Themes in The Importance of Being Earnest
The Collision of Fact and Fiction: One of the major themes this play explores is the relationship between fact and fiction—what Wilde called the relationship between life and art. Jack and Algernon invent fictional personas for themselves (“Ernest” and “Bunbury”) so they can avoid familial obligations and have fun in the city.
Marriage, Society, and Social Class: Like most Victorian fiction, the plot revolves around marriage: Jack wants to marry Gwendolyn, Algernon wants to marry Cecily, and each couple’s path to betrothal is fraught with trivial mishaps. One of these mishaps centers on society and class; Lady Bracknell, for example, doesn’t think Jack is aristocratic enough for Gwendolyn because, though he’s well-off, he doesn’t have any family.
Themes Examples in The Importance of Being Earnest:
"It produces vibrations..." See in text (Act I)
Earlier in the act, Algernon referred to the ringing of the doorbell as Wagnerian, referring to the German composer. Here, Wilde builds on the theme of music established in Algernon's offhand remark and in Lady Bracknell's discussion of French songs by having Gwendolen speak of the music of names. As a writer, Wilde believed that words have an inherent musicality and that some are more pleasing to the ears than others. Thus, "Ernest" produces vibrations. "Jack" doesn't.
"I hear her hair has turned quite gold from grief..." See in text (Act I)
This description, in combination with Lady Bracknell's observation that Lady Harbury appears to be living "entirely for pleasure" in the wake of her husband's death, suggests that Lady Harbury has taken to dating again and that she has dyed her hair in order to attract men. Whether she intends to marry again is, of course, another matter, and Lady Bracknell doesn't wish to speculate on it. Wilde, however, uses it as another example of how escaping marriage can be freeing.
"and modern literature a complete impossibility..." See in text (Act I)
In Wilde's opinion, modern literature stems primarily from the sussing out of difficult truths, uncomfortable ones often involving one's sexual orientation, political affiliation, financial circumstances, and any of the other controversial issues of the time. Jack blithely suggests that we could do without such literature, but Algernon insists, as Wilde does, that this kind of literature is absolutely necessary and that it reveals truths about human nature that might otherwise remain hidden.
"More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read..." See in text (Act I)
In the late 19th Century, when The Importance of Being Earnest was written, homosexuality was illegal in England, as it was in most of the Western world, and Wilde was persecuted for his orientation by both literary critics (who thought his work was lewd and shouldn't be read, as Algernon alludes to here) and by the government, who imprisoned Wilde in 1895, shortly after this play was first produced. In this line, he uses Algernon to defy the status quo and build on the subversive themes of the play.
"I happen to be more than usually hard up..." See in text (Act I)
Recall that Algernon's "flat" (apartment) has been described as being "luxuriously and artistically" decorated. This implies that Algernon has or had some means, whether it be family money or another source of income, and that he's prone to squandering it needlessly to maintain his lavish lifestyle. His financial situation, though casually introduced here as the butt of a joke, builds on the theme of money and will affect Algernon's romantic prospects later in the play.
"Well, in the first place girls never marry the men they flirt with..." See in text (Act I)
This question of what women do and do not think proper in courtship is a central one in the play and will greatly affect the fates of the main characters. Here, Algernon suggests that women ("girls") still in some way adhere to Victorian values, in which marriages were more often made for money than for love. Thus, the men they flirt with are mere diversions and are not considered suitable husband material. Gender and courtship will become major themes in the play.
"misunderstanding..." See in text (Act I)
A play on the word "understanding," which in this context refers to an engagement or agreement to marry between Lane and a woman. He didn't really want to marry this woman, which results in his believing that marriage may well be a happy situation for some people, but that it wasn't for him. Misunderstandings like this will result in most of the conflicts in the play and will be its primary source of humor.
"the shallow mask of manners..." See in text (Act II)
Of all the themes in the play, perhaps the most important one is that of "manners" or propriety. This idea of how one most behave in polite society pervades throughout Act I and II, affecting the way the main characters think, speak, and interact with each other. In fact, most of the comedy in the play stems from Wilde's satire of these "manners" and their inherent strangeness, which Wilde characterizes here as both shallow and performative, a kind of "mask" that people wear in order to get by in the world.
"The subject seems distasteful to most men..." See in text (Act II)
Recall that in Act I Jack and Algernon had no qualms discussing the subject of brothers (imaginary though they may be). It would appear from this line that men in 19th Century England behave differently in front of women than they do with other men. This isn't surprising, considering how compartmentalized the genders in Victorian England were and how much went undiscussed for propriety's sake, but does make it difficult for the four lovers to understand one another.
"The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man..." See in text (Act II)
Gwendolen inverts traditional gender roles, saying that men are best suited for the home (a sphere typically reserved for women). In doing so, Gwendolen asserts her power as a strong young woman, while at the same time subverting gender stereotypes and putting Algernon in his place along with her father. As with all the subversive ideas in the play, Wilde uses this inversion of gender roles for comedic effect, but the audience can assume, given his satirical tone, that his critique of modern British society still stands.
"after a long struggle with myself I accepted you under this dear old tree here..." See in text (Act II)
Cecily's "engagement" to "Ernest" and her keeping of the diary speak to an elaborate fantasy world in which Cecily believes whatever she wants to believe and invents entire love affairs without ever actually meeting the other party. Though Wilde depicts this as humorous and more than a little absurd, there's an element of childishness to it, and this emphasizes her youth and immaturity, while at the same time building on the theme of courtship in the play.
"I use the word in the sense of lost or mislaid..." See in text (Act II)
Recall that in Act I Lady Bracknell punned on the word "lost," using it to mean both that Jack's parents had passed and that he'd lost them, as in a crowd. Here, the theme of being lost or abandoned builds on the loss of Miss Prism's manuscript, which suggests that fiction and, by extension, all writing can be metaphorically misplaced or "lost" if writers can't focus or (as in Wilde's case) aren't given the freedom to produce their best and most discerning work (or, as in Miss Prism's case, terrible work that's nevertheless very diverting).
"the things that have never happened, and couldn't possibly have happened..." See in text (Act II)
Cecily makes a keen observation about the faulty nature of memory: it tends to misinterpret things, believing something to be "true" or to have happened when, from an objective perspective, it never did or wasn't even possible. For example, there are Victorian novels about courtship where one character believes herself to be betrothed to a man and in the end it turns out he's just toying with her. Cecily would much rather read something based on fact than memory, which sets her apart from the other women in the novel, who enjoy these three-volume novels.
"the Indian climate, and marriage, and indigestion, and other things of that kind..." See in text (Act III)
Lady Bracknell summarily lumps marriage in with natural events like the weather and indigestion, suggesting that the social construct of marriage (which has, in its way, dictated all of Jack's and Algernon's actions) is in her opinion no better than a mere physical occurrence, and that it meant absolutely nothing to the General, as she suspects it will mean nothing to Jack and Algernon as they age.
"and another for women..." See in text (Act III)
A reference to the double standard that existed in England then and in many countries today: that women cannot be seen to have a child out of wedlock, at the risk of their reputation, but the man who sires that child fears no real rebuke for his part in the matter. Wilde wasn't particularly known for his feminism, but he does espouse the belief that women shouldn't be judged more harshly than men (especially considering all the ridiculous things men have done in this play).
"It looks so calculating..." See in text (Act III)
From Lady Bracknell's perspective, all women lie about their age as a matter of course, to the point where it has come to be expected. Any woman who doesn't lie about her age must have some secret reason for doing so in her eyes, which paradoxically makes an act of honesty into an act of deception In this, we can see that Lady Bracknell thinks of social interaction as a series of moves and countermoves wherein one's main objective is to look well to others.
"We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces..." See in text (Act III)
Recall that in Act II Cecily accused Gwendolen of wearing a "shallow mask of manners," or in other words pretending or acting like she's a more polite and respectable person than she really is. This "mask" is thematically linked to Lady Bracknell's "surfaces," which reveal only one's most superficial characteristics (one's wealth, status, prestige). Both Lady Bracknell and Cecily suggest that we live in a shallow world, but Cecily's the only one of the two who doesn't like it.
"Influence of a Permanent Income on Thought..." See in text (Act III)
Given the time period, it's very likely that this lecture took the stance that having a permanent income made one a better or more capable thinker, thereby implying that the rich are inherently more intelligent than the poor. Contemporary researchers have found that the stress associated with living in a low-income household negatively impacts the brain, affecting how children grow and develop both emotionally and intellectually. This lecture, therefore, remains incredibly relevant, and builds on the theme of money in the play despite stemming from a feeling of superiority rather than understanding.
"German scepticism..." See in text (Act III)
A reference to Immanuel Kant, a famed German philosopher whose skepticism was highly influential in the intellectual community. Kant believed that nothing can be truly known or understood except that which we experience empirically in the natural world, and therefore that "truth" is a fallacy and one can never believe what others say. It happens that Gwendolen knows about this philosophical stance and chooses to believe Jack anyway. This decision seems to put to rest the tension between truth and lies, which have been major themes in this play.