The Importance of Being Earnest Analysis
by Oscar Wilde

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Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Moncrieff’s flat

Moncrieff’s flat. Elegant London flat of the bachelor Algernon Moncrieff in which the first act of the play is set. The flat is complete with butler and other accoutrements of a life of leisure. This milieu provides the backdrop for Algernon’s insouciance, wit, and idle life. The drawback to his lovely home is its proximity to the home of his aunt, Lady Bracknell, a dragon lady and master of the non sequitur. Her incursions into Algernon’s life often force him to flee to the country to care for his invalid friend, Bunbury, whom he has invented for this purpose.

Manor House

Manor House. Hertfordshire home of Algernon’s friend Jack Worthing, who also has a London home. This house provides the setting for the second and third acts of the play. Worthing is the guardian of Miss Cecily Cardew, who is instructed in the German language by her governess, Miss Prism, and in religion by the Reverend Canon Chasuble; they all reside in this rural retreat. Worthing escapes to London by receiving phone calls from an imaginary brother whom he must rescue from scrapes.

While Algernon escapes London to care for his imaginary sick friend Bunbury in the country, Worthing escapes from the country by looking out for his imaginary brother in the city. The two worlds of the play collide and make for comic results when Algernon comes to the Manor House posing as Worthing’s brother Ernest. The arrival of Lady Bracknell leads to exposure of the imaginary friendships and identities and makes possible true love among the young people.

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 2,062 words.)