The pursuit of marriage is a driving force behind much of the play’s action. Similar to many Victorian novels of the period, the play reads as a marriage plot, documenting the errors in social etiquette and romantic upheavals that come about as Jack and Algernon stumble towards the altar. Jack pursues Gwendolen’s hand, while Algernon pursues Cecily. Because Jack and Algernon are willing to go to such outlandish lengths to appease Gwendolen and Cecily’s fickle desires, engagement—which will ultimately lead to marriage—becomes the primary goal of the main players.
Each couples’ engagement is fraught with roadblocks, albeit trivial ones. Gwendolen shows hesitance at marrying a man not named “Ernest.” Cecily shows that same hesitation when Algernon suggests that his name may not actually be “Ernest.” Lady Bracknell objects to Gwendolen and Jack’s engagement on the basis of Jack’s lack of legitimate relations. Meanwhile Jack objects to Cecily and Algernon’s engagement to spite Algernon for “Bunburying” and Lady Bracknell for disapproving of his marriage to Gwendolen. The elderly Dr. Chausible puts off marriage, citing the “Primitive Church’s” emphasis on celibacy, while Miss Prism embraces her spinsterhood as a governess. Despite these trivial obstacles, all couples are finally engaged—Jack to Gwendolen, Cecily to Algernon, Miss Prism to Dr. Chausible.
While engagement appears to be the endgame of The Importance of Being Earnest, it is actually the fodder uses to entertain the audience. While each couple exhales “at last” with relief once they are engaged, Wilde uses the delays and stumbles to the altar to entertain his audience. Gwendolen’s melodramatic quote, “This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last,” speaks to this idea. While the characters are relieved to be engaged “at last,” like Gwendolen, we in the audience hope that the suspense “will last” so that we can continue to indulge in the characters’ foibles and follies. Unlike the Victorians he depicts, Wilde is preoccupied with the amusements that arise on the road to marriage, rather than marriage as an end in of itself.
The Pursuit of Marriage ThemeTracker
The Pursuit of Marriage Quotes in The Importance of Being Earnest
Lane’s views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.”
Jack: I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her.
Algernon: I thought you had come up for pleasure?...I call that business.
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. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If I ever get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.
You are too much alone, dear Dr. Chasuble. You should get married. A misanthrope. I can understand—a womanthrope never!
Miss Prism: And you do not seem to realize, dear Doctor, that by persistently remaining single, a man converts himself into a permanent public temptation. Men should be more careful; this very celibacy leads weaker vessels astray.
Dr. Chausible: But is a man not equally attractive when married?
Miss Prism: No married man is ever attractive except to his wife.
But I do not approve of mercenary marriages. When I married Lord Bracknell, I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way.
To speak frankly, I am not in favour of long engagements. They give people the opportunity of finding out each other's character before marriage, which I think is never advisable.
Unmarried! I do not deny that is a serious blow. But after all, who has the right to cast a stone against one who has suffered? Cannot repentance wipe out an act of folly? Why should there be one law for men and another for women?