The Importance of Being Earnest

by

Oscar Wilde

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The Importance of Being Earnest: Paradox 4 key examples

Definition of Paradox
A paradox is a figure of speech that seems to contradict itself, but which, upon further examination, contains some kernel of truth or reason. Oscar Wilde's famous declaration that "Life is... read full definition
A paradox is a figure of speech that seems to contradict itself, but which, upon further examination, contains some kernel of truth or reason. Oscar... read full definition
A paradox is a figure of speech that seems to contradict itself, but which, upon further examination, contains some kernel... read full definition
Act 1, Part 1
Explanation and Analysis—The Paradox of Marriage:

During his conversation with Jack in Act 1, Part 1, Algernon makes several paradoxical statements about marriage. When Jack says that he has come to London in order to propose to Gwendolen, Algernon quips that he didn't realize Jack had come to town on a business matter:

Jack: How utterly unromantic you are!

Algernon: 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.

Later, as Algernon gets ready to interrogate Jack about Cecily, he expresses his doubts that Jack and Gwendolen will ever be married:

Jack: Why on earth do you say that?

Algernon: Well, in the first place girls never marry the men they flirt with. Girls don't think it right.

Both of these statements initially seem contradictory—the act of proposing is inherently romantic, and of course women generally wish to marry men in whom they are already romantically interested. But Algernon, who is more familiar than Jack with the inner workings of the aristocracy, is actually providing insight into Victorian attitudes toward marriage. 

For members of the gentry, marriage represented a sociopolitical alliance between families rather than a love union between two individuals. Marriage proposals, in this context, are akin to business contracts, so Algernon's statement that proposals aren't romantic is actually accurate. His assertion that girls don't marry the men they flirt with also rings true, since aristocratic women had an obligation to marry men who would advance their family's social status, which often prevented them from marrying for love. 

Act 1, Part 2
Explanation and Analysis—Hard Work Doing Nothing:

During Jack and Algernon's discussion of their evening plans, Algernon makes a paradoxical and seemingly nonsensical statement about work:

Algernon: It is awfully hard work doing nothing. However, I don't mind hard work where there is no definite object of any kind.

This line is paradoxical—idleness is, by definition, the opposite of hard work. With this paradox, Wilde suggests that members of the upper class are so lazy that they consider idleness to be a legitimate occupation and that the British aristocracy as a whole is completely ineffectual.  

This paradox can also be interpreted as a commentary on Aestheticism. When Algernon states that doing nothing is hard work, he may actually be making the argument that it is difficult to be trivial on purpose. The aesthetes believed in "art for art's sake" and rejected the idea that art needed to have a deeper meaning or advance a moral lesson, but it is quite difficult to create a piece of art that has no meaning at all. Even The Importance of Being Earnest, a supposedly "trivial" play, is filled with references to social issues and can be interpreted in multiple ways. It is the audience, after all, and not the artist, who ultimately decides what a piece of art means.

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Act 2, Part 1
Explanation and Analysis—(Un)happy Endings:

Act 2, Part 1 contains a paradox, when Cecily questions Miss Prism about her three-volume novel:

Cecily: I hope it did not end happily? I don't like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.

Miss Prism: The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

Cecily: I suppose so. But it seems very unfair.

Cecily's statements initially seem paradoxical—why should she be depressed by a novel that ends happily? Why does she consider an ending in which characters get what they deserve to be unfair? But Cecily is actually making a profound statement about Victorian morality and the purpose of fiction. 

Miss Prism argues that the good ending happily and the bad unhappily is a rule of fiction and not of reality. When Cecily expresses that she finds this rule unfair, she seems to be arguing that fiction is unsatisfactory when it fails to reflect the complexity of real life. Reality is far more nuanced than Miss Prism's novel: people are rarely either entirely good or entirely bad, personalities are not immutable, and morality generally does not determine fate. Cecily may be rather romantic and idealistic, but she does not see the world in black-and-white as Miss Prism does. As she states in Act 2, Part 2, she finds her guardian's brother fascinating because he is wicked but also capable of redemption:

Cecily: Well, ever since dear Uncle Jack first confessed to us that he had a younger brother who was very wicked and bad, you of course have formed the chief topic of conversation between myself and Miss Prism. And of course a man who is much talked about is always very attractive. One feels there must be something in him after all.

Cecily's statement that Miss Prism's rule of fiction is unfair also implies that she prefers books that entertain to books that advance a moral lesson. Victorian notions of propriety seem unimaginably dull to a young, aesthetically-minded girl like Cecily, who is more interested in freedom and adventure then she is in moral improvement.

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Act 2, Part 2
Explanation and Analysis—Seriousness/Triviality:

While Jack and Algernon mope and eat muffins in the garden, Algernon makes an apparently paradoxical statement about Jack's character:

Algernon: Well, one must be serious about something, if one wants to have any amusement in life... What on earth you are serious about I haven't got the remotest idea. About everything, I should fancy. You have such an absolutely trivial nature.

At first glance, this statement seems contradictory—how can someone who is serious about everything have a trivial nature? But what Algernon actually means to say is that Jack, who treats everything as equally serious, cannot be truly serious about any one thing.

This line is a reference to the play's subtitle: "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People." Throughout The Importance of Being Earnest, serious topics such as politics and religion are regarded as trivial, while the superficial values of the aristocracy are treated with utmost seriousness. 

Oscar Wilde's commentary on seriousness and triviality can be interpreted in two ways. On one hand, he may simply be expressing his belief that people should take themselves less seriously and pay more attention to the things in life that, although trivial, are enjoyable. As a proponent of the Aesthetic movement, Wilde valued pleasure and beauty over morality and social change, and his "trivial comedy for serious people" may be an attempt to demonstrate the benefits of Aestheticism. On the other hand, Wilde may be encouraging his audience to think critically about what aspects of life are truly important. By depicting the aristocracy's obsession with respectability as essentially frivolous, he could be urging his audience to focus on more serious topics such as Irish Home Rule, class conflict, or gender inequality.

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Explanation and Analysis—(Un)happy Endings:

Act 2, Part 1 contains a paradox, when Cecily questions Miss Prism about her three-volume novel:

Cecily: I hope it did not end happily? I don't like novels that end happily. They depress me so much.

Miss Prism: The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.

Cecily: I suppose so. But it seems very unfair.

Cecily's statements initially seem paradoxical—why should she be depressed by a novel that ends happily? Why does she consider an ending in which characters get what they deserve to be unfair? But Cecily is actually making a profound statement about Victorian morality and the purpose of fiction. 

Miss Prism argues that the good ending happily and the bad unhappily is a rule of fiction and not of reality. When Cecily expresses that she finds this rule unfair, she seems to be arguing that fiction is unsatisfactory when it fails to reflect the complexity of real life. Reality is far more nuanced than Miss Prism's novel: people are rarely either entirely good or entirely bad, personalities are not immutable, and morality generally does not determine fate. Cecily may be rather romantic and idealistic, but she does not see the world in black-and-white as Miss Prism does. As she states in Act 2, Part 2, she finds her guardian's brother fascinating because he is wicked but also capable of redemption:

Cecily: Well, ever since dear Uncle Jack first confessed to us that he had a younger brother who was very wicked and bad, you of course have formed the chief topic of conversation between myself and Miss Prism. And of course a man who is much talked about is always very attractive. One feels there must be something in him after all.

Cecily's statement that Miss Prism's rule of fiction is unfair also implies that she prefers books that entertain to books that advance a moral lesson. Victorian notions of propriety seem unimaginably dull to a young, aesthetically-minded girl like Cecily, who is more interested in freedom and adventure then she is in moral improvement.

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