The Importance of Being Earnest

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Cash, Class, and Character Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon
Cash, Class, and Character Theme Icon
Name and Identity  Theme Icon
Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality  Theme Icon
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Importance of Being Earnest, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Cash, Class, and Character Theme Icon

The Victorian society in which Wilde lived was concerned with wealth, family status, and moral character, especially when it came to marriage. Lady Bracknell’s interrogation of Jack’s proposal to marry Gwendolen demonstrates the three “Cs”—cash, class, and character. First she asks him about his finances and then his family relations, a measure of his class. That Jack has none—no family relations, or family name, reflects poorly on his character. Upon finding that Jack has no “relations” she exclaims, “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune…to lose both seems like carelessness,” (as if were Jack’s fault for being an orphan.)

In the Victorian world one’s name was the measure of one’s social capital, so the fact that Jack doesn’t have any family is an insurmountable obstacle to his marrying Gwendolen, a daughter of the titled gentry. According to Lady Bracknell’s marriage standards, Jack has the cash, but he doesn’t have the class, so his character comes into question. (Although of all three “Cs,” character is probably the least important of Lady Bracknell’s criteria, since income and family take precedence in her line of questioning over Jack’s actual intentions for her daughter, which might more accurately reflect the content of his character).

Nonetheless, Lady Bracknell’s scrutiny of Jack’s socioeconomic status is reflective of the Victorian world in which she was created. Her evaluation of cash, class, and character is one that Wilde interrogates throughout The Importance of Being Earnest, especially through the relations between classes. In Act I Algernon comments to Lane that the lower classes should set a “good example” of “moral responsibility” for the upper classes, otherwise they are of little “use.” Algernon’s statement is odd precisely because he seems more concerned with the morality of his servants than with his own moral compass. Meanwhile he continues to lead a deceptive and excessive lifestyle, never bothering to question the ethical implications of such a life. Algernon’s fixation on the morality of his subordinates actually reveals the shortsighted outlook of the aristocratic class. This class scrutinizes the behavior of others so much that it fails to examine its own flaws and foibles. By pointing attention to Algernon’s lack of self-examination, Wilde further undermines the Victorians’ criteria for character by suggesting that it is inherently faulty.

Cash, Class, and Character ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Cash, Class, and Character appears in each scene of The Importance of Being Earnest. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Cash, Class, and Character Quotes in The Importance of Being Earnest

Below you will find the important quotes in The Importance of Being Earnest related to the theme of Cash, Class, and Character.
Act 1, Part 1 Quotes

Lane’s views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.”

Related Characters: Algernon Moncrieff (speaker), Lane
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

Lane comments to Algernon that he was once married, as the consequence of a "misunderstanding" between himself and a "young person." In this quote, Algernon is appalled at Lane's "lax" views on marriage.

Though a hedonistic bachelor himself, Algernon's views on marriage reflect those of the aristocratic class in Victorian society. Marriages were often arranged between families, as it was considered important to preserve upper class pedigrees within these unions. To Algernon, Lane's lackadaisical approach to marriage represents the "immoral" ways in which he believes members of the lower class engage in unions. Coming from Algernon, this statement is hypocritical, since he himself often acts fairly immoral—he lives luxuriously, and often beyond his means, despite being a member of a wealthy aristocratic family. His tone in this quote is also condescending and classist. Though he is young and careless with his actions and money, he believes that his pedigree is enough to know what is best for those with less money and education. 

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Act 1, Part 2 Quotes

To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune…to lose both seems like carelessness.

Related Characters: Lady Bracknell (speaker), Jack
Related Symbols: Orphans and Wards
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

After walking in on Jack proposing to Gwendolen, Lady Bracknell sends Algernon and Gwendolen out of the room in order to interrogate Jack as to his suitability as a husband for her daughter. 

In this quote, Lady Bracknell is appalled when Jack states he has "lost" both of his parents. As a baby, Jack was found in a handbag in a cloak room in Victoria station and adopted by a wealthy aristocrat, Mr. Thomas Cardew. As the epitome of high Victorian society, Lady Bracknell directly associates someone's birth and familial pedigree with their character. Therefore, she immediately characterizes Jack as someone who is "careless" because of his lack of recorded parentage, even though this is, of course, not his fault. Throughout the play, Lady Bracknell continues to make similarly ridiculous statements that she herself takes utterly seriously. Wilde uses the character of Lady Bracknell to represent Victorian elitists who held themselves and the people around them to what they believed to be high moral standards—the irony being that these moral standards were both created and fulfilled only to impress the high society around them. 

You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter—a girl brought up with the utmost care—to marry into a cloak-room and form an alliance with a parcel.

Related Characters: Lady Bracknell (speaker), Jack, Gwendolen Fairfax, Lord Bracknell
Related Symbols: Jack’s Handbag, The Coatroom at Victoria Station and The Brighton Line
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

As Lady Bracknell further presses Jack about his history, he admits that he was found by his adopted father in a cloak room at Victoria Station. Though already wealthy and aristocratic, Lady Bracknell is always seeking out ways in which her family can climb higher on the social ladder. One of the quickest ways of gaining socioeconomic capital was for a son or daughter to marry into a family of equal or higher social status. Thus, Lady Bracknell clearly hopes to marry Gwendolen into a highly esteemed family—not to "form an alliance with a parcel." To Lady Bracknell, someone's character is directly related to their birth. Jack, therefore, is in her eyes not a product of the wealthy Cardews, with whom he was raised, but of a handbag and the Brighton line at Victoria station. 

Act 2, Part 1 Quotes

[Christening is], I regret to say, one of the Rector's most constant duties in this parish. I have often spoken to the poorer classes on the subject. But they don't seem to know what thrift is.

Related Characters: Miss Prism (speaker), Dr. Chasuble
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Separately, and unbeknownst to the other, Jack and Algernon have both asked Dr. Chasuble to christen them "Ernest" so as to satisfy the respective wishes of Cecily and Gwendolen.

Though not a member of the aristocracy, Miss Prism's moral beliefs mirror those of the elite in Victorian society. This is due to her role as a governess for a wealthy family, and her attempt to indoctrinate Cecily with these views. Though she is not a member of the upper class, her employment means that she is not of the "lower" and poorer laboring class, like people who worked in factories in London. The lower classes were stereotypically associated with immoral practices, such as alcoholism and having too many children. In this quote, Miss Prism chastises the poorer classes in the country for producing too many children, thus rendering more mouths to feed and stretching the families' already meager incomes even further. It is due to these large families that Dr. Chasuble often performs christenings. 

Act 2, Part 2 Quotes

My duty as a gentleman has never interfered with my pleasures in the smallest degree.

Related Characters: Algernon Moncrieff (speaker)
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

Jack is furious with Algernon for arriving in the country and pretending to be Ernest when Jack has just announced to everyone that Ernest has died. Jack calls a carriage to send Algernon back to town, telling him he must go back to complete his "gentlemanly duties." In this quote, Algernon states that despite his duties in town as a member of the aristocracy, he's never had any problem doing as he pleases. This is in large part due to his "Bunburying" and his wealth—if he had to hold a consistent job, of course, he would not be able to escape to the countryside whenever he pleased. Men of wealth and influence like Jack and Algernon can essentially do whatever they wish and never have to worry about their actions having repercussions.

Act 3, Part 1 Quotes

Your Christian names are still an insuperable barrier. That is all!

Related Characters: Gwendolen Fairfax (speaker), Cecily Cardew (speaker), Jack, Algernon Moncrieff
Related Symbols: Ernest
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

Despite the their first tense conversation, Gwendolen and Cecily become fast friends when they discover that they have both been duped by men who claim to have the name "Ernest." Gwendolen has always wanted to love someone by the name of Ernest, while Cecily has fallen in love with the idea of the rebellious Ernest who lives in the city. When Gwendolen discovers that her Ernest's real name is Jack, and Cecily discovers that Algernon is Jack's friend, not his crazy brother Ernest, the girls both call off their engagements. Just like Lady Bracknell's dismissal of Jack because of his lack of a proper lineage, so Gwendolen and Cecily have their own seemingly random stipulation for a potential partner—the "Christian" name of Ernest—and they initially refuse to settle otherwise. This quote is spoken simultaneously by both women to comment on how quickly two women can become fast friends when they discover they have been manipulated by men, and to underscore the improbable and comic melodrama the action of the play has come to at this point. 

Mr. Worthing, is Miss Cardew at all connected with any of the larger railway stations in London? I merely desire information. Until yesterday I had no idea that there were any families or persons whose origin was a Terminus.

Related Characters: Lady Bracknell (speaker), Jack, Cecily Cardew
Related Symbols: The Coatroom at Victoria Station and The Brighton Line
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

When Lady Bracknell discovers that Algernon is engaged to Cecily, she demands to know her lineage. Since Algernon is her nephew, anyone that he marries is associated with her, too, and she does not want to mar her social capital with relatives who marry below their stature. Lady Bracknell speaks extremely condescendingly to everyone around her, as her status and social-climbing sensibilities mean that she is constantly trying to impress people with her aristocracy and wealth. Wilde writes many witty, self-defeating lines for Lady Bracknell, as she is the character who most obviously parodies the worst tendencies of the aristocratic class in Victorian society. Her question as to whether Cecily is associated with any of the "larger railway stations" is very dry satire regarding what Lady Bracknell previously learned about Jack being found in the cloakroom as a baby. For Lady Bracknell, allowing anyone in her family to marry into such appalling lineage would be "the end"—hence her scathing comment about someone whose "origin," or lineage, is a "Terminus," or a train terminal.