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 play is a satire on the priggishness and hypocrisy often associated with late Victorian high society.
Ganz, Arthur. Realms of the Self: Variations on a Theme in Modern Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1980. Includes two excellent essays on The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as many allusions to it. Discusses the play as a conduit for self-discovery for all ages and lifestyles. Ganz exhibits a firm understanding of theatrical ploys and gimmicks.
Paglia, Camille. “The English Epicene: Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.” In Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990. A scintillating, provocative study of Wilde’s marketing of the 1890’s lifestyle. Discusses the extroverted, audience-pleasing aspects of Wilde’s play.
Powell, Kerry. Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890’s. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Provides extensive discussion of the London stage, with many behind-the-scenes glimpses. Discusses the various actors who performed in the play and analyzes the typical ingredients of Victorian farce. Includes an appendix of one hundred names and biographical information for each.