How do puns and paradoxes contribute to the satirical tone in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The main contribution of puns and paradoxes to the satirical tone of the play is the fact that they intensify the humor of the satire by  presenting contrasting ideas that are both ridiculous and almost impossible to concede in everyday situations. In turn, this brings out the main message that there is triviality and humor in everything, even in situations that are considered too mature, or too tedious, or even boring. 

InThe Importance of Being EarnestWilde intended to mock the sanctimonious behavior of the society to which he belonged. The "Lady Bracknells", and "Miss Prisms" of his time were quite real. In fact, many people practiced what in Victorian jargon was known as "Grundyism", or the demand from others to remain in an extreme state of righteousness, prudishness and class distinction. The use of puns basically adds more witticism when mocking people like Bracknell and Prism, who are otherwise quite aggravating characters. The biggest example of this is that the main pun in the play is the name of the play itself: that it is important to be earnest. And yet, nobody in the play, not even those who claim to be righteous, is actually earnest in any way or form.

The use of paradoxes spices up the humor by juxtaposing phrases with the intention of using them as a moral when, in fact, they are anything but morals. One of the biggest examples comes with the topic of marriage. Again, here we see how Wilde takes an otherwise "grown up" topic and tones it down with humor with the purpose of mocking it. Some paradoxes found in the topic of marriage, which is the one that drives forward the plot, are:

"If I ever get married, I'll certainly try to forget the fact"

"You don't seem to realize that in married life, three is company and two is none"

Hence, the literary devices that Wilde chooses to treat his satire complete the application of humor by adding a technical value to the joke in the form of contradictory comments that make the situation so awkward that it becomes comical.

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The Importance of Being Earnest

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