Oscar Wilde’s farcical comedy The Importance of Being Earnest mocks the culture and manners of Victorian society, relying on satire and a comic resolution to make that mockery more palatable to viewers. Even the subtitle of the play, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People, aptly captures Wilde’s tongue-in-cheek take on the cultural milieu to which he was subject. The play’s characters, representing that milieu, rely on deception and hypocrisy as tools for obtaining what they want, underscoring the superficial nature of Victorian society. Appearances matter to the characters, while the truth does not, and the play’s conflicts stem from the deceptions and hypocrisy of those characters. 

The use of deceit begins in the opening scene of the very first act of the play, revealed in the interaction between Algernon and his butler, Lane. When confronted with Lane’s deception—an alteration of the household books to hide the fact that Lane has been consuming his employer’s wine—Algernon reacts with complete nonchalance. The deceit, his response seems to suggest, is something not only expected, but acceptable. The dialogue in the opening scene is full of veiled insults and the use of polite wit, satirical tools with which Wilde holds up a mirror to reflect the superficiality of Victorian society.

The major conflict of the play is formed from the obstacles that Jack faces in his attempt to marry Gwendolen, each of which is grounded in deception. Civility and customs, Wilde hints, are nothing but a farce used by the upper class to hide their “wicked” ways. Jack has falsely led Gwendolen to believe that his name is Ernest, and he has lied to Cecily about the existence of a wayward brother, who also happens to be named Ernest. Algernon, in his own effort to create a false impression, engages in deceit through the practice of “Bunburying,” his escapes to the country to care for a fictional friend, an invalid named Bunbury. When Algernon discovers Jack’s country address, the plot’s inciting incident, this information sets subsequent events in motion. He has used deception, listening in on Jack’s conversation with Gwendolen, to get what he wants. 

Wilde, as events of the rising action unfold, mocks the duplicity of Victorian views and customs of courtship. Gwendolen’s hypocrisy is clear as she tells Jack that she might marry someone else but would always be devoted to him. Algernon’s brief courtship of Cecily is deceptive; he attempts to court her while pretending to be Jack’s fictitious brother, Ernest. That courtship, obviously, is built on a lie; Cecily believes he is someone else. Wilde, during the play’s rising action, also turns a Victorian trope about marriage and courtship on its head; men, according to a naive understanding of relationships, take charge in matters of marriage and courtship; Cecily, contrary to this understanding, decides that she is engaged to Ernest before she has even met him. Men, this suggests, have very little say in the matter. 

At the climax of the play, Jack’s hypocrisy is evident. Jack and Algernon come face to face and are forced to admit their deception. Neither of them is Ernest. Jack disapproves of the fact that Algernon is lying to Cecily, although he is essentially guilty of the same thing. When Lady Bracknell’s disdain for Cecily turns to delight upon finding out that she is wealthy, Wilde once again draws attention to how shallow Victorian society can be. 

As the play approaches its complex resolution, the falling action reveals a final deception calling the Victorian sense of aristocratic ideal into question. Jack, despite all appearances, accidentally had been abandoned by Miss Prism at a railway station when he was a baby. The fact had been kept hidden for many years, and in the end, Jack’s lies about having a problematic younger brother and being called Ernest ironically prove to be true. He is, in fact, Algernon’s brother, and he is named Ernest after his father. 

Despite all of the deceit and hypocrisy, in typical comedic fashion, Wilde resolves the play’s many conflicts happily. The couples are united, and no one faces any negative consequence for their deceitful actions. Still, Wilde’s criticism of Victorian society, while tempered by the use of comedy, exposes the rot that existed beneath the veneer of the upper class in Victorian society, where deception and hypocrisy, Wilde’s play suggests, had become rampant and even commonplace.