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The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People

By joezer3003 Nov 10, 2013 974 Words
“Analyze Earnest’s subtitle, “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”. What do you think Wilde meant by this?” Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest” follows the story of Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, two Victorian era gentlemen who practice the habit of “bunburying” – the act of inventing a friend whose needs are so compelling that nobody will question the need to visit that friend for an extended period of time on short notice. In addition to this double-life motif, the themes of marriage, death and “the dandy” are explored in Wilde’s melodramatic Victorian play. The play is trivial in the sense that serious concerns such as marriage and death are discussed in a very stale and over-chewed manner. Moreover, the opposite is true in that the characters (all part of the Victorian upper-class) take matters that everyday people consider trivial very seriously. We are first introduced to this notion at the beginning of the play when Algernon asks Lane, the house servant, why more wine has been logged in the house books than was actually drunk. Lane responds, “I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand” to cover the fact that he himself has been drinking the expensive champagne without Algernon knowing. Algernon shows no more concern over the stealing than Lane does over its having been discovered, and both men seem to accept the fact that servants steal from their masters. In the following act we learn of Jack’s love for Gwendolyn - Lady Bracknell’s daughter. He has come up from the country into town so he may ask her hand in marriage. Jack revels in excitement when he learns that Lady Bracknell and Gwendolyn are coming for tea at Algernon’s house. Upon their arrival, Lady Bracknell enquires as to where the cucumber sandwiches she specially requested are. Algernon, in his absent-mindedness, ate all of them in the previous act and sharply asks Lane why there are no sandwiches for his guests. Lane sizes up the situation and gravely informs them that no cucumbers were available at the market that day (even though the audience obviously knows he prepared a batch earlier in the scene). Lady Bracknell and company quickly forget about the situation and begin to talk about other matters. Again, the notion of a distracted and forgetful upperclass society pre-occupied with other trivial matters is presented to us with the cucumber joke. Even though Lady Bracknell was promised cucumbers for her visit, and as far as we know it was the only purpose for her seeing her nephew other than gossip, she quickly dismisses it and informs the group that she just got done eating crumpets with Lady Harbury. Any other person would be offended to know that their nephew didn’t own up to a mistake he made and instead lied about it to get out of the smallest amount of trouble. Yet another way this play is a “Trivial Comedy for Serious People” is Gwendolyn’s obsession with Jack’s bunburying name “Ernest”. When Jack proposes to Gwendolyn, she admits she loves him “passionately!” because of his name. In fact, she goes on to say, “The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.” Jack bluntly asks if this is the only reason Gwendolyn loves him and she makes it clear that she would not consider marrying a man who was not named Ernest. Gwendolyn feels the name has “a music of its own” and inspires “absolute confidence.” Indifferent, Jack proposes to Gwendolyn and she gladly accepts. Wilde creates this dialogue as a way to display the shallowness of upper-class Victorian society. Gwendolyn puts so much emphasis on something as trivial as someone’s name instead of his qualities, hobbies or personality. Perhaps one of the most surprising, eye-opening and humorous dialogues of the play occur once Lady Bracknell discovers Jack has proposed to her daughter. She begins to interview him and asks such questions as whether or not Jack smokes, to which he responds with the affirmative (“I am glad to hear it. A man should always have an occupation of some kind. There are far too many idle men in London as it is”). Furthermore, after Jack admits he knows nothing for a man his age Lady Bracknell approves and says that, “Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound.” Here Lady Bracknell implies that worldly issues and politics should remain outside of their bubble and instead focus on things more trivial in nature such as gossip, smoking habits and income as evident by her waffling interview with Jack. Moreover, she dismisses the importance of an education – something that most people consider critical to a person’s upbringing.

"Earnest" means honest and truthful while no one in the play is either of those. Everyone is either superficial like Lady Bracknell, or full of deceit like Jack and Algernon. The end of the play is successful is summing up how absurd the play truly is and how it is a parody of the upper social class. For instance, Lady Bracknell's sudden liking to Cecily, after hearing of her personal fortune, is a "lie"; she feigns manners in front of them to hide her obvious materialism. Wilde's constantly attacks marriage throughout the play as a social tool, and he provides even more absurd obstacles in the final act: Jack holds Cecily under his guardianship until she is 35, Gwendolen still refuses to marry Jack until she has proof his real name is Ernest. These examples prove how seriously the characters of the play take trivial matters.

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