This is an essay I wrote for a course called Victorian Poetry and Prose: 1830-1900

Meditations on The Importance of Being Earnest 

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland before it, is a biting satire of the Victorian era’s moralistic stance on personal behavior. In Wilde’s case he takes specific aim at the age’s reliance on seriousness as the do-gooder ideal. The play’s philosophy, Wilde claimed, was that “We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.” Thus, the playwright juxtaposes two versions of living, one as zealously as possible and the other as frivolously so, in the form of his twin protagonists: the allegorically-named Ernest (Jack) Worthing, and Algernon Moncrieff, a dandified gentleman dedicated to the pleasures of the flesh. As expected, Algernon gets the last laugh, for he is the character most endowed with the writer’s knack for coining witty aphorisms with a large amount of irony as well as truth within them, such as this beauty from Act 1: “I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If I ever get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.” 

To Wilde’s credit, every character in the play gets at least one clever maxim of the kind, even trite, humorless Jack, who shows tongue-in-cheek self-awareness after Lady Bracknell confirms that he is indeed Algernon’s older brother: “Gwendolen, 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?” It’s a pleasure that Wilde populates the story with ludicrously-named characters such as Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism, who despite expressing eye roll-inducing clichés meant to be seen by other characters as “lessons,” tell honest truths and generate laughs in limited moments. I find the Canon especially amusing, as he reminds me in his pompous way of Hamlet‘s Polonius, whom Chasuble imitates in his ability to say something that has been proven wise ever time, such as his advice to Jack upon learning of his brother Ernest’s death: “I would merely beg you not to be too much bowed down by grief. What seem to us bitter trials are often blessings in disguise.” However, again like Polonius the Canon’s perpetual need to say something profound with every word he utters often yields ridiculous results, with one shining example being his response upon learning of Miss Cardew’s inattentiveness to the German lessons taught her by her prismatic tutor. Chasuble says, “That is strange. Were I fortunate enough to be Miss Prism’s pupil, I would hang upon her lips. [Miss Prism glares.] I spoke metaphorically.- My metaphor was drawn from bees. Ahem!”           

As the ironies in the play start piling up, more hilarity ensues, with one of the most elaborate being Cecily and Gwendolen’s instantaneous friendship, as the latter states upon meeting the former, “Something tells me that we are going to be great friends. I like you already more than I can say. My first impressions of people are never wrong.” This is ironic at first because Jack had predicted to Algernon earlier that the women would call each other sister within half an hour of their first meeting, but the irony deepens to an absurdly comic extent when Gwendolen and Cecily decipher they are engaged to the same man and start dividing their territory, with Gwendolen finally admitting her mistake, more or less. She says, “from the moment I saw you I distrusted you. I felt that you were false and deceitful. I am never deceived in such matters. My first impressions of people are invariably right.”          

Finally, I would be remiss if I neglected to throw in my two cents’ worth on what I believe to be the most celebrated character in the play, Lady Bracknell. While she adds to the amusing irony that is one of the play’s strengths, and after my first reading I found her to be the funniest of all the characters, further reflection has brought to my attention how utterly useless the things she says are and how petty and mean they make her seem in conclusion. One of the best examples I could find of her reprehensible conduct is her reaction upon being told of Miss Cardew’s wealth by her guardian, after the Lady had already written Cecily off as a suitor for Algernon, for Lady Bracknell states, “A moment, Mr. Worthing. A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her. Few girls of the present day have any really solid qualities, any of the qualities that last, and improve with time. We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces.” The delicious irony of Lady Bracknell’s change of opinion and her sobering conclusion are two examples of Wilde’s particular talent in satirizing Victorian moral values.


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