Lady Bracknell: “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.”

Lady Bracknell says these lines in the scene in Act 1 in which she interviews Jack to determine his eligibility as a suitor for Gwendolen. She has just told him she believes that a man who wants to marry should know either everything or nothing, and Jack, sensing a trap, has said he knows nothing. Lady Bracknell greets the news with complacency and says only, “I am pleased to hear it.” Wilde is on one level sending up the boorish ignorance and vacuity of the British leisured classes, qualities he had certainly encountered in the person of Lord Alfred Douglas’s voluble and undereducated father, whose provocative, misspelled note would ultimately lead to Wilde’s downfall. On another level, Wilde is making a serious social and political point. A good deal of truth exists in what Lady Bracknell says. Education, if it were effective in England, probably would threaten the established order. Lady Bracknell is implying that if the poor and the downtrodden in England knew anything about anything they would overthrow the ruling class.

The speech exemplifies one of the ways in which Wilde’s comedy works. The characters in The Importance of Being Earnest are not realistic or true to life. They don’t display consistency of temperament or viewpoint, even within a given scene or speech. They’re literary constructs, artificial creations whose purpose is to give voice to a particular utterance at a particular moment. Wilde uses Lady Bracknell to embody the mind-boggling stupidity of the British aristocracy, while at the same time, he allows her to voice some of the most trenchant observations in the play.