A reader's guide to The Importance Of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde's play is more than just that line about the handbag. Stephanie Forward explains why.

By: Dr Stephanie Forward (English Department)

  • Duration 5 mins
  • Updated Sunday 1st June 2008
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under Literature
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In the summer of 1894 Oscar Wilde wrote his last play, The Importance of Being Earnest, which is regarded by many as his finest. Its themes include the nature of marriage, and society’s codes of morality.

Although the word "earnestness" suggests sincerity, it seemed to Wilde that many Victorians were pompous and self-righteous. A major paradox in the drama is the impossibility of being genuinely earnest whilst claiming to be so.

The characters Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff invent alter egos in an effort to evade conventional moral codes and obligations.

Although The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy, there is a serious subtext about Victorian hypocrisy.

Wilde explained its philosophy: "That we should treat all trivial things very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality."

He originally gave the play the subtitle: A Serious Comedy for Trivial People, but changed this to A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.

Victoria Station Creative commons image poeloq under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license
No place for a child: Victoria Station

The first performance was scheduled for Valentine’s Day 1895. Wilde heard that the Marquess of Queensbury was intending to stage a demonstration against him, to denounce him for homosexuality. When the Marquess was not permitted to attend, he left a bouquet of vegetables at the stage door! After Wilde’s arrest, the play was cancelled.

There are some glorious, memorable moments in The Importance of Being Earnest, for example when Algernon declares: "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his."

And, of course, there is Lady Bracknell’s oft-quoted question: "A handbag?"