Illustration of Jack Worthing in a top hat and formal attire, and a concerned expression on his face

The Importance of Being Earnest

by Oscar Wilde

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Historical Context

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As the nineteenth century drew to a close, England witnessed a cultural and artistic turn against the values of Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901). These earlier virtues, such as self-help and respectability, were widely touted during the boom years of the 1860s and 1870s. However, people were less able to help themselves and raise their social standing in the late 1870s, when farming practices underwent a change which affected society as a whole.

Wheat-fields were converted to cattle pastures on a sweeping scale, and farmers suffered. While farmers were struggling, industrialists were profiting from their factories which employed workers at cheap wages. Factory owners and other businessmen formed the new middle class in England, and as they rose on the social ladder, they desired to imitate the aristocracy by owning houses in the countryside and becoming patrons of art.

As people began questioning the values of the mid-nineteenth century, artists responded in their own way by reacting against the mass-produced goods which were made possible by the Industrial Revolution and technological advances. Artists such as William Morris desired a return to simpler times when handmade furniture, for example, was valued for its craftsmanship. Morris despised the mass-produced objects which filled the Victorian home, fearing that traditional crafts such as woodworking and bookbinding would be lost in an era that overlooked the beauty of handmade objects in favor of high quantity. The term "Arts and Crafts," coined in 1888, refers to Morris's revival of traditional crafts, which he considered to be equal to any form of so-called "high art."

Morris argued that in earlier times, such as the Middle Ages (of which he held a decidedly romantic view), art was all around, in everyday life, in the form of beautifully worked tapestries, furniture, and books, which were not just admired as art objects but had a practical function as well.

Another way in which artists reacted against earlier Victorian values was by challenging the view that art had to be didactic or morally instructive. The leading critic of the time, John Ruskin, had earlier written that art's highest purpose was to instruct and enlighten. Ruskin was shocked when he saw a sketchy, impressionistic painting by James Abbot McNeill Whistler which had paint spattered on it; he claimed that Whistler had "flung a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler sued Ruskin for libel, winning the case and bringing the debate over the purpose of art into the public.

Supporters of Whistler approved of "art for art's sake," meaning that paintings like Whistler's need not have a purpose other than to be aesthetically pleasing, even if it was pleasing to see paint spattered on the canvas. The public could now decide for themselves what was "good" art; they did not need to rely on the views of critics like Ruskin to instruct them in the meaning of a painting.

This new movement in art came to be known as Aestheticism, as art could now be appreciated on
purely aesthetic terms. Wilde followed Whistler as the chief spokesperson for the movement, writing and lecturing on the beauty of art for art's sake and became known for his own desire to have life imitate art, not the other way around. Aesthetes such as Wilde were mocked in the popular British magazine Punch as foppish, unrealistic individuals who strove to live up to the beauty of their home furnishings.

Literary Style

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Romantic Comedy Most commonly seen in Shakespeare's romance plays like As You Like It or A Midsummer Night's Dream , the plot of a typical romantic comedy involves an idealized pair of lovers who the circumstances of...

(This entire section contains 421 words.)

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daily life or social convention seem destined to keep apart. Along the way, the lovers escape their troubles, at least for a while, entering an ideal world (like the Garden of Eden) where conflicts resolve and the lovers ultimately come together. The plots of such comedies contain pairs of characters and conclude happily, often exhibiting poetic justice, with the good rewarded and the evil punished.

While The Importance of Being Earnest certainly fits this description, it is a play that is appraised beyond simple romantic comedy. In fact, part of the play's wide and lasting appeal is that it so competently fits into any number of comedy genres, including comedies of manners, farces, and parodies.

Comedy of Manners Generally set in sophisticated society, this type of intellectual comedy privileges witty dialogue over plot, though social intrigue involving the problems of lovers—faithful and unfaithful—can be complicated. The comedy arises from the critique of the fashions, manners, and behavior of elevated society. While often featuring standard characters such as fools, fops, conniving servants, and jealous husbands, the action itself is largely realistic. At least one character, like the audience, accurately comprehends the foolish nature of the people and their situations. In addition to Restoration Comedies like William Congreve's The Way of the World, other examples would be Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, Sheridan's School for Scandal, and Noel Coward's Private Lives.

Farce This type of low comedy relies on physical gags, coarse wit, and generally broad humor. Laughter arises as exaggerated characters, sometimes caricatures of social types, extricate themselves from improbable situations. Farce occasionally involves disguise or the confusion of gender roles. Algernon's indulgence with food and his short attention span qualify him as a farcical character, as does Miss Prism's bumbling mix-up with her novel and the infant Jack.

Parody A work which, for comic or satiric effect, imitates another, familiar, usually serious work, mocking the recognizable trademarks of an individual author, style, or genre. Successful parody assumes an informed audience, with knowledge of the parodied target. For example, one of the most parodied works today is the "Mona Lisa" painting which shows up in cartoons, advertisements, and fine art. In Earnest, Wilde parodies, among other things, love at first sight by having his characters fall in love before they ever see each other.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1800s: Theatre is one of the most popular forms of mass entertainment. The number of theatres built in England doubles between 1850 and 1860, and on a given night in London alone, 150,000 people attend the theatre.

    Today: While theatre remains an important force in contemporary culture, many more people watch television and films.

  • 1800s: Women in England cannot vote or control their own property until a series of Married Women's Property Acts (1870-1908). Though the first college offering advanced education to women is founded in London in 1848, by the 1890s, women can take degrees at twelve British universities, and study, though not take degrees, at Oxford and Cambridge.

    Today: British women, like their American counterparts, vote, control their own property, and have all the same legal rights as men, including the right to advanced degrees in education.

  • 1800s: During the Victorian period, travel by rail makes business and vacation travel possible. Trains bring city and country closer together, expediting mail service and supplying rural areas with London newspapers and magazines.

    Today: Few people in America travel by rail; most drive cars or fly.

  • 1800s: Britain has a far-flung imperial empire, with colonies around the globe.

    Today: Most of Britain's colonies have achieved their independence, though they continue to be affiliated with the former empire as members of the British Commonwealth.

Media Adaptations

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  • Universal International Films released a film adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1953. Directed by Anthony Asquith, the film stars Michael Redgrave as Jack/Earnest. It is available on video from Paramount.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Beckson, Karl. "Oscar Wilde." In Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, Volume 4: Victorian Writers, 1832-1890. Gale, 1991, pp. 340-55.

Bentley, Eric. The Playwright As Thinker. Reynal & Hitchcock, 1946.

Foster, Richard. "Wilde As Parodist: A Second Look at 'The Importance of Being Earnest.'" In College English, Vol. 18, no. 1, October, 1956, pp. 18-23.

Pountney, Rosemary. "The Importance of Being Earnest." In The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady. St. James Press, 1992.

Reinert, Otto. "Satiric Strategy in 'The Importance of Being Earnest.'" In College English, Vol. 18, no. 1, October, 1956, pp. 14-18.

Roditi, Edourd. Oscar Wilde. New Directions, 1986.

Further Reading Beckson, Karl, ed. Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage. Routlege, 1970. Focusing on the years 1881 to 1927, this book offers particular insight into Wilde's theatrical writings.

Briggs, Asa. The Age of Improvement. Longman, 1988. A readable, comprehensive history of the mid-Victorian years in England. Useful for understanding the nineteenth century generally, including social history.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. 1988. This is the standard literary biography of Wilde, providing a wealth of detail about his personal life as well as insight into the composition of his works.

Ellmann, Richard, ed. Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays. Prentice-Hall, 1969. Most helpful for exploring the thinking about Wilde by his contemporaries such as W. B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw.

Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Capital, 1848-1875. McKay, 1975. Although this history concentrates on the middle of the nineteenth century, Hobsbawm usefully situates the roots of social trends that would influence British society in the 1890s.

Holland, Vyvyan B. Oscar Wilde: A Pictorial Biography. Viking, 1961. Holland is Wilde's son. While this book contains a brief biography, the highlights are the fine photographs of Wilde and many of the people in his life, public and private.


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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.




Critical Essays