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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What is the significance of earnestness in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest?

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The importance of being "earnest" in Oscar Wilde's play named with these same words is that in order to have a honest relationship with others, people must be sincere and have realistic and honest convictions.

With typical cleverness and humor, Wilde employs a pun upon the nouns earnest and Ernest. The use of this pun allows the humorous machinations of Jack, who manufactures another character named Ernest, a character that provides him alibis for his various activities and helps him to appear as an earnest young man. In the final irony of the play, Jack learns that his real name is Ernest Moncrieff, and he is the brother of Algernon, against whom he has been competing.

All of the pretense involving the name Ernest points to the insincerity and hypocrisy of the Victorian Age in which young men lived double lives. Also, the emphasis upon the name Ernest for a husband ridicules the idea of true earnestness, a virtue supposedly highly valued by moralist Victorians. In the end, Wilde's satire is complete when Jack learns that his real name is Ernest.

Through his use of satire, Wilde demonstrates that the virtue of being earnest is not just having the superficial appearance of earnestness. Instead, being earnest is truly being genuine and sincere in words and actions. It is a virtue, not a pretense. This virtue can be attained without all the charades and fixations on social standing and superciliousness practiced by the Victorians.

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The title works on two levels. The first has to do with the desire of the female characters to have a romantic liaison with a man named Earnest, and referring to that name as the most suitable one for a man and the only acceptable one for a potential partner. The other level refers to the meaning of the word, i.e. the importance of being eager, enthusiastic, persistent, etc. and other words associated with earnestness. Indeed it is sheer persistence and force of will that allows the characters to work through the misunderstandings and mistaken identity issues that confuse their relationships and communications throughout the play.

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What is the importance of being Earnest in the play?

In Oscar's personal world, there is absolutely NO importance of that. In the world in which Oscar lived, however, it was the current meme. "Being Earnest" as a meme suggests the quality of life that Victorians wanted to achieve or to at least pretend to achieve in front of their peers. Wholesome, true, religious, just think "Waltons" and you'll be good to go.

 Oscar made this play seem so obviously punny that if any "true" Victorian at the time actually laughed during the play, he or she must have known that they were actually laughing at themselves. 

Hence, the importance of "being Earnest" is that it embodies the values of the time in a society where hypocrisy was King. (or Queen?)

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What is the importance of being Earnest in the play?

It is a pun. The play is all about two things: 1) The importance of being Earnest, the person (in order to find love), and 2) The importance of being earnest, in the sense of being sober, honest, straightforward. This was a major social concern at the time, and Wilde stands it on its head, making fun of it as a role that people play.

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