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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How does Oscar Wilde generate humor in The Importance of Being Earnest?

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In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde produces humor through farce and satire.

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While Oscar Wilde's witty dialogue is no doubt a chief comedic delight, The Importance of Being Earnest also utilizes elements of farce and the comedy of manners style to mine humor out of its story. A farce is typically a comedic plot that focuses on outrageous situations often involving mistaken identity and exaggerated characters. A comedy of manners mocks the behavior of a class of people, usually the upper classes and the wealthy in general.

Use of farce in The Importance of Being Earnest manifests in Jack and Algernon's use of alter egos depending upon what social circle they are among. Their use of these alternative identities causes much confusion and trouble within the play.

As a comedy of manners, the play mocks the behavior of the upper class, particularly in regards to prizing manners and custom over all else. Lady Bracknell is the prime target for such mockery, obsessing over trivial details and acting in outright oblivious rudeness for the purpose of proper social cues. Algernon also gets his share of mockery, such as when he makes sure to eat his muffins "calmly" in spite of recent upsetting developments with Cecily and Gwendolyn. His greater attention to his own pleasure and the proper consumption of muffins shows just how frivolous and shallow the upper class can be.

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The humor in The Importance of Being Earnest is primarily a result of dialogue and the ridiculous ways that the characters act. This play can be considered a comedy of manners, because it is explicitly meant to mock and satirize the way the rich behave. The dialogue often shows how the characters are vapid and self-concerned, often having responses that are completely incongruous with the conversations they're having.

Lady Bracknell's response to death is a good example of this. Rather than offer sympathy, Lady Bracknell chooses to place blame and fret about whether or not her dinner arrangements might still work. Dialogue also often includes witty turns of phrase but not real substance of meaning. Wilde intends to use these devices to show the ways that the upper class are frivolous and corrupt in a way that invites us to laugh at them.

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Oscar Wilde uses irony to produce humor in this play. For example, there is a great deal of dramatic irony, when the audience knows more than one or more characters. Lady Bracknell does not realize that her nephew, Algernon, is lying to her when he uses his invalid friend, Bunbury, to get out of social engagements with her. Gwendolen does not know that the man she loves is really Jack Worthing and not Ernest, as she hopes. Cecily, of course, does not realize that the man she loves is not Ernest Worthing but, rather, Algernon Moncrieff. All of these examples of dramatic irony lead to humorous conversations and situations when the dishonest characters' pretenses are revealed (or "exploded," as is the case with Mr. Bunbury). It is also an example of situational irony, when what we expect his different from what actually happens, when we learn that Algernon and Jack actually are brothers, especially after they have pretended to be! We certainly do not expect Lady Bracknell to recognize Miss Prism, or for Jack to produce the handbag in which he was found by Mr. Cardew only to learn that it once belonged to his young ward's governess. All of these ironies produce humor in the play.

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In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde utilizes wit and satire to create a humorous effect.

Wilde’s plays are famously witty. He plays on words to create exchanges with minor misunderstandings, such as when Jack admits to Lady Bracknell that his parents are dead. Her response is as follows:

“To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

Her seemingly insensitive response is funny because of the very nature of the comment: she does not appear to understand the implication that Jack’s parents are dead, and upon learning that Jack had never known who they were, she advises him to produce at least one parent of either sex. Lady Bracknell continues in this vein for the entirety of the play, embodying the snobbish upper class and showcasing their shallowness. Her outright rudeness is humorous in itself, and her outrageous views satirize the upper class.

Algernon is one of the foremost sources of humor in the play. Algernon exemplifies the aestheticism that Wilde championed; he is concerned with his own pleasure and style over any sort of conventional morality. As a confessed Bunburyist, Algernon sneaks away from his responsibilities in the city under the guise of visiting an ill friend in the country; with no guilt whatsoever he lies to maintain his current lifestyle. He is often seen as being heartless, and indeed acts in an according manner—when Jack becomes angry at him for calmly eating muffins after Gwendolyn and Cecily have decided that they are no longer engaged to either man, Algernon only responds:

"Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them."

Jack responds quite reasonably given the circumstances: "I say it’s perfectly heartless your eating muffins at all, under the circumstances.” This is just one of the many displays of wit present in The Importance of Being Earnest.

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In Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, what makes the play funny?

What makes Wilde's play funny begins at line two of First Act, scene one. Algernon is heard playing the piano from the room adjoining the opening setting. He enters and asks his manservant, Lane, if he heard what was being played. Lane responds: "I didn't think it polite to listen, sir." This is funny because Lane is clearly being ludicrous: How could it be impolite to hear that which is very openly presented, and how can one not hear piano music played without secretiveness in the next room? In sum, Wilde throughout The Importance of Being Earnest has his characters, one right after the other, say quite ludicrous things with perfectly serious demeanor, as when Algernon later says:

girls never marry the men they flirt with. ... It accounts for the extraordinary number of bachelors that one sees all over the place.

The next thing that makes Wilde's play funny is represented in Algernon's rejoinder to Lane. Algernon says that he regrets that Lane didn't hear because even though he does not "play accurately--any one can play accurately," he does play with "wonderful expression"--wonderful feeling and wonderful emotion. This is funny because Wilde takes essential definitions of things--to play music is to play it accurately--and turns them the other way round while the characters see the illogical things they utter as perfectly logical. In sum, Wilde takes the assumptions of society and turns them into inverted paradoxes that poke fun at presumption and artifice in society. This point is further illustrated in a later exchange between Algernon and Lane:

Algernon.  [Languidly.]  I don’t know that I am much interested in your family life, Lane.
Lane.  No, sir; it is not a very interesting subject.  I never think of it myself.
Algernon.  Very natural, I am sure.

The third thing that makes this play so funny is the interplay between names and identities that is introduced when Algernon says to Jack, who has recently come in and been directed to eat bread and butter instead of extravagant cucumber sandwiches: "you will have to clear up the whole question of Cecily."

The confusion of names and and identities is a satire on society's insistence on marriage to a person with a good name, which is a metonymy for having a good family background and lineage (metonymy: a word closely associated with a thing, place, or concept that stands in for that thing, place or concept, as in Washington for the U.S. government: e.g., It was decided in Washington today ....). It is this confusion of names and identities that comprises the bulk of the humor of the play, but the humor would attain lesser heights if not bolstered by the first two elements of humor.

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