About the Author
Oscar Wilde was born to well known intellectuals in Dublin, in 1854. He distinguished himself as a student in Trinity College and later on in Oxford. While in Oxford, he was influenced by his teachers, John Ruskin and Walter Pater and introduced to the philosophy of Art for Art’s Sake by the latter. He also explored his homosexual side while in Oxford. Catholicism was another of influences on Oscar Wilde while in Oxford. But this brief dalliance ended as Oscar Wilde fiercely independent outlook prevented an exclusive attachment to any religious philosophy.
His writing career began formally with a book of poems, simply called being published. But Oscar Wilde had already become famous. Falling family fortunes forced to earn a living and he embarked on a lecture tour to the United States. Upon arrival there, he is said to have famously declared, “I have nothing to declare except my genius.” His lectures were mainly on the subject of aesthetics and Art for Art’s Sake. In 1884, he married a wealthy Irishwoman and set up home in London. Wilde dabbled in journalism and produced a series of essays but his most significant work of this period was the Picture of Dorian Gray that shocked the Victorian society with its contents.
The nineties found most his famous others work like An Ideal Husband and Lady Windermere’s Fan published. The nineties also saw the entry into Wilde’s life, of Lord Alfred Douglas, who later became his lover. In the late nineties, Douglas’ father brought criminal charges against Oscar Wilde and he was imprisoned for homosexuality, which though common, was then a crime. After his sentence was over, he moved to Paris where he died in 1900.
The plot goes around the real and assumed personalities of the two important male characters. Jack Worthing is a steady serious gentleman who has a ward, Cecily to take care of. When the responsibilities become too much, he goes off to London on the pretext of managing the affairs of his dissolute younger brother, Ernest. While in London he dons the persona of Ernest and goes about doing things which he cannot do in the country as a gentleman. His girl friend and his ward are attracted to the rakish character, Ernest. In London, “Ernest” has a friend Algernon Moncrieff who is a wealthy gentleman whose cousin Gwendolen is Jack’s girlfriend. Algernon discovers that Jack and Earnest is the same person and that the ward Cecily and Gwendolen have not met Earnest ever but have only heard about him. Algernon goes to the Country pretending to be Ernest. Jack who had found things getting complicated had planned to invent the “death” of Ernest; but now Algernon as “Ernest” is right there in his house and both his ward and his girl friend are attracted to him mainly because of the name ‘Ernest’.
As though all this was not enough, Gwendolen’s mother forbids Jack from marrying Gwendolen as Jack is an orphan who was found abandoned in a railway station. Jack has no idea who his parents were but Cecily’s wealthy father had found and later adopted him. Algernon falls in love with Cecily almost instantly and plans to marry her. But Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother who is Algernon’s aunt thinks that Cecily is a poor girl and forbids the marriage. Jack tells her that Cecily is really an heiress. The arrival of Cecily’s governess Miss Prism leads to disclosures that Jack is Lady Bracknell’s long lost nephew, Ernest John and Algernon is his younger brother.
When the play opens, Algernon a wealthy rich young man is receiving his best friend Ernest. But “Ernest” is actually Jack Worthing who assumes this name when he wants to escape from the country to London. Algernon already has some suspicion that Ernest could be Jack as he has seen a cigarette case with Ernest inscribes, “From little Cecily, with her fondest love to her dear Uncle Jack.” When questioned by Algernon, Jack confesses that he is both Jack and Ernest. In the country, he is serious and steady Jack Worthing who has a ward Cecily Cardew to care for. In order to escape to London and enjoy some freedom, he has invented a wastrel brother named Ernest. Algernon too admits to this kind of deception; he has an imaginary invalid friend, Bunbury living in the country. To escape his aunt’s attention, he often escapes to the country.
This time Jack has come to London to propose to Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen. Gwendolen loves Jack whom she knows as Ernest. Since she is very keen on the name Ernest, Jack resolves to get himself rechristened “Ernest”. Lady Bracknell does not share her daughter’s fondness for Ernest and when she comes to know that he was adopted as a baby on being discovered in a handbag in a railway cloakroom, she forbids any further contact between the two. But the young couple plan to meet surreptitiously. Jack gives her the address of his country house. Algernon is curious to meet Jack’s rich ward Cecily and when he overhears the address being given, copies it down surreptitiously.
Before Jack can reach his country residence, Manor House, Algernon arrives there calling himself Ernest Worthing. He meets and charms Cecily. She has always has a secret fascination for the black sheep brother of her Uncle Jack, especially the name “Ernest”. Algernon realizes the importance of being called Ernest and he too decides to be rechristened “Ernest” like Jack. J
When Jack comes back home, he is in full mourning attire as according to him his brother Ernest has passed away in Paris. To his chagrin, he finds Algernon there calling himself Ernest. His plans of disposing of the imaginary brother fall flat. Meanwhile Gwendolen too arrives having run away from her home. When she meets Cecily, misunderstandings arise as both claim to be engaged to “Ernest”. Soon Algernon and Jack appear and the young ladies discover the deception the men have played on them.
Lady Bracknell, Gwendolen’s mother comes in pursuit of her daughter. To her chagrin she finds her nephew engaged to marry Cecily who she thinks is unsuitable. On knowing that Cecily, she quickly relents but Jack forbids any marriage until Lady Bracknell consents to his own marriage with Gwendolen. But Lady Bracknell refuses to give her assent to that. Cecily’s governess Miss Prism arrives there and Lady Bracknell recognize her as her sister’s maid who had gone out walking with the baby in a pram and never returned. Miss Prism confesses that she had absently left the baby in a bag in the cloakroom and the manuscript of a novel she had been writing in the pram while she had intended to do the reverse.
Jack quickly produces the bag in which he had been found by his adopted father proving he is the same baby who had been presumed lost. So it turns out he is Lady Bracknell’s nephew and elder brother to Algernon. What’s more his real name is Ernest John. So Gwendolen gets her Ernest and all is well.
Jack Worthing who is the main character in the play was left in a handbag in a cloakroom in a railway station. Mr. Cardew found and adopted him and now he is a pillar of the society in which he lives. He is guardian to Cecily, Mr. Cardew’s granddaughter, a position he takes seriously. He supervises her studies and lays down rules for her to follow. He has a large country estate and employs a large staff who depends on him. But when all this responsibility gets too much for him, he escapes to the city under the guise of bailing out his black sheep fictional brother, Ernest. Once in the city, Jack takes on the name Ernest and does precisely those things he apparently disapproves of in his brother.
Oscar Wilde has given to Jack Worthing many traditional Victorian values: He likes to project an image of himself as being responsible and respectable. But away from scrutiny, he flouts all the principles he swears by. Oscar Wilde the character of Jack Worthing to satirize the double standards found in Victorian society especially amidst the upper classes. Jack uses the character of Ernest to show himself to be a concerned brother. He hurries to help the errant brother though he disapproves of his actions. Whenever he wishes to escape to the city, he invokes his alter ego who he claims is in trouble. Jack wants the society to see him as an upright and moral individual but he is ready to lie and live a double life to have fun. Once he knows that Gwendolen love for him has to do a lot with the name ‘Ernest’, he decides to become Ernest, that irresolute brother of his.
Algernon Moncrieff is a type of character that Wilde likes writing and he has introduced them into most of his plays. He invests something of himself into these characters – they are dandified, they dress well, have a poor sense of money and their aim is to live beautifully doing nothing much in life. Algernon is true to type. He is charming, wealthy, does no work but is brilliant, witty and amoral. In him, right and wrong are not sharply divided but merge into a hazy whole. Algernon is given to making pithy statements that either means nothing at all or they are profound and full of meaning.
In many ways, Jack and Algernon are alike. Both have created a fictional character that gives them to escape from social responsibilities and tiresome engagements. While for Jack it is his brother Ernest who has to be saved from sticky situations, Algernon has an imaginary invalid friend Bunbury who is always getting ready to die. Bunbury lives in the country whereas Ernest is a city dweller. The difference is that Algernon in his amoral way readily admits to using Bunbury as a handy tool of escape. Bunbury gives Algernon a convenient way of projecting himself as caring, altruistic and responsible where as he is none of these.
His lack of seriousness can be seen in the way he proposes marriage within minutes of meeting Cecily. Of course he knows that she is immensely rich and charming herself: she is quite his type and they will get on well. Algernon is resourceful using situations to his advantage. When he overhears Jack giving his address to Gwendolen, he sees an opportunity for himself. Earlier, Jack had refused to give him the address as he did not want Algernon to meet Cecily.
Both main female characters are perfect examples of Victorian womanhood but Gwendolen to a greater degree than Cecily. This is because Cecily is a much younger girl and not yet exposed to the ways of city society. Gwendolen On the other hands attends lectures and tries to improve herself, she has ideas and tries to follow them and projects herself as a serious person who is an intellectual. But this is a mere veneer as she is fixated on marrying a man named Ernest. She is in love with a man who calls himself Ernest but she cannot see through his elaborate deception. And why does she want a man with this name? Because she says this name “inspires absolute confidence”. She is ready to commit herself to a man based on his name. Wilde makes this preoccupation a metaphor for the Victorian society’s preoccupation with appearances rather than the real thing.
Gwendolen is quite like her mother but only slightly more intellectual. But as Jack assesses “in about a hundred and fifty years” she is going to be a copy of her mother but hopefully he and she will not live to see that happen. Both mother and daughter make outrageous statements but both are still likeable. Both Cecily and Gwendolen are superficial characters but then a Victorian comedy of manners does not provide scope for characterization. The girls quarrel and make up in a matter of moments. Their rapier thrusts of barbed wit bounce off each other.
Cecily may be just eighteen but she is no babe in the woods. The thrust and parry she indulges in with Gwendolen mark her as being quite suitable to London society as Algernon’s wife. Unlike Gwen, Cecily has no taste for metaphysics and facts. She has resisted firmly all of Miss Prism’s efforts at educating her. She spends her time in the garden and fills her diary with imaginary events which are embellished with many events all involving Ernest and herself. She is irresistibly drawn to Uncle Jack’s black sheep brother. She is intrigued by the scrapes into which he gets and is attracted to the name “Ernest”. Her aim in live is to marry a man with the name “Ernest”. The sheer superficiality of this ambition conjoins her to Gwendolen as though they were Siamese twins.
There is no doubt a refreshing candor about Cecily that attracts even a city slick impresario like Algernon. In this she is a foil to Gwendolen who a hot house bloom from London. It is apt the Algernon compares her to a pink rose, fresh and fragrant and unspoiled. Cecily does not have an alter ego like Bunbury or Ernest, nevertheless she has a fictitious romance going with Ernest, all written down in great detail in her diary. Algernon, for his part takes all this in his stride as he has a fictitious friend of his own. Cecily is a character that is least typecast and most realistically drawn. She has several qualities that make her a perfect mate for Algernon. Her idiosyncrasies and fondness for fantasy come from Oscar Wilde’s own ideas of life as a creation of art.
Lady Bracknell is Gwendolen’s snobbish and overbearing mother whom Jack has to overcome if he has any hopes of marrying Gwendolen. Lady Bracknell has decided views on most things and she believes in letting the world know them. She is the typical Victorian mother whose sole aim is to ensure her daughter marries well. She did it herself and getting a good, rich and well connected husband is what she wants for her daughter too. She has a list of eligible young men and a readymade list of questions for them. When Jack expresses his interest in Gwendolen, she is obliging enough to consider him but not before he gives answers to her questions. Everything goes well until he comes to parentage. When he says that he was discovered in a handbag in a railway cloakroom by his adoptive father and has no idea who his parents are, she is scandalized. Such a man will never do her for daughter. No family means no social standing. In the Victorian society, that was the worst form of death.
Lady Bracknell is one of a long line of mothers in English Drama who give rise to unintended humour through their hilarious pronouncements. They remain completely unaware that their pronouncements are hilarious as they utter them in all seriousness. For Oscar Wilde, Lady Bracknell is a convenient tool to satirize upper class British society with all its foibles. She treats her husband with ill concealed impatience having him eat with the servants during a dinner party. She is authoritarian and narrow minded and every sentence she utters is quotable.
We can forgive Miss Prism her pedantic utterances but we cannot forgive the sin of being so lost in her creative fantasies that she leaves a baby in a handbag and forgets all about it. Later too, she only refers to her misplaced manuscript rather than the lost baby. She finds easy to pronounce judgment on people and while Jack meets with her approval because he is a pillar of the British society, she has only highly critical of his black sheep brother. She is the only person who receives the news of Ernest’s supposed demise with relief and is distressed when Algernon walks in claiming to be Ernest. She tries her best to educate Cecily but Cecily is of more stubborn mettle.
Cecily, prescient child that she is with all those notions of romantic love, divines that Miss Prism harbors romantic feelings for Rev. Chasuble. She engineers to send them off on a walk and Miss Prism steers the conversation between her and the Reverend around to the virtues of mature women. She is completely without any maternal feelings. Wilde gets much comic mileage out of it. When Jack finds out the she had left him behind in the handbag, he rushes to her with cries of “Mother!” but she springs back as though scalded.
Rev. Canon Chasuble
He is the male counterpart of Miss Prism. Pedantic to a fault, he speaks using metaphors that leave his meaning deliciously vague. He is attracted to Miss Prism but makes only oblique hints just like she does. When Jack and Algernon rush to him demanding to be rechristened “Ernest”, he is ready to oblige, no questions asked.
Butlers were stock characters in Victorian plays and novels. Merriman has been around for several years but he takes no liberties.
The Nature of Men and Marriage
Marriage is a recurring theme in the play, The Importance of Being Earnest. It is the moving force that propels the action in the play and it is a subject for philosophical deliberation and discourse. Almost every character has some pronouncement to make on the subject which may be pleasant or unpleasant depending on what their experience with marriage has been. Algernon’s butler, Lane is inclined to consider it as a pleasant state: “I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir. I have had very little experience of it myself up to the present. I have only been married once. That was in consequence of a misunderstanding between myself and a young person”. Usually marriages are the result of an understanding!
Jack and Algernon discuss whether a marriage proposal is business or pleasure. Algernon would have it business, which is why he considers Bunbury a good idea in marriage. Lady Bracknell herself married very advantageously but she says that “An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be.” According to Victorian concepts, marriages were closely linked to social position, character and income of the people concerned. Lady Bracknell’s objections to Jack as suitor for her daughter are based on his lack of a family. Without a family, he cannot claim any connections.
Marriage was considered to be supremely important but both Gwendolen and Cecily have a casual attitude to it declaring that they will only marry a man named Ernest. Right through the play characters discuss whether marriage is “pleasant or unpleasant”. In fact, this debate can be called the central theme of the play.
The Constraints of Morality
Oscar Wilde had felt inhibited by the notions of morality prevalent in the society in the Victorian period consequently most of the characters talk about defining what is right and what is wrong. In his flippant way, Algernon says that it is the responsibility of the servant class to set a moral code that the upper class can abide by. Usually in most societies it is the opposite. Algernon has been peeping into Jack’s cigarette case and reading the inscription inside which is not meant for him. When he remonstrates, Algernon is most unrepentant. He enjoys breaking moral codes and feels that the modern culture depends upon it. The Victorian society had a strict moral code and it used this to condemn all those who did not abide by it. These straight jacket codes killed all individuality as everyone had to be similar in outlook and action. Wilde himself lived a wildly unconventional life and he uses this play to mock at all those notions of morality.
The title is itself a satirical comment on the moral paradox. It suggests the virtue of earnestness but none of the characters are earnest. They want to be called “Ernest” but don’t want to practise it in real life. Characters like Gwendolen, Miss Prism, Jack and Dr. Chasuble sit on the high moral horse and preach but they are either hypocrite or they get their comeuppance from other characters. Algernon calls himself Ernest but he is the most irreverent of all the characters. What is right is what he does, beyond that he is not bothered about morality.
Hypocrisy vs. Inventiveness
Deception is a major theme in The Importance of Being Earnest but the two male characters Algernon and Jack are not morally equivalent though they both carry out deceptions. Jack concocts the elaborate story of his “brother” Ernest’s death and to make it more realistic clothes himself in mourning. He is not concerned how this affects the other characters. Miss Prism is relieved by the supposed death as she did not approve of Jack and his dissolute ways. But Cecily has had a secret fancy for him. Jack is not concerned about the family is affected by this elaborate charade. We know that Ernest never existed, so his death is another farce in a long series.
Algernon and Cecily have their deceptions but these are just elaborate stories they have woven to make life more exciting. For them life is a work of art and they embellish it as they deem fit. Wilde invests these characters with some of his own personality. Unlike Jack who ‘kills’ Ernest once his use for the errant younger brother is over, Algernon has use still for Bunbury; in fact he cannot view marriage without the safety net of Bunbury. Lady Bracknell is ready to admit that when she married Lord Bracknell she did not have any fortune to her name but she has no intentions of letting her daughter marry disadvantageously. Cecily is inventive in a way that belies her young age. As soon as she meets Algernon as Ernest, she declares that she has been engaged to him for three months. Her diary is full of graphic descriptions of their lover’s tiffs and she has even described the ring which Ernest has given her.
The Victorian society superficially claimed to be sincere in its dealings. Friends and associates claimed to be lifelong buddies but gossip and salacious scandal fuelled society conversations. Reputations were brought down in an instant with a few well chosen innuendoes. Most of the characters in The Importance of Being Earnest are at sometimes or always not sincere. Jack is a pillar of the society and goes through life with a serious mien because he wants his ward Cecily to grow up a serious and balanced person. But when he wants to get away from these responsibilities, he pulls his dissolute brother out of the hat. This brother is the trial of his life but as a concerned brother, he has to get him out of scrapes. This is the image he projects.
Cecily and Gwendolen go at each other with sarcasm but for Merriman’s sake they put on a cordial air. Lady Bracknell looks down upon Cecily who she thinks has no money but as soon as she learns of the size of her fortune, she warms up to her. Both girls want to marry someone called “Ernest” as they feel anyone with such a name will be dependable, responsible and honest. But the “Ernest” they want to marry is none of these. In Jack’s case the name “Ernest” turns out to be his real name but that does not make him virtuous.
Oscar Wilde was brilliant with language and in his hand, the pun went beyond being just a play on words. The “Earnest” in the title is actually Ernest that the young men strive to be but neither of them are earnest. Gwendolen only wants to marry someone named Ernest but does not care whether he has qualities that can be described as earnestness. Jack pretends to be both earnest as well as Ernest while being neither. By a stroke of fate, he turns out to be Ernest which makes him symbolize all that that was fake and pretentious in the Victorian society.
When Lady Bracknell hears that Jack was discovered in a handbag in a railway cloakroom, she makes a barbed comment that she had not till now not heard of anyone “whose origin was a Terminus”, she is taking a pun to a higher level. She means that the only connection Jack has is with a railway station, a place so anonymous no one would ever be linked to it. There is also a subtle play on the words “origin” and “terminus”. In England the starting station for a train was “origin” and the last one was “terminus”.
Lady Bracknell continues in this vein with words like “connection” and “line”, words which can refer to ancestry or trains. Wilde is poking fun at Lady Bracknell’s lack of sensitivity. She seems to be unaware of the difference between family line and a railway line, railway connections and family connections, a person’s ancestry and the place where he was discovered. Puns tell you a lot about the speaker and the person to whom it refers.
The Importance of Being Earnest has a patina of dark humour from the many humorous references to death. Lady Bracknell’s opens her appearance with words about death. Husbands are generally spoken of irreverently and she remarks that her friend Lady Harbury has regained her youthful looks with the death of her husband. Usually the opposite is spoken about widows. Lady Bracknell has much to talk about death and people who are dying or dead. When she is told that Bunbury has died as predicted by his doctors, she speaks of him as though he is a good patient for acting “under proper medical advice”. Earlier she had been vexed as Bunbury lay at death’s door. She wanted him to make up his mind about dying without “shilly-shallying”.
Miss Prism who primly disapproves of Ernest hopes that death has done him some good as though one can learn from one’s own death. Just as with other things, death is also spoken of in a flippant way. Jack and Algernon have discussions about the pros and cons of “killing” Jack’s fictitious brother. The dark humour gives another dimension to this sentimental comedy and also reinforces the notion of life being a work of art that is planned and executed.
The leitmotif of the play is the double life led by the male characters. Bunbury is a metaphor for escaping from social obligations and tiresome engagements. Algernon raises “Bunburying” to the level of a fine art which allows a character to wear a veneer of responsibility and selfless duty beneath which the character is able to indulge in acts that may invite censure. Algernon seems to get more mileage out of Bunbury than Jack gets out of Ernest”. Jack is a pillar of the society, a concerned guardian to Cecily and generally disports as a model citizen except when he is trying to untangle “Ernest” from various knots that he has tied himself up. This pretence allows him to get away to London where he is able to pursue Gwendolen calling himself Ernest.
When Jack is away on his black-sheep brother rescue mission, Algernon is away visiting the sick Bunbury who could die any moment. What he actually does is escape to the country and go gadding about. The only difference between the two is that Algernon does this in his own persona while Jack puts on the mantle of Ernest and woos Gwendolen when he is in the city.
Cecily has her measure of pretence too. She deals with her fantasy world in which she is engaged to be married to Ernest. This Ernest is Uncle Jack’s unsavory brother who attracts her immensely. It is chequered reputation that attracts her. When she meets Algernon as Ernest she is able to relate to him immediately.
Food as a Source of Conflict
Food is often used in The Importance of Being Earnest as a symbol for indulgence. The main male characters spend time overeating. Lane has cucumber sandwiches made for Lady Bracknell and Algernon finishes them off without realizing what he is doing. Even he does realize that he does not stop until they have all been eaten. The girls too have their moments with food. Gwendolen suggests that sugar and cake are not refined foods and the upper crest in London is no longer eating them. Cecily resents this suggestion that she is a country bumpkin. Tit for tat, she fills Gwendolen’s tea with sugar and piles her plate with cake. Gwendolen is not amused and cautions Cecily from going too far. Food is a tool for introducing low slapstick humour into the play. It may also stand for sexual indulgences as Algernon seems to imply when Jack eats the bread and butter with unrestrained enthusiasm.