The Importance of Being Earnest is a comic play by Oscar Wilde .
Set in England during the late Victorian era , the play's humour derives in part from characters maintaining fictitious identities to escape unwelcome social obligations. It is repleted with witty dialogue and satirizes some of the foibles and hypocrisy of late Victorian society. It has proved Wilde's most enduringly popular play.
Jack Worthing is a rich and refined young man who lives in the country, but when he comes to London he uses the name Ernest. He’s in love with Gwendolen, his friend Algernon Montcrieff’s cousin. He proposes to her and she accepts because she has always wanted to marry someone by the name of Ernest. The girl’s mother, Lady Bracknell, is at first happy about the match, until sha discovers that Jack does not know who his parents are.
In the second act, the scene is set in Jack’s country house. Algernon arrives and, hoping to find out his friend’s secrets, introduces himself as Ernest, Jack’s supposed wiked elder brother. He meets Cecily, Jack’s ward, and between them it is love at first sight.
But Cecily and Gwendolen meet each other in the temporary absence of the two men, each indignantly insists that she is the one engaged to "Ernest". When Jack and Algernon reappear, their deceptions are exposed. When the men explain themselves, they are forgiven, and the women agree not to break off the engagements when each man announces his intention to be re-christened.
Then Lady Bracknell arrives and again forbids Gwendolen to marry Jack. There seems to be no way out of this, but Lady Bracknell unexpectedly recognizes Miss Prism, Cecily’s governess: she had been her dead sister’s governess, and had, years before, disappeared with this sister’s baby. Miss Prism confesses that she had accidentally put the baby in a handbag which she had than left in Victoria station.
On hearing this, Jack, startled, leaves the room and comes back with the handbag in which he had been found as a baby. It is the same bag, Miss Prism is sure. He is the baby she lost, and since that baby was Lady Bracknell’s sister’s son, it turns out that Jack is her nephew, and Algernon’s brother. Upon farther enquiry, moreover, it is found out that his original name was indeed Ernest. All is well, in the end, and the two couples can finally marry.
The italian edition of the Wilde’s commedy has a serius translation problem. The original title, infact, uses a impossible word’s joke to translate between the adjective “earnest” ( that means onest, serius) and the name Ernest, that in english have the same pronunciation.
So the contrast in this work is the fact that even both declare to be Ernest, nobody is really earnest with his lover.
Much of The Importance of Being Earnest’s comedy stems from the ways various characters flaunt the moral strictures of the day, without ever behaving beyond the pale of acceptable society. The use of the social lie is pervasive, sometimes carried to great lengths as when Algernon goes “Bunburying” or Jack invents his rakish brother Earnest so that he may escape to the city.
One of Wilde’s satiric targets is romantic and sentimental love, which he ridicules by having the women fall in love with a man because of his name rather than more personal attributes. Wilde carries parody of romantic love to an extreme in the relationship between Algernon and Cecily, for she has fallen in love with him — and in fact charted their entire relationship — before ever meeting him. She writes of their love in her diary, noting the ups and downs of their affair, including authoring love letters to and from herself.
The play’s action is divided between the city and the country, London and the pastoral county of Hertfordshire. Traditionally, locations like these symbolize different attitudes toward life, contrasting, for example, the corruption of urban living with the simple bucolic pleasures of rural farm life. As Jack says, “when one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring.” Wilde’s symbolism does not adhere rigidly to audience expectations, however. Though Jack is more sedate while in the country and more festive when in London, Cecily is far from the innocent she appears (and pretends to be around her guardian). Her handling of her “affair” with Algernon/Earnest shows her to be as competent in romance as any city woman.
Both Jack and Algernon struggle to remain free of the restrictions of Victorian convention. Jack does so by maintaining a double identity, being Jack in the country and Earnest in the city. Algernon achieves similar results by inventing an invalid named Bunbury who constantly requires his attentions. This similarity in Algernon and Jack’s behavior also offers a clue to the men’s true relationship as brothers (further duality is indicated by their respective attractions to very similar women, Gwendolen and Cecily).
Wilde’s sparkling with abouns in irony, sarcasm, nonsense, puns, paradoxes. The humor derives from what the characters say and how thay say it.
This is Wilde’s technique of contraries: to treat “all the seriuos things of life with sincere and studied triviality”. His characters say the most irrelevant and absurd things as if they were talking common sense, but the extreme and slightly absurd situations of the play also expose the superficiality of the English upper class and the shallowness of their lives.