In The Importance of Being Earnest, how does incongruity lend itself to humor?

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ariel-mcgavock eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Humor in The Importance of Being Earnest draws upon sarcasm, wit, and contradiction. Many of the characters’ statements, especially Algernon’s, are humorous because they subvert expectation. For example, upon telling Lane, his servant, that it is “perfectly natural” that he never thinks of his family life, Algernon remarks to himself that:

“Lane’s views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, 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.”

In the context of the Victorian Era, this remark is particularly ironic—the upper classes set an example for the lower classes to follow, not the other way around. The incongruity of this statement with prevailing social norms creates humor.

Later in the first act, another example of incongruity arises. Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell, speaks of a mutual acquaintance who recently lost her husband. One would expect that the recently widowed Lady Harbury would be quite mournful; instead, she is described to be “living entirely for pleasure now.” Algernon also notes the rumor that “her hair has turned quite gold from grief,” a statement very much at odds with the stereotype of a widow.

Humor can also be drawn from a play on words. For instance, in response to Jack’s statement that he has lost both of his parents, Lady Bracknell states:

“To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

By playing on the dual meanings in the word “lose,” Wilde not only exhibits his impressive command of language but also creates a terribly insensitive response to a declaration of misfortune. In doing so, incongruity again gives way to humor: the unexpected nature of Lady Bracknell’s response is funny because of its incongruity with the subject at hand.

Incongruity can also come from contradictory attitudes that the characters hold. Gwendolyn's professed “ideal” is to marry a man named Ernest; naturally, this causes a great deal of consternation for Jack, who has been introduced under a false name. Claiming that she could only love a man named Ernest, Jack intends to get christened as such at the earliest convenience. However, the discovery that Jack’s born name is Ernest resolves the conflict. Gwendolyn is content is to marry him, so long as his name is Ernest. Her change of heart has nothing to do with his character or newly discovered heritage—even the fact that they are first cousins does not appear to pose a concern. The illogical attitude that Gwendolyn holds is at odds with the more practical concerns of marriage.

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The Importance of Being Earnest

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