The Importance Of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

The Importance Of Being Earnest is a timeless classic, still performed on the stage today. So why has it managed to stand the test of time?

The Importance Of Being Earnest


As we well know, a play is written to be performed in front of an audience, but there is enough in this very clever script to stimulate a Book Club discussion & to see the play as soon as possible.

Reading it, some readers might be tempted to believe that it lacks substance, but it actually deals with serious issues in a light hearted & very humorous way.

The Plot

The Importance Of Being Earnest

Jack, a well to do gentlemen lives in the sedate countryside of Hertfordshire, England. Here he is responsible, refined and looks after an 18 year old girl, Cecily acting as her guardian. She is the granddaughter of Sir Thomas Cardew, who adopted Jack when he found him in a handbag at a train station in London as a tiny baby.

Cecily has a governess, Miss Prism for her schooling.

Jack loves to escape to the city of London where he can live an all together frivolous and fancy free existence. In fact he pretends he has a scoundrel for a brother, Earnest, who is forever getting himself in trouble, summoning Jack to London regularly to help him out. In London, this is the name that Jack goes by.

It is in London that he meets and falls in love with Gwendolen, his best friend's cousin (Algernon). She is happy to marry "Earnest" and proclaims her love for the name Earnest. Jack thinks he may need to change his name to Earnest to keep her happy.


Gwendolen's mother, Lady Bracknell, is less than enamored with the proposal, once she has quizzed Jack and discovered that he was found in a handbag in Victoria station and then adopted.

Algernon is onto Jack and his double life (he finds a cigarette case with his different name engraved), and Jack admits all, saying he will have to fake the death of his make believe brother Earnest.

Later Algernon turns up at Jack's house in the country, calling himself Earnest. This is all rather awkward given Jack has already returned home prounoucing his brother dead from a chill. Here Algernon meets Cecily and instantly falls in love with her. She has been keeping a diary about Jack's elusive brother Earnest and fantasising about him. So when she finally meets who she believes is Earnest, she too is in love with him (Algernon.) She, like Gwendolen, loves the name Earnest, leaving Algernon looking for the priest to christen him Earnest.

Gwendolen then turns up and meets Cecily, both believing that Earnest is going to marry them and has proposed, which is indeed true, but one to Jack and the other to Algernon. They are both rather put out but soon the mix up is sorted out with both men having to come clean to their ladies.

Lady Bracknell turns up and recognises Miss Prism as a nurse maid who took her late sister's baby for a stroll and never returned many years ago. It transpires that it was Miss Prism who accidentally put Jack in the handbag all those years ago. It also means that Algernon and Jack are brothers, and that Jack's real name is in fact Earnest. With such well to do parents, Lady Bracknell now consents to the marriage of Gwendolen to Jack/Earnest.

All ends well, and Jack finally understands the Importance of Being Earnest.

Themes

The Importance Of Being Earnest

Behaviour

The main characters all express views on how people should behave at all levels of society. Wilde pokes fun at a society which imposes so many rules on its people. Behaviour also changes from town to country.



Power

In Victorian times, men had the power; women were expected to be pretty & submissive but in this play Wilde gives the power to Lady Bracknell. Algernon & Jack are shown to have weaknesses in character & judgement, the opposite of what they should be.

Pretence, Duplicity, Town versus Country

We see the main male characters pretending to be called Ernest in the country in order to impress Gwendolyn & Cecily. To do this, they leave the constraints of the town to follow their hearts in the country. The more they lie, the more things become complicated. They show no remorse at telling lies.

Marriage

This is probably the most important theme for the plot revolves round it. Lady Bracknell sees marriage as something to be arranged for beneficial purposes; for money & position. Love doesn't play any part. Agernon & Jack discuss whether marriage should be about pleasure or business. In Victorian times, it was important in the upper classes, to marry for social position & money. In the play Jack is the true romantic.

Book Club Questions

The Importance Of Being Earnest

1 Would knowing more about Wilde & the time in which he lived have enhanced your enjoyment of the play?

2 Which aspects of the play made you laugh the most?


3 Do you think any of the messages are relevant today?

4 This was first performed in 1895 yet it is still popular today. Why do you think this is so?

5 Is any of the lying or deceit acceptable in the play?

6 Which view of marriage do you prefer? The men's, the women's or Lady Bracknell's?

7 How would you define satire as shown in this play?

8 What is your interpretation of "a gentleman" today? Compare your answer  with the notion of "a gentleman" in the play.

9 What is the significance of including Miss Prism & Dr. Chasuble in the play apart from the obvious one concerning the handbag?

10. How are the women potreyed in this novel? Does this give us any clues on how Wilde views women?

Like?

Our Book Club gave this play 7/10 and overall we enjoyed the read.

Although we realise from the moment we start reading  that the setting & language is an upper class one, in this case the later Victorian period, the witty script is easy to understand & to follow.

There is significance in that the play is set in both town & country.   Despite being written and performed in 1895, this is still a humourous read. The humour permeates every single page & it comes from every character including the servants. It is mostly laugh out loud humour but the play is also a clever satire on that particular group in society at that time. We probably laugh more than the early audiences because the era is so different. However, some of the messages are timeless & universal.

We wanted to know more about the life of Oscar Wilde, as we felt that this would help us really understand some of the themes in The Importance of Being Earnest even more. It was whilst this play was being performed that Wilde was arrested for homosexuality.

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