profound: a vision of an ideal society in which people are free to enjoy themselves. Serious people (not solemn people, but those who think deeply) will discover this. An example of the way Wilde simply dismisses burdensome rules as he believes they ought to be dismissed occurs in the short time when Jack believes Miss Prism to have been his mother. He says:

Unmarried! I do not deny that is a serious blow. But after all, who has the right to cast a stone against one who has suffered? Cannot repentance wipe out an act of folly? Why should there be one law for men, and another for women? Mother, I forgive you.

In an earlier play of Wilde's, A Woman of No Importance, this theme is treated seriously and at length, much as George Bernard Shaw would have treated it. In this play, Jack waves it away and a moment later, it turns out not to have been a problem after all. Wilde invites the serious thinkers in his audience to consider what life might be like if everyone behaved as trivially as his characters and refused to be burdened by trivial matters. The subtitle, therefore, is an excellent distillation of one of the play's central themes.

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Oscar Wilde gave his play The Importance of Being Earnest the apt subtitle "A Trivial Play for Serious People." This subtitle sets the tone for the play in the sense that its seemingly paradoxical combination of words employs a technique that Wilde has his characters use repeatedly in their dialogue. The mix of verbal irony, epigrammatic expressions, and hyperbole reverse our expectations and aid Wilde in poking fun at his shallow upper class characters.

Further, the play's subtitle is appropriate because it describes Wilde's comedy of manners perfectly. The play is a satire, and as such, it proves to be a sharp critique of the values and the marriage practices of the Victorian elite. However, the characters are extremely superficial and silly, as is the marriage plot of the play. Two men, Jack and Algernon, decide they want to marry two women, Gwendolen and Cecily, whom they do not know very well, and both men want to be baptized under the new name Ernest, because the women both prefer that name and can't imagine marrying a man of any other name. The women come across as shallow in their insistence that they marry a man named Ernest, and the men seem childish in their insistence on becoming Ernest to please the women (who apparently cannot love them for who they really are). Wilde is satirizing the requirements the upper class sets when considering marriageable partners. Much of the humor in the play comes from the foolishness of the characters, but the play as a whole focuses a critical lens on the superficiality of the upper class and their desperate desire to hold on to their positions at the top of society.

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"A trivial comedy for serious people" is an apt subtitle for this play because its plot is largely trivial. For example, Gwendolen, who is about to become engaged to Jack (who she thinks is named Ernest), says that "my ideal has always been to marry someone of the name of Ernest." Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen's mother, opposes the marriage because the man they think is named Ernest was found by his charitable adoptive father as a baby who had been placed in a handbag. The events in the play are rather silly and superficial, leading the play to be trivial in nature.

However, despite its surface frivolity, the play deals with some serious themes. The snobbishness of Lady Bracknell is one way in which Wilde satirizes the values of his society, and Gwendolen's insistence about the importance of her husband-to-be's name is symbolic of Victorian women's childish hopes and innocence about marriage. These themes are part of the drama that serious people might enjoy.

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Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest displays his prescience perhaps better than any of his other works. Indeed, his subtitle is extremely appropriate to the purpose of his play; it points to his intent to expose the triviality of the upper class of Victorian society, which considered itself of great importance to Britain (serious people), and its hypocrisy and absurdity as it squanders its time and undermines the institutions that form civilized society. This subtitle also befits Wilde's penchant for combining the serious with the trivial. For example, in Act I the decadent Algernon remarks that his servant Lane's perspective on marriage is "somewhat lax," commenting also that if the

...lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.

The irony here is that Lane has actually been married, and has told Algernon that it is "a very pleasant state." Furthermore, it has long been the responsibility of the ruling class to set standards of moral conduct, rather than the lower classes, whom few regarded seriously. But Jack as Ernest and Algernon are spendthrifts and superficial men who speak frivolously. 

Because Wilde's play revolves around the imperative of telling falsehoods so that polite society can remain polite, it is "a trivial play," a play about trivialities that point out to "serious people" the ills of Victorian society.

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