Being Earnest

10338_09This week’s play, “The Importance of Being Earnest,” (found in The Seagull Reader) makes a hilarious statement about the ridiculousness of the Victorian upper class. Their ideas about marriage especially are blatantly mocked with their emphasis on social class, and personal conduct. The use of the term Earnest is relevant to the story on several different levels. With Earnestness being a particularly desirable trait in that era, the characters in the play ridicule the idea.

Since earnestness describes someone of serious sincerity, the fact that both men choose to use the name is hypocrisy. Jack and Algernon are both living amongst a society where this trait is greatly valued, and most likely imposing judgment on those who don’t possess it, yet are not actually earnest themselves. Although Jack does actually end up being Earnest, he is not earnest. Oddly enough, both women claim to have dreamed of marrying a man named Earnest and could never marry a man by any other name yet they quickly forgive Jack, and Algernon after discovering that is not their name. To me this was a testimony to the flighty upper-class women of the time. Both Cecily and Gwendolen give the impression of being very much like teenage girls, taking down accounts of their lives in diaries and obsessing over becoming married. Not to mention the fact that both women claim to love someone based solely on their name without knowing their personality or values. This may very well be a nod to the importance put on the social status (which was often reflected in your family name) rather than actually liking each other. Lady Braknell reflects this sentiment when she says: “an engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be” (page 269).  The footnote explains that by 1890 marriages were no longer arranged so this idea of our parents choosing your spouse would be one that Wilde no doubt found to be a senseless notion. In fact, the issue of marriage seems to be the main theme of the entire play, and the argument of whether or not it is an enjoyable circumstance to be in.

From the start of the play this idea of marriage is argued between Algernon and Jack when Algernon makes the powerful statement that “it is very romantic to be in love, but there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal” and that “If he ever gets married, he’ll try to forget the fact” (page 259). In this excerpt lays a key proclamation about marriage, that is still relevant today, and also a brutally honest idea about it. In truth there is nothing romantic about being married at all. Being married does not mean you are in love, and it those days love had very little to do with it. Eldonon even says that “divorces are made in Heaven (page 259). Wilde seems to be touching on the issue of marriage being a sort of business arrangement in those days and nothing else; which in turn comes back to the idea of being earnest since it involves being very serious and business like.

Another interesting thing about the use of the term earnest is that when used as a noun it means: “A sign or promise of what is to come” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/earnest). In the story Jack’s use of the name Earnest as his alter ego could be considered a sign of what is to come since he is actually Earnest, and since he has really been telling the truth his whole life he is also earnest. Oscar Wilde seems to create a maze of double meanings, and satire with his writing.

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8 thoughts on “Being Earnest

  1. “Being married does not mean you are in love, and it those days love had very little to do with it. Eldonon even says that “divorces are made in Heaven (page 259). Wilde seems to be touching on the issue of marriage being a sort of business arrangement in those days and nothing else; which in turn comes back to the idea of being earnest since it involves being very serious and business like.”

    I agree completely. Wilde seems to make a mockery of the institution (ever wonder why it was called that?) of marriage. Algernon sees it as a distasteful state of affairs, something in direct opposition to his Dandy lifestyle. Something cold and clinical…but then he meets Cecily. She seems to trigger something in him, but I question it’s long term merits, especially considering his use of Bunbury on a frequent basis to avoid unpleasant situations.

    1. The questionable longevity of any of the engagements in this play are debatable (at best!), which beautifully underscores Wilde’s gentle satire.

  2. I think your reference of marriage being mocked is very insightful. There are so many subjects within Victorian society which are mocked within the play! “Wilde seems to be touching on the issue of marriage being a sort of business arrangement in those days and nothing else; which in turn comes back to the idea of being earnest since it involves being very serious and business like.”– you make a great point about marriage appearing as a business arrangement of sorts. Wilde even notes in the play that arranged marriages are outdated… But it looks like the Victorians did use them as an “arrangement” of sorts. I really loved the play and how Wilde ridicules the Victorian society with such witty humor.

  3. “In truth there is nothing romantic about being married at all.”

    I think this story does a great job of showcasing the ridiculousness of marriage in the context of upper class Victorians, to great comedic effect. I agree that the arranged marriages of the elite seemed closer to business investments, as anyone in this level of status would want to ensure their fortunes continued and prospered in the romantic realm as well as the business world. This is especially true when Lady Blacknell speaks of having a list of eligible bachelors, as though they might be companies she’s considering partnering with rather than letting Gwendolyn fall in love with whomever she pleases.

  4. “Being married does not mean you are in love, and it those days love had very little to do with it.” What’s interesting is that this observation is true today, transcending over 100 years of literature. It’s funny that Wilde was commenting on the emptiness of love for the Victorian elite, when really, the value of love hasn’t changed much. With fifty percent of marriages ending in divorce, the idea of marriage seems to be purely romanticized, replacing true love, demonstrating that our society has many flaws when it comes to the definition of love and marriage.

    1. Could the opposite be said to be true, though? I’ve heard it convincingly argued that marriages undertaken for rational/practical reasons (i.e., not love) are far better off than those undertaken on the basis of love, which, as Rachel points out, isn’t exactly what long-term partnership is about. Just food for thought. We might discuss this during our chat.

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