The Importance of Being Earnest

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Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality 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.
Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality  Theme Icon

A witty wordsmith, Wilde exposes the hypocrisy of the Victorians’ strict social mores through puns, paradoxes, epigrams, and inversions in the characters’ actions and dialogue. For instance the characters often say and do the opposite of what they mean, or intend. Gwendolen flips “style” and “sincerity” when she says, “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing.” One would expect that “sincerity” should take precedence over “style” in “matters of grave importance” so Gwendolen’s inversion of these words appears not only funny, but also a tad foolish. Another notable inversion is Lady Bracknell’s quicksilver reversal of her approval of Algernon and Cecily’s engagement. Lady Bracknell does not think much of Cecily until she finds out that she is the heiress to a great fortune, which immediately encourages Lady Bracknell to advocate for the match. Ironically, while money alone is sufficient for Lady Bracknell to approve of Algernon’s engagement to Cecily, it is not enough for her to approve of Jack’s proposal to her own daughter Gwendolen.

Lady Bracknell exposes her hypocritical nature further when she says she disapproves of “mercenary marriages.” Yet her marriage to Lord Bracknell was motivated primarily by money—“When I married Lord Bracknell I had not fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed of allowing that to stand in my way.” Lady Bracknell’s hypocritical attitude towards marriage is not just humorous and ironic; it is also a sharp stab at the paradoxical nature of Victorian social mores. Like Lady Bracknell, Dr. Chausible’s opinion on marriage reverses quickly. In his proposal to Miss Prism he staunchly holds that the “Primitive Church did not condone marriage” yet by the plays end he seems well on his way to marrying Miss Prism anyways. Through such reversals Wilde points out the hypocrisy and foolishness of Victorian social standards.

Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality 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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Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality 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 Hypocrisy, Folly, and Victorian Morality .
Act 2, Part 1 Quotes

The good end happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.

Related Characters: Miss Prism (speaker)
Related Symbols: Miss Prism’s Three-volume-novel
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Miss Prism tells Cecily that she once wrote a novel, but lost the manuscript a long time ago. In this quote, she succinctly explains what happened in the novel. This statement is partly humorous because in claiming that "the good end happily, and the bad unhappily" is a rule of fiction, it's suggested that this rule must be mostly untrue in real life—where indeed, one's fate seems unrelated to one's morality. Wilde here also pokes fun at the ways in which strict Victorian society rules often invaded other aspects of cultural life, such as works of literature. These rules on practiced morality largely stemmed from the Church, so when Miss Prism states that the "good end happily, and the bad unhappily," she refers to the idea that those who sin are punished, and those who behave responsibly are rewarded. Though both characters like Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism take the rules of Victorian morality very seriously, Miss Prism is prompted more so by religion and in the name of being proper, while Lady Bracknell's views are influenced by society and aristocracy. 


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If you are not [wicked], then you have certainly been deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner. I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.

Related Characters: Cecily Cardew (speaker), Algernon Moncrieff
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:

When Algernon and Cecily find themselves alone in the garden, they strike up an immediate flirtation. Both characters are clever and charming, and attempt to both one-up and impress the other with their wit. In this quote, Cecily tells Algernon (whom she believes to be Ernest, Jack's immoral brother) that she would be disappointed if he turned out to be a good person rather than the "bad" one she has heard so many stories about. This statement is an instance of dramatic irony, in which the audience knows that Algernon is pretending to be someone who technically doesn't exist, and is in this moment living a "double life." In a way, however, by assuring Cecily that he is in fact the "bad" Ernest, Algernon is partly telling the truth about his own hypocrisy—he acts rather foolishly in the city, and pretends to have a dying friend in order to escape to the country. However, he is mostly just lying, because Ernest does not even exist; his antics are really those of Cecily's "responsible" guardian Jack. Here, Wilde further exposes the ridiculous rules of Victorian society, in which it is perhaps better to be truthful about living a life of sin than to be lying and to actually be a person of upstanding morals. 

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. 

Few girls of the present day have any really solid qualities, any of the qualities that last, and surfaces…There are distinct social possibilities in your profile. The two weak points in our age are its want of principle and its want of profile.

Related Characters: Lady Bracknell (speaker), Cecily Cardew
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

When Jack tells Lady Bracknell of Cecily's large trust fund, available to her when she comes of age, Lady Bracknell immediately becomes more interested in the prospect of Algernon marrying the young girl. In this quote, she inspects Cecily's face, suddenly very taken with the girl (of course, the audience knows that this change of opinion is because she now knows that Cecily is rich). Here, the "lasting qualities" that Lady Bracknell alludes to are not looks, as she hopes to imply, but money. She pretends to have taken interest in Cecily because of her sudden astonishment with her beauty, but the "profile" she is really intrigued by is her socioeconomic profile, not her chin. In the last sentence of the quote, Wilde's signature witty puns come into play with the phrase "want of profile," which at "face" value means "lack of a chin," but here really means "lack of proper social and financial status." Finally, Lady Bracknell has found someone whose beauty is surpassed only by her bank account—a partner she wholly approves of for her bachelor nephew. 

But I do not approve of mercenary marriages. When I married Lord Bracknell, I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way.

Related Characters: Lady Bracknell (speaker), Lord Bracknell
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

Despite being an aggressive social climber, Lady Bracknell pretends to look down upon marriages that are made to raise social status. This represents her consistently flaky and hypocritical nature, in which she tailors her morals to her own needs. In this case, she has just discovered that Cecily has a large trust fund, and is therefore (in her opinion) a suitable marriage candidate for Algernon. Lady Bracknell, never one to lose the chance to make a snide remark, states that Algernon has "nothing but his debts to depend on." Despite his aristocratic status and familial wealth, Algernon handles his personal finances badly and is often in debt. Though initially Lady Bracknell thought Cecily was the one who was attempting to "climb" by becoming engaged to Algernon, she here states that it would be Algernon who would gain socioeconomic status by marrying Cecily, the wealthier party. This is an example of Lady Bracknell tailoring her views to whatever leads to the most gain in a certain situation. Though she looks down upon the poorer classes, she notes that she herself had no fortune before marrying into the aristocracy. In a further example of her hypocrisy, she made sure to marry upwards in order to ensure that she could enjoy the leisurely life of the extremely wealthy and connected—those with enough status to look down upon those who must make "mercenary marriages." 

To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other's character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.

Related Characters: Lady Bracknell (speaker)
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

Jack tells the people in the room that Cecily's trust states that she does not "come of age" until she is 35. This shocks Algernon, who had hoped that she would be free to marry as she pleased much sooner than that. In this quote, Lady Bracknell quips that she would not be in favor of a long engagement because she fears the two partners would realize that they are emotionally incompatible, despite being the "correct" socioeconomic match based on the standards of Victorian society. In traditions of arranged marriages, it was believed that familial compatibility would create a more successful union than would romantic love, which was fleeting and far less enduring than social status and class. 

Act 3, Part 2 Quotes

Unmarried! I do not deny that is a serious blow. But after all, who has the right to cast a stone against one who has suffered? Cannot repentance wipe out an act of folly? Why should there be one law for men and another for women?

Related Characters: Jack (speaker), Miss Prism
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

When Jack finds out that the handbag he was found in in Victoria Station was Miss Prism's, he jumps to the conclusion that she is his mother. She denies his assumption by stating that she is unmarried. Without waiting for further information, Jack jumps to yet another conclusion: that Miss Prism gave birth to him out of wedlock, and continued to deny her maternal connection to him in order to avoid the stigma of being an unwed mother (which was quite significant in the Victorian era). However, what she means to actually say is that she, a highly moral woman, could not possibly be his mother because she is unmarried, and would never have a child out of wedlock. In this quote, Jack attempts to gallantly defend the woman he believes to be his mother, and in doing so, puts forth a progressive argument for equality between the sexes—explicitly pointing out the double standard that forgives men for having extramarital affairs, but condemns women for doing the same. The irony of this statement, of course, is that Jack does not think that his actions warrant the same repentance as do those of an unmarried woman with a child.