Lady Bracknell: “My nephew, you seem to be displaying signs of triviality.”

Jack: “On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.”

These lines form the last exchange in the play. At this point in the play, the notion of earnestness has taken several forms. Earnestness is a concept that can be best grasped by looking at its opposites. Here it is presented as the opposite of “triviality,” while elsewhere it means the opposite of seriousness. When Jack scoffs at the idea of a “serious Bunburyist,” Algernon retorts, “Well, one must be serious about something . . . . What on earth you are serious about I haven’t got the remotest idea. About everything, I should fancy. You have such an absolutely trivial nature.” In terms of the play’s primary plot, earnestness is the quality of honesty or candor. But exactly what the play really says about this attribute is hard to determine. Algernon professes not to believe that truth belongs in civilized conversation. Jack doesn’t think truth “quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl.” Cecily thinks that “whenever one has anything unpleasant to say, one should always be quite candid.” Lady Bracknell believes that a woman should always lie about her age. Gwendolen feels that “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” Of course, which of these characters is speaking the truth about the truth is impossible to determine.

One of the moral paradoxes that The Importance of Being Earnest seems intended to express is the idea that the perfectly moral man is the man who professes to be immoral, who speaks truly by virtue of the fact that he admits to being essentially a liar. Wilde set great store in lying, which, he argued in a quasi-Platonic dialogue called “The Decay of Lying,” is a veritable art form. Art itself may really be what’s at stake here. From Wilde’s standpoint, the poseur is to be congratulated and commended if his affectations bespeak elegance and style and achieve beauty. If they do, he is close to an artist. If they don’t, he is only a hypocrite.