The Importance of Being Earnest

Have you ever told a little white lie to make yourself look good? How about making up a fake sibling that you “have to go take care of” so you can run off, pretend to be that fake sibling, shirk your responsibilities, and come off as a kind and self-sacrificing sibling? 

Get started Sign up for free
The Importance of Being Earnest The Importance of Being Earnest

Create learning materials about The Importance of Being Earnest with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account

Millions of flashcards designed to help you ace your studies

Sign up for free

Convert documents into flashcards for free with AI!

Table of contents

    In The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), that’s exactly what happens, and chaos ensues when the lies start to be uncovered! In fact, while two of the play’s main characters pretend to be named Ernest, we come to see that none of the characters is truly earnest in nature. Oscar Wilde used this comedic play to poke fun at the way he saw Victorian society value appearing good over actually being good.

    Earnest: sincere; serious

    Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest

    Historical Context

    Oscar Wilde wrote The Importance of Being Earnest late in the Victorian Era (18371901). This time period was marked by very strict morals and societal expectations. Wilde actively spoke against the ruling norms of the time, arguing that much of the moral posturing of high society was trivial and hypocritical rather than sincere.

    In Oscar Wilde’s opinion, the social norms of the Victorian Era enforced a mask of morality rather than sincere morality. He believed that the way that people claimed to be chaste, charitable, and upstanding Christians was performative; people were more concerned with making others think that they were all these things than they were with actually being them.

    Literary Context

    Oscar Wilde was part of the Aestheticism movement, and The Importance of Being Earnest displays many of the major characteristics of Aesthetic literature.

    Aestheticism: a literary movement in the late 19th century that asserted that art can exist for its own sake and doesn’t require any other meaning.

    Aestheticism came about in response to the stifling morality of Victorian society, a time when appearances were very important as a way of asserting a show of morality and social standing. Aesthetes believed that beauty and art were important in and of themselves, even without a clear moral lesson attached. They challenged the accepted norms of the time by creating art that wasn't buttoned-up, stifled, and structured to reinforce Victorian society's mask of morality. With The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde challenged the norms by using comedic satire to highlight the hypocrisy he saw in society.

    The Importance of Being Earnest: Summary

    Act 1

    Jack Worthing, upstanding landowner and guardian to Cecily Cardew, lives in Hertfordshire. He was found in an abandoned handbag as a baby and adopted by the late Thomas Cardew. He has a reputation for being very responsible, both in his work in Hertfordshire and also in taking care of his rakish brother, Ernest. However, Jack has a secret: he doesn't actually have a brother. He has been pretending to have a brother named Ernest so that he has an excuse to leave his responsibilities behind in Hertfordshire and go to London to "cut loose" – and, in London, he goes by Ernest.

    As Ernest, Jack has become close friends with a man named Algernon Moncrieff, who lives in London. "Ernest" (Jack) is also infatuated with Algernon's cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax. At the beginning of the play, "Ernest" is in London to tell Algernon that he wants to propose to Gwendolen. Algernon has come to suspect that "Ernest" is not who he claims to be, but surprisingly, Algernon is not upset he tells Jack that he frequently gets out of responsibilities by claiming to have a sickly friend he has to care for! Having come clean to Algernon, Jack mentions that he plans to kill off his fake brother soon because he thinks that Cecily is too interested in him.

    Soon, Gwendolen enters with her mother, Lady Bracknell, and Jack proposes. Gwendolen is delighted, but she reveals that she is obsessed with the idea of marrying a man with the name Ernest – the name she currently thinks Jack has. Even worse, Lady Bracknell is determined that her daughter will marry well, so she interviews Jack. When he reveals that he doesn't know who his biological family is, Lady Bracknell is horrified and declares that Gwendolen will not be allowed to marry him.

    Act 2

    Algernon arrives at Jack's estate in Hertfordshire, pretending to be Ernest. Then, Jack arrives in full mourning attire and is ready to announce that his brother, Ernest, has died suddenly. However, he has to abandon his plan because of Algernon. While Jack changes out of his mourning costume, Algernon proposes to Cecily. Cecily tells Algernon (who she knows as Ernest) that they are already engaged! In her obsession with the tales Jack has told of his brother and also with the name Ernest, Cecily has imagined that she and "Ernest" have been engaged already for months. Algernon decides he needs to get rechristened so that he is really named Ernest.

    Gwendolen arrives unexpectedly to visit Jack (who she still knows as Ernest). She and Cecily take tea in the garden together though neither knows who the other is or what their relationship to Jack is. When Cecily explains that she is Mr. Worthing's ward, Gwendolen is upset that Ernest never told her about Cecily. But Cecily explains that she isn't Ernest's ward but his brother Jack's and that she is engaged to marry Ernest Worthing (Algernon). This does not go over well with Gwendolen, who is under the impression that she is engaged to Ernest Worthing (Jack). The tea party continues with each woman attempting to out-manner the other.

    Before long, Algernon and Jack arrive, each having gone to arrange a rechristening for themselves to actually become Ernest. However, Cecily and Gwendolen now realize that they've both been duped and they reveal to one another who Jack and Algernon really are. They demand to know where the real Ernest Worthing is. When Jack admits that there is no Ernest, the two women link arms and storm off.

    The Importance of Being Earnest, Two women having tea, StudySmarterTwo women having tea, pixabay.

    Act 3

    Jack and Algernon follow after Gwendolen and Cecily. Algernon explains to Cecily that he pretended to be Ernest so that he could meet her. Gwendolen asks Jack if he lied about having a brother so that he could go to London and see her more often, and Jack lets her believe that this is true. Then, the men announce their plans to be rechristened with the name Ernest that very day and all is well again with the two couples – until Lady Bracknell arrives, that is.

    Lady Bracknell again tells Gwendolen that she may not marry Jack, and she is sceptical of Cecily as Algernon's match, as well. Algernon answers Lady Bracknell's condescending questions about Cecily, finally admitting that Cecily is quite wealthy. Upon learning this, Lady Bracknell is suddenly excited about the match but Jack, as Cecily's guardian, refuses to allow it unless Lady Bracknell allows his own marriage to Gwendolen. Lady Bracknell refuses, and she and Gwendolen prepare to leave when someone mentions Miss Prism, Cecily's governess.

    Miss Prism arrives on the scene and Lady Bracknell reveals that 28 years previously, Miss Prism took a baby from Lady Bracknell's sister's home and never returned it. Miss Prism explains that it was an accident and she lost the child, having mistakenly put it in a handbag she forgot at a train station. Jack runs off and returns with the handbag he was found in as a baby, and it is revealed that Jack is Lady Bracknell's sister's child and Algernon's brother! Even more incredibly, Jack's birth name was Ernest John. Jack really was Ernest and really did have a rakish brother in London after all.

    The Importance of Being Earnest: Characters

    (John) Jack Worthing

    John was found in a handbag at a train station as a baby and doesn't know who his biological family is. He lives a double life as the responsible and moral Jack, who runs an estate in Hertfordshire, and the indulgent, irresponsible Ernest when he frequently runs off to London.

    Algernon Moncrieff

    Algernon is Jack Worthing's friend, though he knows him as Ernest. He is witty and charming but a bit of a bad boy; he avoids social responsibilities by pretending to have a chronically ill friend that he frequently needs to tend to.

    Gwendolen Fairfax

    Gwendolen is Lady Bracknell's daughter and Algernon Moncrieff's cousin. She knows Jack as Ernest and is in love with him (and the name Ernest). She exudes high-society sophistication and morality.

    Cecily Cardew

    Cecily is Jack Worthing's ward. She becomes obsessed with the false idea of Jack's brother, Ernest, drawn both to the name and to his bad-boy reputation. She imagines such a strong romance with the fake brother that she believes that they are already engaged.

    Lady Bracknell

    Lady Bracknell is Gwendolen Fairfax's mother and Algernon Moncrieff's aunt. She is aristocratic and snobbish, interested in appearances more than substance. She wants Gwendolen to marry someone of high social standing.

    The Importance of Being Earnest: Genre

    Romantic Comedy

    The Importance of Being Earnest incorporates the major elements of romantic comedies. The play has a strong emphasis on love stories, and the ending is happy for the couples involved. Oscar Wilde gives the genre a twist with his signature satire, playing up the ridiculous shallowness present in the play's romances.

    Comedy of Manners

    The Importance of Being Earnest is also a comedy of manners. Oscar Wilde points out the hypocrisy and silliness of Victorian society throughout the entire play, satirizing ideas around marriage, class, and morality.

    Comedy of manners: a type of play that satirizes social norms

    The Importance of Being Earnest, A person removes the mask, StudySmarterA person removes a mask they hide behind, pixabay.

    The Importance of Being Earnest: Themes and Quotes


    Lady Bracknell: […] A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her.

    (Act 3)

    In this quote, Lady Bracknell has a very sudden change of heart about Cecily. Up to this point, she had been grilling Algernon about Cecily, seeming certain that the girl wouldn’t be good enough to marry him. But, upon learning that Cecily is quite wealthy, Lady Bracknell instantly decides the marriage is an attractive match simply because she sees wealth as being equal to respectability.

    Throughout the entirety of the play, Oscar Wilde pokes fun at Victorian society. In particular, Wilde highlights the silliness surrounding what was considered respectable: wealth, having a high-society family lineage, and maintaining the appearance of respectability.


    I've now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.

    (Act 3)

    Because Jack is actually Ernest, Lady Bracknell believes him respectable and says that he can marry Gwendolyn. However, we know that Ernest has not been acting “in earnest” throughout the play; he lies until he is backed into a corner. But, because he now has the outward appearance of being Ernest, also being christened with the name, he has gained the appearance of respectability. Oscar Wilde uses this double meaning of “earnest” to point out the duplicity and hypocrisy that were present in Victorian high society.


    Lady Bracknell: Mr. Worthing, is Miss Cardew at all connected with any of the larger railway stations in London? I merely desire information. Until yesterday I had no idea that there were any families or persons whose origin was a Terminus.

    (Act 3)

    Marriage is another aspect of Victorian high society in which Oscar Wilde saw a lot of hypocrisy. In this quote, Lady Bracknell points out that marrying Jack would be a dead-end for Gwendolen because Jack does not have a biological family. It doesn’t matter that Jack and Gwendolen are in love; Victorian marriage was often about social rank and wealth.

    The hypocrisy is revealed when, upon learning that Jack is actually Ernest and is a relative of Lady Bracknell, he is suddenly an acceptable suitor, even though nothing has actually changed. He already had a good reputation and wealth. What he lacked was the most important thing in a Victorian suitor the proper appearance of respectability.

    The Importance of Being Earnest - Key takeaways

    • The Importance of Being Earnest was written by Oscar Wilde in 1895.
    • The Importance of Being Earnest is a play written in three acts.
    • The Importance of Being Earnest is a romantic comedy as well as a comedy of manners.
    • Oscar Wilde uses satire in The Importance of Being Earnest to point out flaws in Victorian morality.
    • Major themes of The Importance of Being Earnest include respectability, duplicity, and marriage.

    1 Oscar Wilde. The Importance of Being Earnest. 1895.

    2 Delanie Laws. "The Importance of Being Earnest: Aestheticism, Performance and The Importance of Being Earnest." British Literature Wiki, University of Delaware, 2018.

    The Importance of Being Earnest The Importance of Being Earnest
    Learn with 0 The Importance of Being Earnest flashcards in the free StudySmarter app

    We have 14,000 flashcards about Dynamic Landscapes.

    Sign up with Email

    Already have an account? Log in

    Frequently Asked Questions about The Importance of Being Earnest

    Who wrote The Importance of Being Earnest?

    The Importance of Being Earnest was written by Oscar Wilde. 

    How many acts are there in The Importance of Being Earnest? 

    The Importance of Being Earnest has three acts. 

    What genre is The Importance of Being Earnest?

    The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy; it has elements of both romantic comedy and comedy of manners.

    What is the main message of The Importance of Being Earnest?

    The Importance of Being Earnest is about the duplicity that Oscar Wilde believed was encouraged by Victorian society. The characters live double lives in order to gain respectability, though the reader knows that it is not sincere.

    What is The Importance of Being Earnest about?

    The Importance of Being Earnest is about two men living in Victorian England who live double lives, trying to win respectability as well as the hearts of their love interests. Things begin to fall apart, however, when the truth comes to light.

    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team English Literature Teachers

    • 12 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App
    Sign up with Email

    Get unlimited access with a free StudySmarter account.

    • Instant access to millions of learning materials.
    • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams, AI tools and more.
    • Everything you need to ace your exams.
    Second Popup Banner