Themes in Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest

Themes with references in Oscar Wilde's famous play 'The Importance of Being Earnest' It is a set text for Paper 4 in Literature in English AS Level CIE exams. The page numbers are as per Project Gutenburg's text.

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Theme 1: Love and passion
One of the themes Wilde approaches with increased sarcasm is that of romance
and love. He ridicules what is otherwise a lauded phenomenon by making the
women fall in love with the man not for his personality and characteristics but for
something as trivial as his name.
"(Cecily) had always been a girlish dream of mine to love some one whose name was
Ernest." 1
The climax of this mockery is seen in the relationship between Algernon and Cecily,
where Cecily has charted out their entire relationship without even setting her eyes
on him. She records the happenings in her diary and even goes as far as writing
love letter to herself, from herself.
"(Cecily) is simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions...I
was forced to write letters for you.."2
Theme 2: Morality
Many of Wilde's characters in 'The Importance of Being Earnest' flaunt their moral
beliefs, giving the reader a very vivid image of the social structure and practices of
the time. The use of a social lie in particular, is stressed upon with the existence of
imaginary characters like Worthing's brother Earnest and Moncrieff's friend
"(Jack) name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country..."3
"(Algernon)...I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury..."4
Another, more subtle example of the same, is Miss Prism's sudden headache when
she is invited to go on a walk with Reverend Chasuble.
"(Miss Prism)...I find I have a headache after all..."5
Theme 3: Double identity
The innate need for the characters to have second personalities is obvious in the
Scene 2, page 28
Scene 2, page 2627
Scene 1, page 4
Scene 1, page 5
Scene 2, page 18

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Earnest and Bunbury. Though both Jack and Algernon resort to this
method to escape the restrictions of their present lives, Algernon is more open
about the need and in fact, flaunts his 'Bunburying' pursuits.
"(Algernon)...A man who marries without knowing Bunbury has a very tedious time of it"6
Though projected humourously, this predicament is representative of the lives of
most upper class citizens at the time. They needed to play dual roles for the
satisfaction of the society and one for their own personal needs.…read more

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Gwendolen) How absurd to talk of the equality of the sexes!"10
They were mainly valued for their beauty and chastity. However, Wilde questions
these stereotypes in his work. This is done by placing a female character such as
Lady Bracknell in a position of power...
"(Lady Bracknell) are not engaged to any one. When you d become engaged to
some one, I...will inform you of the fact."11
...and other males like Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff as men who can
make the wrong decisions.…read more

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Hypocrisy in society: Hypocrisy is the act of pretending to have beliefs and
opinions that the person in question actually does not possess. It is
considered a kind of lie and may stem from the need to protect one's
identity. This is an important theme in this play as it is openly practised
amongst the members of the upper class. In fact, hypocrisy is even expected
of them.
"(Lady Bracknell)...try and acquire some relations...and...make a definite effort to
produce at any rate one parent...…read more

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Algernon)...What ideas do you have of hospitality!"19
g) Outlook of priorities: The Victorian public gave much though to how they
appeared to the viewer. More than the feeling and emotion in any given
situation, it was how they were presented on the outside that mattered. This
again gave rise to many instances of hypocrisy and masking.
"(Gwendolen)...In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing."20
h) Gender equality: This was pretty much a nonexistent entity in Victorian
society.…read more

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Lady Bracknell) families of high position strange coincidences are not supposed to
occur" 24
Theme 8: Idleness of leisure class and aesthete
Wilde goodnaturedly exposes the idleness of the upper class. He comments on
their apparent lack of goal and ambition. Investments provide them with a fixed
monthly income ensuring there is no need to actually work and earn their living.
Algernon in particular, is representative of this behaviour and lifestyle. He likes
nothing better than to eat, gamble and gossip.…read more

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