The Importance of Being Earnest is arguably Oscar Wilde’s masterwork. Besides being one of the best plotted and most tightly structured plays of all time, it is also tremendously funny. Beneath the humor, however, Wilde does have a lot to say about the times he lives in and reflects on the upper-crust circles to which the characters in his play belong. Take for example the discussion between Jack and Algernon in act 2, when Algernon contends: “If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated.”
On the surface, this is a hysterical line. Algernon’s open vanity and pride, his self-knowledge of how silly and frivolous his wardrobe is, juxtaposed against his deeper pride and vanity in doubling down and insisting how well educated he is. Even Jack responds by saying: “Your vanity is ridiculous, your conduct an outrage, and your presence in my garden is utterly absurd.”
Below the surface though, Wilde is touching on a deep hypocrisy entrenched in the “nobler” classes. He is asserting that vanity breeds vanity and seems to be making the argument that the high-born justify their frivolous wealth (such as wardrobes) with the more serious implications of their wealth. Another way of saying this is that richer families being able to afford better education is a serious socio-political issue, but those wealthy people in power who could actually do something to change the status quo are too concerned with the by-products of their wealth, such as fashionable clothes. He is also saying that the best education in the world can still create a very silly person, as evidenced by Algernon.