Absurdity and Satire in The Importance of Being Earnest by O. Wilde

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Oscar Wilde`s play, ``The Importance of Being Earnest`` mocks protocols, principles, marriage and the search for love in Victorian times. It also makes fun of social expectations and the inversion of these expectations.   The main characters of the play are Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrief.  Jack adopts an alter ego when going into town to avoid keeping up with the serious and morally upright behavior that is expected of him as guardian to his eighteen-year-old ward, Cecily. Algernon makes up an invalid friend Bunbury whose grave health conditions provide him with the excuse to escape to the country as and when he pleases. 

Both Jack and Algernon are admired by two young ladies who erroneously believe the men`s names to be Earnest and who adore the men for this very reason. Gwendolen points out: ``I am told; and my ideal has always been to love someone of the name of Earnest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence``. (Wilde, 1979: 263).  Cecily says: ``You must not laugh at me darling, but it had always been a girlish dream of mine to love someone whose name was Earnest. (Wilde, 1979: 288).   In relating the story of mix-ups and mistaken identities, the ideals and manners of the Victorian society are satirized in this comedy. Many experts point out that this play is timeless.

Ultimately there is little fear that Wilde`s play might drown in a rising tide of scholarship. The Importance of Being Earnest shows no sign of losing the sturdiness that has made it a frequent choice for the theatrical (and sometimes film) treatment around the world. At the same time it remains extraordinary suggestive of its own age.   I believe that part of the esteem it so swiftly came to enjoy in its time, and continue to merit in ours derives from the subtly topical and also deeply talismanic effect it appears to have had on its contemporary audience. (Donhue, 1996:12).

Earnestness, which means seriousness or honesty, can take many forms, including boringness, pomposity, smugness and self-importance. All these features are symbols of Victorian character and it is obvious that the writer despises them.  In the author`s opinion, the word earnest consisted of two different ideas: the notion of false truth and the notion of false morality. The self-righteousness and complacency of Victorian society encouraged Algernon and Jack to invent their alter egos in order to escape the restraints of decency. But, what one member of society considers descent or indecent doesn`t always reveal the true meaning of decency. The play`s main paradox is the impossibility of really being earnest while trying to convince others that you are earnest.

The characters who take up triviality and don`t take themselves too seriously are the ones who may have the greatest chance of gaining seriousness and goodness. It is evident that Oscar Wilde likes Algernon because he is not a hypocrite. When Algernon and Cecily make up stories, they don`t really assault the truth or try to change anyone else`s conception of reality. They treat life as a work of art and they invent life for themselves.  It is obvious that the author respects them more than characters such as Gwendolen, Miss Prism, Jack and Dr. Chausible.  When Jack invents his brother Earnest`s death, he imposes that illusion on the people who love him, and despite the fact that the readers are aware of his betrayal, his loved ones are not. He wants to convince the family that he is very sad over the loss of his brother. Unlike Algernon, he is acting hypocritically.

Oscar Wilde also satirizes morality and restrictions of Victorian society. Algernon thinks that lower class has a responsibility to set a moral standard for the upper class. He says: ``Really, if the lower orders don`t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?’’(Wilde, 1979:254). Jack emphasizes that: ``It is very ungentlemanly to read a private cigarette case``. (Wilde, 1979: 256).  Algernon replies: `` More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn`t read``. (Wilde, 1979: 257).   However, Oscar Wilde does not want to discuss what is moral and what is not moral. He wants to show us the absurdity of Victorian society and he satirizes the whole idea of Victorian society as a strict group of rules about what people should and should not do.

The author ridicules the obsession which his characters have with money.  For instance, Lady Bracknell asks Jack Worthing about Cecily Cardew`s wealth.  `` As a matter of form, Mr Worthing, I had better ask you if Miss Cardew has any little fortune?`` (Wilde, 1979:304). She is very satisfied when she hears the answer: ``Oh! about hundred and thirty thousand pounds in the Funds ``.  (Wilde, 1979: 304).  Lady Bracknell immediately changes her opinion of Cecily. She says: `` Few girls of the present day have any really solid qualities, any of the qualities that last, and improve with time``.  (Wilde, 1979: 304). In fact, she is actually referring to: `` Few girls of the present day have any really solid money``.

The writer also makes a parody of his characters` fascination with social status. Lady Bracknell points out: ``You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter – a girl brought up with the utmost care to marry into a cloak-room, and form an alliance with a parcel``. (Wilde, 1979: 269).  Wilde mocks Lady Bracknell`s snobbery as well: ``I feel bound to tell you that you are down on my list of eligible young men…``(Wilde, 1979:266).  Some scholars think that `` Lady Bracknel`s   is the voice of authority, that is to say of social authority, and, therefore, madness``. (Bloom, 2010: 8). They also point out that Lady Bracknel is ``a sublime monster, in some respects larger than the play``. (Bloom, 210:8).  She represents the Victorian society and Jack says about her: ``I don`t really know what a Gorgon is like, but I am quite sure that Lady Bracknel is one``.  (Wilde, 1979: 269).

The play is also a constant discussion about the nature of marriage. Alergnon`s servant, Lane says: `` I believe it is a very pleasant state, sir``. (Wilde, 1979: 253). Alergnon remarks: ``Lane`s view on marriage seems somewhat lax``. (Wilde, 1979: 254). He also believes that: ``Divorces are made in Heaven``. (Wilde, 1979: 255). Lady Bracknel`s opinion of marriage is very cynical. Gwendolen`s view of the nature of men and marriage is rather cynical as well. When Jack asks her whether she can forgive him, Gwendolen answers: `` I can. For I feel that you are sure to change``. (Wilde, 1979: 313).   The author makes significant comments about social class and the institution of marriage. These observations include the prevalent utilization of deceit in everyday affairs.

The characters and plot of the play appear to be entirely irrelevant, thus lending weight to the comedic aspect.  However, this same factor also serves to illuminate absurdity and satire,  that are the major points that Wilde tried to convey about the English society in which he lived.  ``The Importance of Being Earnest`` criticizes Victorian manners and attacks the society of the rich and luxurious. Oscar Wilde incorporated his own beliefs and ideology into the play. The title of the play suggests a treatise on the value of solemnity in everyday life. But, the writer presents us an ironic play that leaves us with opposite lesson. None of the characters benefit from propriety. The least serious characters, Algernon and Jack, are rewarded in the end for their frivolous behavior throughout the play, implying that there is very little, if any, importance to being earnest.


  1. Bloom, Harold. Bloom`s Modern Critical Views- Oscar Wilde – New Edition. 2010. New York: IBT Global, Troy NY
  2. Donhue, Joseph. The Importance of Being Earnest. 1996. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

CORPUS- Wilde, Oscar. Plays. 1979. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd.



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