Reading and Textual Analysis of Non-African Play – The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

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In today’s class, we will be talking about the importance of being earnest by Oscar Wilde. Enjoy the class!

The importance of being Earnest by Oscar Wilde | classnotes.ng

The plot

The plot account of the story begins with the scene of preparations made over the table in

Algernon’s flat for his aunt, Lady Bracknell, by Lane (Algernon’s manservant). Algernon is expecting his aunt for a lunch in his house.  As Algy emerges from the adjoining room, from where the sound of the piano is heard, he is informed by Lane that his friend (Jack Worthing) but by the name Mr Ernest Worthing has arrived to visit him.  Jack who has come up to London from his country home, which he says is in Shropshire, for the sake of amusing himself, is so delighted to learn that Lady Bracknell and her daughter, Gwendolen Fairfax, are coming to visit Algy.  When Algy tells him that his aunt will not be pleased to see him around because he flirts outrageously with Gwendolen, ‘Ernest’ tells Algy that he is in London to expressly propose marriage to Gwendolen.  Algy, however, tells Jack that he will not approve of the marriage until the mystery surrounding the name, “Cecily” is unveiled.  Jack, seeing how unbending Algy is on this, decides to say the truth:  that his foster-father, Mr Thomas Cardew, had appointed him in his will guardian to his grand-daughter, Miss Cecily Cardew.  He further explains when one is placed in the position of guardian; one has to adopt a very high moral tone on all subjects.  It’s one’s duty to do so.  And as a high moral tone can hardly be said to be conducive very much to either one’s health or one’s happiness, to get to town I have always pretended to have a younger brother of the name of Ernest, who lives in the Albany, and gets into the most dreadful scrapes.  Algy calls Jack one of the most advanced ‘Bunburyists’ he knows, then explains that he-Algy – has invented an invaluable permanent invalid, Bunbury and that this enables him to go on pleasure trips in the country wherever he wishes.  Jack, however, insists that he is not a ‘Bunburyist’ and that if Gwendolen accepts him; he is going to kill his fictitious brother, Ernest.  And that he may kill him off, as Cecily is becoming somewhat too interested in him, and advises Algy to do the same with Bunbury, which Algy completely refuse.  Algy coolly informs Jack that he plans to dine with him that night at Willis’s, as his guest.  Jack at first refuses to invite Algy but succumbs when Algy promises to keep his Aunt Augusta out of the way for ten minutes so that he can propose to Gwendolen while left alone with her.

The sound of an electric bell is heard, and then Lane enters and announces Lady Bracknell and Miss. Fairfax.   They come in and Algy greets his aunt while Jack pays extravagant compliments to Gwendolen then sits down with her in a corner.  Lady Bracknell moves to the tea-table for a cup of tea and some cucumber sandwiches but is disappointed as there are no cucumber sandwiches left by Algy who ate them all up.  Algy’s aunt quickly invites him for a treat which Algy turns down on the account of a telegram received that his friend, Bunbury is very ill again and must have him (Algy) at his side.  As Algy distract his aunt into the next room to discuss music programme, Jack was left alone with Gwendolen to do his wish.  As Jack timidly declares his love for Gwendolen, she confesses to him that she has always dreamt of loving a man with the name, ‘Ernest’.  On Lady Bracknell’s return to the room, Gwendolen announces to her that she and Jack are engaged.  This, Lady Bracknell firmly objects to, as according to her list, Jack is not qualified to marry her only daughter.

Jack’s rejection by Lady Bracknell infuriates him that he has to curse Algy’s aunt.  Before Lady Bracknell and her daughter finally leave, Gwendolen comes in hurriedly and asks Algy to turn his back, as she has something to say to Jack.  After professing her undying love for Jack, she asks for his country address and he gives it to her:  ‘The Manor House, Woolton, Hertfordshire’.

Algy is happy to over-hear this, and immediately, he sets for Jack’s country home the next day.  On arrival at the manor house, Algy meets Cecily and pretends to be ‘Ernest’ who she has been nursing a secret love for.  Algy enters the house with Cecily and tells her how he loves her so much.  On Jack’s return from the city, he meets Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble and tells them of his brother’s (Ernest) death, and how he has been buried, unknown to them that Algy, under the guise of ‘Ernest’ is in the house with Cecily.  On going into the house, Jack sees Algy, and there was confusion over who has been deceiving the others.  Cecily now knows that her uncle has been deceiving her over an ‘Ernest’.  Immediately, Jack asks Algy to leave his home, and he runs to Dr Chasuble to be christened as ‘Ernest’.  Algy refuses to leave without having a word with Cecily.  While still there, Merriman announces the presence of Gwendolen.  This makes the issue worse, as both Gwendolen and Cecily realize how much they have been deceived by both men.  So, they decide to punish Jack and Algy.

Lady Bracknell who has been looking for her missing daughter trails her to Jack’s country home.  She is surprised to not only see her daughter but also, her nephew, Algy.  While she was arguing over the proposed marriages between Jack and her daughter, and Algy and Cecily, Lady Bracknell is amazed to see Miss Prism, who is confounded when she realizes who is before her.

From Lady Bracknell’s explanation of how she knows Miss Prism and the bag Jack brought out, Jack knows he is an elder brother to Algy and a nephew to aunt Augusta, and that his name is actually Ernest which he discovers from His late father’s biography.  So, Jack confesses the importance of being earnest which has finally saved his marriage with Gwendolen.

The themes

The playwright, Oscar Wilde, has some philosophical messages that he feels had been missing in the society, especially of his time, contained in his play for his readers.  The prominent one from his messages is the theme of pretence and deceit.

  •  The theme of pretence and deceit:

This theme is a prominent one as it is seen to run through the play.  Almost all the characters in the play are seen to live a false life.  That is, pretence is found in the name, character or position they bear.  Deceit is also not left out as it is glaring in the various attitudes identified in the book.  In the book, pretence and deceit are seen to start out with the major character, Jack.  He displays deceit by lying to those at his country house, which include Cecily, Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble, among others that he has an imaginary brother in the town whose manner is volatile and he goes by the name, ‘Ernest’.  He takes advantage of this his imaginary brother, who needs his attention because of his degenerating condition, to go to town on pleasure trips.  Jack also exhibits pretence as he goes by the name, ‘Ernest’ in town, especially while with Miss Gwendolen. Pretence and deceit are also carried out by Algernon who deceives Jack by eavesdropping when Jack was letting out the address of his country home to Gwendolen, and immediately, travelling to Woolton in Hertfordshire to woo Cecily as her fairytale lover.  He deceitfully rejects his aunt’s visitation to dine with her family, on the account that his imaginary friend, ‘Bunbury’, is sick and would need him at his bed. Algy pretends before Cecily at the Manor house to be her uncle’s (Jack) brother called ‘Ernest’ and that he is in love with her. Miss Prism is not left out in this as she is seen to pretend before Lady Bracknell over the mystery that surrounds the birth and life of Jack.  Dr Chasuble also pretends not to have feelings for Miss Prism until the end of the play where he no longer can hide it.

  • The theme of love:

This is seen to be broad as it touches different aspects of love.  Oscar Wilde through his work presents before us several shades of love, but at the end encourages true love.

Irrespective of the fact that both Gwendolen and Jack have true feelings for each other, Gwendolen’s love can be said to be shallow as her reason for loving Jack is because of his name, ‘Ernest’, which is fake.  Cecily also shares in this blame.  She falls in love with someone she has not set her eyes on because he bears the name, ‘Ernest’.  And this single ideology brings conflict in the play. Algy in his stead displays lust in place of love.  He gets to Woolton in Hertfordshire because of his flirtatious escapade for Cecily whom he is pre-informed has feelings for Jack’s imaginary brother, ‘Ernest’.  The playwright cautions ‘distance-love’, that is, falling in love with someone you have not seen or know little or nothing about.  Cecily has not seen ‘Ernest’ but falls in love with him and Gwendolen knows little or nothing about the origin of Jack nor his family but falls in love with him.

  • The theme of the importance of keeping record:

This is also a salient lesson of the book.  It hammers on the advantages of keeping records in form of a diary or list.  Its usefulness is seen in the play as both Cecily and Gwendolen have their daily experiences noted in their separate diaries.  Furthermore, it is seen to be the instrument used between the ladies to settle the rift that would have erupted over who owns ‘Ernest’ before the arrival of both

Algernon and Jack.  With the help of records kept, Jack can clear this doubt surrounding his being named or christened as ‘Ernest’.  And by laying hold of the records that have his late father’s profile, he sees the truth beyond all circumstance or conviction that he is called ‘Ernest’.  Lady Bracknell’s list like that of Duchess plays a vital role in preventing her from giving out her daughter in marriage to a man whose identity is difficult to come by.  Even the least of all but most provocative is the handbag that had Jack while as a boy in it but served as a pointer to the true identity of Jack because it was well kept by Jack.

  • The theme of marriage:

This lesson can be seen as the final or end-product of other themes in the play.  Going through the story of the book critically, one will agree that it aims at not just any kind of marriage but a good and qualitative one.  The marriage between Jack and Gwendolen is clear evidence.  The process that brought about a happy end for both of them in the play is artistically employed by the playwright to deter so many of his readers (Young Ladies) from getting married to any man without proper investigation over his real identity. The marriage between Cecily and Algy is a lesson that preaches true love in place of infatuation or lust, which was hitherto nursed by Algy. Finally, the marriage between Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble helps to clear every dot of pretence that has suffered Dr Chasuble and Miss Prism, concerning their feelings for each other.  The play at the end preaches marriages without regrets.

Evaluation

  1. Give a detailed plot account of the book, The Importance of Being Earnest.
  2. Discuss two major themes of the play.

Characterisation

In the generality of his characterization, Oscar Wilde, though using adults as his characters, has them acting as infants imitating playfully the behaviours of the adults they see around them everyday.  Almost all his characters in their different ways exhibited this childlike or childish attitude, particularly in their utterances toward one another which are greatly affected by absurdity.  Oscar Wilde’s characterization can be classed into major and minor character.

Major character
  • Jack:

He is a major character and the hero of the play.  The whole story surrounds his life.  He is also the protagonist in the play as he is seen to get antagonized by Lady Bracknell, who stopped him at the earlier part of the book from getting married to Gwendolen.  Jack also gets attacks from Algy, who stabbed him in his back.  Algy did this by travelling ahead of his friend, Jack, so that, he can have Cecily for his selfish gratification.  At the age of twenty-nine, Jack is still a child who plays the game of being an adult.  He is seen to be deceitful and pretentious according to his attribute in the play where he possesses double identify for him to have pleasure trips to London.  Apart from being deceitful and pretentious, Jack is also seen to be repentant as he felt remorseful over his action of double identity when confronted by Gwendolen and others.  He is seen to be innocent as he answers every question posed to him by Lady Bracknell with great innocence.  This is not to reduce his responses to Algy and Gwendolen.  He is also intelligent and meticulous with issues of facts, that is why he is left with the responsibility of being a guardian to Cecily Cardew, and being able to keep the handbag that confirmed his identity, respectively.

  • Algernon:

He is a major character and a pointed antagonist to Jack, his friend.  Until the end of the play, no one knows he is a brother to Jack.  He is seriously influenced by his aunt, Lady Bracknell, but tells lies of going to be with a friend (Mr Bunbury) to escape his aunt’s influence over him.  The story in the play begins in his flat where he expects his aunt for a treat.  Algy is always hungry in the play which led him to eat up all the cucumber sandwiches he specially ordered for his aunt and struggles to eat the muffin left for Jack with Jack.  He is very inquisitive as to his questions over Jack’s cigarette case brought about the conflict in the play.  He is also deceitful and pretentious, and more so, seen to be a flirt.

Throughout the play, we see him be mischievous and cunning.  He is seen to be very desperate, that he travelled ahead of Jack to Woolton in search of Cecily, not considering the risk of being caught by his friend, Jack.  Algy is considered to be childlike and childish as his responses to serious issues show.

This makes him seem like a child trying to act like an adult.  He shares a lot with Jack in the play.

  • Gwendolen:

She is also known as Fair-fax.  She is another grown-up baby, and also, gives the impression of living in a world of childlike innocence even though she is a highly attractive young lady whose chief concern in the play is to marry Jack.  She is the daughter of Lady Bracknell and a cousin to Algy and at the end of the play, a cousin to Jack.  She is gullible and innocent to a fault that she confesses to having fallen in love with Jack because he bears the name, ‘Ernest’.  Gwendolen is seen to be truly in love with

Jack, and had to take the risk of going to him at his country home without the consent of her mother.

She feels disappointed when she discovers that her lover, Jack does not truly go by the name ‘Ernest’, but easily forgives when Jack promises to be christened Ernest by Dr Chasuble.

  • Cecily Cardew:

At the age of eighteen, Cecily, like Gwendolen is innocent.  Lady Bracknell and the others call her a child, and she is indeed a child in her playful, irresponsible attitude towards life as is evident from her first appearance as a pupil of Miss Prism.  She is a granddaughter to Mr Cardew and is left in the care of Jacks by her grandfather’s will, as her guardian.  Cecily is also gullible and expresses excess emotion even to an ‘Ernest’ she has never seen physically before.  From the argument that erupted between Lady Bracknell and Jack over Algy marrying Cecily, it was revealed that Cecily worth ₤100,000 in investment and has to get to 35 years of age for her to come of age to decide for herself.  Cecily

is seen as a blind lover who gets herself engaged to a man on behalf of the man without his consent and records it in her diary.  She is seen to be the reason for double identity by both Jack and Algy.  Jack does it to be free from her un-interesting influence while Algy does it to be able to clinch to her.  Cecily’s disposition and experiences in the play teach the need for keeping records.  The character display from Cecily in the play betrays the lives of girls of the Victorian age, especially as it relates to love and marriage.  She has a forgiving heart as she easily forgives Algy for having a double identity.

  • Lady Bracknell:

Lady Bracknell also is known as Aunt Augusta, is the perfect embodiment of the attitudes and rule of conduct of the British aristocracy.  Snobbish and superior in her behaviour, she is mainly interested in finding a suitable husband for Gwendolen, her only daughter, although she also seeks to dominate her nephew, Algernon.  She is seen to be obsessing to both her daughter and her nephew, Algy.  She is a lover of cucumber sandwiches and enjoys the company of family or relatives around her especially at the dinner table.  She is so stereotyped that Jack finds it difficult to sway her into accepting him as a son-in-law.  This nature, and her being inquisitive makes it possible for Jack to know his true identity and family.  She is considered to be materialistic but prudent as she prefers investment to land.  She is a pedant who takes her time to get all information she needs about a person and situation.  This is seen in the way she quizzes  Jack over his family and Dr Chasuble concerning Miss Prism.

  • Miss Prism:

Miss Prism is the embodiment of the Victorian middle-class code of morality and duty.  A stiff and intellectual person, she expects Cecily to behave seriously and study hard, and she strongly disapproves of the immoral character of Jack’s fictitious brother, ‘Ernest’.  In the realm of Literature, Miss Prism insists that fiction should preach morality-an attitude that especially irritated Wilde.  Miss Prism declares that she once wrote a three-volume novel and that in it the good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.  That is what fiction means.  She is the one responsible for the fate of Jack not knowing his family as she forgot him in a handbag at the train station.  She is also pretentious as she tries to hide her true affection or feelings towards Dr Chasuble.  She is also gullible that she believed Jack to have a brother called ‘Ernest’.  She is a tempter who tempts Dr Chasuble into the marriage institution.

  • Chasuble:

He is the Rector of the parish, and also represents John the Baptist in the book, whose most constant duties in the parish is to christen people.  He is seen to be metaphorical in his speech and lives as a celibate all his life.  He was also easily deceived by Jack who claimed to have a brother in the town, named ‘Ernest’.  He also could be said to be pretentious as he nurses secret feelings and admiration for Miss Prism.  At the end of the play, he is seen to be in love with Miss Prism where he hugs her.  He can be considered a round character that changed in his nature of being a celibate without emotional feelings into a man with strong emotional feelings that he couldn’t hide it any longer.

Minor character
  • Lane:

He is a manservant of Algernon, and a humble one for that matter, who is ready to tell lies just to vindicate his boss. He is seen to have introduced Jack, Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen into Algy’s flat.

He is very respectful and doesn’t poke nose other people’s affairs.  He is seen to appear only in the first Act of the book.

  • Merriman (Butler):

He is a manservant in the Manor house of Jack and Cecily, in the country.  He is first seen in the book when he announces the presence of Algernon in Woolton as Mr Ernest to Cecily.  He takes his luggage into the house.  He is the second to announce the presence of Algy as Ernest, to Jack, revealing all he came with.  Jack orders him to prepare Algy’s cart for him to leave immediately.  He lacks wit compared with Lane who shows a lot of it.

Language and style

The language and style of Oscar Wilde is a plus to him as it attains a lot of credits for his work, The Importance of Being Earnest. In the above work, Oscar Wilde employs some styles that make his dramatic techniques a unique one.  One of the dramatic techniques employed is dramatic irony.

  • Dramatic irony:

Ironically, Algernon becomes the true brother of Jack (Ernest) that Jack pretends to visit in the town. Any time he wants pleasure trip.  It is also ironic that the ‘Ernest’ which Jack vows to kill immediately Gwendolen accepts his proposal turns out to be himself at the end of the day when he finally realizes that he is truly ‘Ernest’.

  • Satire:

The playwright tries to ridicule the sensibility of the upper and middle class of the Victorian age.  The list presented by Lady Bracknell which contains criteria for whoever would pass as a qualified husband for her only daughter, Gwendolen, ridicules the attitudes of mothers in the Victorian age, who would embarrassingly assess a man before accepting him as a son-in-law.  The uncritical minds of the girls or ladies of the Victorian age are also betrayed by the characters of both Gwendolen and Cecily, who both fell in love because of the name, ‘Ernest’.  This technique is also applied in the book by the playwright to expose the high negative consciousness of the upper class of the Victorian age on financial and material wealth.  This is supported by the questions asked by Lady Bracknell concerning the status of Jack and Cecily.

  • Humour:

The technique runs through in the text.  Each character in the play, in his/her bid, tries to be funny.

The playwright did this by involving every one of his character in nonsensical speeches or dialogue.  Each character is known for one trail of absurdity in speeches or actions.  Algernon, having an invalid friend and Jack, having an imaginary brother is also humorous.  The case of Gwendolen and Cecily is also humorous.  They both fall in love because of the name, ‘Ernest’, and also, have their diaries where funny information is kept.  Also, the way Algernon quizzed Jack over the mystery called ‘Cecily’ is humorous.

  • Suspense:

Suspense is first seen in the play where Algy asked Jack to tell who bears the name ‘Cecily’.  One would think that Cecily is his love, also as Algy has called Jack a flirt.  Also, the moment Algy overheard the address of Jack’s country home, and the mischievous smile that came on his face starts a beat in the minds of the readers.  It continues with his arrival at the Manor house as ‘Ernest’ and heightens when

Jack also returns to his country home.  Suspense is also seen when clarification over the true identity of Miss Prism between Lady Bracknell and Dr Chasuble who were involved in it.

  • Shared character:

This as a technique has been dexterously employed by the playwright to bring about a uniqueness in creativity.  In the book, we see some characters having identical attributes that make it impossible to detach one from the other.  This style helps to show the affinity that exists among the characters in attitude and sensibility, and concentration is made on Algy and Jack, and Gwendolen and Cecily as they are seen as pairs of shared characters.  Algy pairs with Jack while Gwendolen pairs with Cecily.  The same quality of deceit and pretence is found in both Jack and Algy in the same degree as they both deceive the hearts of two young ladies to be named Ernest.  They both developed imaginary brother and invalid friend, respectively, to have pleasure trips to their place of choice.  The irony of it all is that at the end of the play, they found themselves to be a brother.  For Gwendolen and Cecily, there is a great display of innocence and gullibility that they both fall in love with their individual man because of the name ‘Ernest’, and having to write all their thoughts and impressions in their separate diaries.

Because of the similarities they share, they both called themselves ‘sisters’ at a point in the book. The playwright uses this style to tell the general sensibility of young men and young ladies of the Victorian age.

  • Double identity:

This technique is particularly used on Algernon and Jack. They both assume a double identity to have pleasure trips. Jack’s other identity is ‘Ernest’ to be in London while Algy’s other identity is ‘Mr. Bunbury’ to escape his aunt’s influence and ‘Ernest’ to be accepted in the Manor house and be loved by Cecily.

General evaluation
  1. Discuss the narrative techniques of the book, The Importance of Being Earnest.
  2. Discuss the significance of ‘Ernest’ in the play.

Weekend assignment

  1. A narrative in the oral tradition that may include legends and fables is a (A) Ballad (B) Folktale (C) Pastoral (D) Romance
  2. A short poem written on a tomb is a/an (A) Dirge (B) Panegyric (C) Epigram (D) Epitaph
  3. Pick the odd item (A) Lord of the Flies (B) A Woman in Her Prime (C) Joys of Motherhood (D) Women of Owu
  4. A short speech at the beginning of a literary work which serves as commentary is a/an (A) Monologue (B) Prologue (C) Dialogue (D) Epilogue
  5. One of the following is not an African Poet (A) Lenrie Peters (B) Thomas Gray (C) J.P Clark (D) Syl Cheney-Coker.

Theory

  1. Discuss the role of Lady Bracknell and Miss Prism in the play.
  2. Using the play, The Importance of Being Earnest, discuss the issues of the Victorian age.

Reading assignment

  1. Exam Reflection Literature-in-English (Drama & Prose) by Sunday Olateju Faniyi, pgs 84-101

 

In our next class, we will be talking about Reading and Content Analysis of Non-African Poetry-“The Soul’s Errand” by Walter Raleigh. We hope you enjoyed the class.

Should you have any further question, feel free to ask in the comment section below and trust us to respond as soon as possible.

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