Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Marriage is of paramount importance in The Importance of Being Earnest, both as a primary force motivating the plot and as a subject for philosophical speculation and debate. The question of the nature of marriage appears for the first time in the opening dialogue between Algernon and his butler, Lane, and from this point on the subject never disappears for very long. Algernon and Jack discuss the nature of marriage when they dispute briefly about whether a marriage proposal is a matter of “business” or “pleasure,” and Lady Bracknell touches on the issue when she states, “An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be.” Even Lady Bracknell’s list of bachelors and the prepared interview to which she subjects Jack are based on a set of assumptions about the nature and purpose of marriage. In general, these assumptions reflect the conventional preoccupations of Victorian respectability—social position, income, and character.
The play is actually an ongoing debate about the nature of marriage and whether it is “pleasant or unpleasant.” Lane remarks casually that he believes it to be “a very pleasant state,” before admitting that his own marriage, now presumably ended, was the result of “a misunderstanding between myself and a young person.” Algernon regards Lane’s views on marriage as “somewhat lax.” His own views are relentlessly cynical until he meets and falls in love with Cecily. Jack, by contrast, speaks in the voice of the true romantic. He tells Algernon, however, that the truth “isn’t quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl.” At the end of the play, Jack apologizes to Gwendolen when he realizes he had been telling the truth all his life. She forgives him, she says, on the grounds that she thinks he’s sure to change, which suggests Gwendolen’s own rather cynical view of the nature of men and marriage.
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.” “More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read,” Algernon points out. 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. The play’s central plot—the man who both is and isn’t Ernest/earnest—presents a moral paradox. Earnestness, which refers to both the quality of being serious and the quality of being sincere, is the play’s primary object of satire. Characters such as Jack, Gwendolen, Miss Prism, and Dr. Chasuble, who put a premium on sobriety and honesty, are either hypocrites or else have the rug pulled out from under them. What Wilde wants us to see as truly moral is really the opposite of earnestness: irreverence.
Algernon and Jack may create similar deceptions, but they are not morally equivalent characters. When Jack fabricates his brother Ernest’s death, he imposes that fantasy on his loved ones, and though we are aware of the deception, they, of course, are not. He rounds out the deception with costumes and props, and he does his best to convince the family he’s in mourning. He is acting hypocritically. In contrast, Algernon and Cecily make up elaborate stories that don’t really assault the truth in any serious way or try to alter anyone else’s perception of reality. In a sense, Algernon and Cecily are characters after Wilde’s own heart, since in a way they invent life for themselves as though life is a work of art. In some ways, Algernon, not Jack, is the play’s real hero. Not only is Algernon like Wilde in his dandified, exquisite wit, tastes, and priorities, but he also resembles Wilde to the extent that his fictions and inventions resemble those of an artist.
Earnestness, which implies seriousness or sincerity, is the great enemy of morality in The Importance of Being Earnest. Earnestness can take many forms, including boringness, solemnity, pomposity, complacency, smugness, self-righteousness, and sense of duty, all of which Wilde saw as hallmarks of the Victorian character. When characters in the play use the word serious, they tend to mean “trivial,” and vice versa. For example, Algernon thinks it “shallow” for people not to be “serious” about meals, and Gwendolen believes, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.”
For Wilde, the word earnest comprised two different but related ideas: the notion of false truth and the notion of false morality, or moralism. The moralism of Victorian society—its smugness and pomposity—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 (meaning “serious” or “sincere”) 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 seriousness and virtue.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, the pun, widely considered to be the lowest form of verbal wit, is rarely just a play on words. The pun in the title is a case in point. The earnest/Ernest joke strikes at the very heart of Victorian notions of respectability and duty. Gwendolen wants to marry a man called Ernest, and she doesn’t care whether the man actually possesses the qualities that comprise earnestness. She is, after all, quick to forgive Jack’s deception. In embodying a man who is initially neither “earnest” nor “Ernest,” and who, through forces beyond his control, subsequently becomes both “earnest” and “Ernest,” Jack is a walking, breathing paradox and a complex symbol of Victorian hypocrisy.
In Act III, when Lady Bracknell quips that until recently she had no idea there were any persons “whose origin was a Terminus,” she too is making an extremely complicated pun. The joke is that a railway station is as far back as Jack can trace his identity and therefore a railway station actually is his “origin,” hence the pun. In Wilde’s day, as in the England of today, the first stop on a railway line is known as the “origin” and the last stop as the “terminus.” There’s also a whole series of implicit subsidiary puns on words like line and connection that can refer to either ancestry or travel. Wilde is poking fun at Lady Bracknell’s snobbery. He depicts her as incapable of distinguishing between a railway line and a family line, social connections and railway connections, a person’s ancestral origins and the place where he chanced to be found. In general, puns add layers of meaning to the characters’ lines and call into question the true or intended meaning of what is being said.
One of the most common motifs in The Importance of Being Earnest is the notion of inversion, and inversion takes many forms. The play contains inversions of thought, situation, and character, as well as inversions of common notions of morality or philosophical thought. When Algernon remarks, “Divorces are made in Heaven,” he inverts the cliché about marriages being “made in heaven.” Similarly, at the end of the play, when Jack calls it “a terrible thing” for a man to discover that he’s been telling the truth all his life, he inverts conventional morality. Most of the women in the play represent an inversion of accepted Victorian practices with regard to gender roles. Lady Bracknell usurps the role of the father in interviewing Jack, since typically this was a father’s task, and Gwendolen and Cecily take charge of their own romantic lives, while the men stand by watching in a relatively passive role. The trick that Wilde plays on Miss Prism at the end of the play is also a kind of inversion: The trick projects onto the play’s most fervently moralistic character the image of the “fallen woman” of melodrama.
Jokes about death appear frequently in The Importance of Being Earnest. Lady Bracknell comes onstage talking about death, and in one of the play’s many inversions, she says her friend Lady Harbury looks twenty years younger since the death of her husband. With respect to Bunbury, she suggests that death is an inconvenience for others—she says Bunbury is “shilly-shallying” over whether “to live or to die.” On being told in Act III that Bunbury has died suddenly in accordance with his physicians’ predictions, Lady Bracknell commends Bunbury for acting “under proper medical advice.” Miss Prism speaks as though death were something from which one could learn a moral lesson and piously says she hopes Ernest will profit from having died. Jack and Algernon have several conversations about how to “kill” Jack’s imaginary brother. Besides giving the play a layer of dark humor, the death jokes also connect to the idea of life being a work of art. Most of the characters discuss death as something over which a person actually has control, as though death is a final decision one can make about how to shape and color one’s life.
To the form of Victorian melodrama, Wilde contributed the figure of the dandy, a character who gave the form a moral texture it had never before possessed. In Wilde’s works, the dandy is a witty, overdressed, self-styled philosopher who speaks in epigrams and paradoxes and ridicules the cant and hypocrisy of society’s moral arbiters. To a very large extent, this figure was a self-portrait, a stand-in for Wilde himself. The dandy isn’t always a comic figure in Wilde’s work. In A Woman of No Importance and The Picture of Dorian Gray, he takes the form of the villains Lord Illingworth and Lord Henry Wootton, respectively. But in works such as Lady Windermere’s Fan, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde seems to be evolving a more positive and clearly defined moral position on the figure of the dandy. The dandy pretends to be all about surface, which makes him seem trivial, shallow, and ineffectual. Lord Darlington and Lord Goring (in Lady Windermere’s Fan and An Ideal Husband) both present themselves this way. In fact, the dandy in both plays turns out to be something very close to the real hero. He proves to be deeply moral and essential to the happy resolution of the plot.
In The Importance of Being Earnest, Algernon has many characteristics of the dandy, but he remains morally neutral throughout the play. Many other characters also express dandiacal sentiments and views. Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell are being dandiacal when they assert the importance of surfaces, style, or “profile,” and even Jack echoes the philosophy of the dandy when he comes onstage asserting that “pleasure” is the only thing that should “bring one anywhere.” For the most part, these utterances seem to be part of Wilde’s general lampooning of the superficiality of the upper classes. The point is that it’s the wrong sort of superficiality because it doesn’t recognize and applaud its own triviality. In fact, Cecily, with her impatience with self-improvement and conventional morality and her curiosity about “wickedness,” is arguably the character who, after Algernon, most closely resembles the dandy. Her dandiacal qualities make her a perfect match for him.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The double life is the central metaphor in the play, epitomized in the notion of “Bunbury” or “Bunburying.” As defined by Algernon, Bunburying is the practice of creating an elaborate deception that allows one to misbehave while seeming to uphold the very highest standards of duty and responsibility. Jack’s imaginary, wayward brother Ernest is a device not only for escaping social and moral obligations but also one that allows Jack to appear far more moral and responsible than he actually is. Similarly, Algernon’s imaginary invalid friend Bunbury allows Algernon to escape to the country, where he presumably imposes on people who don’t know him in much the same way he imposes on Cecily in the play, all the while seeming to demonstrate Christian charity. The practice of visiting the poor and the sick was a staple activity among the Victorian upper and upper-middle classes and considered a public duty. The difference between what Jack does and what Algernon does, however, is that Jack not only pretends to be something he is not, that is, completely virtuous, but also routinely pretends to be someone he is not, which is very different. This sort of deception suggests a far more serious and profound degree of hypocrisy. Through these various enactments of double lives, Wilde suggests the general hypocrisy of the Victorian mindset.
Food and scenes of eating appear frequently in The Importance of Being Earnest, and they are almost always sources of conflict. Act I contains the extended cucumber sandwich joke, in which Algernon, without realizing it, steadily devours all the sandwiches. In Act II, the climax of Gwendolen and Cecily’s spat over who is really engaged to Ernest Worthing comes when Gwendolen tells Cecily, who has just offered her sugar and cake, that sugar is “not fashionable any more” and “Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays.” Cecily responds by filling Gwendolen’s tea with sugar and her plate with cake. The two women have actually been insulting each other quite steadily for some time, but Cecily’s impudent actions cause Gwendolen to become even angrier, and she warns Cecily that she “may go too far.” On one level, the jokes about food provide a sort of low comedy, the Wildean equivalent of the slammed door or the pratfall. On another level, food seems to be a stand-in for sex, as when Jack tucks into the bread and butter with too much gusto and Algernon accuses him of behaving as though he were already married to Gwendolen. Food and gluttony suggest and substitute for other appetites and indulgences.
Writing and the idea of fiction figure in the play in a variety of important ways. Algernon, when the play opens, has begun to suspect that Jack’s life is at least partly a fiction, which, thanks to the invented brother Ernest, it is. Bunbury is also a fiction. When Algernon says in Act I, “More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read,” he may be making a veiled reference to fiction, or at least reading material perceived to be immoral. In Act II, the idea of fiction develops further when Cecily speaks dismissively of “three-volume novels” and Miss Prism tells her she once wrote one herself. This is an allusion to a mysterious past life that a contemporary audience would have recognized as a stock element of stage melodrama. Cecily’s diary is a sort of fiction as well: In it, she has recorded an invented romance whose details and developments she has entirely imagined. When Cecily and Gwendolen seek to establish their respective claims on Ernest Worthing, each appeals to the diary in which she recorded the date of her engagement, as though the mere fact of having written something down makes it fact. Ultimately, fiction becomes related to the notion of life as an art form. Several of the characters attempt to create a fictional life for themselves which then, in some capacity, becomes real. Wilde seems to regard as the most fundamentally moral those who not only freely admit to creating fictions for themselves but who actually take pride in doing so.