The Importance (or lack thereof) of Being Earnest

In my seemingly endless essay writing /filling out college applications, I was prompted for two words that describe me. Ah, one of the most dreaded questions in existence. How can one possibly be capable of boiling down their essence to merely two words. While it may have to do with my tendency to be wordy in writing–and often in speech, but I will deny it–I found this task nearly impossible. Of course, I polled the people around me, friends, family, anyone, asking them what two words they’d use to describe me. It’s at times like these in which I wished my parents were English teachers (or just living, breathing dictionaries). After hours of searching for just the right pair of words to sum myself up, I came to the conclusion that one of them should be earnest.

earnest [ur-nist] /ˈɜr nɪst/

1. serious in intention, purpose, or effort; sincerely zealous:

2. showing depth and sincerity of feeling: 

3. resulting from or showing sincere and intense conviction

After running this past the parents, however, it was struck down; they weren’t so keen on it. They said that it reminded them too much of The Importance of Being Earnest. Not having read the play at that point, I felt that I had to let them have the win; earnest didn’t make the cut. I’ve picked up the play more than once before–very literally speaking, I have two copies of it (with different covers, an admissible offense)–yet I have failed to read it. Between picking the title up before, my father’s reference to the title, and the fact that it’s a senior year text (the reliability of this info is questionable) the rule of three was telling me to get on with it and read.

Image result for the importance of being earnestImage result for the importance of being earnest dover thrift edition

In its entirety, The Importance of Being Earnest amounts to fewer than 100 pages, but in those 100 pages Oscar Wilde reveals a witty, sarcastic masterpiece. We are introduced to Jack and Algernon who incidentally, by then end of the play, both end up going by Ernest at one time or another. The plot is very quirky, but at the same time it’s obvious enough; everything that Oscar Wilde wants the reader to extrapolate from the text is easily attainable to the reader. Jack and Algernon, the main characters, both have alter-egos. Algernon has ‘Bunbury’ and Jack has ‘Ernest’. The parallels don’t end there. Both Algernon and Jack’s objects of affection are very similar, both loving the name Ernest, and, at a point in the play, they even utter the same lines, on the same page.

The two ladies in the text who Jack and Algernon, respectively, are interested are Gwendolyn and Cecily. They both are in love with ‘Ernest’. It just so happens that Gwendolyn’s ‘Ernest’ is Jack and Cecily’s ‘Ernest’ is Algernon. Reading this, I was intrigued. Immediately, my mind wandered to act two of Romeo and Juliet when Shakespeare writes, “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet”. Juliet’s love for Romeo transcends title, class, or name, yet the same cannot be said for the two ladies of The Importance of Being Earnest, which leads me to question if they were even in love to begin with.

(Below are the two parts in the text where both Gwendolyn and Cecily declare their love for ‘Ernest’)

Gwendolyn: For me you have always had an irresistible fascination. Even before I met you I was far from indifferent to you. [Jack looks at her in amazement.] We live, as I hope you know, Mr. Worthing, in an age of ideals. The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines, and has reached the provincial pulpits, I am told; and my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.

Cecily: You must not laugh at me, darling, but it had always been a girlish dream of mine to love some one whose name was Ernest. [Algernon rises, Cecily also.] There is something in that name that seems to inspire absolute confidence. I pity any poor married woman whose husband is not called Ernest.

Despite, as I’ve said, this text being pretty explicit in its meaning, there are some ideas that can be picked at, which in my opinion saves the play from being like The Piano Lesson (laid out like a map for the reader). While throughout nearly the entirety of the play, the reader is made out to think there’s not an Earnest (or Ernest) man among the cast, the conclusion revels that the opposite is true. The Importance of Being Earnest is a light-hearted story that I enjoyed reading, and even gave me a few laughs along the way.


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