The Importance of Being Earnest

In one of my AP classes we have to do an author study on a person who wrote influential and renowned essays during a certain time period. I chose Oscar Wilde, meaning I have to read his works of nonfiction and in two weeks, become a semi-expert of his style and tone. The only problem with this project is that my teacher’s copy of all of his essays in one book was stolen and our school library only has A Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest. I picked the latter to read first because it was the only book by Oscar Wilde in the nonfiction section (sorry library, a play isn’t nonfiction) and the novel would take too long to read for the amount of time (and the mountain of homework) that I have. The Importance of Being Earnest is only 60 pages long, but it packs in a comical and confusing tale about friendship and marriage. In it’s short three acts, you learn the story of John ‘Jack’ Worthing, and his friend Algernon Moncrieff. Jack has visited his friend’s house with the intention of proposing to Gwendolen Fairfax, Algernon’s cousin. At the same time, Algernon is in love with Jack’s adopted father’s granddaughter, who he now takes care of. She resides in Jack’s country home, where he goes by the name of Jack (using the name Ernest in the city), saying he has a younger brother named Ernest in London. Jack has never known his birth parents, he was found in a handbag on a train by his now adopted father. This is one of the factors that Lady Bracknell takes into consideration when she denies consent for Jack to marry her daughter Gwendolen. Algernon ends up going to Jack’s country home unannounced, professing his love for Cecily, Jack’s ward. He has also taken up the name Ernest, so Cecily thinks it is her ‘uncle’s’ black sheep brother. Gwendolen visits and chats with Cecily and they both find out the men they are engaged to go by the name of Ernest, which makes them think they are engaged to the same man. Jack arrives in mourning clothes, saying his brother Ernest has died. Algernon also shows up and the women question the two men. They get their stories straightened out and the situation is calmed. The next day, Jack finds out some things about his past: Lady Bracknell reveals that he and Algernon are brothers and Jack was named after his father, but she can’t recall the name. Jack looks in the Army Lists of the time his father was enlisted, discovering his name was John Ernest. This makes him happy because he was named after his father. In the end, the couples are with their rightful significant others and the whole ordeal is solved, and Jack has learned a lesson on the importance of being earnest.

If I were to compare this to another work of literature out there, it would have to be Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare. In this particular play, the relationships are hard to keep track of and you really have to pay attention to who is playing who and what is going on. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Jack and Algernon are in a way telling some white lies about who they really are. This ties into the end where Jack actually learns the truth about who he is saying, “Gwendolen, it’s a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.” This was a quote that I really had to stop and think about. To tell the truth without even knowing it to me would just be a correct assumption, but I’d like to hear some other input on this particular quote. To be earnest is to be serious in intention, purpose, or effort. At the very end of the play, Jack realizes the vital importance of being earnest in everything he does, whether it be maintaining his identity, proposing to the woman he loves, or telling the truth, even if he doesn’t know it yet.

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