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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Justify the title The Importance of Being Earnest.

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The title "The Importance of Being Earnest" carries a dual meaning. Firstly, it represents the thematic idea of sincerity, reflecting the characters' use of deception and secrecy for personal gains. Secondly, it refers to the male name "Ernest", a pseudonym used by Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff to pursue their romantic interests. The name "Ernest" is pivotal to the resolution of the play's conflicts, emphasizing its "importance".

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The title has a dual meaning as it pertains to the play as a whole.

First, the title's significance lies in the denotation of the word "earnest." Defined as a quality of being sincere, the word is an important thematic idea in the play as a whole, since several characters use secrecy and deception in order to pursue their own interests. The tangle of lies causes several conflicts among the characters, chiefly relating to their romantic pursuit of one another. The title of the play is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the lack of honesty within the characters in the text.

The second way the title is significant relates to the homophonic male name Ernest. Both Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff use the pseudonym Ernest to woo the ladies in whom they are romantically interested, Gwendolen and Cecily, respectively. For both of these women, the name Ernest is what makes the man in her life especially attractive, as she insists that she is destined to marry a man bearing the moniker.

In fact, Gwendolen nearly breaks off her engagement to Worthing because he reveals that his name is, in fact, not Ernest. It is revealed, however, that Worthing was indeed christened under the name Ernest at his birth prior to being lost and adopted by another family. Gwendolen then agrees to marry Worthing as planned. This shows that the play's title also refers to the name Ernest, since it is essential to resolving the conflicts of the play.

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Summarize the denouement of The Importance of Being Earnest.

By definition the denouement of work of fiction is the resolution of the conflicts and the wrapping up of any other unsettled issues in the story.  In the case of this play, the central conflict has been the fact that both Algernon and Jack have become engaged to two women who both think they are engaged to an Ernest Worthing (who doesn't actually exist in the first place!). Jack/Ernest has the further complication of wanting to marry Gwendolyn, whose mother refuses to allow her daughter to marry someone with no family name of social relations to secure his place in society.  Once both girls realize they have been duped, they both retreat from the men, but they rather quickly forgive the "Ernest" lie and continue on with their romances. 

The final denouement of the story comes from the story of Miss Prism.  Up until the very end of the play, she seemed to just a minor character of little consequence, but Lady Bracknell, Gwendolyn's mother, realizes that Miss Prism is the same Miss Prism who "misplaced" her nephew when he was a baby.  She confused him with her manuscript and left him in a big hand bag that she then accidently left in a train station.  Therefore, it is revealed that Jack Worthing is actually a Moncrieff, thus he DOES have a family name of social status.  The final piece of the story comes from the fact that when they ask what his real first name is, it is revealed that he was named after his father, Ernest Moncrieff, so he really IS named Ernest.  Gwendolyn couldn't be happier and Jack can now, with earnest, say his name is Ernest and that he has a brother -- Algernon. 

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Summarize the denouement of The Importance of Being Earnest.

The very last page of the play doesn't quite explain it all, but there is one final realization that the reader should pick up on.  As Jack reads from the book the names of the men in the army lists of the period, he reads down through the names alphabetically.  As he reaches the name of Moncrieff, he hesitates when he sees the name, then the says the first two names of General Moncrieff: Ernest John.  Then the stage directions say he "Puts book very quietly down and speaks quite calmly." He's obviously making it up.  He could have shown everyone, but he very slyly closes the book and sets it down.  The last few lines are when Lady Bracknell realizes what he's done and says, "My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality."  He replies that he has finally realized the "importance of being earnest."  Notice the spelling of EARNEST.  He took advantage so that he could get what he wanted and needed.  So he lied!  That was final ending.

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Can you summarize The Importance of Being Earnest?

The Importance of Being Earnestsatirizes Victorian propriety, suggesting that behaving according to all of the rules can result in absurdity. It plays on the double meaning of "earnest" as being sincere (an important Victorian value) as well a person's name, for Earnest is the protagonist in the story. The play also satirizes identity, in that the protagonist has two of them, one for the city and one for the country, thus allowing him to be two different people. In fact the plot turns on a series of mistaken identities as well as a series of events mistaken in one way or another, culminating in the fact that Earnest/Jack as well as his good friend Algernon marrying the women they seek. This only occurs, however, after identities are clarified (Earnest's as well as his "ward" Cecily's and Cecily's teacher's (Miss Prism's)identity, too!) by the end of the play.

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