Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest
“[The Importance of Being Earnest] is exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has its philosophy…That we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.”
— Oscar Wilde, from a January 1895 interview with Robbie Ross, published in the St. James Gazette
Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest derives much of its comedic and thematic heft from the way in which it inverts the values of everyday life. The play constantly pokes fun at conventionally serious topics like love, death, and religion, while simultaneously handling trivialities (e.g., which teatime snacks are trendy this season) with the utmost seriousness. This irreverence takes its most perfect form in the dozens of epigrams and witticisms that make up so much of the play’s dialogue.
In this Launchpad, you will have the opportunity to analyze the language, characters, and structure of The Importance of Being Earnest. Links are given to a few additional resources that offer the option to extend your study of Wilde, uncovering more about the play’s themes, as well as relevant aspects of Victorian society.
Students may access the David Price, 1915 Methuen and Co. edition eBook version of the entire play online at Project Gutenberg.
The print version used is The Importance of Being Earnest. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1999. (1985)*
After completing the entire reading of The Importance of Being Earnest, observe your teacher’s directions for answering the following questions. Be sure to refer to the text of the play and provide evidence from it in order to inform and support your responses.
- Why does Jack establish two different identities for himself? What does this decision say about Jack and the society in which he lives?
- What do we make of Gwendolen’s obsession with marrying a man named Ernest? Why would Wilde give his characters such strange ideals?
- What do you think Algernon means when he says, “the very essence of romance is uncertainty?” Is he being ironic? In what ways does the action of the play support this statement?
- Reflect on Jack’s relationship with Algernon; they are best friends, and yet Algernon did not even know Jack’s real name! Moreover, neither seems all that troubled by this fact. Should they be? Are you?
- Based on Lady Bracknell’s conversation with Jack, what sort of person do you think she is?
- Lord Bracknell, Lady Bracknell’s husband, is often mentioned but never appears in the play. What kind of man do you think he is? What sort of relationship do you think he has with Lady Bracknell?
- Compare and contrast Jack’s interactions with Cecily and Ms. Prism in the country and his interactions with Jack and Gwendolen in the city.
- What does the conversation between Ms. Prism and Gwendolen reveal about their characters? What role do you think Ms. Prism will play in the story?
- Compare Cecily and Gwendolen’s diaries with Jack and Algernon’s secret identities. Why do the characters seek these little escapes from reality?
- What can we infer about Jack’s views on religion from his hasty decision to be re-baptized? What about society’s views on religion?
- How do Cecily and Gwendolen act differently once Merriman enters the room? Why do you think they act this way?
- The end of Act II sees the two couples fractured by Jack and Algernon’s deceptions, and yet the tone of the play remains light and silly. How does Wilde accomplish this?
- When Algernon tells Cecily that he lied so that they could meet, she declares, “I don’t [believe him.] But that does not affect the wonderful beauty of his answer.” What is Wilde’s opinion about honesty?
- Why does Lady Bracknell finally allow Gwendolen to marry Jack? What do you think would have happened if she had not allowed the marriage?
- Think back to Algernon’s claim that marriage dooms relationships because “the very essence of romance is uncertainty.” Does the play prove or disprove Algernon’s point? Do you think these marriages will succeed after the end of the play?
- The last line of the play is Jack declaring that he has just realized the “vital importance of being earnest.” Is he being ironic? Has anyone in the play really learned any sort of moral lesson?
Follow your teacher’s directions to respond to the following prompts as optional expository writing activities. Be sure to include evidence from the play in your responses.
- All of the characters in Earnest are ridiculous in their own unique ways, and yet we always laugh with them, never at them. What is the difference between the two, and why does it matter?
- Importance of Being Earnest lampoons the affects and idiosyncrasies of Victorian high society, and yet it was enormously popular, especially among those whom it parodies. How do we account for this? What about the play’s language and characters make it so enjoyable for the Victorians? What makes it so enjoyable for us today?
- George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde’s friend and fellow playwright, did not like Earnest, calling it Wilde’s “first really heartless play.” Do you agree with this critique? What does it mean for a work of art to have “heart?” Does a work of art need heart to be good?
In a conversation with Andre Gide, Oscar Wilde declared, “I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talents into my works.” The following resources can be tapped to discover more about the fascinating life and work of Oscar Wilde and to place the play in its broader context.
- This overview of Wilde’s life and work from the Poetry Foundation devotes special attention to the mid-1890s, when The Importance of Being Earnest and most of his plays were published.
- British Library article “Gender roles in the 19th century” explores societal attitudes towards gender in Victorian Britain, which Wilde parodies in The Importance of Being Earnest.
- British Library article, “Aestheticism and Decadence” speaks to the key features of this unconventional period that shocked the Victorian establishment by challenging traditional values, foregrounding sensuality, and promoting artistic, sexual, and political experimentation. As one of the leaders of Aestheticism, an art movement that propounded “art for art’s sake,” Wilde believed that artists should be more concerned with making art that is beautiful, rather than art that is politically or morally meaningful.
*Note to Teachers: The Importance of Being Earnest is a CCSS exemplar for grades 11-CCR. The activities in this resource align with the following CCSS Standards:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy. RL. 11-12.2: - Determine two or more themes or central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to produce a complex account; provide an objective summary of the text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy. RL. 11-12.4: - Determine the meanings of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone, including words with multiple meanings or language that is particularly fresh, engaging, or beautiful.