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.
The Pursuit of Marriage  Theme Icon

The pursuit of marriage is a driving force behind much of the play’s action. Similar to many Victorian novels of the period, the play reads as a marriage plot, documenting the errors in social etiquette and romantic upheavals that come about as Jack and Algernon stumble towards the altar. Jack pursues Gwendolen’s hand, while Algernon pursues Cecily. Because Jack and Algernon are willing to go to such outlandish lengths to appease Gwendolen and Cecily’s fickle desires, engagement—which will ultimately lead to marriage—becomes the primary goal of the main players.

Each couples’ engagement is fraught with roadblocks, albeit trivial ones. Gwendolen shows hesitance at marrying a man not named “Ernest.” Cecily shows that same hesitation when Algernon suggests that his name may not actually be “Ernest.” Lady Bracknell objects to Gwendolen and Jack’s engagement on the basis of Jack’s lack of legitimate relations. Meanwhile Jack objects to Cecily and Algernon’s engagement to spite Algernon for “Bunburying” and Lady Bracknell for disapproving of his marriage to Gwendolen. The elderly Dr. Chausible puts off marriage, citing the “Primitive Church’s” emphasis on celibacy, while Miss Prism embraces her spinsterhood as a governess. Despite these trivial obstacles, all couples are finally engaged—Jack to Gwendolen, Cecily to Algernon, Miss Prism to Dr. Chausible.

While engagement appears to be the endgame of The Importance of Being Earnest, it is actually the fodder uses to entertain the audience. While each couple exhales “at last” with relief once they are engaged, Wilde uses the delays and stumbles to the altar to entertain his audience. Gwendolen’s melodramatic quote, “This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last,” speaks to this idea. While the characters are relieved to be engaged “at last,” like Gwendolen, we in the audience hope that the suspense “will last” so that we can continue to indulge in the characters’ foibles and follies. Unlike the Victorians he depicts, Wilde is preoccupied with the amusements that arise on the road to marriage, rather than marriage as an end in of itself.

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The Pursuit of Marriage ThemeTracker

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

Lane’s views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.”

Related Characters: Algernon Moncrieff (speaker), Lane
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

Lane comments to Algernon that he was once married, as the consequence of a "misunderstanding" between himself and a "young person." In this quote, Algernon is appalled at Lane's "lax" views on marriage.

Though a hedonistic bachelor himself, Algernon's views on marriage reflect those of the aristocratic class in Victorian society. Marriages were often arranged between families, as it was considered important to preserve upper class pedigrees within these unions. To Algernon, Lane's lackadaisical approach to marriage represents the "immoral" ways in which he believes members of the lower class engage in unions. Coming from Algernon, this statement is hypocritical, since he himself often acts fairly immoral—he lives luxuriously, and often beyond his means, despite being a member of a wealthy aristocratic family. His tone in this quote is also condescending and classist. Though he is young and careless with his actions and money, he believes that his pedigree is enough to know what is best for those with less money and education. 


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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. 

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 2, Part 1 Quotes

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 3, Part 1 Quotes

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.