Set in Victorian England, this play satirises the aristocracy of the time. Usually, authors of that Period used the lower classes as their roving grounds for social commentary, but unlike authors such as Dickens, Wilde used the upper classes, with which he was personally familiar.
Oscar Wilde knew the upper class, and he knew that the lives they lead were so dry, boring, concerned with manners and customs, and so perfectly earnest that it was almost inhuman. It is being earnest that the play mainly focuses on, as may be surmised from the title. Characters who lie to get gains are rewarded with love, and are later shown to have been lying at all. Jack, in saying that his name is Earnest, is found to be telling the truth at the revelatory end of the story, and Lagernon's lie of being Jack's brother is also found to be true when they find Jack's real parents. In this way, the 'earnestness' of these two men is shown.
Another of the conflicts that occurs in the play is marriage, and the guardians assent required for marriage. When Jack wishes to marry Gwendolyn, Lady Bracknell disapproves, so Jack refuses to allow Algernon to marry Cecily. This trivialising of the sacrosanct institution of marriage shows Wilde's view on the matter: he saw it as "a practise surrounded by absurdity and hypocrisy." In addition to this, both Gwendolyn and Cecily are sure that they could not possibly love someone whose name was not Earnet, which both Algy and Jack are not. (until Jack discovers his real name and family at the end.)
"It has always been my ideal to love someone by the name of Ernest."
One view among critics is that Wilde is saying that marriage based on class by birthright is no les stupid that marriage based on something else a baby cannot control: say, his name. In the...