The Importance of Being Earnest


Oscar Wilde

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The Importance of Being Earnest Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde led a cosmopolitan lifestyle as a writer, playwright, journalist, intellectual, and aesthete. An exceptionally gifted student, Wilde studied at Trinity College, Dublin and Magdalen College, Oxford, on scholarship. At Oxford, Wilde came under the influence of tutor Walter Pater’s Aesthetic philosophy—“art for arts sake”—and developed a reputation as an eccentric, flamboyant, and foppish young man. Moving from Oxford to London upon graduation, Wilde then published his first volume of poems to some critical acclaim. Though a fledgling writer, Wilde’s fame as a proponent of Aestheticism grew during his yearlong lecture tour of the United States, England, and Ireland. Wilde married Dublin heiress Constance Lloyd in 1884. In the years following the couple had two sons, while Wilde published his serialized novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and made his way as writer and editor in London’s publishing scene. Wilde met his lover Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, an undergraduate at Oxford, in 1891. Wilde’s career as a playwright flourished in the coming years as he wrote a number of successful plays for the Paris and London stages including Lady Windemere’s Fan, Salomé, An Ideal Husband, and finally The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895. But Wilde’s success was short-lived as he became embroiled in scandal. A series of trials that pitted Wilde against Lord Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, exposed Wilde’s homosexuality, causing him to be charged and sentenced for “gross indecency.” After serving two years in prison, Wilde retired to the European continent, where he wrote occasionally under an assumed name, briefly rekindled his romance with Lord Alfred, and converted to Catholicism. Shrouded in infamy, Wilde died of cerebral meningitis in Paris at the turn of the 20th century.
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Historical Context of The Importance of Being Earnest

During the initial run of The Importance of Being Earnest, Lord Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, accused Wilde of being a “somdomite” (sic). Under his lover’s influence, Wilde countered by suing the Marquess for libel. Queensberry was acquitted, but enough evidence of Wilde’s homosexuality surfaced during the first trial that Wilde was charged with “gross indecency.” Against the advice of his friends, Wilde remained in London to face the charges. Wilde’s writings, including The Picture of Dorian Gray, were used against him and Wilde was sentenced to Wandsworth Prison for two years’ hard labor. The scandal did irreparable damage to Wilde’s career, shutting down The Importance of Being Earnest’s otherwise successful run and causing Wilde to spend his remaining days living abroad in obscurity. Despite Wilde’s infamy, his writings became an integral part of the Aesthetic movement, which has informed contemporary conceptions of art. While the Victorians believed that art should have a positive moral influence, aesthetes like Wilde believed that art could be valued for its beauty alone. The saying “art for art’s sake” is a lasting mantra that resonates in modern works of art—in part—because of Wilde’s writings.

Other Books Related to The Importance of Being Earnest

Lady Windemere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and An Ideal Husband are related plays that Wilde wrote during his successful period as a playwright for the London stage, between 1892 and 1895. Showing aspects of comedy and drama they feature themes and figures similar to those in The Importance of Being Earnest, including fallen women, children of uncertain parentage, dark secrets from the past, mistaken identities, clever wordplay, and skewering critiques of Victorian morality and social standards.
Key Facts about The Importance of Being Earnest
  • Full Title: The Importance of Being Earnest
  • When Written: Summer 1894
  • Where Written: Worthing, England
  • When Published: First produced as a play on February 14, 1895; published in 1899
  • Literary Period: Aestheticism; Victorian Era
  • Genre: play; Victorian melodrama; comedy of manners; intellectual farce; satire
  • Setting: The 1890s in London, England (Act I), and then Hertfordshire, a rural country outside of London (Acts II and III).
  • Climax: Gwendolen and Cecily discover that neither Jack, nor Algernon holds the name of “Ernest.”
  • Antagonist: Lady Bracknell

Extra Credit for The Importance of Being Earnest

Just dandy: Known for his long hair and the ever-present flower in his button-hole, Wilde popularized the figure of the “fop,” or “dandy,” a man devoted to his personal appearance, style, and dress.