Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a timeless comedy of manners in which two young, light-hearted men, pretend their names are ‘Ernest’ in a bid to impress their love interests, who both believe the name Ernest bestows magical qualities on the possessor. Throughout the play, Wilde uses a mix of social drama, melodrama and farce to appeal to the audience. Through his gentle use of parody Wilde is able to ridicule his contemporaries and attack the values and attitudes of Victorian society, such as; wealth, hierarchy, respectability, morality and self- interest. Via satirical dialogue and dramatic irony Wilde is able to reveal the moral hypocrisy at the heart of the Victorian era.
The title “The importance of being Earnest” places an ironical importance on a plot about men leading ‘double lives’, lying to family and friends about their private lives, so they can take trips away and do the things they really want to do. Both Jack and Algernon lead a double life, a life separate from their family and friends; Jack uses his imaginary brother ‘Ernest’ to escape his life in the country. Whilst Algernon uses his imaginary friend ‘Bunbury’ to escape social gatherings, suggesting that both men find the stresses of society and their lives extremely restrictive, and in order to escape the constraints of society they must lie or deceive.
Via his play Wilde claims that the majority of Victorian society wears some sort of social mask. Many critics have argued that each character depicted in the play is an extension of Wilde himself, and that Algernon and Jack’s ‘double life’ represent Wilde’s own alter ego which hid his homosexuality and many of his illicit affairs from a society that frowned upon homosexual acts. Through his play’s Wilde introduced a different type of character to the genre, the “dandy” a person who paid great attention to his looks, the dandy was deeply autobiographical, a witty, eccentric, philosopher who speaks in epigrams and paradoxes taking common cliché’s and altering them such as, “in married life three is company two is none”, and who ridicules the hypocrisy of Victorian values.
Wilde satirises the mannerisms and hypocrisy of the Victorian period, he criticized the rigid facade of politeness he viewed in society; he notes the "shallow mask of manner," as Cecily calls it, that upper-class Victorians wore, often harbouring manipulative or cruel attitudes. Wilde exposes this in the second act via the conversation between Cecily and Gwendolyn.
During the 19th century people were organised according to their social rank. These class divisions were defined by occupation, family connections and wealth. Throughout Wilde’s play several class divisions are represented such as; the Merriman, footmen and Lane, who all belong to the working class; Dr Chasuble and Miss Prism represent the genteel middle class; Gwendolyn, Lady Bracknell, Cecily, Jack and Algernon all represent members of upper-class society. Wilde...