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 does Oscar Wilde satirize his audience in The Importance of Being Earnest, and what may he be trying to evoke from the audience?

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Wilde satirizes the hypocrisy of his Victorian audience. There were such strict moral codes at the time, codes to which members of the upper class certainly purported to live by, and yet so many people continued to do immoral things; they just kept those behaviors hidden. Like Jack Worthing, they...

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Wilde satirizes the hypocrisy of his Victorian audience. There were such strict moral codes at the time, codes to which members of the upper class certainly purported to live by, and yet so many people continued to do immoral things; they just kept those behaviors hidden. Like Jack Worthing, they appeared to all the world like good, upstanding citizens but found creative ways to hide their more depraved tendencies. Jack invents a brother, Ernest, who lives a life of dissipation; when Jack goes to London, away from his home and his impressionable young ward, he can pretend to be Ernest so that he does not sully his own good name. As Ernest, he can go places and see people and do things that he would never do as Jack. Then, he can return to his home, his reputation as a moral man still intact, and no one is the wiser. He claims that strong morals, especially because he has a ward, are so important, and yet he lies in order to be able to exhibit a lack of morals when he so chooses. Algernon is similar, with his creation of Bunbury, the imaginary invalid who gets him out of all kinds of unpleasant social engagements that he cannot simply choose not to attend and still retain his reputation with his aunt.

Perhaps Wilde is trying to evoke a sense of awareness from his audience. Characters like Algernon and Aunt Augusta comment on the "lower orders" and people of lesser status as though those of lower status are of lower moral character. However, their own moral character—despite their class—is really not very good. A little less judgment and a little more self-awareness is called for.

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The subtitle of The Importance of Being Earnest is "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People". "Serious" is, of course, a synonym for "Earnest" and this type of wordplay, as well as the inversion of "trivial" and "serious" permeates the entire play.

To determine how Wilde satirizes his audience, we have to know what sort of people the audience were. The type of people who frequented the St. James's Theatre in the 1890s were not, on the whole, the aristocracy and the landed gentry whom Wilde was so fond of portraying on stage but the respectable middle-classes. They are most effectively satirized in the person of Lady Bracknell, who is now a society grande-dame but lets slip that she comes from relatively humble origins ("When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind ...").

Lady Bracknell's obsession with respectability and propriety betray her middle-class origins at every turn. About high society she is generally wrong, assuming that an Oxonian could never be untruthful and preposterously asserting that only people who cannot get into society speak disrespectfully of it. She remains comically concerned about what other people think ("'Come, dear ... we have already missed five, if not six, trains. To miss any more might expose us to comment on the platform").

It is typical of Wilde to cast the most unimaginatively middle-class figure in the play as the gorgon aunt and guardian of the younger characters' fates. In this, as in so much else, The Importance of Being Earnest presents a topsy-turvy world, where normal values and relationships are continually inverted. This strategy presents the audience with the triviality of their most serious concerns and perhaps even causes them to reflect amongst the frivolity on what is really of vital importance.

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In his satirical play The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde ridicules the superficiality of his Victorian society audience and their values and behavior. As his title suggests, Wilde satirizes the facade of earnestness, a virtue purportedly highly esteemed by Victorians, whose hypocritical behavior belies this sublime virtue.

By assigning the quality of being earnest to the name of a man, Wilde creates a subtle allusion to the words of Shakespeare's Juliet, who realizes a name does not determine character: 

What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet (Act II, Scene 2, verses 1-2).

For certain characters in Wilde's play, having the specific name of Ernest, a homophone for the virtue earnestness, becomes essential. Jack must be named Ernest to win the love of Gwendolen. This condition points to the superficiality of the upper class, as a young woman prioritizes marrying a man by the name of Ernest over any other qualities he may possess. The name Ernest holds some sort of ideal for her. 

In Act I, Jack displays the duality that exists in Victorian society when he explains to his friend Algernon that he created the character of Ernest as his younger brother because he must behave in a certain way as the guardian of Cecily Cardew. With this false identity, he can give vent to his private interests, which are anything but true and worthy values. The irony of this is that Jack actually turns out to be named Ernest, as he was named after his natural father. Gwendolen is delighted that Ernest is his name. Employing his inimitable satire, Wilde has his character Jack ask, 

Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?

Wilde may have written these lines to induce members of his audience to search their own characters and discover that when they have acted in pretense, they may verily have been more true to their real character than when they have conducted themselves in polite society. 

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