The Importance of Being Earnest
1) What is the significance of the notion of "being earnest" for the play?
The significance of earnestness in the play is that it creates a paradox between morality and being sincere. Those characters in the play who claim to be earnest tend to be immoral, but those who embrace the fact that they are not earnest have better moral tendencies. For example, Jack pretends to have a brother so he can be a moral guardian, but he actually is being immoral for lying and doing immoral things while "visiting" his brother. This paradox institutes the theme that morality and earnestness are actually opposite, despite the fact that they would intuitively go hand in hand.
2) What is the importance of being trivial within the play?
The importance of being trivial within the play is that it characterizes the misconceptions of those involved in the play. Whenever a situation is deemed serious or something is defined as sincere by the characters, it is actually trivial. This is deceptive because the characters think they are being earnest, but in fact they are being trivial.
3) How does Cecily create reality? What is the connection between reality and writing?
Cecily creates reality because she convinces people that the things she wants to be true are actually true, essentially to get what she wants. The main point that Cecily creates reality from is that she and "Ernest" (Algernon) were engaged even before she had met him. Along with her love letters and a series of other tokens to prove their engagement, Cecily creates reality. The connection between reality and writing lies in the journals that the two women, Cecily and Gwendolyn, have because they write down things as they happen and use it as proof that it happened. This deception comes in as they embellish and lie about what happened in their writing, but still use it as proof of the truth.
1) What do the main characters think about the lower class?
The main characters have negative opinions of the lower class, especially Lady Bracknell. Lady Bracknell is always making sarcastic jabs about status and class, and she constantly prevents certain proposals and relations from happening because one of the people involved is of a lower class.
2) What is the correlation between "bunburying" and wearing social masks?
The correlation between the two appears in the characters of Jack and Algernon. Bunburying is a sort of game that Algernon plays out of pure innocence and fun. Algernon creates an imaginary friend that allows him to go out by himself and not have to explain himself. On the other hand, Jack's uses his "brother" as a social mask, which is far more sinister. Jack lies to those around him in order to do what he wants as well, but because he is shrouded in lies it will eventually hurt all those that he lied to.
3) How does the play challenge conventional notions of sex and gender and public and private spheres?
The play challenges the traditional ideas about sex and gender because it portrays the women as strong-willed and decisive, unlike the common idea that women are weak and unprepared to make their own decisions. For example, Gwendolyn takes charge when Jack first asks to marry her. Jack can barely mumble a proposal, but Gwendolyn is confident and decisive about the marriage. The notions of public and private spheres are also challenged, especially with Jack's double life. The common notion that people should be upstanding in all aspects of their life is torn down because Jack appears virtuous to the public but is actually lying to allow himself to have fun on the side.
4) To what extent is Gwendolyn a typical Victorian Lady? To what extent does she not fulfill typical Victorian standards and requirements for being a lady?
Gwendolyn fits the stereotype of a Victorian lady because she is invested in the thought of marrying, and marrying the right way. At the same time, she does not satisfy the usual standards for a Victorian lady because she is able to make her own decisions in terms of how she feels instead of waiting for men to make the decision.
Love and Marriage
1) What attitudes toward marriage do Algernon and Lady Bracknell represent?
Lady Bracknell represents the attitude that marriage should be a unity between two well fitted people in terms of financial and social status. This attitude is a traditional one, and it does not necessarily take into account the importance of love in a marriage. Lady Bracknell refuses to allow her relations to marry outside of their sphere of connections or wealth. When she finds out that Jack had no parents and was raised by someone else, Lady Bracknell immediately refuses to approve his proposal to Gwendolyn. Algernon uses the fact that he is financially stable to convince Lady Bracknell that he is eligible to marry her granddaughter. Algernon has a different view of marriage and love because he sees the opportunity but only goes through with it because he has such strong affections for her. There are certain traditional aspects that Algernon uses to his advantage, but in general he is more of a freely thinking character in terms of love and marriage.
2) In what ways are the play's values about love and marriage similar to or different from today's values?
The concepts of marriage are very different because in the past it has been a matter of financial and social standing, while today marriage focuses on a wider variety of aspects. People of all different social standings and financial situations get married in the present day, whether it be out of love or necessity. Love today is very similar to how the play portrays it because there are times when the societal expectations are trumped by love.
Etiquette and Victorian Society
1) How does Wilde's tone and style help reinforce his critical perspective on social class in Victorian England?
Wilde maintains an ironic and contradictory tone throughout the play, displaying his opinion of negativity towards the social class in Victorian England. The characterization, events, and description in the play all serve to show the ridiculing that Wilde displays in his work. With Wilde's use of the name Ernest and word earnest specifically, he holds a critical perspective of Victorian England. The obsession with the name Ernest and not with earnestness itself is a symbolic device that Wilde uses to show the reader that although the Victorians liked to appear to be virtuous, they indeed were too preoccupied with their own selfishness.
2) In what ways does Wilde attack Victorian values? In what ways does he uphold them?
Wilde attacks Victorian values for being too demanding and rigid in terms of marriage and love. He also attacks the prospects of earnestness because there are many fake appearances and issues with morality. Lady Bracknell is often callous and judgmental, allowing Wilde to attack the parts of Victorian society that view misfortune of others as a sort of moral unworthiness. There are not many cases in which Wilde upholds the values of Victorian society because as a whole he targets the hypocrisy and immorality of it.
3) What is Wilde's attitude toward the Victorian preoccupation with philanthropy?
Wilde's attitude towards the focus on philanthropy displayed in this Victorian society is cynical because he sees the "love of humanity" and development of what it means to be human as a limitation on personal growth and individuality. This is especially important because it is another negative view on the immoral hypocrisy of Victorian society from Wilde's point of view.
4) Whys is the play considered a Comedy of Manners? What elements of this literary genre are included in the play?
This play can be considered a Comedy of Manners because the characters make fools of themselves throughout the play by trying to outdo each other in terms of manners, often making ridiculous situations occur. Aspects such as the Victorian expectations regarding marriage and earnestness are ridiculed, marking these elements as part of that literary genre. Wilde also plays with the prospects of identity, making a comedic scene at the end of the play when Jack's true identity and connections are revealed in terms of the rest of the characters.