The Importance of Being Earnest

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The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction 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.
The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction  Theme Icon

As a leader of the Aesthetic movement, Wilde was especially interested in the relationship between life and art, pondering the eternal question, “Does art imitate life, or life imitate art?” Wilde explores this relationship in The Importance of Being Earnest through the conflict that arises when fact collides with fiction. The conflict between fact and fiction is driven by Algernon and Jack’s lies about their respective identities, specifically the fictional personas they create in order to mask their doings, shirk their duties, and deceive their loved ones.

Jack invents his brother “Ernest” so that he can excuse himself from the country, where he serves as Cecily’s guardian. Under such pretense he can escape to town, where he can court Gwendolen and entertain himself with extravagant dinners. Similarly, Algernon invents his invalid friend “Bunbury,” so that he has an excuse to escape from the city when he does not care to dine with his relations. Fact and fiction collide when Algernon arrives at Jack’s country estate, pretending to the elusive “Ernest”. His arrival upsets Jack’s plan to kill off his fictional brother and nearly derails Jack’s real engagement to Gwendolen. That Algernon coins the terms “Bunburying” and “Bunburyist” after his imaginary invalid to describe such impersonations highlights the deceptive, as well as the fictive quality of Jack and Algernon’s actions.

But Algernon and Jack are not the only characters that craft careful fictions. Cecily innocently creates a detailed backstory to her engagement to “Ernest,” (himself a fictional entity), writing in her diary that she has not only been engaged to her beau for three months, but that they have been engaged in an on-again-off-again romance. When Cecily recites this revelation from her diary to Algernon, he continues this fiction by believing in it as earnestly as Cecily believes in “Ernest’s” authenticity. Algernon’s willingness to participate in Cecily’s fictional engagement, so that he might actually become engaged to her, parallels Jack’s eagerness to change his name to “Ernest,” so that reality might more closely align with Gwendolen’s matrimonial fantasies. Algernon pretends to be “Ernest” in order to actualize his engagement to Cecily, while Jack will verily transform into “Ernest,” (if only in name), so that Gwendolen’s fantasies may be fulfilled. Ultimately, the play’s main characters participate in the fine art of fabrication not just to deceive, but also to create a reality that is more like fiction. The line between fact and fiction blurs when the fictional name of “Ernest” turns out to be Jack’s real birth name. In this way, Wilde doesn’t just question whether art imitates life, or life imitates art, but suggests that life itself is an artifice, quite literally a making of art.

The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction 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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The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction 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 The Art of Deception: Fact v. Fiction .
Act 1, Part 1 Quotes

Jack: When one is placed in the position of guardian, one has to adopt a very high moral tone…And as a high moral tone can hardly be said to conduce very much to either one’s health or one’s happiness if carried to excess, in order to get up to town I have always pretended to have a younger borther of the anem of Ernest…who gets into the most dreadful scrapes. The, my dear Algy, is the whole truth pure and simple.

Algernon: The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility.

Related Characters: Jack (speaker), Algernon Moncrieff (speaker)
Related Symbols: Town and Country , Orphans and Wards
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Further explaining the extent of his two identities, Jack reveals to Algernon that he is the guardian of a ward named Cecily, who lives in the country and refers to him as her "Uncle Jack." 

In this quote, Jack explains to Algernon that as a guardian, he must maintain a "high moral tone." In order to enjoy the antics of bachelorhood in the city, he invented a younger brother named Ernest, so that the repercussions of his actions would not be traced to Jack the serious guardian. Like Algernon's condemnation of Lane's marriage views, the tension between Jack's beliefs and his actions reveal the hypocrisy of the young and wealthy. Both young men do whatever they please, and get away with it, because they have the influence and means to ensure that their less-than-proper antics are not linked to their upper-class identities—and indeed, their hypocrisy is seen as almost entirely comic.

In Algernon's response, he quips that the truth to Jack's story cannot possibly be as simple as he makes it sound. Jack's two identities mean that he must maintain addresses in both the city and the country, and ensure that no one finds out the truth. Such a feat would not be possible if Jack was not adopted by a wealthy and connected family at birth. However, Algernon also notes that the drama regarding the prospect of people finding out is what keeps life interesting, and it is the same drama that makes works of fiction like novels or plays intriguing to watch and read. Here, Wilde characteristically winks at the audience to comment on the very nature and dramatic tension of his own work. 


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I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose.

Related Characters: Algernon Moncrieff (speaker)
Related Symbols: Town and Country , Bunbury
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

After Jack admits that he is Jack in the country and Ernest in the city, Algernon reveals that he, too, uses a made-up identity to escape to the country: he pretends that he has a friend named "Bunbury" who is very ill and lives outside of the city. Whenever Algernon feels that life in the city has become unbearable, he pretends to have received news that Bunbury is on death's doorstop, and that he must be by his side at once. He brands Jack's practice of inventing a brother named Ernest as "Bunburying." As bachelor members of the upper class, both Jack and Algernon want to do things that are considered "immoral" but fear social repercussions if found out by their families and peers. This leads to a "do as I say, not as I do" attitude that renders them both hypocritical in many of their actions. It is only due to their wealth and status in society that they are able to maintain such extravagant lifestyles—really, two each—and not get caught. Of course, their servants, such as Lane, whom they look down upon as "immoral" people, are well aware of the ironic gap between their views about society and the ways in which they actually act. 

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. 

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

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. 

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.