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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So you’re going to teach The Importance of Being Earnest. Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, Oscar Wilde’s classic play has been a mainstay of English classrooms for generations. While it has its challenging spots, teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. It will give them unique insight into puns and situational irony, as well as important themes surrounding conformity, morality and truth, hypocrisy, and romantic love. This guide highlights the text's most salient aspects to keep in mind before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance 

  • Publication Date: 1895 
  • Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level:
  • Approximate Word Count: 17, 000 
  • Author: Oscar Wilde 
  • Country of Origin: England 
  • Genre: Comedy, Farce 
  • Literary Period: Victorian 
  • Conflict: Person vs. Self, Person vs. Person, Person vs. Society 
  • Literary Devices: Dramatic Irony 
  • Setting: London, England; Hertfordshire, England; late 1800s 
  • Mood: Humorous, Witty, Absurd

Texts That Go Well With The Importance of Being Earnest

Handbag, Or the Importance of Being Someone by Mark Ravenhill (1998). Mark Ravenhill’s turn-of-the-millennium update of Wilde’s comedy tells the story of two same-sex couples who navigate the waters of adoption and artificial insemination. Like its source material, the play explores the difficulties of leading an unconventional life in a strict society. 

Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare (c 1598). Shakespeare’s classic romantic comedy of errors shares many thematic concerns with Wilde’s play: the morality of infidelity, the malleability of gender roles, the consequences of deception, and the frustrations of mistaken identity. 

Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw (1913). Henry Higgins endeavors to transform a common flower girl into a cultured lady who will be accepted by the upper classes and aristocracy as “one of their own.” Her attempts to adapt to rigid moral conventions produce much of the comedy of the play. Like Wilde’s play, Pygmalion explores the themes of leading a double life and living life beautifully. 

Travesties, by Tom Stoppard (1974). The main character, Henry Carr, tells a story of famous people he knew in younger days, from Dadaist Tristan Tzara, to James Joyce, to Vladimir Lenin. However, his memories of them are becoming hazy and begin to mix with his long-ago portrayal of Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest, which makes Wilde’s play and its characters an all-too-real part of his reality. 

Vanity Fair, by William Thackeray (1848). This novel satirizes Victorian society as a whole and refuses to send the optimistic message that social change, political change, or improved moral behavior will reform society. By contrast, Wilde’s play depicts characters who learn to live well within the bounds of the confining Victorian culture. 

The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope (1875). This novel is concerned with how greed and dishonesty infected the commercial, political, and intellectual life of England. Like Wilde’s play, Trollope’s novel constitutes a literary critique of the Victorian Age, though its aims are somewhat different.

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Key Plot Points