Explain The Significance Of The Full Title Of The Play The Importance Of Being Earnest

What is the meaning of the title The Importance of Being Earnest?

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The title of Oscar Wilde's most successful playThe Importance of Being Earnestfeatures a salient pun in the form of the word "earnest", which means "honest", and "truthful" and the name "Ernest" which is the name of the alter ego that main character Jack Worthing uses to slide away from responsibilities and do as he pleases.

The reality is, however, that nobody in the play seems to be very "earnest" as it is. Algernon proudly and blatantly lies just about everything under the sun while Jack criticizes Algernon. This, he does while Jack ALSO lies about this so-called bad brother named Ernest whom he has to rescue all the time by going to the city and staying there paying for all his follies. This same "Ernest" is the man that Algernon met for the first time. Remember that Algernon only comes to find out about Jack's real name when he accidentally finds "Ernest's" cigarette case with the inscription made to "Uncle Jack". Likewise, Jack also lied to Gwendolen by presenting himself as "Ernest".

What is important, however, is that the title of the play reflects that there is something valuable and even honorable about being "earnest", or honest. However, all the while everybody in the play has lied to each other in one way or another. The end is even more ironic; all the lies that Jack said...were actually true! When he finds out about his dead parents, and realizes that his name is dully Ernest, and that he does have a brother (Algernon), and that all this time he had been speaking out things that were actually true, Jack sanctimoniously says (which is even more ironic) "now I know the vital importance of being earnest"...in other words, he is basically saying "WOW, I was right all along? Then, yay for me!"

This is a direct hit from Wilde to all those prudish and so-called virtuous Victorians whom he detested more than anything. He mocked them directly in the play by exposing them for the claccist hypocrites that they really were.

favoritethings eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the end, with Jack's famous last line, "Now I know the vital importance of being earnest," he seems to imply that one only needs to be earnest when it actually suits one's purposes.  Jack was only accidentally honest.  If he had known his true parentage, this would still not have satisfied his need to escape his gentleman's life and behave illicitly from time to time.  Look at his brother, Algernon: he had to invent a permanent invalid named Bunbury just so he would have an excuse to get out of family engagements.  Therefore, Jack would likely still have been dishonest.

Furthermore, if Jack had known his true lineage, then he never would have become Cecily Cardew's ward.  If he had not invented a fictitious brother, Algernon could not have pretended to be him, and this would have left Jack without his love.  It is the end that justifies the means in this play, and when all the lies happen to add up to a truth, the ending results in happiness for everyone.  However, almost no one in the play behaves earnestly, and they all somehow end up with just what they wanted: Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble end up together despite her earlier gaffes and disappearance; Cecily and Algernon end up together, happily matched in finances and love; Gwendolen and Jack/Ernest also arrive at a similar end; Aunt Augusta can continue on, safe in the knowledge that her daughter has married someone of merit because he is from within their own family and that her nephew has married someone who can pay his debts.  This shows that being earnest is not really "vital" at all.

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The Importance of Being Earnest

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