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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In The Importance of Being Earnest, identify uses of hyperbole.

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Hyperbole is a figure of speech that uses extreme exaggeration for emphasis or to highlight a contrast, often with humorous intent. In this play, Oscar Wilde’s characters often speak in hyperbole, suggesting their overly emotional reactions to varied situations.

This tendency is evident throughout act 1. When Algernon inquires about Jack’s neighbors in the Shropshire countryside where he has been staying, Jack claims first that he “amuses [his]… neighbours,” but also that he does not know them: “‘Never speak to them.’” This is an obvious, as well as untrue, exaggeration.

The two young men continue conversing for some time, interspersing the exchange of information—such as Jack’s intention to propose to Gwendolen—with friendly banter. Among the instances of hyperbole are observations about the food and about marriage.

Commenting on the cucumber sandwiches that Algernon has laid out, Jack asks “ Why such reckless extravagance in one so young?”

Algernon expresses his doubts not only that Jack will marry Gwendolen, but at all. He pronounces that “girls never marry the men they flirt with.” Here again, “never” indicates hyperbole because it is an absolute to which there are obviously exceptions. When Jack dismisses this as “nonsense,” Algernon continues along this line: “It is a great truth.”

One of the play’s key issues, the confusion over identity, emerges with a hyperbolic statement. Jack and Algernon disagree over Jack’s name, which Algernon insists is actually “Ernest.” As Jack tries to explain that is only sometimes his name—while he is in town—Algernon rejects this. Using hyperbole he states, “‘You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life.’”

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Hyperbole is essentially an overstatement or exaggeration of the truth, and it is often used in the service of comedy. When the play begins, Algernon is playing the piano and his butler, Lane, comments that he didn't think it would be polite to listen. Algernon claims that he doesn't "play accurately—any one can play accurately." He claims that he plays with "wonderful expression," but it is absolutely not true that anyone can play accurately; most people, in fact, cannot play the piano accurately. This is an example of hyperbole.

Shortly thereafter, Algernon asks Lane, "Why is it that at a bachelor's establishment the servants invariably drink the champagne?" He is attempting to blame Lane and any other servants for drinking the champagne at his house because he does not want to take responsibility for consuming such a large quantity as eight bottles and a pint. He does this by suggesting that servants of bachelors always drink their employers' champagne. Of course they do not; in fact, I would think it is rare for a servant to steal from his employer when he knows that his employer keeps good records of such things. Therefore, this is another example of hyperbole.

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Hyperbole is a type of figurative language that uses exaggeration for emphasis or humor. Much of the humor in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is either hyperbole, understatement, or irony. One way Wilde uses hyperbole as part of his satire is to make trivial things seem more important than they are. Here are some humorous uses of hyperbole from the play.

  • When Lady Bracknell asks Jack if he smokes, he says he does, and she replies, "I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind." To refer to smoking as an occupation is hyperbole.
  • Lady Bracknell states, "Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone." To praise ignorance in this way is a ridiculous exaggeration.
  • Lady Bracknell scolds Jack about his upbringing, saying that to be born or bred in a handbag "reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution." This takes a case of a single person's birth which happens to not meet her approval and compares it to a revolution that toppled a monarchy.
  • Dr. Chasuble praises Miss Prism by saying, "Were I fortunate enough to be Miss Prism's pupil, I would hang upon her lips." This is, of course, an impossible exaggeration and one that creates a humorous mental image.    
  • Algernon states that good looks "are a snare that every sensible man would like to be caught in." Of course, no sensible man really wants to be caught in a snare, so this is an exaggeration.
  • During the "tea wars," Gwendolyn tells Cecily that she, Gwendolyn, is "known for the gentleness of my disposition, and the extraordinary sweetness of my nature." She is significantly exaggerating her good character traits.      
  • When Jack must tell Gwendolyn the truth about his name, he states, "It is very painful for me to be forced to speak the truth. It is the first time in my life I have ever been reduced to such a painful position, and I am really quite inexperienced in doing anything of the kind." He exaggerates his lack of relationship with the truth.
  • When Algernon tells Lady Bracknell that Bunbury died after "the doctors found out that he could not live," Lady Bracknell states, "He seems to have had great confidence in the opinion of his physicians." That a man could die immediately because his physician said he could not live is a humorous exaggeration.
  • Lady Bracknell tells Cecily that "style largely depends on the way the chin is worn." This exaggerates the importance of how women hold their heads.
  • Lady Bracknell calls it "grotesque and irreligious" that the men want to be baptized so they can change their names. It is rather absurd, but "grotesque" is taking it too far.
  • After Gwendolyn states that she never changes, "except in my affections," Jack responds by saying she has a "noble nature," which is an exaggeration of what her comment indicated about her.
  • The play ends with Jack stating he now recognizes "the vital Importance of Being Earnest." It is fitting that a play filled with irony and hyperbole should go out reiterating the overblown importance of one of the trivialities emphasized in the play.                                                                                                                               

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