The Importance of Being Earnest: Satirical Irony
The Importance of Being Earnest is a play written by Oscar Wilde and first performed in 1895. Like Most of his plays, it is a satire, set in England in the late Victorian era. Wilde was a well-known European playwright. Robert Ross once said that Wilde, “never regarded his works as an adequate expression of his extraordinary genius and his magnificent intellectual endowment.” (Agate, 1947) However, this intriguing piece of work is an exception. More than any of his other plays, The Importance of Being Earnest embodies Wilde’s decency, warmth, and legendary wit. Critics say it is a whitty outlook on the Victorian upper class, exposing a world of shallow indifference and true love. (Tymes) Not only a satire, it is also full of very obvious irony, both situational and dramatic. Even the title turns out to have a hidden meaning in the end. With a comedic approach, Wilde uses irony to ridicule the absurdities of lovers’ courtship rituals, their false faces, and their secrets.
In the Victorian era, courtship rituals were slightly different from more modern times. “Courting the Victorian Women” explains that courtship was advanced by gradations, with couples speaking first, walking out together, and finally keeping company after mutual attraction had been confirmed. (Hoppe) Jack, in all his seriousness, refutes the rituals. Upon Gwendolen’s acceptance of his proposal, the problems with social affairs begin to pour out. Lady Bracknell and Algernon’s objections are a prime example of dating issues in the Victorian era. Some say that Wilde viewed marriage to be full of hypocrisy and used to achieve social status (Cliffs Notes), which is exactly what he shows through Lady Bracknell and Algernon. Lady Bracknell’s harsh criticism and stubborn ways are customary of upper-class mothers in the era. Ironically enough, Algernon later develops a kind of forbidden love. The object of his affection is young and being taught to be unimaginative and serious. As the daughter of Jack’s adopted father, Cecily is under the direction of Jack, which creates turmoil. Cecily’s governess disapproves, showing another example of Wilde’s ridicule of social class.
The Victorian period was filled with many different types of thoughts and ideas. The literature of the period rose ideas never heard before. Also, the reform and industrial revolution changed the way that people thought. Several scientific discoveries also made Victorians question their own beliefs. The intriguing Victorian period had a different taste of literature and also went through a reform ...
One thing that Jack and Algernon have in common is that they both have false faces. Algernon’s alter ego Bunbury is a version of himself used in the country. Mainly, though, the story lies with Ernest, the wicked imaginary man that both Cecily and Gwendolen become engaged to. Most of the irony comes from this character. It has been written that one of Wilde’s satiric targets is romantic and sentimental love, which he ridicules by having the women fall in love with a man because of his name rather than more personal attributes (bookrags- The Importance of Being Earnest).
It seems that the reason the two women want to marry a man named Ernest is because of the meaning of the word “earnest”. It means to be serious in intention, purpose, or effort or showing depth and sincerity of feeling. However, the many faces of Ernest are anything but honest. Wilde also makes fun of the idea that people lie to impress others. The double life led by Algernon, Jack, and Cecily (through her diary) is simply another means by which they liberate themselves from the repressive norms of society. They have the freedom to create themselves and use their double identities to give themselves the opportunity to show opposite sides of their characters. They mock every custom of the society and challenge its values. This creates not only the comic effect of the play but also makes the audience think of the serious things of life, hence “a trivial comedy for serious people”.
`In the last act of the play, Jack and Algernon’s relationship goes to all new heights. Well hidden throughout the entire play, the discovery of their kinship is the most ironic part of the play. Now friends, brothers, and holders of the same name, Jack and Algernon are Wilde’s biggest ridiculing devices. Their friendship is rocky and hits bump after bump as the play unwinds, their brotherhood is newly discovered, and Ernest is imaginary. As stated in commentary of the play, Wilde continues to mock the social customs and attitudes of the aristocratic class. He relentlessly attacks their values, views on marriage and respectability, sexual attitudes, and concern for stability in the social structure. (Cliffs Notes) A not so well kept secret is the relationship between Miss Prism, the source of Jack’s revelation about his parents, and Reverend Canon Chasuble. This is another forbidden love of Wilde’s, which is ironic because of his known homosexuality. These secrets are a ridicule of the rule of Victoria in England as well as the era in general, putting a little emphasis on the strain of morality. A study guide on the play states that morality and the constraints it imposes on society is a favorite topic of conversation in The Importance of Being Earnest. Algernon thinks the servant class has a responsibility to set a moral standard for the upper classes. Jack thinks reading a private cigarette case is “ungentlemanly.” These restrictions and assumptions suggest a strict code of morals that exists in Victorian society, but Wilde isn’t concerned with questions of what is and isn’t moral. Instead, he makes fun of the whole Victorian idea of morality as a rigid body of rules about what people should and shouldn’t do. The very title of the play is a double-edged comment on the phenomenon. (Cliffs Notes)
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The Importance of Being Earnest, a pun in itself, is a satire full of dramatic and situational irony. Its ridicule of Queen Victoria’s reign, the era, dating, marriage, alter egos, and secrets has had a long term effect in the theatrical world. Commentary says that for Wilde, the word earnest comprised two different but related ideas: the notion of false truth and the notion of false morality. (Spark Notes-Themes)The morality of Victorian society impels Algernon and Jack to invent fictitious alter egos so as to be able to escape the strictures of propriety and decency. However, what one member of society considers decent or indecent doesn’t always reflect what decency really is. One of the play’s paradoxes is the impossibility of actually being either earnest or moral while claiming to be so. The characters who embrace triviality and wickedness are the ones who may have the greatest chance of attaining virtue, and the moral of the story, of course, is to learn the importance of being earnest. And as Jack says in the last line of the play, “…I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.” (Wilde, 1965)
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