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.
Name and Identity ThemeTracker
Name and Identity Quotes in The Importance of Being Earnest
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.
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.
To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune…to lose both seems like carelessness.
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.
Your Christian names are still an insuperable barrier. That is all!
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.
I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.