The Importance of Being Earnest
The two main male characters, Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing, constrained by the rigid conventions of the Victorian upper class, have been leading double lives. Algy’s alter ego is “Bunbury,” while Jack has invented a fictitious brother named Ernest, whose loose behavior he claims to control but which he actually emulates. Jack falls in love with Gwendolyn Fairfax, Algy’s cousin, and Algy falls in love with Cecily Cardew, Jack’s ward.
Each of these ladies, moreover, is attracted to her respective beau on the assumption that his name is Ernest. Gwendolyn’s mother, Lady Bracknell, is dissatisfied with Jack’s account of his origins--he was an orphan--and thus forbids the relationship. Meanwhile, in order to marry Cecily, Algy makes arrangements to be rechristened Ernest.
The interaction of these four characters produces many delicious complications turning on the question of who is truly Ernest. Reversing her previous position when she learns the size of Cecily’s fortune, Lady Bracknell consents to Algy’s match. Jack, however, withholds his agreement considering Lady Bracknell’s opposition to his match with Gwendolyn. The impediment to this alliance finally dissolves when it emerges that Jack is actually Algy’s older brother and, moreover, named Ernest. This multiple coincidence resolves the differences between all parties.
This delightful comedy uses the devices of farce and cheerfully empty repartee to satirize the emotional shallowness of the English ruling class in the late nineteenth century. The elevation of style over substance, of words over reality, of earnestness over honesty of feeling, exposes the tendency toward triviality and pomposity in high society everywhere.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. A study that focuses on Wilde’s recklessness, which provides background for The Importance of Being Earnest. Includes detailed references to the play’s creation, variant editions and versions, and amendations. Full of comical, lurid stories that add fodder to the Wilde legend.
Ericksen, Donald H. Oscar Wilde. Boston: Twayne, 1977. Regards The Importance of Being Earnest as the culmination of Wilde’s dramatic creativity. In this play, he integrates his aesthetic principles well despite the contrived language, plot, and characters. Ericksen demonstrates that the...
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