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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History of the Text

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Aesthetic Movement and Victorian Literature: Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is arguably his most popular play. Audiences delighted in seeing Victorian values, customs, and morals satirized. The play’s first run began in London on February 14, 1895, a time when Queen Victoria’s reign (1837–1901) was nearing its close, a reign marked by an insistence on strict adherence to social values such as hard work, sobriety, and respectability. 

  • The Industrial Revolution was in full swing by the late 1870s, displacing country folk to cities, where they worked in dangerous conditions for low wages. Industrialists enjoyed wealth; laborers suffered in poverty. Factory owners and other businessmen formed the middle class, and they were wont to enjoy the lifestyles of the aristocracy, purchasing country houses and patronizing the arts. These societal changes contributed to the questioning of the strict codes people were expected to follow. 

Aesthetic Movement and Victorian Literature: The aesthetic movement began and peaked during Queen Victoria’s reign. It was chiefly concerned with “Art for art’s sake,” and “living beautifully.” Aestheticism emphasized beauty in art and literature rather than social-political themes. The movement can be traced to the English Romantic poets, namely Keats and Shelley, the French symbolist poets, such as Baudelaire and Mallarmé, and the writings of Oxford professor and art critic Walter Pater. Aesthetes were known for producing works of art and literature that evoke the senses and transgress rigid Victorian mores. They also sought to experience life outside strict Victorian codes, experimenting with sex, drugs, rich foods, fine alcohol, and lavish dress. These beliefs, values, and experiments directly opposed Victorian society, in which art and literature were didactic, romantic love was heterosexual, drugs were for degenerates, simple food was respected, alcohol was to be taken judiciously, if at all, and dress was plain, stiff, and proper. 

  • Wilde, a strong proponent of aestheticism, enjoyed using his wit, considerable vocabulary, and writing style to question accepted Victorian mores and values— often to comedic effect. The Victorians valued solemnity; Wilde valued extravagance and lived a carefree artistic life. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde satirizes Victorian traditions and beliefs surrounding birth, love, marriage, death, and respectability. 

Victorian Era and Family Values: During the Victorian era, familial lineage was very important. Any hint of scandal in one’s past or ancestry greatly affected public reputation. Divorce was seen as a shameful, children born out of wedlock were treated poorly, and children adopted with no record of parentage were suspect. If one’s birth parents were unknown, that could mean that one or both of the parents could have had something embarrassing or distasteful occur in their past. Therefore, the upper classes of Victorian society often refused marriage between someone of known parentage and someone of unknown parentage. 

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