Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being EarnestWhile some critics contend that The Importance of Being Earnest iscompletely fanciful and has no relation to the real world, others maintain thatOscar Wilde’s “trivial comedy for serious people” does make significant commentsabout social class and the institution of marriage. These observations includethe prevalent utilization of deceit in everyday affairs. Indeed the charactersand plot of the play appear to be entirely irreverent, thus lending weight tothe comedic, fanciful aspect. However, this same factor also serves toilluminate the major points that Wilde tries to convey about the English societyin which he lived.Throughout the course of the play, Wilde portrays each of the maincharacters in a way that reflects his views of the English aristocracy.Algernon Moncrieff and Jack(Ernest) Worthington represent the prototypical malebachelors.
In the opening act, set in Algernon’s flat, the two meet and displaywhat appears to be their usual daily activities. Neither is employed, and it isapparent that their only occupation is the pursuit of leisure activities andsocial matters, subjects of major importance to them. When Algernon inquires asto the purpose of Ernest’s visit to town, Ernest replies, “Oh pleasure,pleasure! What else should bring anyone anywhere? Eating as usual, I see Algy!”.Algeron and Ernest are characterized by their extravagance, a luxury affordableonly because of the money accrued from family inheritance. Neither displays anynotion of an appreciation for money. In fact, when Algernon’s butler hands himbills that have just arrived in the mail, Algernon simply rips them up.
Wilde’s conception of deceit as an accepted custom in Englisharistocracy is also existent in this scene. The practice of “Bunburying” isestablished, an act where each man lies to his family about an imaginary invalidfriend present somewhere else, in an attempt to pursue leisure activitieselsewhere. It is in this discussion that Jack admits to his friend Algernonthat he has been lying to his friend in order to maintain the disguise.
Thus,it seems as though the very relationship between the two men is founded ondeceit. Later in this act, Lady Bracknell and Gwendolyn are introduced. Eventhough Lady Bracknell is married, it is obvious that the two women are merelyfemale counterparts of Algy and Jack. Both spend the day making visits toothers in their social sphere, as Algy and Jack do, holding these visits withutmost importance.It is at this point, also, that the reader is presented with Wilde’sviews of marriage practices. Earlier in the scene, when Ernest(Jack) announceshis intention of proposing to Gwendolyn, Algernon does not congratulate him,rather he denounces the entire institution.
At Ernest’s announcement of theproposal, Algy exclaims, “I thought you had come up for pleasure?- I call thatbusiness”. Later, Algy’s comments support the idea of adultery once one ismarried. When Ernest finally does propose to Gwendolyn, he first must proceedthrough established flirting rituals followed by a formal proposal. Theserituals, such as Gwendolyn’s demand for a formal proposal, demonstrate Wilde’sconception of outward appearances being more important than true love. In fact,Ernest’s love for Gwendolyn seems rather arbitrary while Gwendolyn indirectlyadmits that she loves Ernest only for his name. Thus, this relationship, too,seems entirely based on deceit.
This idea is substantiated when Lady Bracknellre-e nters and informs Ernest of some preliminary qualifications that he mustmeet before being engaged to Gwendolyn. These include money, family, andpolitics. When Ernest does not meet the qualifications, he is denied Gwendolyn.In the second act, the relationship between Algy and Jack’s ward, Cecily,parallel Ernest and Gwendolyns relationship. After certain flirting rituals,Cecily admits to Algy that she loves him for his name, Ernest, and his image ofbeing “wicked”. When Algy proposes, Cecily declares that they had already beenengaged for three months, an engagement that she had imagined. When theproposal is announced, Cecily is only accepted by Lady Bracknell because she hasenough money to support Algy’s lifestyle.
Through the two relationships ofErnest(Jack) and Gwendolyn and Ernest(Algy) and Cecily, Wilde conveys the notionthat love of such kinds is entirely arbitrary, and relationships are based ondeceit. Marriages, he contends, are simply an alliance between families topreserve the aristocracy.The end of the play culminates in the planning of marriages of Ernest toGwendolyn and Algy to Cecily. These marriages are made available only becauseJack(Ernest) discovers his true identity as one belonging to the Bracknellfamily.
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