The Importance of Being Earnest

by

Oscar Wilde

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The Importance of Being Earnest: Allusions 3 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Act 1, Part 2
Explanation and Analysis—A Pink Rose:

In order to express thoughts and feelings that could not be spoken aloud in polite society, many Victorians became adept at a form of clandestine communication called floriography, or the language of flowers. In floriography, different plants have specific meanings associated with them, and carefully arranged bouquets can be used to send elaborate messages.

Wilde alludes to the practice of floriography during Algernon's first encounter with Cecily in Act 2, Part 1:

Algernon: Might I have a button-hole first? I never have any appetite unless I have a button-hole first.

Cecily: A Maréchal Niel? [Picks up scissors]

Algernon: No, I'd sooner have a pink rose.

Cecily: Why? [Cuts a flower]

Algernon: Because you are like a pink rose, cousin Cecily.

Algernon and Cecily, as well-educated and wealthy Victorians, are likely familiar with the language of flowers. Cecily offers Algernon a Maréchal Niel, which is a variety of yellow climbing rose. While yellow roses are used today to symbolize friendship, during the Victorian Era they could also represent jealousy. Algernon, who desires neither a platonic nor a jealous relationship with Cecily, declines the offer and compares her to a pink rose. With this simile, he emphasizes Cecily's beauty as well as her perceived innocence. While red roses are associated with intense passion and desire, pink roses symbolize femininity, grace, and the chaste affection of a budding romance. 

This simile turns out to be rather ironic. In Act 1, Part 2, Jack makes it clear that he does not trust Algernon's intentions when it comes to his ward:

Algernon: I would rather like to see Cecily.

Jack: I will take very good care that you never do. She is excessively pretty, and she is only just eighteen.

Like Jack, the audience expects that Algernon will end up seducing (or indeed, "deflowering") the young, naive Cecily. But in Act 2, Part 1, Cecily turns this assumption on its head by encouraging and even returning Algernon's flirtatious advances:

Cecily: Miss Prism says all good looks are a snare.

Algernon: They are a snare that every sensible man would like to be caught in.

Cecily: Oh! I don't think I would care to catch a sensible man. I shouldn't know what to talk to him about.

Although Cecily may not be as innocent or as delicate as she initially appears, Algernon's simile is somewhat accurate. The roses in the garden at Jack's country estate create a rustic, unspoiled atmosphere, but they are actually carefully cultivated and decorative. Similarly, Cecily's façade of girlish naiveté hides the "thornier" aspects of her personality: her obsession with her guardian's "wicked" younger brother, her stubbornness in regard to Algernon's name, and her capacity to behave in a spiteful and passive-aggressive manner toward Gwendolen.

Act 2, Part 1
Explanation and Analysis—A Pink Rose:

In order to express thoughts and feelings that could not be spoken aloud in polite society, many Victorians became adept at a form of clandestine communication called floriography, or the language of flowers. In floriography, different plants have specific meanings associated with them, and carefully arranged bouquets can be used to send elaborate messages.

Wilde alludes to the practice of floriography during Algernon's first encounter with Cecily in Act 2, Part 1:

Algernon: Might I have a button-hole first? I never have any appetite unless I have a button-hole first.

Cecily: A Maréchal Niel? [Picks up scissors]

Algernon: No, I'd sooner have a pink rose.

Cecily: Why? [Cuts a flower]

Algernon: Because you are like a pink rose, cousin Cecily.

Algernon and Cecily, as well-educated and wealthy Victorians, are likely familiar with the language of flowers. Cecily offers Algernon a Maréchal Niel, which is a variety of yellow climbing rose. While yellow roses are used today to symbolize friendship, during the Victorian Era they could also represent jealousy. Algernon, who desires neither a platonic nor a jealous relationship with Cecily, declines the offer and compares her to a pink rose. With this simile, he emphasizes Cecily's beauty as well as her perceived innocence. While red roses are associated with intense passion and desire, pink roses symbolize femininity, grace, and the chaste affection of a budding romance. 

This simile turns out to be rather ironic. In Act 1, Part 2, Jack makes it clear that he does not trust Algernon's intentions when it comes to his ward:

Algernon: I would rather like to see Cecily.

Jack: I will take very good care that you never do. She is excessively pretty, and she is only just eighteen.

Like Jack, the audience expects that Algernon will end up seducing (or indeed, "deflowering") the young, naive Cecily. But in Act 2, Part 1, Cecily turns this assumption on its head by encouraging and even returning Algernon's flirtatious advances:

Cecily: Miss Prism says all good looks are a snare.

Algernon: They are a snare that every sensible man would like to be caught in.

Cecily: Oh! I don't think I would care to catch a sensible man. I shouldn't know what to talk to him about.

Although Cecily may not be as innocent or as delicate as she initially appears, Algernon's simile is somewhat accurate. The roses in the garden at Jack's country estate create a rustic, unspoiled atmosphere, but they are actually carefully cultivated and decorative. Similarly, Cecily's façade of girlish naiveté hides the "thornier" aspects of her personality: her obsession with her guardian's "wicked" younger brother, her stubbornness in regard to Algernon's name, and her capacity to behave in a spiteful and passive-aggressive manner toward Gwendolen.

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Explanation and Analysis—Egeria and her Pupil:

When Dr. Chasuble interrupts Cecily's lesson with Miss Prism, he makes a somewhat flirtatious allusion to a figure in Roman mythology:

Chasuble: But I must not disturb Egeria and her pupil any longer.

Miss Prism: Egeria? My name is Laetitia, Doctor.

Chasuble: [Bowing] A classical allusion merely, drawn from the Pagan authors.

According to Roman mythology, Egeria was a nymph who acted as divine consort and counselor to Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome. She appeared in many Greek and Roman chronicles and played such a legendary role in early Roman history that the word "Egeria" is now used to describe a female advisor, counselor, or companion.

Chasuble's allusion is obviously intended to praise Miss Prism's skill and authority as a teacher, but  it can also be interpreted as somewhat suggestive. Although nymphs in Roman myth, due to their affiliation with the maiden goddess Diana, are typically associated with virginity, classical art and literature also depict them as objects of desire. The relationship between Egeria and king Numa is ambiguous—in some texts, Egeria is merely Numa's advisor and divine protector, while other sources characterize the relationship as more intimate. Chasuble's allusion suggests that Miss Prism fulfills a similar role: a virginal spinster on one hand, the object of Chasuble's lust on the other.

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Explanation and Analysis—Don Quixote:

During her first encounter with Algernon, whom she believes to be her guardian's wayward brother Ernest, Cecily makes an allusion to the Spanish epic novel Don Quixote:

Algernon: That is why I want you to reform me. You might make that your mission, if you don't mind, cousin Cecily.

Cecily: I'm afraid I've no time, this afternoon.

Algernon: Well, would you mind my reforming myself this afternoon?

Cecily: That is rather Quixotic of you. But I think you should try.

The word "quixotic" is synonymous with "idealistic" or "impractical" and is often used to describe someone who acts in a foolishly romantic or chivalrous manner. The word is derived from Don Quixote, a 17th century novel by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. The plot follows a low-ranking Spanish nobleman named Alonso Quijano, who, as a consequence of reading too many chivalric romances, abandons his duties and household to become a traveling knight.

There are some obvious similarities between Don Quixote and The Importance of Being Earnest. Both concern aristocratic men who abandon their social responsibilities to pursue a double life, and both deal with the conflict between reality and fiction. Even though Cecily is at this point ignorant of Algernon's real identity, her allusion comparing him to Alonso Quijano is impressively accurate.

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