In Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest marriage is the theme that serves as an anchor to the plot. This is because of its importance as a networking tool, as a social marker, and as a legal and social need for women to become part of society.
In the play, Jack Worthing's love for Gwendolen is impeded by the fact that his real name is Jack, and not Earnest-which is the main reason why Gwendolen "loves" him. In his quest to try and rectify his lie, he is ambushed by Gwendolen's mother, Lady Bracknell, whose main interest is to ensure that her daughter marries into a good name and fortune.
Marriage, to Lady Bracknell, is a contract. This is not only her view, however, but the view of Lady Bracknell's generation. We can see throughout the play that Lady Bracknell pays little to no attention to the needs of her own husband. She even plans dinner parties assuming that he will end up taking his dinner in his room. The distance between husband and wife is clear,and it does not seem to bother anyone. Hence, the social construct of the Bracknell marriage is founded on the assumption that matrimony should only be used to increase social standing. Lady Bracknell's marriage must have also been negotiated.
Gwendolen, Cecily, Algernon, and Jack belong to a younger and fresher generation who considers love as a plausible factor for marriage. Although Wilde's rendition of love is extremely shallow, it is precisely such shallowness what contributes to the comedic value of the play. Nevertheless, the four main characters demonstrate an inclination for love, courtship, and romance regardless of its shallowness.
In conclusion, marriage is different to both generations in the play. To the older generation, it represents social standing. To the younger generations it represents passion and courtship. To Wilde, however, it represents a way to further ridicule the upper classes and their ridiculous views on life.