Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest Essay

Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest Essay

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Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest


Webster’s dictionary defines earnest as “characterized by or proceeding from an intense and serious state of mind.” This definition is subject to total upheaval by Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest. The title suggests a treatise on the value of solemnity in everyday life. However, Wilde presents us with an ironic play that leaves us with the opposite lesson. None of the characters benefit from propriety. The least serious characters, Algernon and Jack are rewarded in the end for their frivolous behavior throughout the play, implying that there is very little, if any, importance to being earnest, excepting that you give the appearance of such, for example the name.

In several instances, even indirectly, Wilde draws back the curtain of convention in the Victorian age and shows us the ridiculousness of such a passionate attachment to gravity. Before the name or adjective is even used the reader is presented with two men, Algernon (the purveyor of un-earnestness) and Jack, his protégé in deceit and jocularity. The discussion on their alternate personas’ escapades introduces us to the irony of the title.

“You have always told me it was Ernest. I have introduced you to everyone as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life. It is perfectly absurd your saying that you name isn’t Ernest.” (Act I p. 14)

Not only does Wilde put the concept of “being earnest” into question throughout the play but he doubles the irony by adding such importance to the name itself. For Algernon to tell Jack he is being ridiculous by asserting he has been lying about his name and...


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... on Victorian culture, the modern day reader is left with disdain for the earnest ideal. The characters rely on it only superficially. Through the play the meaning of the word is manipulated until its meaning is lost and the remaining value of the word is to essentially mask the true natures of the people who use the word (or name) too freely. The implication is that the characters in the play are silly as well as hypocritical, and as representatives of Victorian culture, Wilde is leading the reader to the conclusion that much of the decorum expounded by society is just as silly and hypocritical. Luckily for the proponents of the stiff propriety in the Victorian age, the blow of this conclusion is softened immensely by the comical nature of the play, and we are left with the lesson that there is really no importance in being earnest, but merely being named Ernest.

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