Wilde uses puns throughout this play, but the major pun is found within the title. In The Importance of Being Earnest, the pun, widely considered to be the lowest form of verbal wit, is rarely just a play on words. The title, -
The Importance of Being Earnest,-
insinuates the importance of being honest and truthful, while playing on the male name, Ernest. The pun in the title is a case in point. The earnest/Ernest joke strikes at the very heart of Victorian notions of respectability and duty. Gwendolen wants to marry a man called Ernest, and she doesn’t care whether the man actually possesses the qualities that comprise earnestness. She is, after all, quick to forgive Jack’s deception. In embodying a man who is initially neither “earnest” nor “Ernest,” and who, through forces beyond his control, subsequently becomes both “earnest” and “Ernest,” Jack is a walking, breathing paradox and a complex symbol of Victorian hypocrisy.
-Earnest - means serious or non-frivolous. Many of the characters in the play spend their time trying to convince each other, and themselves, that they are high-minded people with strong morals and are admired in society. But Oscar Wilde presents them all in such a way that their interests and ethical ideas will seem ridiculous and trivial to most of the audience.
-Ernest - is a man's name. Much of the action of the play turns on whether Jack Worthington's first name is Jack, or Ernest. Normally a man's first name is of no great importance in his life, but in the extremely silly world of this play - it is the most serious element of the plot. (Many people who know the play well never realise that we don't get a satisfactory answer to this crucial question). So the pun is that the title of the play appears to mean: The Importance of being a Serious Person; but when we watch the play we realise that the real title is: The Importance of having Ernest for a First name.
ex: Algernon- You have always told me it was Ernest. I have introduced you to every one as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life.
We can find puns on the names of the other characters in the play like in: -
'Miss Prism' – The name is a pun on 'misprision', which has two definitions. The older is very dark, involving the concealment of official neglect, crime or possibly treason. The more modern meaning closely resembles the character's multiple misunderstandings. - Chasuble - The word chasuble is a vestment worn during services. This is, of course, appropriate given the nature of Chasuble’s profession. Chasuble’s name is also a pun because when said aloud can sound like chaseable. Regarding Miss Prism, he is in fact chase-able, which he had previously claimed he was not.
Act I, scene 1, Algernon
- “Anyone can play (piano) accurately but I play with wonderful expression” -
This is a good thumbnail of Wilde’s philosophy of art. Wilde was heavily influenced by Walter Pater and the other aesthetes of the Victorian age. They believed art should concern itself only with its aesthetic qualities that art should exist for art's sake alone. Therefore, art should not be a straightforward representation of reality--it should not be "accurate," as Algernon would say--but rather it should be an extension of its creator's artistic styles. Hence, it should have "wonderful expression."
Act I, scene 1, Algernon
- "If the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?" -
We have a humorous depiction of class tensions here, where Lane, the butler, is given his fair share of droll sayings, and even Algernon seems to recognize that the lower clas has more power than they seem to.
Act I, scene 1
(Algernon to Jack)
Algernon: “You don’t seem to realize that in married life; three is company and two is none.” And also in Act II, scene 1
(Lady Bracknell when she finds out about the...
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