Characters in Oscar Wilde's 'The Importance of Being Earnest'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

23 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. The serious people in Oscar Wilde’s trivial comedy

2. Oscar Wilde and his work

3. Characters
3.1. Lane and Merriman
3.2. Algernon Moncrieff
3.3. John Worthing
3.4. Lady Bracknell
3.5. Gwendolen Fairfax
3.6. Cecily Cardew
3.7. Miss Prism
3.8. Reverend Canon Chasuble .

4. Oscar Wilde’s good society

Bibliography .

1. The serious people in Oscar Wilde’s trivial comedy

When The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed on 14th of February 1895 in St. James’s theatre, it was a huge success and one of the actors said: “In my fifty-three years of acting, I never remember a greater triumph than the first night of The Importance of Being Earnest. The audience rose in their seats and cheered and cheered again.” (Quoted in Bird 1977, 164) Of course, the first one who extoled the play was Oscar Wilde himself: “the first act is ingenious, the second beautiful, the third abominably clever.” (Quoted in Kohl 1980, 412) Indeed, it is his masterpiece or – posthumously – most sucessful play and has enjoyed most revivals up to the present day.

However, the play is not only “good fun” (Reinert 1956, 153), Wilde put also a philosophy in it, as he explained: “That we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.” (Quoted in Eltis 1996, 171) Furthermore, in the play’s subtitle “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People” he directly addressed the mainly upper-class audience of his time and there is maybe no better or more appropriate expression than “serious” or “earnest” to describe Victorianism or the Victorian society. (cf. Kohl 1980, 421) Hence, the play may help us to understand the society at Oscar Wilde’s time.

Although the play’s performance is realistic or naturalistic, i.e. the characters are dressed in contemporary dresses and look exactly like the audience at that time, there must be a reason why a hundred years later we can still laugh about this great farce and wonderful social satire. Maybe the wide range of themes (marriage, love, money, religion, birth and so on)[1] or the character’s peculiarities and follies helped the play to remain up-to-date.

But with what kind of characters did Oscar Wilde on the one hand amuse and entertain his audience, on the other hand criticize and satirize spectators and society he lived in? How do the character’s follies shed light on the Victorian society at the end of the 19th century?

2. Oscar Wilde and his work

In order to analyse the play it is quite indispensable to have a look at Oscar Wilde’s life, especially because he thought that his personality was an intrinsic part of his writing. His story is very popular and a lot of events of his life are relatively well-known. It has the shape of a Greek tragedy as he falls suddenly at the height of his fame and therefore his life makes a good tale. (cf. Robbins 1999, 67)

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854 as second son of Sir William Wilde, an eye surgeon, and Jane Wilde. Both his parents were quite eccentric, especially his mother who published revolutionary poetry under the name “Speranza”. However, he received a very good education at home and at the age of ten Oscar was sent to one of the best schools in Ireland. At the age of twenty he was awarded a scholarship to Oxford where he studied Classics (Roman and Greek philosophy and literature). There he developed the wit for which he was to become so famous and began to dress like a dandy. But he was also a brilliant scholar and won a double first in his degree. In Oxford he was mainly influenced by John Ruskin and Walter Pater. Furthermore during his time there he started to produce poetry.

In 1879, he moved to London and then established himself as an exponent of aestheticism. Wilde made various friends in London’s high society and intellectual circles (e.g. Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous actress of the day, or the painter James Whistler). Within two years his fame had become so widespread that in 1881 he accepted an invitation to a lecture tour in the United States. He preached to them that the pursuit of beauty is the most crucial thing in life and also taught the people how to dress and how to decorate their homes. The tour was quite a success and increased his fame, mainly because of his flamboyant style of dress but also because of his extravagant manners (for example it is reported that he said to a customs officer: “I have nothing to declare except my genius.” Quoted in Ellmann 1987, 152)

After his return from America, in 1883, he fell in love with Constance Lloyd. They got married in the following year and she bore him two sons. At the same time he started to write reviews and worked as an editor for a magazine. However, in 1886 he made his first homosexual experiences when he was seduced by a young man (although some early experiences in Oxford are possible). After that his literary output increased a lot and the quality of his writing improved also. In 1888, he published some fairy tales (The Happy Prince and Other Stories) followed by various critical essays about sin and crime, among the best were The Decay of Lying (1889), The Critic as Artist (1890) and The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891).

His only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published in 1890 creating uproar and earning Wilde fierce attacks in the press. Progressively he also became more involved homosexually, having affairs with young men from his own social milieu as well as with male prostitutes (but his wife did not know it until his exposure in 1895). Around 1892 he met Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”) who became Oscar Wilde’s chief homosexual love. Wilde achieved his first great success with the play Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892). In 1893, he published Salomé, which he had written in French. However, this play was banned by the Lord Chamberlain and never produced in England during his lifetime. He repeated his success with A Woman of No Importance (1893) and An Ideal Husband (1895). Wilde was now a well-know and celebrated playwright. Although all these plays were comercially successful and Wilde almost dominated the West End stage, he was not at his height until The Importance of Being Earnest, which nowadays is regarded as his best play.

However, it was a turning point in Oscar Wilde’s life. His relationship to Lord Alfred Douglas turned out to be very dangerous. The young man’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, a higly eccentric and violent man, soon started a campaign of threats and scandals against Wilde in order to rescue his son from his influence. In 1895, Wilde imprudently decided to sue Queensberry for criminal libel. But Wilde’s homosexual activities were exposed and the Marquess won the case. In two following criminal trials Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency and was sentenced to two year’s imprisonment with hard labour.

The years in prison, which he mostly spent in Reading Gaol, were extremely destructive for him, psychologically and physically. In 1897, while imprisoned, he wrote De Profundis, a letter addressed to Lord Alfred Douglas. After his release he went to France and at the same time he wrote his last literary work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898). He never returned to England and spent the last three years of his life on the Continent. In November 1900, Oscar Wilde died in Paris, at the age of forty-six, as a lonely and broken man. (cf. Nassaar 1980, 5-11; Page 1991)


[1] Somehow it is not that dissimilar from Shakespeare’s comedies because it is also concerned with young people, love and marriage. Furthermore we have two settings and one of them is in open air. Bird, Alan (1977), The Plays of Oscar Wilde, London: Vision Press Ltd., 176.

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Characters in Oscar Wilde's 'The Importance of Being Earnest'
University of Passau  (Faculty of Philosophy - Chair of English Literature and Culture)
Hauptseminar English Comedies 1500-2000
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Characters, Oscar, Wilde, Importance, Being, Earnest, Hauptseminar, English, Comedies
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Oliver Zürn (Author), 2005, Characters in Oscar Wilde's 'The Importance of Being Earnest', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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