Importance of Being Earnest Essay

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¶ … Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde's play, the Importance of Being Earnest, is a story about double lives, about keeping up a false identity in order to maintain one's good status in society. It can be suggested that Oscar Wilde knew a lot about living a double life as he was a homosexual living in conservative Victorian England. This paper will examine how Wilde's focus on double lives in the play suggest that they are employed in order to free one's self from society's oppressive attitudes.

One of the chief purposes of Oscar Wilde's (1998) play, the Importance of Being Earnest, was to illuminate the idle nature of the elite class while working very hard to not alienate them at the same time (which was quite smart on his part since he was a part of that society). While Wilde illuminates the reader in a good-natured manner, aptly subtitling the play "A Serious Comedy about Trivial People," the play is quite timeless in dealing with issues concerning appearances and true identity. This paper will argue that Jack, Algernon, Cecily (through her diary) and Miss Prism (through her abandoned three-volume novel), all create double lives as "means by which they liberate themselves from the formal strictures of society" (Eltis 1996).

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Throughout the ages people have had to lie about who they really are for the sake of acceptance in society. While Wilde uses humor to show how these characters create falsehoods that trick others and position themselves in a much grander light, the play also exposes a more shadowy side of Victorian life: one where people are not allowed to be who they truly are. This play is timeless precisely for this reason. Even in American culture today, there is a lot of emphasis put on status and there are numerous examples of people who have lived double lives in order convince others that they are someone who they are not.

Essay on Importance of Being Earnest Assignment

The Importance of Being Earnest is in no means trivial, despite its subtitle -- "A Serious Comedy about Trivial People." Oscar Wilde was making a very harsh commentary on Victorian society of the time, though be it in a humorous way, and he makes it plain that "serious" people will be able to find the derisive commentary. His title alone says that it is important to be earnest -- to be honest -- but strangely enough, nobody in the play is honest. Algernon has created his alter ego Ernest so that he may leave his stifled country life behind and live a more hedonistic life in London. Jack has made up a younger brother Ernest, which allows him too to escape the boring life he leads and have fun with Algernon, and Cecily has created a lover whom she desires and communicates with him through letters in her diary.

The drama in the play increases when Algernon finds out that Jack is leading a double life after reading a message in Jack's cigarette case. Jack tells Algernon everything and thus comes the confession that Jack is the guardian of Cecily Cardew, which piques Algernon's interest. Algernon thus turns up at the estate and pretends to be Jack's younger brother -- Ernest. Gwendolen, Jack's fiance, then shows up with Lady Bracknell, her mother, and the truth comes out: Jack is not who he says he is, but is rather, an orphan who was found in a handbag in King's Cross Station. Lady Bracknell then refuses to allow Gwendolen to marry Jack and thus Jack refuses to let Algernon marry Cecily. This is an important aspect of the play because it shows how important marrying well was and how manipulation was used in making sure that this happened. Lady Bracknell doesn't want Jack to marry Gwendolen or Algernon to marry Cecily until she finds out that Cecily has a massive dowry. This depicts Lady Bracknell as the embodiment of stifled Victorian values where money and status was more important than a person's character.

A summary of this plot is important because it shows how much importance is put on birthright -- as well as names and financial status, since neither Cecily or Gwendolen want to marry men who are not called Ernest. It shows a society that is obsessed with appearances and with surface qualities as opposed to people. This is what forces the characters to take up alter egos and lie about whom they really are. Thus there is no earnestness anywhere.

Today, there is still an obsession with surfaces -- especially when it comes to the lives of the rich and the famous, but, in general, we live in a society where outwardly aspects of a human are more important than their true character. Our culture is obsessed with appearances -- youth and beauty, as well as with money. Society often holds up people who drive the nice cars, the expensive clothing, and the finances to throw around idly. We have surgeries to take care of all our flaws, as if they will somehow change who we are. In an interview with the actor Greg Kinnear, he says: "We all have to lead double lives, not just celebrities… I think that's part of the human condition" (the Independent 2009). What's for certain is that it is part of the human condition to want to fit in, to want to be accepted, and society -- whether one is in Victorian England or in America today -- puts pressure on people to conform to what standards are viewed as the most valuable. However, what Oscar Wilde points out in his play is that no matter what one's reasons are for living a double life, it is still a lie. Under the facade of being a very earnest person -- in moral character and name, Jack is, in fact, a liar. The only element that truly makes him likeable is that he loves Gwendolen quite earnestly (for reasons that are quite questionable), despite her love for his name.

The irony in the play and something that can be related to today's society is that for Algernon especially trying to escape from the conformity of the country and the hypocrisy of it all, he has become precisely what he loathes -- a hypocrite. This is obvious in "Bunbury," Algernon's alter ego. But still, Algernon's double life doesn't hurt anyone and thus his creation of Bunbury is less of a blow to those he cares about and the hypocrisy doesn't hurt anyone but himself (if even himself). Likewise, Gwendolen and Cecily do not lead outwardly double lives; their double lives take form in their imaginations. Cecily writes to her lover Ernest before ever even meeting him, which is harmless, but it shows that there is a need she feels to be able to control the outcome of her relationship and create the perfect person for her. This tends to imply that someone who is imagined -- or false -- is better than the real thing. Gwendolen has fallen in love with the idea of a man called Ernest -- not really the man standing before her whom she thinks is called Ernest, then finds out he is Jack, only to find out he is truly Ernest. Gwendolen is a character that is rather capricious in that one minute she is in love with the idea of Ernest, but the next moment she finds it rather exhilarating to think that he was an orphan found in a handbag.

When it is revealed at the end that Jack is, in fact, Ernest, and has been all along, there is the conclusion that though he has been leading a double life all along (the one he didn't know he was leading), he is really not that far from the alter ego that he had created in the first… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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How to Cite "Importance of Being Earnest" Essay in a Bibliography:

APA Style

Importance of Being Earnest.  (2011, March 4).  Retrieved August 5, 2020, from

MLA Format

"Importance of Being Earnest."  4 March 2011.  Web.  5 August 2020. <>.

Chicago Style

"Importance of Being Earnest."  March 4, 2011.  Accessed August 5, 2020.