The Importance Of Being Earnest is a comedic play written by Oscar Wilde, an Irish writer known for his flamboyance and wit. The play was first shown at the St. James Theatre in 1895 in London. While the play was very popular even in its time, it marked the beginning of the end for Wilde since his scorned lover showed up to interrupt the show. Wilde was later exposed to homosexuality, and he went to jail for two years.
The play's events revolve around the lives of two young men, Jack and Algernon, who live double lives. Jack lies about having a wayward brother living in London, which allows him to visit the city occasionally and visit Gwendolen. On the other hand, Algernon lies about being named Ernest when he visits Jack’s ward, Cecily. One day, Jack asks Gwendolen to marry him, but her mother forbids them since Jack is an orphan. However, Gwendolen follows Jack to his country home and finds out his lies, and her mother, Lady Bracknell follows. Algernon proposes to Cecily, but Jack declines unless Lady Bracknell accepts his proposal to Gwendolen. They eventually find out that Jack disappeared after the family’s absent-minded housekeeper Miss Prism left him at Victoria Station. This would make him Lady Bracknell’s nephew and a member of London’s high society, so Lady Bracknell accepts his proposal to marry her daughter. Algernon also proposes to Cecily, and the play ends with the happy couple embracing.
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Below is a list of characters in The Importance of Being Earnest:
Jack is a seemingly respectable upper-class young man who lies about having a wayward brother named Ernest in London, who he must occasionally help so he can enjoy the pleasures of life. He is in love with Gwendolen and was adopted as a child by Thomas Cardew after he was found abandoned in Victoria Station. The initials J.P. mean that he is a Justice of The Peace.
Algernon is Jack’s best friend who resides in the city. He is charming and idle and portrays the dandy. He also lives a double life, where he lies about having a sick friend named Bunbury to help him lie his way out of certain social obligations.
Gwendolen is Lady Bracknell’s daughter. She represents the qualities of Victorian womanhood and is described as pretentious, image-conscious, and focused on self-improvement. She wants to marry a man named Ernest because “it inspires confidence,” which represents Victorian society’s focus on virtue.
Cecily is Jack’s eighteen-year-old ward who is fascinated with Uncle Jack’s wayward brother “Ernest”. She is also Cardew’s granddaughter. Unlike Gwendolen, she is not interested in high society and is fascinated with wickedness hence her interest in “Ernest”.
Lady Bracknell is Gwendolen’s strict and snobbish mother as well as Algernon’s aunt. She refuses Jack’s proposal to her daughter because he is not eligible in her eyes. Unlike Algernon, she is unintentionally funny and is also considered narrow-minded.
Miss Prism is representative of rigid Victorian morals. She is a naïve character who praises Jack’s assumed respectability and is also absent-minded, having forgotten Jack as a baby in Victoria station. She is also pursuing a relationship with Reverend Chasuble.
Reverend Chasuble is the local rector/priest-like figure in Hertfordshire whose initials stand for Doctor of Divinity. Jack and Algernon ask him to christen them as Ernest.
Lane is Algernon’s manservant and he makes a brief appearance at the start. At first, he is the only person aware that Algernon is living a double life.
Merriman is Jack’s butler who briefly appears in Acts 11 and 111.
For more character analysis in famous books, see our other articles, such as To Kill A Mockingbird summary essay.
Below is The Importance of Being Earnest plot in full, and divided into Acts as in the actual play:
This part begins at Algernon’s apartment in London. Algernon’s best friend Jack, who he knows as Ernest, arrives and welcomes him. Jack is in the city to propose to Gwendolen. However, Algernon refuses to consent until Jack explains the cigarette case he finds, which contains an inscription addressed “from Cecily to Uncle Jack”. Jack admits his lies, saying that he lives a double life and lies about having a wayward brother in London named Ernest to live a scandalous life while he maintains a respectable image in his hometown. Jack is actually a major landowner and justice of the peace in his hometown of Hertfordshire. Algernon reveals that he also leads a double life and lies about having a sick friend named Bunbury, who he occasionally lies about having to attend to get out of certain obligations. As such, he declares himself and his friend “Bunburyists”. However, Jack refuses to tell Algernon where his home is.
Gwendolen and her mother, Lady Bracknell arrive and call Algernon. Algernon lies about having to help Bunbury to avoid attending Lady Bracknell’s reception party. Algernon distracts Lady Bracknell while Jack proposes to her daughter. Gwendolen accepts the proposal, largely because she loves the name Ernest. Lady Bracknell questions him but learns that he was abandoned as a baby and was discovered in a handbag at Victoria Station, so she forbids him from marrying her. Jack slips Gwendolen his address before leaving, and Algernon notes it down as he wants to meet his ward, Cecily.
This marks the end of The Importance Of Being Earnest summary act 1, which mainly takes place in London.
Algernon goes to Jack’s country home and finds Cecily there. He charms Cecily but lies about being Jack’s wayward brother Ernest, and Cecily falls for him as she likes the name, Ernest. Algernon wants to change his name to Ernest with the help of Dr. Chasuble just like Jack has decided to do.
The next day, Jack arrives at his country estate and announces the death of Ernest, but Algernon, who now claims to be Ernest has appeared. Gwendolen also arrives after running away from home and meets the two men gone. However, she finds Cecily, who is also now engaged to Ernest, leasing to conflict. However, the truth is exposed when the men arrive.
Dr. Chasuble, the rector arrives to christen Jack as Ernest but does not find him as Jack has given up after Lady Bracknell rejects his proposal. He gains an interest in Miss Prism and invites her on a walk. Lady Bracknell follows Gwendolen and finds that Algernon and Cecily are engaged. Once she finds out that Cecily is from a wealthy family she accepts. However, Jack forbids the union and says he will only accept their engagement if Lady Bracknell accepts his proposal to Gwendolen but she declines.
Miss Prism arrives and Lady Bracknell recognizes her as their family’s nursemaid who lost her nephew 28 years later. Miss Prism had taken the baby for a walk in a pram but placed a book in the pram and the baby in her purse. She then forgot the handbag at Victoria Station, which Thomas Cardew found. Mr. Cardew then adopted Jack. Miss Prism produces the handbag, and Lady Bracknell identifies it, thus proving that Jack is her nephew. However, Gwendolen can only marry a man named Ernest. Lady Bracknell notes that Jack should have been named after his father. They check out the army lists and find out that General Moncrieff was named Ernest, thus making his lies true all along. The play ends with the couples embracing happily.
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A major theme in The Importance of Being Earnest summary is marriage. For the men in Victorian society, it is the ultimate expression of love, and for the women, it is an admirable achievement, especially if the man is of high standing in society. Lady Bracknell object’s Gwendolen’s potential marriage to Jack as she does not see him as fit for the role. On the other hand, Gwendolen is mainly focused on dating a man with the name Ernest who she loves. As such, some characters are focused on marriage as a business while others marry for pleasure.
There are several other The Importance of Being Earnest themes, and one of them is Victorian morality. There are many strict social norms in Victorian society resulting in Jack having to hide his life in London to preserve his reputation. This is because his behavior in the city can be considered scandalous, plus Miss Prism praises him for his perceived morality. However, a lot of the characters are hypocritical, such as how Jack pretends to be respectable but hides his immoral behavior. Gwendolen and Cecily are also obsessed with the name Ernest since they like how the name is associated with positive behavior.
The play’s characters emphasize the importance of one’s social class and its relation to social standing. For example, Lady Bracknell does not consider Jack to be a suitable marriage prospect for Gwendolen, since he is an orphan with no parents. She asks him about his finances, and his family to determine his class. In another instance, she accepts Algernon’s proposal to marry Cecily since she is revealed to be wealthy.
The theme of social class can also be noticed in how the upper class such as Jack have time to engage in various hobbies and move from their home to the city to live out their fantasies because they have servants to take care of the necessities.
Gwendolen is in love with Jack, and her mother’s refusal of his proposal drives her to confess her undying love and visit his country home. Algernon is also interested in Cecily and this leads him to copy Jack’s address on his sleeve when he tells Gwendolen so he can visit her. Additionally, the reverend pursues a relationship with Miss Prism. However, they each fulfill stereotypical gender roles when in love, as Gwendolen and Cecily are vapid and emotional when they argue over who is marrying Ernest.
In Victorian society, one’s identity through class and finances was highly analyzed. Jack’s lack of parents means that his social class is not well established, hence Lady Bracknell refuses his request to marry Gwendolen. In the end, Jack finds his real family, which leads Lady Bracknell to accept him as he is now a proven member of high society. As such, identity in this society was integral to one’s social mobility.
Jack lies about having a brother named Ernest who often gets into trouble so he has to go help him. This gives him time to engage in scandalous activities. Algernon also lies about having a sick friend named Bunbury who he has to attend to. However, he only does this to avoid certain social obligations. It is safe to say that the characters use deceit to gain certain advantages and live out their fantasies.
Reputation is one of the central themes in The Importance of Being Earnest. Jack forms a false persona to protect his reputation, as well as Algernon. Algernon does not want to risk his reputation by refusing to participate in certain social activities so he lies about going to help Bunbury. In Act 1 when Jack comes to propose to Gwendolen, he lies about having to help Bunbury to avoid going to Lady Bracknell’s reception.
In the play, food almost always comes with conflict. For example, Gwendolen and Cecily argue over who is actually marrying Ernest, as well as whether the cake is considered fashionable anymore. However, this disagreement over food symbolizes their conflict over who is more deserving to marry Ernest.
A part of Jack’s life is fictional, as well as Algernon’s. Miss Prism also talks to Cecily about writing a novel in the past. This might be representative of her past life. Cecily also keeps a diary where she writes down her romantic fantasies. In a way, fiction imitates life in the end as Jack is actually named Ernest, Cecily achieves the romance she always desires, and Gwendolen marries a man named Ernest. As such, the characters eventually achieve the fictional reality they sought.
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The play is comedic in nature and has several funny moments. While some of the characters such as Lady Bracknell are unintentionally funny, others like Algernon go out of their way to crack jokes. The use of humor also makes the play become a satire which would mean that it criticizes society.
Foreshadowing refers to when an author hints at future events. It may be direct or implied, and many use symbols. Most of the time, the characters do not notice until it's too late. However, authors like it as it creates mystery, gives certain scenes significance, promotes certain themes, and leads to suspense. An example of foreshadowing is when Jack tells Algernon that Cecily and Gwendolen will call each other sister soon after the meeting but Algernon says “That only happens after women call each other a lot of things first”. Once the two women meet in Act 11 this is what happens, with Cecily and Gwendolen arguing over who will marry Ernest but afterward, they end up becoming relatives when Lady Bracknell finally accepts Jack’s proposal.
The use of words with the opposite meaning of what one is communicating. It is meant to emphasize something or be humorous. An example is in Act 11 when Miss Prism tells Cecily about her novel and Cecily replies “Did you really, Miss Prism? ... I don’t like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.” Cecily says this to emphasize that she does not like sad novels and would indeed prefer one with a happy ending.
A metaphor is a figure of speech that describes an object or action. It compares two unrelated things and points out their similarities. Writers use it to help make their work colorful. For example, in Act 1 when Lady Bracknell states that “Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit, touch it and the bloom is gone.” Or when Dr. Chasuble states that “Maturity can always be depended on. Ripeness can be trusted. Young women are green.” These metaphors help emphasize the point and help the reader visualize what is being spoken of. For example, we can tell that Dr. Chasuble would prefer a mature woman to a younger one who he considers as not being ready for a relationship. On the other hand, Lady Bracknell views ignorance as an admirable trait.
Hyperbole refers to exaggeration. They are not meant to be taken seriously and are just used to emphasize something or add a comedic effect. For example, in Act 11, when Jack returns home and lies about his brother being dead but finds Algernon claiming to be Ernest, he asks Algernon to leave soon and Algernon says “I certainly won’t leave you so long as you are in mourning. It would be most unfriendly. If I were in mourning, you would stay with me, I suppose. I should think it very unkind if you didn’t.”
In another instance in Act 11, Algernon says that “If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by always immensely over-educated.”
These instances of hyperbole draw attention to something such as dressing or one’s education leading the reader to take note.
A motif in literature refers to a repeated element such as an image or idea within a text. It is different from a theme in that a theme is more broad. For example, a theme may be bravery and may have a hero and other brave characters who demonstrate similar traits. However, the motif n such literature could be something like a flag or an idea promoting bravery. Simply put, the motif helps highlight and supports the theme. In The Importance of Being Earnest summary act 1 and The Importance Of Being Earnest act 2 summary, students can notice the following motifs:
Oscar Wilde was known for his wit. A pun is a use of one’s wit, and which makes a joke out of the fact that certain words have different meanings but similar pronunciations. For example, the title itself is a pun, since both Ernest and Earnest rhyme but mean different things. This is meant to poke fun at shallow Victorian morality, since earnest means honest but the character of Ernest/Jack is lying about his life.
Some of the characters view death as a controllable event; hence one’s death can shape one’s reputation. For example, when Lady Bracknell is told about Jack’s fake brother dying, she comments saying that she hopes he benefits from death. This is because she views him as immoral and sees death as something he can learn a moral lesson from. She also says that Bunbury is “shilly-shallying over whether to live or die” which is simply a way to cast him as an inconvenience to others.
This motif contributes to the theme of social class, reputation, and Victorian morality. For example, Lady Bracknell views Bunbury’s death positively because he has a poor reputation that does not align with Victorian morals of the time. It is also worth noting that reputation affects how a person’s death is viewed.
A dandy refers to a young man who is overly concerned about his physical appearance and fashion. Some experts claim that Wilde used this character to represent himself since the dandy is often philosophizing about hypocrisy and morality. He dandy is also relatively high class and is rarely a member of the servant class. Both Jack and Algernon represent this type of individual and their morality. While they are both shallow and chase after pleasure, they still have specific moral positions, such as how Jack is a good leader in his community, which has earned him the title “Justice of the Peace”. We can therefore state that this motif contributes to the theme of morality and social class.
Many of the characters in this play inert conventional norms and use them to their advantage. For example, Lady Bracknell takes on the father’s role when interviewing Jack as a prospective suitor for her daughter. On the other hand, when Jack realizes that he was actually named Ernest this whole time, he says that it “...a terrible thing for a man to discover that he’s been telling the truth all his life”, which is an inversion of conventional morality.
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The setting of The Importance of Being Earnest is set in 1895 in Victorian England. Act 1 takes place mainly in London, where Gwendolen and Algernon live. However, Acts 11 and 111 take place in Hertfordshire, the rural area where Jack’s estate is. The tone is light and flippant, which goes well with the satire and humor in the plot.
In this day and age, British society was focused on social class and morality. While this was the norm, many in this society were hypocrites who engaged in scandalous activities in secret. They value appearance over actual morals. In Act 11, Gwendolen says that “in manners of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.”
As per this The Importance of Being Earnest summary, the play falls within the genre of a farcical comedy. This is because it incorporates elements of humor, such as Jack’s lengths to lie about his fake identity and the resulting scenarios. For example, after Lady Bracknell rejects his proposal to marry Gwendolen, he has to go back to his estate and lies about his wayward brother ‘Ernest” dying, but is shocked to find that Algernon scribbled down his address ad went there before him and claimed to be “Ernest” so he has to keep the lie going.
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While critics noted that the book did not have a direct moral lesson to be learned, it can be said that social norms require many to be artificial, so being artificial should be neutral to avoid conflict with others.
In the book, Jack takes on two different personas, one for his home and another for the city. He does this so as to avoid boredom and engage in life’s pleasures away from those who respect him and hold him in high regard, such as Miss Prism.
Gwendolen views the name Ernest as being virtuous and honorable, and it aligns with Victorian social norms that lead people to desire such virtues.
The handbag symbolizes the comedy of errors. Miss Prism makes a serious mistake when she leaves Jack in her purse as an infant and then forgets him at Victoria station. The situation is ridiculous and paints Miss Prism as a very careless individual.
She does this because he has no parents and can, therefore, not prove his social class. Lady Bracknell is focused on retaining her daughter’s status within the upper class, and despite Jack’s wealth, he is not of the same class. This is because family and ancestry were very important in Victorian times.
He was first charmed by the idea of Jack’s young and beautiful ward and then met her and fell in love with her for her imagination and relatively strange behavior. She represents Wilde’s idea of life being a work of art, hence representing his ideals.
No, because his role as a clergyman would contradict this. As such, he is conflicted.
To sum it up, The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedic play about Jack, a young man who lives a double life. He lies about having a wayward brother named Ernest, who often gets into trouble, and he has to rush off to assist. However, his friend Algernon is also lying about having a sick friend named Bunbury to avoid unpleasant social obligations. Jack wants to marry Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolen, but her mother declines as he does not know his parents. Algernon also wants to marry Cecily, Jack’s ward and lies about being Ernest. In the end, their lies are exposed, but it is revealed that Jack is actually Ernest and Lady Bracknell’s nephew. Their nursemaid, Miss Prism lost him at Victoria Station, and he was adopted by Thomas Cardew. Since his origin is now confirmed, Lady Bracknell accepts his proposal to marry Gwendolen, and the play ends as the happy couples embrace.
The play contains themes such as love, marriage, Victorian morality, and social class. Literary devices used include motifs and symbolism, which help build up the themes. Motifs include death and inversion, while food and fiction are some of the symbols used. For help with writing an analytical essay on this book or any other literary work, place your order today, and out The Importance of Being Earnest summary experts will write a quality essay sure to help you ace the test.
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