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 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...
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