By Kelli Frost-Allred
The Importance of Being Earnest has proven to be Oscar Wilde’s most enduring—and endearing—play. Filled with witty Victorian aphorisms and Wilde’s own brand of wisdom, The Importance of Being Earnest tells the story of Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff who use clever deception and truth-bending to accommodate their social pursuits. Jack bends the truth to include an imaginary brother, Ernest, whom he uses as an excuse to escape from the country to party among urban socialites, while urbane Algernon uses a similar technique (Bunburying) that provides him opportunities for taking adventures in the country. Of course, courting and liaisons ensue, but not without complications. Oscar Wilde builds a farcical—albeit realistic—world of Victorian social mores by using double entendre, aphorisms, and witty repartee.
Wilde seems to have been toying with audiences by giving the play a title with more than one meaning. The play’s title can be deceptive. Rather than a form of the name Ernest, the title implies earnestness as a quality one should seek to acquire, as in being honest, sincere, sober, and serious. Throughout the play, Ernest is a name that encompasses qualities of the ideal man: deeply trustworthy, truly loving, honorable and passionate, and absolutely sincere. Gwendolyn says, “We live in an age of ideals . . . and my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. . . . The only really safe name is Ernest.” That both Gwendolyn and Cecily dream of marrying a man named Ernest seems more than a coincidence. Cecily admits, “It had always been a girlish dream of mine to love some one whose name was Ernest. There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence.”
Indeed, there is almost a worship of the name more than what it represents. “It is a divine name. It has a music of its own,” explains Gwendolyn. “It produces vibrations.” And Cecily describes the man she thinks to be named Ernest as “the very soul of truth and honour. Disloyalty would be as impossible to him as deception.” So, what’s in a name? Would a rose by any other name, as Shakespeare asserts, smell as sweet? Ab solutely not, unless that name were Ernest, according to Oscar Wilde’s portrayal of shallow, yet charming, Victorian women.
Within the context of the play, add confidence, safety, and gravity to the ideal man named Ernest. But audiences are left to wonder if Wilde meant to use “Earnest” and “Ernest” interchangeably. After all, one is a description and the other is a man’s name. No, Wilde reminds viewers that to be earnest is more important that to be named Ernest. The social deceptions of Victorian England were rampant, and Wilde simply wished to call things as he saw them. One way he did this was through double entendre; however, his use of aphorisms went further in exposing the widespread use of deception among the gentry.
Wilde peppered the play with aphorisms, those pithy witticisms that purportedly derive from exalted thought. Indeed, the playwright spoke in aphorisms on his deathbed when he stated through fevers, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.” The following quotes from The Importance of Being Earnest exemplify Wilde’s adept use of aphorisms:
“Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever” (Act 1).
“Relations are simply a tedious pack of people, who haven’t got the remotest knowledge of how to live, nor the smallest instinct about when to die” (Act 1).
“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his” (Act 1).
“The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to someone else, if she is plain” (Act 1).
“Women only [call each other sister] when they have called each other a lot of other things first” (Act 1).
“In married life, three is company and two is none” (Act 1).
“No married man is ever attractive except to his wife” (Act 2).
“Divorces are made in Heaven” (Act 2).
Oscar Wilde possessed an unmatched intuition about people that he wove into the fibers of his plays, which include An Ideal Husband, Salome, and Lady Windermere’s Fan. Moreover, he seemed to accept with resignation his role as the most daring of writers in his era, and though he spoke freely of marriage and male/female relationships, his own life contradicted those values. Instead he chose to poke fun at the society that embraced him with all his eccentricities.
Wilde mingled truth and humor using tongue-in-cheek and witty repartee, both of which fit beautifully into farce. And his adept use of truth in jest makes The Importance of Being Earnest a perennial favorite of Western theatre audiences and literary critics. The following quotes by characters in The Importance of Being Earnest reveal Oscar Wilde’s clever wit in holding the mirror up to reveal truth and human nature:
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!” (Algernon).
“My dear fellow, the truth isn’t quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice sweet refined girl” (Jack).
“It is very painful for me to be forced to speak the truth. It is the first time in my life that I have ever been reduced to such a painful position, and I am really quite inexperienced in doing anything of the kind” (Jack).
“In matters of grave importance style, not sincerity is the vital thing” (Gwendolyn).
“Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only those who can’t get into it do that” (Jack).
“London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own choice, remained thirty-five for years” (Lady Bracknell).
“It is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?” (Jack).
“I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital importance of being earnest” (Jack).
The 1890s saw the resurgence of live theater in fashionable London, and Oscar Wilde’s plays were the most popular venues for theatergoers. In an era of strict social mores, Wilde’s version of society was greatly humorous. Today, in an era of few social constraints, Wilde’s version of society still reminds us to laugh at ourselves.