Oscar Wilde’s farcical comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest” is subtitled “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”. The playwright himself penned this, so the reader is inevitably inclined to ask himself whether this deprecating subtitle is accurate. Despite the simple humor, the play is not “trivial”, but rather a biting and relevant social commentary on Victorian era values and principles that undoubtedly “serious people” can decipher within the lines of the comedy without feeling threatened about their own beliefs. In fact, the title of the play alone gives the reader some inclination as to what the story is about; the importance of being serious and resolute, which not coincidentally are two of the most important Victorian ideals.
First performed in London in 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest’s plot centers on two couples who must overcome many hilarious obstacles on their journey to marriage. The play was critically acclaimed from its first performance and was instantly accepted by the public; a foreshadowing of the stories timelessness. Underlying the story line, Wilde illustrates the “polite conventions and restrictions of Victorian society” (Worth 126). This is aptly by Wilde in his droll depictions of aristocratic British men and women at the end of the nineteenth century. Despite his critical tone, Wilde does not alienate the members of his audience, but rather sheds light on the absurdity of societal traditions, such as courtship, engagement and marriage, while at the same time reaffirming the beliefs of his audience.
To explore Wilde’s criticism of the absurdity of British culture and its implications in modern life, one must first examine the characters and plot of The Importance of Being Earnest. The two central figures are Jack and Algernon who are friends in spite of their seemingly artificial oppositions. Jack is a responsible, serious man who firmly announces his intentions of marrying Gwendolyn from the very beginning of the play. Algernon, on the other hand, is depicted as a sly, deceptive, yet likeable man who according to his aunt, “has nothing, but looks everything” (Wilde, act 3, 497).
The two men, who the audience later discovers are brothers, are actually not as different as they first appear. Outwardly, they act very differently and constantly criticize one another on his actions, but in reality, both have the same ulterior motive and acts solely for his own benefit. Jack pretends to have a brother so that he may travel to London to see Gwendolyn. Similarly, Algernon, despite his claim that marriage is “extremely problematic” (act 1, 446), pretends to be Jack’s brother so that he may journey to the countryside to see Cecily, the girl he has never met but wishes to marry. Both men pretend to be named Ernest in order to impress Gwendolyn and Cecily (obviously another pun on the title of the play). Hilarity ensues in both action and dialogue in terms of what the characters continually call “nonsense”.
Jack and Algernon both pursue women who could be labeled “modern women” (relative to the contemporary Victorian woman). Gwendolyn is well educated and very opinionated in her beliefs, as evidenced by her desire to not be labeled perfect because that would limit her intentions to “develop in many directions” (act 1, 441). Likewise, Cecily, while not as well educated, is steadfast in what she wants from Algernon, such as her insistence that his name be Ernest. Gwendolyn and Cecily create much of the comedic elements of the play through their relentless demands of Jack and Algernon. For instance, when in act three the women discover the deceptions of Jack and Algernon, they do not submissively forgive the men’s antics, but rather refuse to speak to either man until he delivers an adequate explanation and apology.
These “young men about town and revolting daughters” (15), called so by critic Peter Raby, create a distinct dichotomy to the stern Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess. There is a sense of old society versus new society whenever Jack, Algernon, Gwendolyn, and Cecily interact with the older characters. As Gwendolyn’s mother and Algernon’s aunt, Lady Bracknell is excessively concerned with image and money. When she hears of Jack’s desire to marry Gwendolyn, she questions him about his financial wellbeing and his personal habits. She is offended when she discovers that Jack has been adopted because it “displays contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life” (act 1, 450). Despite Jack’s protest that his parental status has nothing to do with Gwendolyn’s happiness, Lady Bracknell refuses to give her approval of the engagement because in her superficial world, everyone is forced to live “in an age of surfaces” (act 3, 495). To Lady Bracknell, marriage has nothing to do with love and affection, but rather solely relies on the respectable social image that is created.
Lady Bracknell is the stereotypical Victorian woman whose utmost concern is outward appearances and societal impressions. Money, status, and manners are the only necessities in life, without which one is destined to become associated with the detestable lower classes. In addition to Lady Bracknell’s archaic beliefs, Miss Prism and Doctor Chasuble also illustrate conventional Victorian ideals. It is evident that the two are in love, but repress their emotions because unruly behavior is not “proper”. Their relationship is an obvious contrast to Jack and Gwendolyn’s and Algernon and Cecily’s, who admittedly are guilty of nonsense and “reckless extravagance” (act 1, 436).
Surprisingly, in act three, the audience discovers that Miss Prism is the author of a novel of “revolting sentimentality” (act 3, 502) and more shockingly is an unwed mother. These revelations about Miss Prism blatantly contrast with Victorian acceptability. In spite of her “deviations”, Doctor Chasuble professes his love for her. This is yet another way in which Wilde portrays modern relationships and love. With his depictions of Bracknell and Miss Prism, Wilde creates an obvious paradigm between what a proper woman should be. Through their characters he is mocking the Victorian standard for woman because the audience can see that Gwendolyn and Cecily are truly the better women in thought and action.
These ground-breaking elements contrast and spoof Victorian ideals, yet are subtle and humorous enough that the audience (especially at the time of the play’s debut) is not offended by the plot or the characters. In today’s world, there is nothing offensive about The Importance of Being Earnest, but it is necessary to keep in mind that compared to contemporary plays and novels, this is somewhat more modern. It still has the classic elements of a story line of that period: “male-oriented, god-fearing, white, moneyed, and aristocratic” (Raby 7). Although a majority of the characters live entirely for pleasure, the audience can still relate and enjoy the play. In such a hierarchical society where white men dominate, Wilde is careful not to offend or marginalize his target audience while launching a social critique.
According to interviews (taken at the time of the play’s production), Wilde adamantly insisted that The Importance of Being Earnest is not realistic because “Realism is only a background, it cannot form an artistic motive for a play that is to be a work of art” (39). In other words, reality has no bearing in his art, which perhaps is why he included the word “trivial” in his title.
However, in relation to the play, is it accurate to say that reality is completely separate from art? Obviously Wilde recognized the absurdity of Victorian culture; otherwise, he could not have created a play whose humor is so relevant to both its contemporary and present-day audiences. The dialogue between characters, not the actions, is what makes The Importance of Being Earnest so humorous and transcendental (77). The characters’ revelations are true and consequently the farce is extremely comical.
The Importance of Being Earnest set many precedents. It is one of the first plays to deal with modern issues, such as the New Woman. Wilde influenced many other artists to explore and critique societal norms and their ridiculousness. The Importance of Being Earnest will withstand the test of time through its satirical comedy and relevance to all audiences, because all audiences and readers, regardless of the time period, can relate to love, marriage, and the absurdity of society.