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 role of religion in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde?

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The Importance of Being Earnest is not a particularly "religious play," but there is a character who is associated with the church—Reverend Chasuble—and two of the main characters seek Christenings. Religion, or at least the way it is used and viewed by the Victorian upper class, is a subject of ridicule in the play.

Reverend Chasuble is a serious man who serves as the parish religious figure in the country, where Jack Worthing has a home. He erroneously claims that he cannot be married, according to "the ancient church" when Miss Prism suggests he may want to take a wife. He is depicted as having strange mannerisms and ways of speaking (making random metaphorical associations, for example). He is respected by those around him, but that isn't saying much, as the other characters seem rather silly and superficial. One redeeming quality about Chasuble is that he does propose to Miss Prism at the end of the play, and unlike the other engagements we see, their relationship is based on a long acquaintance and mutual interest based on more than looks or family name.

The issue of Christenings is probably the primary way religion becomes involved in the play. Jack Worthing pretends to have a younger brother named Ernest, but this is really just Jack's alter ego while in town. Gwendolen has fallen in love with him thinking his name is Ernest, so Jack insists on being christened with the name to make it official. Similarly, Cecily wants to marry a man named Ernest, so Algernon also arranges to be christened under the name. The men argue immaturely about this ridiculous plan, thinking only one can have his name changed to Ernest. Chasuble agrees to do the christenings, as well, so we can see that all around this is completely absurd. Upon first setting up the christening with Chasuble, Jack finds out that there will be a set of baby twins baptized at the time Jack wants the ceremony to be performed. Jack replies,

Oh! I don't see much fun in being christened along with other babies. It would be childish. Would half past five do? (act 2)

First of all, christenings are supposed to be serious religious services initiating infants into the faith, and to call them "fun" is to downplay their significance. He also points out, ironically, that it would be "childish" to be "christened along with other babies." His behavior and Algernon's is childish throughout the play, and he here even admits to being a "baby" himself when he places himself alongside "other babies." He then immediately follows up his objection with a question affirming that he still wants to go through with this. Basically, the men are making a mockery of the religious ceremony for their own absurd ends.

Like upper-class mannerisms, values, and marriage practices, upper-class Victorian attitudes towards religion are satirized in The Importance of Being Earnest.

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One way to explore the role of religion in The Importance of Being Earnest is through the discussions of christenings that take place between different characters in the play. From a Christian's point of view, a christening is a very significant event in a person's spiritual life, but in the play, Jack and Algernon's casual treatment of the event reflects a loose understanding of its significance and a playful disrespect of the Christian religion.

A christening often coincides with a baptism, which is a sacrament during which a person's original sin is cleansed from the person. According to many Christians, God commanded that baptisms take place to officialize a person's status as a true and recognized child of God. Jack and Algernon do not have religion on their minds as they consider their own christenings; rather, they are thinking of their own pleasure and satisfaction, which are decidedly un-Christian values.

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The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde is a play that satirizes many forms of Victorian conventions. Religion is no exception. For the upper class characters of the book, religion functions as a social convention, rather like serving tea. 

The main religious elements of the play involve The Reverend Frederick Chasuble, D.D., a clergyman in the Church of England, who is called upon to christen the two young men who desire to be named Earnest. He is a stereotypical caricature of the English divine: celibate, of indeterminate age, obsessed with obscure scholarly questions about the Primitive Church, and unworldly in the sense that he is utterly impractical. He is almost obsessively concerned with the outward details of religious ceremony. He displays little of what might be considered genuine faith, and is quite flexible in his willingness to baptize and marry people with little regard for the spiritual suitability of the participants.

In his focus on the outward forms of religion, Reverend Chasuble functions as the spiritual equivalent of Lady Bracknell's obsession with the outward conventions of society. In the play, then, religion becomes reduced to social convention. 

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