The conflicts that arise in the play largely arise from the prospect of marriage. Jack wants to marry Gwendolen but she only knows him as Ernest, Algernon wants to marry Cecily against Jack’s wishes, Lady Bracknell attempts to control all potential marriages according to her liking, and even Miss Prism and Rev. Chasuble are more than mere acquaintances. In making marriage a central theme to the play, Wilde reveals how much importance the Victorian society placed on making ideal matches between men and women for the benefit of more than just the couple themselves.
Both Jack and Algernon play with the idea of what is right in wrong throughout the play. Their use of Bunburyism, either socialising in the city under a false identity or inventing another person to use as an excuse to escape social obligations, is inherently deceitful and wrong, yet Algernon is able to justify his actions to make it seem right. Wilde appears to show that even the supposedly most respected members of society are actually morally unsound and cannot be trusted. The comical nature of the play makes the portrayal more of a mockery and less of an outright rebuke.
Jack choosing to name himself ‘Ernest’ when socialising in London is highly hypocritical. To be an earnest individual is to be sincere, to be honest and genuine. Jack, in many ways holds none of those qualities. Introducing himself as Ernest when in the city begins every interaction he has with a lie, and proposing to Gwendolen as Ernest is an abuse of her trust, no matter how infatuated she is with the name ‘Ernest.’ Other elements of hypocrisy occur when Lady Bracknell dismisses Cecily as a marriage prospect for Algernon until she realises how wealthy the young heiress is.
Appearance Versus Reality
With the false names, fictional friends and family, and invented excuses to either leave the city or the country, almost every character finds themselves stepping across the line between appearance and reality multiple times. Wilde portrays this in a comical way so that even when the major conflict arises, where Gwendolen and Cecily realise Algernon and Jack have been lying to them, the audience still find the circumstances amusing and laughable. In this way, Wilde is able to expose the double-life many members of Victorian would have led without inviting a hostile response.
Wilde includes mostly upper-class characters in his play who make the most of their wealthy lives, yet some are still victims of prejudice from within their class. Due to the circumstances of his birth and unknown lineage, Jack is considered an inadequate marriage prospect for Gwendolen, the daughter of English nobility. To be orphaned without an inheritance is not a promising situation for the child, whereas Cecily, who is an orphan, will inherit her grandfather’s considerable wealth, and therefore is a worthier marital prospect for Algernon, in Lady Bracknell’s eyes. The inclusion of Miss Prism, a governess who works for her living, gives Wilde an opportunity to explore how the antics of the upper class can be greatly influenced by those beneath them in society.
The mystery around Jack’s identity is two-fold, on one level as an adult he disguises himself as Ernest whilst in London, and on another level being orphaned as a baby and adopted, there is no real identification of who he truly is. These two aspects of his identity crisis conflict with each other the moment he decides to propose to Gwendolen, as he has to admit that not only is his name not Ernest, but that he does not know his true identity and lineage either. It is only when the mystery is resolved and Jack finds out who he is that he can move forward in his life and live honestly – earnestly – for the first time.
- What does it mean to be ‘earnest’?
- Your answer should include: Honest / Genuine / Truthful / Sincere
- Why is morality a central theme to The Importance of Being Earnest?
- Your answer should include: Lies / Deceit / Inventions / Fictionalised / People / Marriage / Prospects / Mainpulation
- How does Wilde present the theme of marriage in The Importance of Being Earnest? (six lines)
- Your answer should include: Main / Minor / Characters / Marriage / Conflict / Prospects / Expectations / Confusion / Disagreement / Resolution