Last Updated on August 8, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1476
Freedom within Strict Moral Codes: The Victorian era was marked by strict moral codes and values: for example, industriousness, sobriety, and respectability. While admirable, they were also confining and repressive. There was no room for anything less than perfection, which put a strain on many.
- For discussion: How do Jack and Algernon avoid the strict moral codes of the Victorian era to live different lives? Give examples from the text.
- For discussion: How do Gwendolen and Cecily make their lives interesting outside of the strict expectations of women during the Victorian era? Give examples from the text.
- For discussion: Contrast Jack’s, Algernon’s, and Cecily’s lives against the ideals of Victorian morality. In what ways do they align with those ideals? In what ways do they transgress?
The Aesthetic Movement and Wilde’s Earnest: Wilde was a passionate proponent of the Aesthetic movement, a belief in “Art for art’s sake.” Mainstream visual arts and literature of the time tended toward moralizing and instruction. Aesthetes believed that living life beautifully was the best way to live life to its fullest. Many critics have written that Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest represents the one play he wrote that incorporates his support of and immersion in the Aesthetic movement.
- For discussion: How does Wilde represent his adherence to aestheticism through Jack and Algernon? Give examples from the text.
- For discussion: Discuss Lady Bracknell as a foil for aestheticism. Give examples from the text.
- For discussion: Is Cecily an aesthete? Use examples from the text to support your answer.
The Importance of Knowing Your Lineage: Members of the upper class and aristocracy during the Victorian era were especially concerned with living lives of moral rectitude. One of the most important aspects of Victorian morality was the ability to trace one’s lineage back to other morally upright ancestors. Jack did not know who his parents were and so was deemed morally suspect by Lady Bracknell, to the point that she forbade him to marry the one woman he desired. As Lady Bracknell saw it, it was not respectable to have been found at a train station as an infant.
- For discussion: How does Lady Bracknell embody and enforce the beliefs and codes upper classes/aristocracy in The Importance of Being Earnest? Give examples from the text.
- For discussion: In what way is Jack to blame for being left as in infant in a handbag at Victoria Station? How does the circumstance of his birth create problems for him? How does he live with the fact that he is of unknown parentage while moving through the highest levels of London society? Use examples from the text to support your answers.
Additional Discussion Questions:
- In act 1, Algernon says, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Explain the rationale behind this statement.
- The play’s subtitle is “A trivial comedy for serious people.” How appropriate is this? Why?
- What examples of social criticism can you find in the play? What in particular is being criticized or satirized?
- What are some particularly funny moments in the play? How does Oscar Wilde create such humor?
Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching
Double Identities May Create Confusion: The main engine of the plot is the hilarity that ensues when two men create fictitious people to hide behind when their lives feel too constricted. However, some students may become confused by all of the names and lose track of “who’s who.”
- What to do: Plays were written to be performed. Before they begin reading the play, show them the first 15 minutes or so of the DVD of The Importance of...
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- Being Earnest. We recommend the 2002 version, starring Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon, and Dame Judi Dench. Their faces are recognizable and will give students a “face” to concentrate on while reading the play. The director changes up time sequences and details quite a bit, so there is little chance of spoiling the actual text once it’s time to read the play.
- What to do: Explain to students that “Jack” is another name for “John.” This will help to clear up further name confusions.
- What to do: Have students create a diagram of characters in which they write the names of the principle characters, their aliases, and how they are related to one another. Students can refer to the diagram throughout the play.
Wilde’s Diction and Syntax Are Unfamiliar: Many of the words Wilde uses, drawn from his Victorian vocabulary, may be unfamiliar to students in the contemporary classroom.
- What to do: Before teaching the story, have students complete a vocabulary study of the more challenging words they will encounter in each chapter. Rather than giving students a list of vocabulary words, give them a handout with phrases from the text that contain the words, thus placing the words in context. Have students highlight or underline the vocabulary word in each phrase.
- What to do: If a vocabulary word has strong connotative meaning, discuss what the word implies and how the connotations enhance the meaning of the passage.
Wilde’s Allusions Are Unfamiliar: Wilde was deeply enmeshed in high society and knew “where to go,” “where to live,” and how to navigate the conventions of the Victorian era. Many of the allusions he makes are unfamiliar to those outside Wilde’s milieu of patrician Victorians.
- What to do: Point out that many of Wilde’s allusions would be especially familiar to British readers because they reference historical figures in English history, historical places in Great Britain, and well-known English locales, while other allusions reference literature and American culture.
- What to do: As students read the story, have them list the allusions in each act that are unfamiliar to them. Explain the allusions, using the Significant Allusions section in this Teaching Guide for reference.
Alternative Approaches to Teaching The Importance of Being Earnest
To have students consider the story from an alternative perspective, focus on the following in teaching the text:
Focus on the play’s title. The Importance of Being Earnest is the title of the play. Have your students unpack all of the puns and double entendres in the play’s title. Have them locate and discuss the situations Wilde creates in the play that relate directly to the title.
- Have students define the word “earnest” and point out that the name “Ernest” is spelled differently but pronounced identically. Gwendolen and Cecily have a particular affinity for the name: “My ideal has always been to love someone of the name Ernest” (Gwendolen, act 1); “There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence” (Cecily, act 2). The fact that both men pretend to be Ernest shows that they are willing to continually flout the truth to get what they want. Have students pull examples from the play of the men being less than earnest with each other, the women they woo, their servants, and Lady Bracknell.
- Point out to students that the importance of being earnest is about the importance of being honest in all things as a major component of societal respectability. The importance of being “Ernest” is about the importance of being named Ernest in order to wed Gwendolen and Cecily. Paradoxically, when Jack and Algernon are Ernest, they are precisely the opposite of earnest.
Focus on the myriad lies told in the play. Algernon and Jack practically elevate the telling of lies to an art form. Aesthetes believed in “Art for art’s sake” and eschewed moralizing and instruction. True aesthetes, Jack and Algernon take joy in one-upping each other with lies that become more and more outlandish as the play continues.
- Algernon and Jack do not suffer any adverse consequences for their serial lying. In fact, their initial lies set them up to meet the women of their dreams. This is an especially aesthetic philosophy: lying will not be punished in the end. Neither man betrays any sense of guilt for having lied to everyone throughout the play.
- Miss Prism and Dr. Chusable, a governess and a vicar, set up trysts throughout acts 2 and 3, lying about their intentions in public. It is another relationship built on lies.
Focus on the play as a story about leading a double life. Cultures with strict moral codes often cause individuals to veil certain behaviors and desires from public view. The Importance of Being Earnest features characters who go against the cultural grain in an effort to lead more authentic lives.
- The principal characters all confess to being unhappy living according to the Victorian roles and rules passed down from the upper classes. They ultimately succeed in finding ways to get what they want without paying a price.