What is the importance of being earnest in Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest?
The importance of being "earnest" in Oscar Wilde's play named with these same words is that in order to have a honest relationship with others, people must be sincere and have realistic and honest convictions.
With typical cleverness and humor, Wilde employs a pun upon the nouns earnest and Ernest. The use of this pun allows the humorous machinations of Jack, who manufactures another character named Ernest, a character that provides him alibis for his various activities and helps him to appear as an earnest young man. In the final irony of the play, Jack learns that his real name is Ernest Moncrieff, and he is the brother of Algernon, against whom he has been competing.
All of the pretense involving the name Ernest points to the insincerity and hypocrisy of the Victorian Age in which young men lived double lives. Also, the emphasis upon the name Ernest for a husband ridicules the idea of true earnestness, a virtue supposedly highly valued by moralist Victorians. In the end, Wilde's satire is complete when Jack learns that his real name is Ernest.
Through his use of satire, Wilde demonstrates that the virtue of being earnest is not just having the superficial appearance of earnestness. Instead, being earnest is truly being genuine and sincere in words and actions. It is a virtue, not a pretense. This virtue can be attained without all the charades and fixations on social standing and superciliousness practiced by the Victorians.
The title works on two levels. The first has to do with the desire of the female characters to have a romantic liaison with a man named Earnest, and referring to that name as the most suitable one for a man and the only acceptable one for a potential partner. The other level refers to the meaning of the word, i.e. the importance of being eager, enthusiastic, persistent, etc. and other words associated with earnestness. Indeed it is sheer persistence and force of will that allows the characters to work through the misunderstandings and mistaken identity issues that confuse their relationships and communications throughout the play.