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

Start Free Trial

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The nearest thing to a method that can be found in The Importance of Being Earnest is Wilde's determination to turn every social convention and popular precept on its head. Languishing young lovers are supposed to refuse all sustenance and pine away, so Wilde's characters, of course, do the exact opposite. Algernon even states this as a general principle:

When I am in trouble, eating is the only thing that consoles me. Indeed, when I am in really great trouble, as any one who knows me intimately will tell you, I refuse everything except food and drink. At the present moment I am eating muffins because I am unhappy. Besides, I am particularly fond of muffins.

It is the ingredients of afternoon tea: muffins, crumpets, cucumber sandwiches and cake which play the largest part in the three-act version of The Importance of Being Earnest which is now most often performed. The continual mention of such foods help to create the impression of a fantastical land of the lotus-eaters "In which it seemed always afternoon." Wilde's original four-act version, however, contains a scene in which a solicitor named Gribsby arrives at Jack's country house to arrest "Mr. Ernest Worthing" for having failed to pay his dinner or supper bills at the Savoy. The bills come to £762, 14 shillings and tuppence. Jack eventually pays Gribsby, but his intrusion is a grim reminder of the sordid reality that meals, even at the Savoy, must be paid for eventually.

Wilde's plays frequently reflected his life, and there is a bitter irony here. Gribsby threatens to take Algernon to Holloway prison, at which he indignantly protests:

Well, I really am not going to be imprisoned in the suburbs for having dined in the West End.

Within two months of the opening night of Earnest, Wilde was in Holloway prison himself, imprisoned for his failure to pay legal costs. The amount at stake was only £600, less than "Ernest's" bill at the Savoy.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Several scenes in The Importance of Being Earnest involve food, and the food usually serves as a prop to reveal characterization and/or relationships between characters and to invest the play with humor.

In the first Act of the play, the issue of the cucumber sandwiches reveals Algernon's selfishness and hypocrisy. He has his servant Lane prepare the sandwiches for his Aunt Augusta / Lady Bracknell, who is on her way to his flat for a visit. However, Algy eats all of the sandwiches while talking to his friend Jack / Ernest before Lady Bracknell arrives. Algy claims that he is allowed to eat them while Jack is not because Lady Bracknell is his aunt. Algernon shows himself to be greedy and selfish and also reveals that a different set of rules applies to him and to other people.

In Act II, Gwendolen and Cecily meet for the first time and are under the mistaken impression that they are both engaged to the same man (Ernest). Cecily expresses her aggression toward Gwendolen by ignoring her requests to have no sugar in her tea and giving her cake instead of the requested bread and butter. Gwendolen returns her aggression by making snide comments about how "the best houses" no longer serve cake. The ladies must not act "improperly" in front of the servant, so this also reveals that even when wanting to insult each other, the women will follow social mores.

Later in Act II, Jack and Algernon fight with each other while eating muffins. As in the earlier scene, Algy tries to eat all the muffins and make Jack eat tea cake. In other words, Algy continues to be greedy and selfish, as well as frivolous because he doesn't seem that troubled by the women finding out the men's real names and breaking off the relationships. Both men are acting like absurd children rather than mature adults.

All of the humor and characterization created by these food-related scenes allows Wilde to satirize the absurdity of the English upper class in the Victorian era.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Like the previous answer to this question stated, food is used in different ways, but mostly as a symbol of attachment and status.

The foods most well known for their cultivated taste, the crumpets and the cucumber sandwiches that Algernon eats after promising them to his aunt, are a symbol of detachment from his responsibility towards her.

The huge meals in which he indulges and never pays for in restaurants are also a symbol of detachment from his responsibilities towards society in general.

The requirement of a meal when he went to meet Cecily against Earnest's will was his way of making a bond and attaching Cecily to him.

The showdown between Cecily and Gwendolyn over their respective "Earnests" had its insults thrown around in the form of food:

Cecily's offering of cake and sugar lumps for the tea denoted her lack of sophistication according to Gwendolyn, who was devoted to bread and butter, and unsweetened tea: She finds these more "fashionable" and even "honorable." And the offer that Cecily made of cake and sugar was met with haughtiness as ammo for insults.

The final food mention in the story shows Algernon and Earnest eating THE VERY FOOD that Cecily and Gwendolyn were fighting over. This may be another symbol of their overall detachment to THEM. We know that Oscar Wilde was not only homosexual but he did show a specific disdain for marriage and the idea of it, in general. In his plays, he likes to present the idea of a man ignoring their nagging female companions.

Perhaps when Algernon and Earnest ate the all-important cake and tea and bread and butter, they were basically telling off the very angry women, and indulging instead of the company of food, used here as a symbol of detachment.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The role of food is connected to the presence of social mores and conventions. The central food-related scene is of course the tea service between Cecile and Gwendolyn. The social niceties of the tea ceremony allow the women to channel their anger and anxiety into the the ritual, and to accuse each other of inadequacies of social status is their habits regarding the taking of afternoon tea. As well, one of the Earnest characters has an appreciation for "muffins" and their presence in an average tea setting. This reveals this character to be one who is sensual in nature and attached to his personal rituals and habits, thereby showing him to be someone not necessarily suited for marriage, which is of course one major social theme of he play.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial