The Importance of Being Earnest

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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.
Men and Women in Love  Theme Icon

In the game of love that Wilde plays throughout The Importance of Being Earnest, Jack and Algernon, who strive for love, are pitted against the fickleness of the women they desire. Even though Wilde assigns stereotypical gender roles to each sex—Jack and Algernon are suave dandies, while Cecily and Gwendolen are vapid beauties—when it comes to marriage and love, he places women in a position of power because they are able to actively choose their mates and influence their partners’ behaviors. In the Victorian world women were rarely afforded this influence, as their male elders—fathers, brothers, uncles, etc.—had tight control over the men with whom they interacted, even dated. Yet Gwendolen and Cecily wield a great deal of power over their suitors. For instance, Jack and Algernon strive to christen themselves “Ernest” precisely because Gwendolen and Cecily threaten to withhold their affections from any man who does not hold this name. In doing so, they effectively compel Jack and Algernon to change their names.

Even though Gwendolen and Cecily’s engagements are restricted by a patriarchal system of cash, class, and character, it is important to note that Lady Bracknell, not Lord Bracknell, is the one who becomes master of matrimony, dictating who may marry whom. The general absence of male patriarchs points to the diminished presence of men in Wilde’s dramatic world, thereby highlighting women, like Gwendolen, Cecily, and Lady Bracknell in positions of power and prominence.

Men and Women in Love ThemeTracker

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Men and Women in Love 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 Men and Women in Love .
Act 1, Part 1 Quotes

Jack: I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her.

Algernon: I thought you had come up for pleasure?...I call that business.

Related Characters: Jack (speaker), Algernon Moncrieff (speaker), Gwendolen Fairfax
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Jack visits Algernon shortly before Lady Bracknell, Algernon's aunt, and Gwendolen, Algernon's cousin, stop by for tea. He does so with the intent to have a moment alone with Gwendolen in order to propose to her. 

In this quote, Algernon quips that he calls a marriage proposal "business" due to the complicated marriage arrangements between members of the aristocratic class during Victorian England. Marriages, frequently arranged between families to preserve what were essentially sociopolitical ties, were often more akin to business contracts than to unions of love. This exchange is exemplary of the relationship between Jack and Algernon. Jack is more sincere and responsible than Algernon, and Algernon is more often careless, condescending, and flippant. Jack is also much more of a romantic, and was adopted into the aristocratic class—he does not have a recorded pedigree (that he yet knows of) and therefore feels less pressure to seek out a marriage for reasons other than love. However, Gwendolen's aunt does expect her to marry a fellow member of the aristocracy, and definitely views marriage as more of a business arrangement rather than a sign of love. It is due to this expectation that Jack's lack of a pedigree will come to be a problem. 


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I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If I ever get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.

Related Characters: Algernon Moncrieff (speaker)
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Jack accuses Algernon of being "unromantic" when he refers to a marriage proposal as "business." In this quote, Algernon asserts that while love can be romantic, proposals and marriage are, by their very nature, not romantic. In Victorian society, marriages were designed to continue and create economic and social ties between elite families. It was well-known that these matches were often made for convenience, not for love. Romance was seen as illicit, fleeting, and frivolous, whereas arranged marriages were more enduring in terms of financial and social capital. Algernon notes that if he ever gets married, he will try to "forget" the banalities of the contract, since he would prefer to enjoy the thrill of romantic relationships in his bachelorhood. 

Act 1, Part 2 Quotes

Even before I met you I was far from indifferent to you…my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence.

Related Characters: Gwendolen Fairfax (speaker), Jack
Related Symbols: Ernest
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

When Gwendolen and Lady Bracknell finally arrive for tea, Algernon invents a reason to pull Lady Bracknell into the next room in order to give Jack and Gwendolen private time for the proposal. In this quote, Gwendolen reciprocates Jack's declarations of love. The irony in this quote is of course that Jack's name is not really Ernest—Ernest is the caddish brother that Jack has invented in order to get up to whatever he pleases in the city. Thus, Jack is suddenly forced to wonder if Gwendolen loves him for who he truly is, or if she only loves him because his name is Ernest. Wilde uses Gwen's ridiculous whim of loving someone by the name of Ernest to parody the various reasons why members of the Victorian upper class got married—usually because of wealth or family ties (i.e., one's name). Here, Wilde uses the notion of loving someone simply because they were given a certain name at birth to comment on how this method of choosing a partner may be just as wise as choosing a partner based on what family they were born into. 

Act 2, Part 1 Quotes

Were I fortunate enough to be Miss Prism’s pupil, I would hang upon her lips.

Related Characters: Dr. Chasuble (speaker), Miss Prism
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

While Cecily and Miss Prism are talking, Dr. Chasuble, the rector, comes by to say hello. He is the clergyman in charge of the local parish on the estate. Though Miss Prism's job as Cecily's governess and Dr. Chasuble's work in the parish rarely intersect, the two are often seen together because they maintain a fairly obvious flirtation. The two bookish characters, however, have both resigned themselves to spinsterhood, and have not made their relationship public for fear of impropriety. In this quote, Dr. Chasuble fails to catch himself before making a suggestive remark about Miss Prism. In an attempt to encourage Cecily to pay attention to her studies, he foolishly makes a statement about "hanging upon" Miss Prism's lips. He means to say he would hang upon her words, but his attraction to her causes him to fumble and comically misspeak. 

Cecily: Miss Prism says that all good looks are a snare.

Algernon: They are a snare that every sensible man would like to be caught in.

Cecily: Oh! I don’t think I would care to catch a sensible man. I shouldn’t know what to talk to him about.

Related Characters: Algernon Moncrieff (speaker), Cecily Cardew (speaker)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:
As Cecily and Algernon continue their flirtation, Cecily frequently cites things that Miss Prism has told her to be true. In this quote, Cecily says that she would not like to catch a "sensible man" because she doesn't think she would have anything to talk to him about. In this statement, Cecily references that fact that in Victorian society, propriety was, especially to young people, associated with being bland and boring. A sensible man—the kind of man whom Cecily fears she is destined to marry—is therefore a person whom people like Miss Prism approve of, and so is boring to the point of having nothing of interest to converse about. In her sheltered life in the country, Cecily rarely had the chance to meet people who were not her relatives or hired to instruct her. Therefore, she becomes smitten with the idea of the improper Ernest, whom she heard about from Jack. To Cecily, Ernest represents freedom and adventure, things she has read about in books and in stories but has yet to really experience. 

You are too much alone, dear Dr. Chasuble. You should get married. A misanthrope. I can understand—a womanthrope never!

Related Characters: Miss Prism (speaker), Dr. Chasuble
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

Though Dr. Chasuble has committed to remaining celibate according to his interpretation of the Bible, Miss Prism continues to suggest that she is a worthy candidate as a wife. Though she never explicitly states that she wants to marry Dr. Chasuble, she frequently flirts with him and tells him that he should get married. As both Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism are well-educated people, their flirtation is humorous because of the high level of diction they use in their banter. In this quote, Miss Prism notes that she can understand people who hate other people (misanthropes) but she cannot understand why anyone would feel an aversion to women (what she terms a "womanthrope"). In Victorian society, women were considered the "fair sex," a designation that ultimately meant that women were idolized and idealized, but also objectified and essentially used as pawns in the marriage game. In the context of Oscar Wilde's life, this joke may also be a reference to the fact that he was secretly gay, an identity that was illegal in England during the period. He was eventually jailed for several years when his sexual orientation came to light, and many of his critiques of marriage and heterosexual romance in the play may be due in part to Victorian society's abhorrence of anything that was outside of the perceived norm.

Miss Prism: And you do not seem to realize, dear Doctor, that by persistently remaining single, a man converts himself into a permanent public temptation. Men should be more careful; this very celibacy leads weaker vessels astray.

Dr. Chausible: But is a man not equally attractive when married?

Miss Prism: No married man is ever attractive except to his wife.

Related Characters: Miss Prism (speaker), Dr. Chasuble (speaker)
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

Alone and continuing their conversation from their walk around the estate, Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble discuss marriage. Both are spinsters: Miss Prism because she is a governess, and Dr. Chasuble because of his religious beliefs. In the society of the period, a woman was looked down upon for not marrying after a certain age. Miss Prism refers to Dr. Chasuble as a "public temptation" because his eligibility as a bachelor makes him "tempting" to women who are still single past typical the marriageable age. She hints that she is interested in marrying him, and that she would continue to be attracted to him, even after they are married. Her quip about no married man being attractive, except to the woman he is married to, is a joke both about how the strictness of Victorian romance means infidelity is considered appalling, and how men tended to let themselves go after they were finally wed, and were thus only attractive to the women they were married to and supporting financially. In Victorian society, a bachelor like Dr. Chasuble retained the same status as a married man, whereas a spinster like Miss Prism was stigmatized for remaining single. 

Act 2, Part 2 Quotes

The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man. And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I don't like that. It makes men so very attractive.

Related Characters: Gwendolen Fairfax (speaker)
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

Determined to become engaged to Jack (whom she thinks is named Ernest) despite her mother's wishes, Gwendolen arrives at the country estate unannounced. When she meets Cecily, she is very put-off by the young, beautiful woman living in the home of the man she hopes to marry. The two women speak to each other in tones that are very polite on the surface, though the content of their conversation is rather disparaging of the other person.

In this quote, Gwendolen is referring to her father, Lord Bracknell, of whom Cecily has no knowledge. Here, Gwendolen claims that she prefers it that way, since this means that he often remains in the home and not in the public eye. Upper-class aristocratic families such as the Bracknells were wealthy to the point that work was not a necessity, thus allowing both parents to live a life of total leisure. If the fathers did work at all, it was as a member of Parliament or through investments, finance, or real estate. The lower classes, of course, needed to work outside of the home in order to provide for their families. Thus, Gwendolen's upbringing means she is attracted to men who are "domestic," meaning that they are not worn from labor and attend to duties in the home instead. She asserts that it should be women who socialize outside of the home—a progressive moment in which Wilde challenges (although humorously and ironically) traditional Victorian gender roles using a strong female character.

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.