How are love and marriage treated in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde?

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In the play, love and marriage are treated as fodder for jokes. We typically think of things like marriage as being serious subjects, but one of the ways that Oscar Wilde creates humor in the play is by treating serious subjects in this ironic and unexpected way. At one point,...

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In the play, love and marriage are treated as fodder for jokes. We typically think of things like marriage as being serious subjects, but one of the ways that Oscar Wilde creates humor in the play is by treating serious subjects in this ironic and unexpected way. At one point, Lane tells his employer, Algernon,

I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.

As though one could get married by accident! Moreover, what kind of misunderstanding could result in a wedding? Getting married is not as simple as tripping over one's feet!

Later, when Jack tells Algernon that "pleasure" brought him to town and that he intends to propose marriage to Gwendolen, Algernon says,

I thought you had come up for pleasure? . . . I call that business.

Here, he expresses his belief that there is nothing romantic about one proposing marriage because "one may be accepted [. . .] Then the excitement is all over." To refer to a marriage proposal as being more of a business arrangement is certainly atypical and humorous; however, many might be inclined to agree with Algernon's less-than-ideal description of marriage as being the end of romance—but we typically don't say such things to people who are about to propose! While the reader may want to associate the idea of marriage with the dream of happily ever after, Algernon clearly does not agree.

Later, when Algernon describes a recently widowed woman called Lady Harbury, he claims that "her hair has turned quite gold from grief." Hair might turn gray from grief, but it would certainly not acquire a new golden hue without some effort on her part. It seems, then, that the death of her husband rather agrees with her; even Lady Bracknell says that Lady Harbury "seems to [. . .] be living entirely for pleasure now." Her marriage, then, turned her hair gray (indicating that she was unhappy in it), but now she is truly enjoying her life! It's another joke at marriage's expense.

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As the complete title of the play specifies, The Importance of Being Earnest is "A trivia comedy for serious people." This means that those themes which are universally considered, or treated, in a "serious" way, namely, love and marriage, will also be treated trivially, or with little importance, throughout the play. 

While the ultimate goal of the play is for Jack (Ernest) Worthing to marry Gwendolen, and for Algernon to marry Cecily, the motivations and means by which these goals are attempted are as ridiculous as they are comical. 

Jack says that he loves Gwendolen. His passion is supposedly reciprocated, but the relationship cannot be possible unless Jack shows Gwendolen's mother what sort of family he comes from and who are his relatives. Lady Bracknell, an arrogant aristocrat, just cannot tolerate Jack's life story that he was found in a handbag at a cloakroom in Victoria station, "the Brighton line." Hence, in order for a marriage to be possible, Jack needs to "produce" a father and a mother (a family name) in short notice. 

What this shows is the shallowness of the entire thing. Marriage is seen as a transaction of family names and fortune, and not as a love connection. Gwendolen is all too familiar with this, as even she says that 

...although (Lady Bracknell) may prevent us from becoming man and wife, and I may marry some one else, and marry often, nothing that she can possibly do can alter my eternal devotion to you

Love and devotion, as well as marriage and loyalty, are flimsy and ephemeral in the eyes of  Gwendolen and her mother. Algernon, who is Lady Bracknell's nephew and Gwendolen's cousin, has a similar opinion on the matter.

Algernon: I really don't see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. 

Add to this that the primary motivator of the devotion of the two female leads, Gwendolen and Cecily, is the simple fact that their object of affection goes by the name of "Ernest." Gwendolen says that there is something in the name gives her vibrations. This is primarily why Jack adopts the name and goes by it. Cecily says that the name inspires confidence- which is why Algernon pretends to be the bad, fake brother Ernest (a character invented by Jack to leave the country side with an excuse) and introduces himself like that to Cecily. The name is a lie that will later become an ironic, partial truth when Jack discovers that this father's name was,and hence his namesake would be, Ernest.

The motivations behind the affections of the characters are shallow. The process of the marriage proposal is transactional and matter-of-fact. There is very little space for true love, commitment, and passion. In true Wilde fashion, these facts will be further twisted as a way to take digs at the prudish and hypocritical Victorian society that harbored these types of dynamics. This is also the primary reason why Wilde will choose those very two topics as sources of comical triviality.

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