You are on page 1of 5

Blake Dean

Dr. Allen
English 1102-09
29 April 2015
The Importance of Being Earnest: Social Commentary
The Importance of Being Earnest is a play written by Oscar Wilde telling the story of two
men who create fictional personas so that they can live two very different lives. Throughout the
telling of this story, the reader sees the consequences of these lies and how it affects those around
them. Wilde uses each character to comment on an attribute of high society in the late nineteenth
century. He uses these characters to reveal the absurdity of some accepted practices but also
reveal truths about human nature and love. Wilde uses Gwendolen Fairfax to show the readers
how in this time character was seen as less important than aesthetic quality. Cecily Cardew
shows the readers that love at first sight is simply a delusion through her outrageous assumptions
about her engagement to Ernest. Lady Bracknell helps to show the ridiculous nature of some of
the accepted conventions of that time. Also, Jack and Algernon are used to show that deceit is
fruitless and truth will always be revealed. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
uses characters opinions, language and situations to reveal what he sees in late 19th century
society.
In this play, Wilde uses Gwendolen to show the priority that was placed on the facade of
a man rather than his character. This idea appears in the first act when Jack proposes to
Gwendolen; The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I
new I was destined to love you (Wilde 10). Gwendolens attraction to Ernest is not based on his
ethics, charm or integrity but instead solely on the vibrations (11) that his name produces.

Throughout the rest of the play the readers see the ignorance that Gwendolen holds of Jacks true
character. When she is having tea with Cecily she says, Ernest...is the very soul of truth and
honour. Disloyalty would be as impossible to him as deception (38). Without knowing who
Jack really is, Gwendolen has made assumptions based solely on his name. She says that he
could never deceive when in fact his name is a deception. She claims that he is the very soul of
truth when everything she knows about him is a lie. In the closing scene of the play Gwendolen
further shows the superficial nature of her affection. As all the characters discover who Jack
really is, Jack asks Gwendolen, Your decision on the subject of my name is irrevocable, I
suppose? to which Gwendolen responds, I never change, except in my affections (56). Even
though she has discovered that he has lied to her from when he first met her, all Gwendolen cares
about is his name. Gwendolen is used as an example of how people importance on aesthetic
value rather than character.
Cecily is used by Wilde to show the readers how love at first sight is a misconception.
Cecily is Jacks ward who has fantasized about falling in love with Jacks brother Ernest. While
writing about these fantasies in her diary, the fantasies became her reality having her to believe
that she was really engaged to Ernest before meeting him. When Algernon, who is pretending to
be Ernest, proposes to Cecily she responds by saying, Of course. Why, we have been engaged
for the last three months (Wilde 33). Cecily and Algernon had only known each other for less
than one day. Cecily created and romanticized the fantasized engagement without ever meeting
Ernest. She explains to Algernon the details of the engagement, after a long struggle with
myself I accepted you under this dear old tree hereI remember only too well that I was forced
to write your letters for you (34). Wilde exaggerates the delusion of love at first sight by using
letting Cecilys fabricated engagement become her reality. Richard Foster from the National

Council of English Teachers talks about the dismissal of love at first sight by saying, Wilde's
first technique is to spoof the timeless romantic fictions of love's inception. The myth of
love at first sight under- goes a kind of superparody in the scene where Cecily does
Algernon's punctual love-making one better by recounting from her "diary" the story of
their engagement. (Foster 20). Wilde uses Cecilys ridiculous delusion to show the absurd
nature of immediate love.
Wilde uses Lady Bracknell to show how conventions of that time were not as important
as they were assumed to be. Lady Bracknell shows much support for these conventions
throughout the play however, Wilde uses her support ironically to show how absurd they actually
are. Otto Reinert of the National Council of English Teachers explains how Bracknell is used by
Wilde, Lady Bracknell is here simultaneously deferring to convention and exposing its sham...
When the pattern of inversion operates the characters either express or assume a morality
that is deduced from the actual behavior of high society (Reinert 16). Wilde shows
through Lady Bracknell that morality is not existent when you follow the traditions and rules of
the high society. When Lady Bracknell is questioning Jack after he asks for her daughters hand
in marriage she makes this morally questionable demand, I would strongly advise you, Mr.
Worthing, to try and acquire some relations as soon as possible. (Wilde 15). Even though this
demand did follow the social etiquette of that day, it is still immoral to ask an orphan to acquire
parents just so he can marry. Showing that morals are not dependent on tradition and convention
dismisses the idea that all importance should be placed on those things.
Finally, Wilde uses Jack and Algernon to show how dual natured humans can be and how
living that way is wrong. Both characters live two separate lives claiming to be Bunburyists.
Reinert claims that Wilde is making a statement about Victorian society with this idea, What

Wilde is saying, then, is that all normal Victorians who want to retain the respect of their
conventional society are, perforce, Bunburyists, leading double lives, one respectable, one
frivolous, neither earnest. (Reinert 18). Wilde is commenting on how people will live
differently depending on their surroundings and situations. By showing the consequences that
Algernon and Jack payed for living two separate lives, Wilde is revealing the importance of
consistency in personality and attitude. The truth is revealed about Bunbury when Jack says,
You wont be able to run down to the country so often as you used to do, dear Algy. (Wilde
43). Now that the truth has been revealed, Algernon will no longer be able to use Bunbury as a
scapegoat to get him out of tedious engagements. Jack is no longer able to live his city lifestyle
once Algernon shares, Your brother is a little off colour, isnt he dear Jack? You wont be able to
disappear to London quite so frequently as your wicked custom was. (43). The lies that allowed
Algernon and Jack to live two separate lives eventually were revealed destroying their fabricated
lifestyle and leaving distrust with those in their real life.
Wilde utilizes each of his character to comment on a certain part of society. Gwendolen
was used to show the superficial nature that was present in love and other personal relationships.
Through Cecilys delusions about her engagement to a man she had yet to meet, Wilde shows
how he believes that love at first sight is a myth. Algernon and Jack are used to show how the
truth will always be revealed and that deceit will never make a man prosper permanently. Lady
Bracknell reveals how some of the accepted conventions of that time were absurd and
superficial. Even though The Importance of Being Earnest is a light hearted story, Wilde makes
some bold statements about how he views society. He uses irony and situation to communicate
to the readers what he wants each character to reveal. The Importance of Being Earnest is more
than a comedic play, with a closer look you learn that it is a social commentary.

Works Cited
Foster, Richard. Wilde as Parodist: A Second Look at the Importance of Being Earnest.
College English. 1st ed. Vol.18. National Council of Teachers of English, 1956. 18-23.
JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.
Reinert, Otto. "Satiric Strategy in the Importance of Being Earnest." College English. Vol. 18.
National Council of Teachers of English, 1956. 14-18. JSTOR. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.
Wilde, Oscar. The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.
Lexington, KY: Maestro Reprints., 2011. Print.