The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

22 Mar

As I’ve mentioned before, Oscar Wilde is quite the well-beloved literary figure, and why not? We’ve already gone over his fun, flamboyant, ridiculous self before, I won’t repeat myself here. But who couldn’t use a little more of his humor nowadays? “The Importance of Being Earnest” is probably one of his best known plays, and one of his funniest works, in my humble opinion. So if you can’t get enough of Mr. Wilde, look no further than “The Importance of Being Earnest.”

Published: 1895

Quick Read?: For sure.

Difficulty: Not very. Do slow down for all of Wilde’s clever wordplay and jokes, however!

Synopsis: In a classic case of identity switcheroo, the play opens with protagonists Algernon and Ernest in London. Ernest is deeply in love with Gwendolyn, Algernon’s cousin, but it Algernon soon realizes Ernest isn’t really Ernest (or earnest) at all, but is actually Jack.  Ernest is merely the name he uses while gallivanting in the city, for when Ernest goes home to his sister in the country, he doesn’t want her to know his “double life” partying and having a merry time in the city (this was before the days of embarrassing facebook photo tags, of course).  When Ernest/Jack goes to finally propose to Gwendolyn, however, he must fight off her cranky grandmother Lady Bracknell, who sees Ernest/Jack as “unsuitable.” Yet it turns out Gwendolyn only loves Ernest/Jack for one reason–his name “Ernest.” The story further complicates and becomes hilariously entangled when Ernest/Jack returns to the country with Algernon, only to have Algernon learn that Cecily is in love with him (though they have never met), and he falls for her, but not without a few complexities along the way.

Why this book? Oscar Wilde is hilarious, timelessly so. While it’s a fun play to watch, it’s just as fun to read, and great if you want a quick laugh. It’s a personal favorite of mine, out of what I’ve read of his works–others have not agreed with me, but I think it’s a definite classic, and a worthy one to have stored away in your literary arsenal.

If nothing else, this is the book for anyone with a love of clever wordplay. The most obvious of these wordplays is on the name “Ernest” and the adjective “earnest,” of course, but nonetheless, it’s a satisfying work that is never dull or boring. Nothing slows down the pace or keeps the laughter at bay.

If Tyra Banks and Oscar Wilde had lived during the same time period, Tyra would've said "Irish eyes are sm-eye-sing!"

Some neat-o facts:

  • Wilde cultivated the social wit he employs throughout this play through his social interactions in London with famous artists, playwrights, writers, and the late 19th century upper-crust. I get the feeling “The Importance of Being Earnest” had some basis in his experiences, but I can’t say that for a fact.
  • The play also makes fun of the Victorian melodrama, a popular theatrical genre at the time in England. The drama in this work is so over the top, even for Wilde, there was no mistaking its poking fun at other works during that time period

If you like this, try: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Wilde; any play by George Bernard Shaw; Orlando by Virginia Woolf; Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen.

And for those of you who are film-inclined, here’s the movie trailer!

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4 Responses to “The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde”

  1. The Chocolate Dictionary March 23, 2012 at 10:22 am #

    You’re right about “The Importance of Being Earnest” being based (somewhat) on Wilde’s own social experiences. The title contains a double pun in this regard. Not only Ernest/Earnest, but also “earnest” being Victorian slang for a male homosexual. Anyone familiar with Wilde’s life will know about the tragic consequences to come out of this aspect of his life.

    • Better Know A Book March 23, 2012 at 11:34 am #

      I actually didn’t know that “Earnest” was slang as well. Thanks for that!

  2. The Chocolate Dictionary March 23, 2012 at 12:06 pm #

    Yes, it’s an interesting one, and one that has lead some commentators to say there is a strong sub-theme througout the play. One that reflected the need for gay men at the time (who had to lead double lives), to have two identities – one for public consumption and one for private secrets. It might have been an unconscious plot device on Wilde’s part but it’s interesting nevertheless.

  3. CarolineSully April 26, 2012 at 11:43 pm #

    My favourite play by the divine Oscar. Killingly funny – a great review too which makes me want to re-read the play.

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