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Free Study Guide: The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde - Free BookNotes

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The Main character and protagonist of this play is John Worthing (known as Jack in the city). He is the main character because he responsible to the major plot developments; most action revolves around him: the conflict is his; the main setting of the play occurs at his home; the plot becomes complicated when his pursuits are jeopardized, and the plot is not finally resolved until his interests are settled.

He is a man of mysterious background: he was found at Victoria Station as an infant, in a hand-bag. He now cares for the grand-daughter of his deceased patron. To escape the monotony of country life, and to have fun and be himself, he creates a fictitious brother, “Ernest.” who is always getting into trouble. Therefore, he is able to go to the city whenever he likes. In the city, he is known as Ernest. This becomes complicated when he falls in love with Gwendolen, whom he cannot marry because her aristocratic mother does not approve of his background. Furthermore, she could not love him if his name were anything but Ernest.

When Gwendolen appears at his country house, Jack is discovered as a phony. However, he is forgiven and taken back by Gwendolen. At the end of the play he discovers that he is who he was pretending to be all along. He was misplaced at Victoria Station by Miss Prism (now the governess of his ward) when he was a baby. He is really a man named Ernest, and really is the brother of Algernon. He and Gwendolen are allowed to marry.


As mentioned in the “Literary / Historical Information” section, the 1890s saw a change in Victorian Literature, and can be debatably called the beginning of modernism. Writers like Oscar Wilde or Bernard Shaw are concerned less with reaffirming the audience's cherished values, as they are with offering shocking ideas, which cause people to question their basic values. Similar to Mrs. Warren’s Profession, in which Shaw allows Mrs. Warren to be a successful brothel keeper with no bad consequences, Wilde allows for a ridiculous four-some, who do not value marriage for what it is meant to be, and truly, do not value what the are “supposed” to value-to end happily. Wilde was a proponent of the Aesthetic movement, which celebrated art for art’s sake. This movement, while it did not affect poetry in quite the same way, revitalized drama and novels of the late 19th century. This philosophy tended to keep art from preaching about political issues, and serve to entertain and celebrate beauty. Therefore, when analyzing The Importance of Being Ernest, one must consider it is a piece of entertainment, which did in fact delight its contemporary audiences. Wilde is not seeking to convey a deep, complex message. Its value stems from the source of its humor-its absurdities, and its criticisms. Elements of this play were comical to its audience for a reason; these reasons can tell us much about the world of 1890s England.

The exposition of the play, Act I, introduces the main character, John Worthing-“Ernest” and presents the major conflict: he wants to marry aristocratic Gwendolen but her mother does not approve. Furthermore, she loves him because of his name. Here is the first example of irony. Jack is not really an earnest man, thought he calls himself “Ernest,” and Gwendolen does not really want to marry an earnest man, but a man earnest is name only.

The rising action of the plot occurs throughout Act II, and is the longest part of the plot. During the rising action Algernon complicates the conflict because he arrives at Jack’s country house and calls himself “Ernest.” This is an impediment because, soon, Gwendolen arrives, and because Algernon has proposed to Cecily as Ernest, Gwendolen is bound to-first, not want to marry Jack because of his duplicity, and second, find out that his name is really not Ernest.

The climactic moment is when the women confront the men about what they have discovered by talking-they can not both be Ernest Worthing. The men confess and the women retreat

The women easily forgive the men and the denouement arises with a surprise ending. The ending can be referred to as “Deus ex Machina”(God from machine), which is a highly improbable ending. The chance of Jack really being whom he pretended all along, not to mention Algernon’s brother, not to mention Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism meeting on this fortuitous occasion-are all unlikely occurrences. Also in the resolution, is an excellent example of the understatement, which occurs throughout. To Miss Prism, it does not seem to be a grave occurrence that she switched a baby and her novel, losing both priceless items.

This play is equipped with many, many epithets-paradoxical, witty phrases. These phrases serve to add to the comedy value of the play. An example if one of these phrases is when Cecily says to Algernon: “Well, I know, of course, how important it is not to keep a business engagement.” (Act II). This is humorous, because to Victorians-as well as to ourselves-it is important to keep business engagements. Yet, this statement is not amusing to the characters in the play.

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