Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights

  1. Wilde uses puns throughout this play, but the major pun is found within the title. The title, The Importance of Being Earnest, insinuates the importance of being honest and truthful, while playing on the male name, Ernest. As you read the play, try to find some other examples of puns and entendres.

  2. Wilde satirizes the life of the elite by exaggerating their ideals and their idle way of life. Consider the many ways that Wilde mocks Victorian social standards through language. What institutions, if any, does Wilde seem to be particularly critical of?

  3. Confused or hidden identity is a motif that is apparent from the beginning: Even Algernon thinks Jack's name is Ernest, introducing him as Ernest, and even stating that Jack looks like an Ernest. This motif is developed throughout the story and the play's cast of deceptive and deceived characters.

  4. One of The Importance of Being Earnest's main themes is that of appearance and fantasy versus reality. Examine the appearances and dual personalities presented in the play. How separate are the characters from their ‘identities’? What impact do the alternate selves have on others and the true selfs?

  5. Wilde is famous for his epigrams, which are seen throughout the play. For example: “More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read,” “Divorces are made in Heaven,” and “The Divorce Court was specially invented for people whose memories are so curiously constituted.” What effect do these short sayings have on the tone and message of the play? How do the characters respond to these ‘truisms’?

  6. Irony is used to emphasis sarcasm and satire. Verbal irony consists of such devices as puns, entendres, and epigrams. Situational irony occurs in the plot and amongst characters. What examples of verbal and situational irony seem most unrealistic in the play? Are there any that seem realistic? Keep in mind what Wilde sees as the purpose of satire when considering the irony of a situation.

  7. Foil characters are those characters whose purpose in the play is to contrast the ideals, situations, and characterization of the main characters. Often times, however, the main characters act as foils to each other. What pairings of foil characters can you think of? Are there any characters that have parallel characters [e.g., Gwendolen and Algernon]?

  8. Wilde's attempt at satire requires the creation of an ideal ‘elite’—the perfect portrait of those whom he is criticizing. How Wilde uses irony, paradox, contradiction, and humor to create a play that succeeds in its satire at the same time as it succeeds in its entertainment value has been the object of many attempts at recreation. What aspects of the play, whether characterization, plot, setting, language, etc., do you see as acting in Wilde's favor. In other words, are there any areas where the satire fails?

  9. The play seems to end with a so-called Hollywood ending, that is, all the characters seem to be happy. But, as this is a satire, do you think Wilde intends the audience to view the conclusion as a happy one? Reflect on the individual stories of Wilde's characters. Do you foresee happy futures for the main characters, or is there a hidden darkness waiting to escape?

  • “they forgave not…wanton to his ruin” – a reference to the Judgment of Paris, the event which set in motion the abduction of Helen [See Reading Pointers for Sharper Insights for the whole story.]
  • stinted – limited, restricted
  • impart – to communicate or inform
  • sombre [somber] – serious, grave
  • amity – friendship
  • discourse – a discussion
  • vestments – robes or gowns, especially ones worn in rituals or ceremonies
  • unerring – certain, unmistaken
  • ken – knowledge
  • opportunely – fortunately
  • mien – a person's appearance, demeanor
  • sepulchre [sepulcher] – a tomb
  • chalice – a cup, goblet
  • defraud – to deceive or cheat
  • “The old man went straight into the house…” – The poem ends very much like it began, with a father crossing enemy lines to get back his child. In Book I, it was Chryses who begged Agamemnon to return his daughter. Now, it is Priam who begs Achilles to return the body of Hector. This is an example of ring composition, a literary technique in which a scene or theme at the beginning of the story returns at the end of the story. In other words, the story is structured like a circle.
  • “Think of your father…on the threshold of old age.” – Priam's plea for Achilles to think of his father sparks some compassion and sympathy in Achilles for the first time in the entire poem. Just as Priam has lost his son, Achilles knows that his own father will lose a son as well. This is because Achilles knows that he is fated to die soon. It is this knowledge which gives rise to Achilles' compassion.
  • sated – full
  • unburthened [unburdened] – relieved of a heavy load
  • plenitude – abundance
  • weltering – soaked in liquid
  • Cassandra – Priam's daughter; Apollo gave her the gift of the ability to tell the future, but because she would not repay him, Apollo made it so that her prophecies would never be believed; she predicted the fall of Troy but no one paid attention to her.
  • asunder – apart in position; in separate parts
  • dirge – a funeral song
  • razed – destroyed
  • “some Achaean will hurl you…from our walls” – a foreshadowing of the terrible death of Astyanax, which will occur shortly after the fall of Troy