full title The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People
author Oscar Wilde
type of work Play
genre Social comedy; comedy of manners; satire; intellectual farce
time and place written Summer 1894 in Worthing, England
date of first production February 14, 1895. In part because of Wilde’s disgrace, the play was not published until 1899.
publisher L. Smithers
tone Light, scintillating, effervescent, deceptively flippant
setting (time) 1890s
setting (place) London (Act I) and Hertfordshire, a rural county not far from London (Acts II and III)
protagonist John Worthing, known as “Ernest” by his friends in town (i.e., London) and as “Jack” by his friends and relations in the country
major conflict Jack faces many obstacles to his romantic union with Gwendolen. One obstacle is presented by Lady Bracknell, who objects to what she refers to as Jack’s “origins” (i.e. his inability to define his family background). Another obstacle is Gwendolen’s obsession with the name “Ernest,” since she does not know Jack’s real name.
rising action Algernon discovers that Jack is leading a double life and that he has a pretty young ward named Cecily. The revelation of Jack’s origins causes Lady Bracknell to forbid his union with Gwendolen. Identifying himself as “Ernest,” Algernon visits Jack’s house in the country and falls in love with Cecily.
climax Gwendolen and Cecily discover that both Jack and Algernon have been lying to them and that neither is really named “Ernest.”
falling action Miss Prism is revealed to be the governess who mistakenly abandoned Jack as a baby and Jack is discovered to be Algernon’s elder brother.
themes The nature of marriage; the constraints of morality; hypocrisy vs. inventiveness; the importance of not being “earnest”
motifs Puns; inversion; death; the dandy
symbols The double life; food; fiction and writing
foreshadowing In stage comedy and domestic melodrama, foreshadowing often takes the form of objects, ideas, or plot points whose very existence in the play signals to the audience that they will come up again. The fact that Jack was adopted as a baby, for instance, predicates a recognition scene in which Jack’s true identity is revealed and the plot is resolved by means of some incredible coincidence. Miss Prism’s “three-volume novel” is another example: Her very mention of it ensures that it will be important later. An instance of foreshadowing that operates in the more usual way is Jack’s assertion that Cecily and Gwendolen will be “calling each other sister” within half an hour of having met, followed by Algernon’s that “[w]omen only do that when they have called each other a lot of other things first.” This is literally what happens between Cecily and Gwendolen in Act II.