While some critics contend that The Importance of Being Earnest is completely fanciful and has no relation to the real world, others maintain that Oscar Wilde’s “trivial comedy for serious people” does make significant comments about social class and the institution of marriage. These observations include the prevalent utilization of deceit in everyday affairs. Indeed the characters and plot of the play appear to be entirely irreverent, thus lending weight to the comedic, fanciful aspect. However, this same factor also serves to illuminate the major points that Wilde tries to convey about the English society in which he lived.
Throughout the course of the play, Wilde portrays each of the main characters in a way that reflects his views of the English aristocracy. Algernon Moncrieff and Jack(Ernest) Worthington represent the prototypical male bachelors. In the opening act, set in Algernon’s flat, the two meet and display what appears to be their usual daily activities. Neither is employed, and it is apparent that their only occupation is the pursuit of leisure activities and social matters, subjects of major importance to them. When Algernon inquires as to the purpose of Ernest’s visit to town, Ernest replies, “Oh pleasure, pleasure! What else should bring anyone anywhere? Eating as usual, I see Algy!”. Algeron and Ernest are characterized by their extravagance, a luxury affordable only because of the money accrued from family inheritance. Neither displays any notion of an appreciation for money. In fact, when Algernon’s butler hands him bills that have just arrived in the mail, Algernon simply rips them up.
Wilde’s conception of deceit as an accepted custom in English aristocracy is also existent in this scene. The practice of “Bunburying” is established, an act where each man lies to his family about an imaginary invalid friend present somewhere else, in an attempt to pursue leisure activities elsewhere. It is in this discussion that Jack admits to his friend Algernon that he has been lying to his friend in order to maintain the disguise. Thus, it seems as though the very relationship between the two men is founded on deceit. Later in this act, Lady Bracknell and Gwendolyn are introduced. Even though Lady Bracknell is married, it is obvious that the two women are merely female counterparts of Algy and Jack. Both spend the day making visits to others in their social sphere, as Algy and Jack do, holding these visits with utmost importance.
It is at this point, also, that the reader is presented with Wilde’s views of marriage practices. Earlier in the scene, when Ernest(Jack) announces his intention of proposing to Gwendolyn, Algernon does not congratulate him, rather he denounces the entire institution. At Ernest’s announcement of the proposal, Algy exclaims, “I thought you had come up for pleasure?- I call that business”. Later, Algy’s comments support the idea of adultery once one is married. When Ernest finally does propose to Gwendolyn, he first must proceed through established flirting rituals followed by a formal proposal. These rituals, such as Gwendolyn’s demand for a formal proposal, demonstrate Wilde’s conception of outward appearances being more important than true love. In fact, Ernest’s love for Gwendolyn seems rather arbitrary while Gwendolyn indirectly admits that she loves Ernest only for his name. Thus, this relationship, too, seems entirely based on deceit. This idea is substantiated when Lady Bracknell re-enters and informs Ernest of some preliminary qualifications that he must meet before being engaged to Gwendolyn. These include money, family, and politics. When Ernest does not meet the qualifications, he is denied Gwendolyn. In the second act, the relationship between Algy and Jack’s ward, Cecily, parallel Ernest and Gwendolyns relationship. After certain flirting rituals, Cecily admits to Algy that she loves him for his name, Ernest, and his image of being “wicked”. When Algy proposes, Cecily declares that they had already been engaged for three months, an engagement that she had imagined. When the proposal is announced, Cecily is only accepted by Lady Bracknell because she has enough money to support Algy’s lifestyle. Through the two relationships of Ernest(Jack) and Gwendolyn and Ernest(Algy) and Cecily, Wilde conveys the notion that love of such kinds is entirely arbitrary, and relationships are based on deceit. Marriages, he contends, are simply an alliance between families to preserve the aristocracy.
The end of the play culminates in the planning of marriages of Ernest to Gwendolyn and Algy to Cecily. These marriages are made available only because Jack(Ernest) discovers his true identity as one belonging to the Bracknell family. When this is established, Ernest is allowed to marry Gwendolyn and it seems as though he will allow Cecily to marry Algernon. However, the identity Ernest discovers is the same that he has lied about throughout the entire play. Thus, the relationships forged arbitrarily on deceit and convenience are legitimated at the end of the play. Although Ernest declares, “I’ve realized now for the first time in my life the vital importance of Being Earnest”, the statement is actually ironic because he had never been earnest at any point. In fact, the end is only the result of a coincidental twist of fate.