Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest

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Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest"

In the closing lines of the first act of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest," Algernon remarks, "I love scrapes. They are the only things that are never serious," to which Jack responds, "Oh, that's nonsense Algy. You never talk about anything but nonsense." Algernon caps off this exchange with a proclamation of the purpose of the whole work: "Nobody ever does" (1642). Wilde never allows anything in the work to conclude on a serious note. While Wilde repeatedly proclaims this direction for the play through his characters, he does not tell us the motivation for this direction. He never explains why there is this avoidance of earnestness. The most apparent answer lies in the veiled criticism of Victorian society contained at each level of the play. The quick paradoxical epigrams that form the core of the conversational comedy are pointed at Victorian society. Wilde also abuses the concept of characterization with paradox to create comical characters that expose Victorian deficiencies.

Each of these criticisms relies upon the paradoxes that Wilde sets up on successively larger scales within the play. It is, in fact, this tool of humor, not the object of ridicule that truly defines this work. While each paradox is pointed at Victorian society, the individual paradoxes each take on a different element of Victorian society, thereby diminishing the pointedness of the overall criticism. The use of paradox allows Wilde to take this play beyond its narrow and somewhat scattered critique of Victorian society. The underpinning element then, is not Victorian society, but instead the paradox, the concept of dual, irreconcilable elements. This more lasting topic is, not co...

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...man in prudish nineteenth century England Oscar Wilde never felt comfortably assimilated into the strait society that surrounded him. He was forced to assume a double identity to cope with his divergence from the norms of the day. This tax that the society levied upon Wilde undoubtedly engendered an animosity, an animosity that is reflected in his ironic, and sardonic treatment of Victorian society in "The Importance of Being Earnest". However, the multiple and irreconcilable identities that Wilde was forced into are the more significant driving force behind this work. This struggle with identities is seen in the paradoxes that pervade all levels of the work. In the end though, these large themes build upon, rather than overshadow Wilde's greatest genius which lies in his subtle turns of phrases and words that keep even the most earnest reader chuckling throughout.
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