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.