Table of contents
“The Importance of Being Earnest” was written by the famous Irish author Oscar Wilde. Wilde was born in 1854 and died of cerebral meningitis in 1900. “The Importance of Being Earnest” was his final and most lasting play – “by all accounts, a masterpiece of modern comedy.”1
This play is filled with wit and wisdom, which Wilde himself wrote of it, too.
“Well I think, an amusing thing with lots of fun and wit might be made.”2
It represents Wilde´s late –Victorian view of the aristocracy, marriage, wit and social life.
The play tells the story of Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff. Both men lead a double life. One in the country and one in the city. Then, they both fall in love, and a series of crises threatens to spoil their romantic pursuits.
The main plot line of the play is definitely marriage. “Of course Wilde pokes fun at the institution of marriage, which he saw as a practice surrounded by hypocrisy and absurdity.”2 He focuses on the higher class and satirises the life of the English aristocracy. His characters are typical Victorian snobs who are arrogant, overly proper, formal and concerned with money.
This essay will provide an outline of the comic effects in this play. How Wilde uses humour, satire, farce and irony. The analysis will show, what makes this comedy so funny and so special. The essay will show some combinations of dialogue, dramatic irony, social criticism, characterisation and exaggeration and it will prove that the dialogues with its puns and epigrams are the basis for the humour in Wilde´s last play.
One of the ways Wilde´s wit manifests itself is in puns. He uses puns quite often throughout the whole play. The first double meaning can be already found behind the word “earnest” in the title. On the one hand, it functions as the name of a man and on the other hand, it is an adjective and describes seriousness. The whole play actually turns around this theme. Both male characters, Jack and Algernon, pretend to be Ernest. They are lying to the women they are in love with. But towards the end of the play, they discover, that they hadn´t been lying at all. In claiming to be Ernest, both men had been earnest without knowing it by themselves.
In the play, the characters who are not earnest are rewarded with love. They don´t act like the Victorian society wants them to be, they lie to get what they want. They stand up against the society during this time. Not like Lady Bracknell, who is the typical upper class lady in Wilde´s era. She shows the unhappiness of such a way of life.
But there can be more puns found in the play. The extended “dentist” joke for example in Act I is quite characteristic of his plays on words, of which we are never quite sure that the characters are fully aware.
Jack. My dear Algy, you talk exactly as if you were a dentist. It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn´t a dentist. It produces a false impression. Algernon. Well, that is exactly what dentists always do. (5)3
These puns show how easily you can play with the English language. It demonstrates that Wilde must have had an interest in playing games with the English language.
The construction of the false impression which is created in Act I and the explosion of the joke in Act III can be named as another major pun.
Another pun is hidden in the first few lines of the play. When Algernon is talking with his butler Lane.
Algernon. Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?
Lane. I didn´t think it polite to listen, sir.
Algernon. I´m sorry for that, for your sake. I don´t play
accurately – any one can play accurately – but I play
with wonderful expression. As far as the piano is
concerned, sentiment is my forte. I keep science for life. (1)
The pun occurs here in the word “forte”. It stands both, for human strength and a loud playing in the context of music. With this pun, Algernon wants to tell everyone, how great he is. He knows how to use words to compliment himself, without making it too obvious.
1 www.homepages.together.net/-theatre/earnest/synopsis.htm 22.07.2001
2 STUDY-AID SERIES. The Importance of Being Earnest. Methuan, 1968.
3 All numbers in brackets refer to the page number of:
Oscar Wilde. The Importance of Being Earnest.