The Importance of Being Earnest Themes
The three main themes in The Importance of Being Earnest are morals and morality, love and passion, and culture clash.
- Morals and morality: Much of the play’s comedy stems from the ways various characters flaunt the moral strictures of the day, without ever behaving beyond the pale of acceptable society.
- Love and passion: One of Wilde’s satiric targets is romantic and sentimental love, which he ridicules by having the women fall in love with a man because of his name rather than more personal attributes.
- Culture clash: The play’s action is divided between the city and the country, London and the pastoral county of Hertfordshire.
Morals and Morality
Much of The Importance of Being Earnest's comedy stems from the ways various characters flaunt the moral strictures of the day, without ever behaving beyond the pale of acceptable society. The use of the social lie is pervasive, sometimes carried to great lengths as when Algernon goes "Bunburying" or Jack invents his rakish brother Earnest so that he may escape to the city. Another example is Miss Prism's sudden headache when the opportunity to go walking (and possibly indulge in some form of sexual activity) with Canon Chasuble presents itself.
Love and Passion
One of Wilde's satiric targets is romantic and sentimental love, which he ridicules by having the women fall in love with a man because of his name rather than more personal attributes. Wilde carries parody of romantic love to an extreme in the relationship between Algernon and Cecily, for she has fallen in love with him—and in fact charted their entire relationship—before ever meeting him. She writes of their love in her diary, noting the ups and downs of their affair, including authoring love letters to and from herself.
The play's action is divided between the city and the country, London and the pastoral county of Hertfordshire. Traditionally, locations like these symbolize different attitudes toward life, contrasting, for example, the corruption of urban living with the simple bucolic pleasures of rural farm life. As Jack says, "when one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring." Wilde's symbolism does not adhere rigidly to audience expectations, however. Though Jack is more sedate while in the country and more festive when in London, Cecily is far from the innocent she appears (and pretends to be around her guardian). Her handling of her "affair" with Algernon/Earnest shows her to be as competent in romance as any city woman. The trait is seen again when Gwendolen visits. During their tiff over just who gets Earnest (who they believe to be one man), Cecily holds her own and then some against her sophisticated city guest.
Language and Meaning
Those familiar with semiotic theory (signs and symbols) will notice the ways various characters in the play obsess over the signifier. The best example is the desire of both Gwendolen and Cecily to love men named Earnest. They see something mystical in the processing of naming and assume some connection between the word (the signifier) and the person (the signified), that one who is named Earnest will naturally behave earnestly.
Both Jack and Algernon struggle to remain free of the restrictions of Victorian convention. Jack does so by maintaining a double identity, being Jack in the country and Earnest in the city. Algernon achieves similar results by inventing an invalid named Bunbury who constantly requires his attentions. This similarity in Algernon and Jack's behavior also offers a clue to the men's true relationship as brothers (further duality is indicated by their respective attractions to very similar women, Gwendolen and Cecily).