The Importance of Being Earnest

by

Oscar Wilde

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The Importance of Being Earnest: Style 1 key example

Act 1, Part 1
Explanation and Analysis:

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde employs a witty, comedic style and creates humor by juxtaposing sophisticated, intellectual syntax with nonsensical content. The play's dialogue is quickly paced and spoken with upper-class refinement, even though the ideas the characters express are usually quite foolish.

The text of The Importance of Being Earnest is littered with epigrams: pithy remarks that express ideas in a clever way. Wilde's epigrams are often plays on common English idioms and maxims, such as this line in Act 1, Part 1:

Algernon: You don't seem to realize, that in married life three is company and two is none.

The original saying—"two's company, three's a crowd"—comments on the fact that when two individuals, such as lovers, wish to be alone together, the presence of a third individual is unwelcome. By corrupting the phrase, Algernon asserts that married couples eventually get bored of one another and that the presence of a third person, either in the context of infidelity or "Bunburying," is actually necessary to preserve matrimonial harmony.

While this particular epigram has a complex meaning, the humor of other epigrams derives from the fact that they are spoken with complete seriousness despite having little substance. Algernon in particular, in true Aesthetic fashion, places more importance on clever phrasing than on meaningful content, as is evident in this exchange from Act 1, Part 2:

Algernon: All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.

Jack: Is that clever?

Algernon: It is perfectly phrased! and quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be.

The text of The Importance of Being Earnest is also filled with puns, such as Jack's suggestive double-entendre in Act 3, Part 1:

Lady Bracknell: A thoroughly experienced French maid produces a really marvellous result in a very brief space of time. I remember recommending one to young Lady Lancing, and after three months her own husband did not know her.

Jack: And after six months nobody knew her.

Lady Bracknell is commenting on the French maid's skill with cosmetics and uses the word "know" to mean "recognize." But to "know" someone can also, in the Biblical sense, mean to have sexual intercourse. Jack takes advantage of the word's double meaning to suggest that Lady Lancing, having begun an affair with the French maid, no longer has sex with her husband or any other man.

The play's most obvious pun is the ongoing conflation of the name "Ernest" with the word "earnest." With this extended pun, Wilde explores themes of name, identity, truth, and deception. In Act 3, Part 2, he even ends the play with it:

Jack: On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I've now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.

Thanks to the interplay between "Ernest" and "earnest," this line can be read in multiple ways: Jack has learned the importance of being Ernest Moncrieff Jr. (that is, the importance of having a family and a good position in society), but he has also learned the importance of being sincere.

Although puns are usually considered a low-brow form of humor, they take on deeply clever and complex meanings in The Importance of Being Earnest. Since puns exploit the fact that words have multiple meanings, they are well suited to a play in which people take on multiple identities.

Act 1, Part 2
Explanation and Analysis:

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde employs a witty, comedic style and creates humor by juxtaposing sophisticated, intellectual syntax with nonsensical content. The play's dialogue is quickly paced and spoken with upper-class refinement, even though the ideas the characters express are usually quite foolish.

The text of The Importance of Being Earnest is littered with epigrams: pithy remarks that express ideas in a clever way. Wilde's epigrams are often plays on common English idioms and maxims, such as this line in Act 1, Part 1:

Algernon: You don't seem to realize, that in married life three is company and two is none.

The original saying—"two's company, three's a crowd"—comments on the fact that when two individuals, such as lovers, wish to be alone together, the presence of a third individual is unwelcome. By corrupting the phrase, Algernon asserts that married couples eventually get bored of one another and that the presence of a third person, either in the context of infidelity or "Bunburying," is actually necessary to preserve matrimonial harmony.

While this particular epigram has a complex meaning, the humor of other epigrams derives from the fact that they are spoken with complete seriousness despite having little substance. Algernon in particular, in true Aesthetic fashion, places more importance on clever phrasing than on meaningful content, as is evident in this exchange from Act 1, Part 2:

Algernon: All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.

Jack: Is that clever?

Algernon: It is perfectly phrased! and quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be.

The text of The Importance of Being Earnest is also filled with puns, such as Jack's suggestive double-entendre in Act 3, Part 1:

Lady Bracknell: A thoroughly experienced French maid produces a really marvellous result in a very brief space of time. I remember recommending one to young Lady Lancing, and after three months her own husband did not know her.

Jack: And after six months nobody knew her.

Lady Bracknell is commenting on the French maid's skill with cosmetics and uses the word "know" to mean "recognize." But to "know" someone can also, in the Biblical sense, mean to have sexual intercourse. Jack takes advantage of the word's double meaning to suggest that Lady Lancing, having begun an affair with the French maid, no longer has sex with her husband or any other man.

The play's most obvious pun is the ongoing conflation of the name "Ernest" with the word "earnest." With this extended pun, Wilde explores themes of name, identity, truth, and deception. In Act 3, Part 2, he even ends the play with it:

Jack: On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I've now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.

Thanks to the interplay between "Ernest" and "earnest," this line can be read in multiple ways: Jack has learned the importance of being Ernest Moncrieff Jr. (that is, the importance of having a family and a good position in society), but he has also learned the importance of being sincere.

Although puns are usually considered a low-brow form of humor, they take on deeply clever and complex meanings in The Importance of Being Earnest. Since puns exploit the fact that words have multiple meanings, they are well suited to a play in which people take on multiple identities.

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Act 3, Part 1
Explanation and Analysis:

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde employs a witty, comedic style and creates humor by juxtaposing sophisticated, intellectual syntax with nonsensical content. The play's dialogue is quickly paced and spoken with upper-class refinement, even though the ideas the characters express are usually quite foolish.

The text of The Importance of Being Earnest is littered with epigrams: pithy remarks that express ideas in a clever way. Wilde's epigrams are often plays on common English idioms and maxims, such as this line in Act 1, Part 1:

Algernon: You don't seem to realize, that in married life three is company and two is none.

The original saying—"two's company, three's a crowd"—comments on the fact that when two individuals, such as lovers, wish to be alone together, the presence of a third individual is unwelcome. By corrupting the phrase, Algernon asserts that married couples eventually get bored of one another and that the presence of a third person, either in the context of infidelity or "Bunburying," is actually necessary to preserve matrimonial harmony.

While this particular epigram has a complex meaning, the humor of other epigrams derives from the fact that they are spoken with complete seriousness despite having little substance. Algernon in particular, in true Aesthetic fashion, places more importance on clever phrasing than on meaningful content, as is evident in this exchange from Act 1, Part 2:

Algernon: All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.

Jack: Is that clever?

Algernon: It is perfectly phrased! and quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be.

The text of The Importance of Being Earnest is also filled with puns, such as Jack's suggestive double-entendre in Act 3, Part 1:

Lady Bracknell: A thoroughly experienced French maid produces a really marvellous result in a very brief space of time. I remember recommending one to young Lady Lancing, and after three months her own husband did not know her.

Jack: And after six months nobody knew her.

Lady Bracknell is commenting on the French maid's skill with cosmetics and uses the word "know" to mean "recognize." But to "know" someone can also, in the Biblical sense, mean to have sexual intercourse. Jack takes advantage of the word's double meaning to suggest that Lady Lancing, having begun an affair with the French maid, no longer has sex with her husband or any other man.

The play's most obvious pun is the ongoing conflation of the name "Ernest" with the word "earnest." With this extended pun, Wilde explores themes of name, identity, truth, and deception. In Act 3, Part 2, he even ends the play with it:

Jack: On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I've now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.

Thanks to the interplay between "Ernest" and "earnest," this line can be read in multiple ways: Jack has learned the importance of being Ernest Moncrieff Jr. (that is, the importance of having a family and a good position in society), but he has also learned the importance of being sincere.

Although puns are usually considered a low-brow form of humor, they take on deeply clever and complex meanings in The Importance of Being Earnest. Since puns exploit the fact that words have multiple meanings, they are well suited to a play in which people take on multiple identities.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Act 3, Part 2
Explanation and Analysis:

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde employs a witty, comedic style and creates humor by juxtaposing sophisticated, intellectual syntax with nonsensical content. The play's dialogue is quickly paced and spoken with upper-class refinement, even though the ideas the characters express are usually quite foolish.

The text of The Importance of Being Earnest is littered with epigrams: pithy remarks that express ideas in a clever way. Wilde's epigrams are often plays on common English idioms and maxims, such as this line in Act 1, Part 1:

Algernon: You don't seem to realize, that in married life three is company and two is none.

The original saying—"two's company, three's a crowd"—comments on the fact that when two individuals, such as lovers, wish to be alone together, the presence of a third individual is unwelcome. By corrupting the phrase, Algernon asserts that married couples eventually get bored of one another and that the presence of a third person, either in the context of infidelity or "Bunburying," is actually necessary to preserve matrimonial harmony.

While this particular epigram has a complex meaning, the humor of other epigrams derives from the fact that they are spoken with complete seriousness despite having little substance. Algernon in particular, in true Aesthetic fashion, places more importance on clever phrasing than on meaningful content, as is evident in this exchange from Act 1, Part 2:

Algernon: All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.

Jack: Is that clever?

Algernon: It is perfectly phrased! and quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be.

The text of The Importance of Being Earnest is also filled with puns, such as Jack's suggestive double-entendre in Act 3, Part 1:

Lady Bracknell: A thoroughly experienced French maid produces a really marvellous result in a very brief space of time. I remember recommending one to young Lady Lancing, and after three months her own husband did not know her.

Jack: And after six months nobody knew her.

Lady Bracknell is commenting on the French maid's skill with cosmetics and uses the word "know" to mean "recognize." But to "know" someone can also, in the Biblical sense, mean to have sexual intercourse. Jack takes advantage of the word's double meaning to suggest that Lady Lancing, having begun an affair with the French maid, no longer has sex with her husband or any other man.

The play's most obvious pun is the ongoing conflation of the name "Ernest" with the word "earnest." With this extended pun, Wilde explores themes of name, identity, truth, and deception. In Act 3, Part 2, he even ends the play with it:

Jack: On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I've now realised for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.

Thanks to the interplay between "Ernest" and "earnest," this line can be read in multiple ways: Jack has learned the importance of being Ernest Moncrieff Jr. (that is, the importance of having a family and a good position in society), but he has also learned the importance of being sincere.

Although puns are usually considered a low-brow form of humor, they take on deeply clever and complex meanings in The Importance of Being Earnest. Since puns exploit the fact that words have multiple meanings, they are well suited to a play in which people take on multiple identities.

Unlock with LitCharts A+