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.
Name and Identity  Theme Icon

Through Jack’s search for his origins and family name, Wilde satirizes the Victorian Era’s intense scrutiny of cash, class, and character. Wilde subversively prods this question through the name of “Ernest,” a Christian name, or given name, as opposed to a family name. The name of “Ernest” comes to symbolize different things for different people. For Gwendolen and Cecily it “inspires absolute confidence” but also symbolizes the ideal husband/ lover. For Jack, “Ernest” is an alter ego, an identity through which he can court Gwendolen and cavort in the pleasures of city life. The name holds similar meaning to Algernon, who masquerades as “Ernest” to escape to the country to meet Cecily under false pretenses.

While the name of “Ernest” holds different values for each character, Wilde shows that a name, in of itself, is quite meaningless in comparison to the person who holds that name. Contrary to the play’s title, in this dramatic world, being “earnest” is not nearly as important as being named “Ernest.” Gwendolen does not accept Jack’s proposal because he is earnestly in love with her, but she believes him to be named “Ernest,” a name she find melodious, aesthetically pleasing, and irresistibly fascinating. Cecily in a similar manner commits to Algernon not because he is earnest, but because she believes him to be “Ernest,” a man whom she has fantasized about in her diary and “girlish dream[s].” Because Gwendolen and Cecily are so enamored of the name “Ernest,” they confuse the shared name of their lovers with their respective identities. Both women believe that they are engaged to a name rather than a person. Upon finding out that neither Jack, nor Algernon is named “Ernest,” Gwendolen exclaims to Cecily, “neither of us is engaged to be married to anyone.” Through this conflation Wilde shows the ridiculousness of marrying someone purely for his/her name alone. But in Wilde’s world, it was an all too common practice for men and women to capitalize upon an advantageous family name through marriage. Wilde’s play on the name of “Ernest” with the quality of being “earnest,” turns this Victorian obsession with names and their social meaning on its head.

Ultimately Jack gets the girl because he has the cash, acquires class and gains character by taking on the name of “Ernest,” which validates his family ties and social standing. Yet Jack’s new name—“Ernest John Moncrieff”—only has meaning because society assigns value to it; his name is verified in the Army List, a listing of the names of English generals. Wilde is quick to point out that this list is merely a piece of paper, whose authority is shoddy in comparison to Jack’s earnestness to find his true identity. While Jack feverishly combs over volumes to uncover his lineage, Wilde refers to “wrong pages,” antiquated books,” and lists of “ghastly names,” suggesting the piece of paper that Jack’s new name is printed on is not much better than the woman who confuses a man named “Ernest” for a man in “earnest.” Wilde’s subtle jab at the ridiculousness of claiming one’s name from a stack of books points to the relative meaningless of names in comparison to one’s actions and the contents of one’s character, thereby undermining the Victorians’ marriage of class and character.

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Name and Identity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Name and Identity 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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Name and Identity 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 Name and Identity .
Act 1, Part 1 Quotes

I have introduced you to everyone as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest looking person I ever saw in my life. It is perfectly absurd your saying that your name isn't Ernest.

Related Characters: Algernon Moncrieff (speaker), Jack
Related Symbols: Ernest
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

Jack reveals to Algernon that he goes by the name of Ernest in the city, and the name of Jack in the country. In this quote, Algernon relies heavily on the homophones of "Ernest," the name, and "earnest," the adjective connoting one who is honest and sincere to a fault, to tease Jack about his two identities of Ernest and Jack. Jack is older than Algernon and often acts as if he is more responsible, so Algernon is gleeful to find his friend caught in a lie, particularly one in which he pretends to be someone whose name sounds the same as a word that means "honest." The extent of this glee can be discerned by the number of times that Algernon repeats the name, digging deeper into Jack's feelings of shame. Wilde uses the wordplay of Ernest/earnest throughout the play to question the role of true sincerity in Victorian England, a society that prided itself on a strict code of conduct, stringent morals, and a "stiff upper lip." 


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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. 

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 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. 

Act 3, Part 2 Quotes

Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth.

Related Characters: Jack (speaker), Gwendolen Fairfax
Related Symbols: Ernest
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

When Jack finds his birth father's name in the Army list, he realizes that he has indeed been truthful when calling himself Ernest in the city—he is actually named Ernest Moncrieff Jr. In this quote, Jack is responding to Gwendolen's delight at discovering that Jack's name really is Ernest, as she believed it to be when she fell in love with him. Jack, however, is almost disappointed at the fact that he is really named Ernest, because he felt very clever in creating the identity of a sinful brother who lived in the city. As men of wealth and leisure, Algernon and Jack essentially do and say whatever they like without fear of repercussions, particularly thanks to their double identities in the city and country. Jack is shocked to realize that, when he believed himself to be lying in the city, he was really telling the truth in both the city and country—in aristocratic society he is technically the son of Ernest Moncrieff and is, by christening, Ernest Moncrieff Jr., while in the country he is John Worthing, the adopted son of Thomas Cardew. Regardless of his location or identity, or whether or not he was aware of it, Jack has been telling the truth all along—he is both Ernest and the most earnest of the characters. 

I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.

Related Characters: Jack (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ernest
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

It is only in the very last line of the play that the title of the work is spoken. Wilde's characteristic wit and wordplay, particularly on the interplay between the name "Ernest" and the word "earnest," endures until the very end of the drama. Though the word is written out as "Earnest," to an audience member watching the production, it is not clear whether Jack is saying "Ernest" the name or "earnest" the word, which means to be sincere and truthful.

Jack's own wit as a character likely means that he, too, is intending to make this pun, showing that he now understands the importance of being Ernest—his true Christian name and the name of his birth father—and earnest—being honest and confessing the truth to Gwendolen, meaning that he now knows who his family is.

In Wilde's play, which provides a scathing critique of Victorian society and romance through painfully polite yet daringly clever dialogue, all the lovers end up together, and in class-affirming unions as well. Of course, in Wilde's experience, this rarely ever happens—usually unions for love were scorned in favor of arranged marriages. Thus, if the happy engagements between Algernon/Cecily and Gwendolen/Jack feel too good to be true, that is because for Wilde (and the rest of Victorian society who first saw the play), they are—marriages for both love and class were rarely made at the time. But, as Miss Prism declared must be the case in fiction, the "good ended happily"—once Jack and Algernon tell the truth, they are rewarded with their loves.