The Importance of Being Earnest

by

Oscar Wilde

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The Importance of Being Earnest: Situational Irony 5 key examples

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.

Explanation and Analysis—Mr. Bunbury:

The scene in Act 1, Part 2 in which Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen arrive for tea at Algernon's flat is filled with instances of situational and dramatic irony. In order to get out of going to dinner at his aunt's house, Algernon invents an excuse involving his imaginary friend Bunbury:

Algernon: It is a great bore, and, I need hardly say, a terrible disappointment to me, but the fact is I have just had a telegram to say that my poor friend Bunbury is very ill again. [Exchanges glances with Jack.] They seem to think I should be with him.

This scene is an instance of dramatic irony because, while the audience knows that Bunbury is fictional, Lady Bracknell is unaware that she is being deceived and launches into a long tirade against a man who does not exist:

Lady Bracknell: I should be much obliged if you would ask Mr. Bunbury, from me, to be kind enough not to have a relapse on Saturday, for I rely on you to arrange my music for me.

This is an absurd request, since people obviously can't decide when they experience health problems, but Lady Bracknell, who is accustomed to getting her way, doesn't seem to realize how ridiculous she sounds. Ironically, her request actually is reasonable—Bunbury does not exist—so Algernon is perfectly able to decide whether or not he has a relapse on Saturday.

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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—My Unfortunate Brother:

In Act 2, Part 1, there's an instance of foreshadowing when Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble question Jack about Ernest:

Miss Prism: More shameful debts and extravagance?

Chasuble: Still leading his life of pleasure?

From these questions, the audience can deduce that the image of Ernest that Jack has presented to the members of his household is that of an unscrupulous dandy who lives well beyond his means. This description happens to perfectly suit Algernon, who lives extravagantly and is deeply in debt. It's possible that Jack, either inadvertently or on purpose, actually based the character of Ernest on his mischievous friend.

These descriptions, in addition to Algernon's decision to disguise himself as Ernest, foreshadow the revelation in Act 3, Part 2 that Algernon has been Jack's brother all along:

Jack: Algy's elder brother! Then I have a brother after all. I knew I had a brother! I always said I had a brother! Cecily,—how could you have ever doubted that I had a brother. [Seizes hold of Algernon] Dr. Chasuble, my unfortunate brother. Miss Prism, my unfortunate brother. Gwendolen, my unfortunate brother. Algy, you young scoundrel, you will have to treat me with more respect in the future. You have never behaved to me like a brother in all your life.

Algernon: Well, not till to-day, old boy, I admit. I did my best, however, though I was out of practice.

This moment is ironic because, despite what Jack claims, Algernon has spent the entire play making fun of him, arguing with him, and needling him about his romantic life. In other words, he has behaved exactly like an irritating younger brother.

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Explanation and Analysis—A Brotherly Reunion:

The scene in which Jack arrives at his country estate and discovers Algernon masquerading as his brother is filled with dramatic irony. The audience is already aware of Algernon's presence and is awaiting the inevitable confrontation between the two men, which makes Jack's conversation with Cecily in Act 2, Part 1 quite ironic:

Cecily: Your brother Ernest. He arrived half an hour ago.

Jack: What nonsense! I haven't got a brother.

Cecily: Oh, don't say that. However badly he may have behaved to you in the past he is still your brother. You couldn't be so heartless as to disown him.

At this point, the audience possesses information that Jack does not (that Algernon is at his house) as well as information that Cecily doesn't know (that Algernon is pretending to be Ernest). As a result, Jack's claim that he doesn't have a brother means something completely different to the audience than it does to Cecily.

The scene that follows in Act 2, Part 2 is situationally ironic—Algernon appears to be one person, but he is actually someone else—as well as dramatically ironic. For example, Jack, Algernon, and the audience are all aware that Bunbury is fictional, while Cecily is not:

Cecily: Uncle Jack, do be nice. There is some good in everyone. Ernest has just been telling me about his poor invalid friend Mr. Bunbury, whom he goes to visit so often. And surely there must be much good in one who is kind to an invalid, and leaves the pleasures of London to sit by a bed of pain.

Jack: Oh! he has been talking about Bunbury, has he?

Cecily: Yes, he has told me all about poor Mr. Bunbury, and his terrible state of health.

Cecily's comment about "the pleasures of London" is ironic because, as the audience knows, Algernon uses Bunbury as an excuse to abandon his dull social obligations and financial difficulties in town so he can lead a life of pleasure in the country. It is also ironic that Cecily views Algernon's relationship with Bunbury as evidence of his good character, since the audience knows that Bunbury is a deception and therefore evidence of the exact opposite.

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Act 2, Part 2
Explanation and Analysis—The Tea Party:

Gwendolen and Cecily's tea party during Act 2, Part 2 is filled with dramatic irony. The audience, aware that Jack and Algernon are both pretending to be Ernest, eagerly awaits the inevitable misunderstanding that results from this deception:

Cecily: Mr. Ernest Worthing and I are engaged to be married.

Gwendolen: [Quite politely, rising]. My darling Cecily, I think there must be some slight error. Mr. Ernest Worthing is engaged to me.

The humor in this scene derives from the fact that, while Gwendolen and Cecily believe that they are both engaged to the same man, the audience knows perfectly well that they are engaged to two different people, neither of whom is named Ernest. Since the audience is in on Jack and Algernon's deception, it is ironic when the two women presume their fiancés to be innocent and begin to place the blame on each other:

Cecily: [Rising] To save my poor, innocent, trusting boy from the machinations of any other girl there are no lengths to which I would not go.

Gwendolen: From the moment I saw you I distrusted you. I felt that you were false and deceitful.

This entire scene is also ironic in a more general sense, in that there is a difference between how things appear and how they are (situational irony). The women appear to be having a friendly tea party and restrain themselves so as not to appear indecorous in front of the servants, but the atmosphere is undoubtedly hostile. All their words to each other seem polite on the surface, but are actually sarcastic and insulting.

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Explanation and Analysis—A Brotherly Reunion:

The scene in which Jack arrives at his country estate and discovers Algernon masquerading as his brother is filled with dramatic irony. The audience is already aware of Algernon's presence and is awaiting the inevitable confrontation between the two men, which makes Jack's conversation with Cecily in Act 2, Part 1 quite ironic:

Cecily: Your brother Ernest. He arrived half an hour ago.

Jack: What nonsense! I haven't got a brother.

Cecily: Oh, don't say that. However badly he may have behaved to you in the past he is still your brother. You couldn't be so heartless as to disown him.

At this point, the audience possesses information that Jack does not (that Algernon is at his house) as well as information that Cecily doesn't know (that Algernon is pretending to be Ernest). As a result, Jack's claim that he doesn't have a brother means something completely different to the audience than it does to Cecily.

The scene that follows in Act 2, Part 2 is situationally ironic—Algernon appears to be one person, but he is actually someone else—as well as dramatically ironic. For example, Jack, Algernon, and the audience are all aware that Bunbury is fictional, while Cecily is not:

Cecily: Uncle Jack, do be nice. There is some good in everyone. Ernest has just been telling me about his poor invalid friend Mr. Bunbury, whom he goes to visit so often. And surely there must be much good in one who is kind to an invalid, and leaves the pleasures of London to sit by a bed of pain.

Jack: Oh! he has been talking about Bunbury, has he?

Cecily: Yes, he has told me all about poor Mr. Bunbury, and his terrible state of health.

Cecily's comment about "the pleasures of London" is ironic because, as the audience knows, Algernon uses Bunbury as an excuse to abandon his dull social obligations and financial difficulties in town so he can lead a life of pleasure in the country. It is also ironic that Cecily views Algernon's relationship with Bunbury as evidence of his good character, since the audience knows that Bunbury is a deception and therefore evidence of the exact opposite.

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Act 3, Part 2
Explanation and Analysis—My Unfortunate Brother:

In Act 2, Part 1, there's an instance of foreshadowing when Miss Prism and Dr. Chasuble question Jack about Ernest:

Miss Prism: More shameful debts and extravagance?

Chasuble: Still leading his life of pleasure?

From these questions, the audience can deduce that the image of Ernest that Jack has presented to the members of his household is that of an unscrupulous dandy who lives well beyond his means. This description happens to perfectly suit Algernon, who lives extravagantly and is deeply in debt. It's possible that Jack, either inadvertently or on purpose, actually based the character of Ernest on his mischievous friend.

These descriptions, in addition to Algernon's decision to disguise himself as Ernest, foreshadow the revelation in Act 3, Part 2 that Algernon has been Jack's brother all along:

Jack: Algy's elder brother! Then I have a brother after all. I knew I had a brother! I always said I had a brother! Cecily,—how could you have ever doubted that I had a brother. [Seizes hold of Algernon] Dr. Chasuble, my unfortunate brother. Miss Prism, my unfortunate brother. Gwendolen, my unfortunate brother. Algy, you young scoundrel, you will have to treat me with more respect in the future. You have never behaved to me like a brother in all your life.

Algernon: Well, not till to-day, old boy, I admit. I did my best, however, though I was out of practice.

This moment is ironic because, despite what Jack claims, Algernon has spent the entire play making fun of him, arguing with him, and needling him about his romantic life. In other words, he has behaved exactly like an irritating younger brother.

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