Although many of the early critics found Oscar Wilde’s final play strictly humorous, it clearly conveys social hypocrisies of the upper-classes of the period (late-Victorian). Wilde was being satirical and paradoxical in his play to show the hypocrisy and entertain the viewers in a play that is still being repeated till today. It is a witty and amusing comedy which conveys real life everyday themes such as real love as opposed to selfish love, religion, marriage, being truthful and country life as opposed to city life.
Richard Foster, author of “Wilde as Parodist: A Second Look at The Importance of Being Earnest”, published in October 1956, writes on how the this play was viewed by critics, the techniques used by Wilde to achieve his purpose, and even compares this work to other similar works by other authors. Foster begins his article by explaining why critics cannot accurately name the type of this play. It is neither “farce” nor “comedy of manners”, although Wilde excessively makes use of both.
The play is too intellectual to be considered a farce, yet too unrealistic to be considered a comedy of manners, even though ridicule and exposure of the vanities and hypocrisies of the upper class is surely the main function of the verbal wit. However, the comedy of The Importance of Being Earnest is not in the situations or actions for most of the part, but in the dialogue. Wilde’s play is a satirical demonstration of how art can lie romantically about human beings and distort the simple laws of real life with melodramatic complications and improbable easy escapes from them.
Earnest” suggests that we all lead double lives. This is the idea that homosexual Wilde was understandably obsessed with. “Earnest” as a name is also implicative of being honest and responsible, even if both men lied about their names. It turns out that the truth was told, and this rapid twist between truth and lies shows how muddled the Victorian values of honesty and responsibility were. There are several possibilities for hidden meanings in Wilde’s play, each more suiting than the last. The whole play could be interpreted on different levels.
Foster continues to describe the technique Wilde used to make a parody to romantic “love at first sight”. You see, Cecily seems to have fallen in love with Ernest Worthing before actually meeting him. She has diary entries of their engagement, their break-up (as “it would hardly have been a really serious engagement if it hadn’t been broken off at least once”), and their re-engagement, and she even has his love letters, although she had written them herself. The standard notion of a romance involves the man proving himself to the woman after a breach in their love.
In this play, Gwendolen and Cecily find out that their Ernests are really Jack and Algernon, and the restoration of their “love” occurs when the guys decide to christen themselves as Ernest. It appears that a major critical part of the play revolves around marriage being just a social tool. The two girls are in love with a name rather than a character, and Algy even proposes to Cecily right after meeting her. Also, Lady Bracknell, Algy’s aunt, disproves of Algy and Cecily’s marriage until she discovers that Cecily has a large fortune, and disproves of Jack and Gwendolen’s marriage, because he is an orphan.
Foster explains that the “flaws” of the play- the contrivance of the plot, the convenience the coincidence and the resolution in the end- are the whole point. It is easy to mistake the play for something that it is not, as nothing in the play is what it seems. According to the critic, Wilde repeatedly attacked the moralism of the Victorian society, and the idea of morality being a set of rules about what people should and shouldn’t do. 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. Oscar Wilde used numerous epigrams, the main thing he was famous for, to reach his points and to entertain his audience. “The suspense is terrible. I hope it will last”, “produce your explanation and pray make it improbable”, “washing one’s own clean linen in public”, and “in married life three is company and two is none” are just a few examples of Wilde’s ingenious ideas paradoxing common phrases, and used just right to tersely express his opinions in a witty way.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a fantastic play; it is truly a great work of English literature. It makes light of love, marriage, and religion which are issues that people take very seriously and that is what everybody needs is to lighten up sometimes. Despite the fact that it was written in the Victorian era, the witty comedic themes are still relevant in today’s society which makes the play all the more entertaining and relatable. Wilde’s tone of wit, farce and satire combined together shows his great ability as an author.