Oscar Wilde a Man Essay

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However, fortunes are sometimes pinned on legends, and the convenient tale of an orphan baby found in a handbag at King's Cross Station is sufficient to persuade Lady Bracknell that Jack is a man of breeding. As a result, the wedding will be permitted to take place. Regardless, Lady Bracknell maintains that, "…in families of high social position strange coincidences are not supposed to occur" (Wilde 428).

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Social status is only one of several layers that Wilde peels back to reveal the superficialities governing the lives of the British aristocracy and landed gentry of the time. Wilde's characterization and his satire are strengthened by the fact that conventional morality doesn't trouble any of the major characters (Gagnier, 1986). Indeed, conventional morality is turned on its head, which contributes substantively to both the humor and the farce in the play (Gagnier, 1986). For instance, Algy declares that, "Divorces are made in Heaven" (Wilde 350). At this point in the play, Jack and Algy are pressing to be christened because they believe they must change their names to Ernest. Faith has nothing to do with. Then there is Cecily, who is enamored with Ernest / Algernon whom she believes is leading an evil but exciting life. She tells him, "I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy (Wilde 382). Finally, the Great Mother archetype, Lady Bracknell, considers christening to be a luxury rather than an act of faith (Wilde 431). Lady Bracknell also lets it be known that she views Cecily as an acceptable -- suitable -- bride for Algernon. But Lady Bracknell only comes to this decision once she learns about Cecily's well-to-do status and inheritance.

Essay on Oscar Wilde a Man of Assignment

Throughout the play, Wilde uses well-cloaked sexual innuendo to point to the ubiquitous Victorian repression (Gagnier, 1986). For example, the matriarch Lady Bracknell is at a woman of the world who somehow manages -- as Victorian women did -- to convey distaste at the sordid aspects of life, yet be barely able to conceal her titillation (Gagnier, 1986). She has this to say to Jack regarding his comment about where the handbag that held him as a baby was found: "As for the particular locality in which the hand-bag was found, a cloak-room at a railway station might serve to conceal a social indiscretion -- has probably, indeed, been used for that purpose before now…" Wilde 368).

What's in a name? If one's name is Ernest, quite a bit, apparently. Gwendolyn and Cecily are inordinately and strangely attached to the name Ernest and refuse to marry a man who is not named Ernest. Gwendolyn tells Jack, "The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called, Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you" (Wilde 362). The elegance of Wilde's play on words -- earnest to Ernest -- is enhanced by its disguise. A Victorian would not immediately recognize -- or perhaps recognize at all -- that the word earnest is meant in a pejorative manner, as the play "is about earnestness, that is, Victorian solemnity, that kind of false seriousness which means priggishness, hypocrisy, and lack of irony" (Bentley 111, emphasis Bentley's).

Much of the dialogue in the play is a debate about marriage -- what it is by nature, whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, what the purposes of marriage should be (Gagnier, 1986). As she does everything, Lady Bracknell has an opinion about marriage. She argues that, "An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be" (Wilde). It is soon apparent that marriage proposals are not the surprise that Lady Bracknell suggest they should be, as she has prepared a formal list of eligible bachelors and a prepared interview to which she plans to subject every candidate for marriage (Gagnier, 1986). The hapless Jack is pressed into the interview, which was developed on the basis of a set of assumptions about the purpose of marriage and the conventional aspects of Victorian propriety and respectability (Gagnier, 1986). First and foremost is social position (Gagnier, 1986). Assets and income follow social status (Gagnier, 1986). And bringing up the rear is character, of course, which can be overlooked to a degree -- from a reasoned, practical standpoint, of course -- if the other two attributes are of sufficiently high level (Gagnier, 1986).

The characters is the play have an exaggerated sense of self-importance -- based on their social position, undoubtedly, as nothing else recommends (Gagnier, 1986). Wilde pokes perfect fun at Gwendolyn who, during the tea table mock battle, challenges Cecily with, "I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train" (Wilde 403). Wilde introduced a new character to the Victorian melodrama -- someone who was completely dandified and was excessively preoccupied with his appearance. In a way, this character was Wilde walking out of real life onto the stage -- but this new character brought a moral weight and texture to the genre that was new. The portrayal of the character never belies his essentiality to the satisfactory resolution of the plot (Gagnier, 1986). Despite his being overdressed, shallow, and self-deprecating, the dandy -- like Wilde -- has a biting wit that sharply ridicules the hypocrisy and can't of the moral arbiters of the day (Gagnier, 1986). Though the dandy may spout epigrams, he sincerely means what he says even if he is not immediately understood (Gagnier, 1986). This stands in marked contrast to the insincere expressions of enthusiasm for conventional goodness, high ideals, and moral piety that roll off the other characters like rain off a Mackinaw. The other characters don't at all mean what they say, but they sincerely hope that you believe them anyway -- their goal is to impress -- to emboss, if you will, as they are not easily shaken off course -- a certain persona on those around them (Gagnier, 1986). Indeed, the character's lines and delivery is reminiscent of conversations that Alice has with the characters in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. "Be what you would seem to be -- or, if you'd like it put more simply -- never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise." (The Duchess, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland). This fantastical quality was not lost on Isobel Murray who commented that The Importance of Being Earnest generated "a version of life with great similarities to London Society, but with a few 'Through the Looking Glass' qualities" (xix).

Perhaps Wilde's greatest accomplishment with the play "was to draw to the theatre the very people he satirized and make them laugh at themselves, as it were, at their own moral shortcomings" (Snider 2006). Wilde accomplishes a "supreme demolition of late nineteenth-century social and moral attitudes [executing] the triumphal conclusion to his career as revolutionary moralist" (Worth 155).


The labyrinthine irresolvable plot and the farcical narrative loaded with paradox, litotes, and parallelism combine to make The Importance of Being Earnest an intellectually interesting yet boldly comic play. Wilde's sparkling, brilliant wit conveys what each of wants to say to the hypocritical starched shirts in our lives. He lampoons freely, confident that his audience will never quite recognize itself in the characterization.


Bentley, E. The Importance of Being Earnest. In The Playwright as Thinker (New York, NY: Reznal and Hitchcock, 1946). Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Richard Ellmann, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969, 111-115.

Bradford, W. Oscar Wilde: Biography of the author of The Importance of Being Earnest. About.com, The New York Times Company, 2011. Retrieved http://plays.about.com/od/playwrights/a/oscarwilde.htm

Ellmann, R. Oscar Wilde. New York, NY: Knopf, 1987.

Gagnier, R. Idylls of the Marketplace, Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public. Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press, 1986.

Murray, I. Introduction. Plays, Prose Writings, and Poems by Oscar Wilde. London, UK: Dent, 1975, vi-xx.

Safire, W. On language: Going gentle on my mind. The New York Times. 1987, June 7. Retrieved http://www.nytimes.com/1987/06/07/magazine/on-language-going-gentle-on-my-mind.html

Snider, C. Synchronicity and the trickster: The Importance of Being Earnest.… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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