The Importance of Being Earnest

Dramatic analysis

Use of language

While Wilde had long been famous for dialogue and his use of language, Raby (1988) argues that he achieved a unity and mastery in Earnest that was unmatched in his other plays, except perhaps Salomé. While his earlier comedies suffer from an unevenness resulting from the thematic clash between the trivial and the serious, Earnest achieves a pitch-perfect style that allows these to dissolve.[80] There are three different registers detectable in the play. The dandyish insouciance of Jack and Algernon—established early with Algernon's exchange with his manservant—betrays an underlying unity despite their differing attitudes. The formidable pronouncements of Lady Bracknell are as startling for her use of hyperbole and rhetorical extravagance as for her disconcerting opinions. In contrast, the speech of Dr. Chasuble and Miss Prism is distinguished by "pedantic precept" and "idiosyncratic diversion".[80] Furthermore, the play is full of epigrams and paradoxes. Max Beerbohm described it as littered with "chiselled apophthegms—witticisms unrelated to action or character", of which he found half a dozen to be of the highest order.[36]

Characterisation

Though Wilde deployed characters that were by now familiar—the dandy lord, the overbearing matriarch, the woman with a past, the puritan young lady—his treatment is subtler than in his earlier comedies. Lady Bracknell, for instance, embodies respectable, upper-class society, but Eltis notes how her development "from the familiar overbearing duchess into a quirkier and more disturbing character" can be traced through Wilde's revisions of the play.[9] For the two young men, Wilde presents not stereotypical stage "dudes" but intelligent beings who, as Jackson puts it, "speak like their creator in well-formed complete sentences and rarely use slang or vogue-words".[81] Dr Chasuble and Miss Prism are characterised by a few light touches of detail, their old-fashioned enthusiasms, and the Canon's fastidious pedantry, pared down by Wilde during his many redrafts of the text.[81]

Structure and genre

Ransome argues that Wilde freed himself by abandoning the melodrama, the basic structure which underlies his earlier social comedies, and basing the story entirely on the Earnest/Ernest verbal conceit. Now freed from "living up to any drama more serious than conversation" Wilde could now amuse himself to a fuller extent with quips, bons-mots, epigrams and repartee that really had little to do with the business at hand.[82]

The genre of the Importance of Being Earnest has been deeply debated by scholars and critics alike who have placed the play within a wide variety of genres ranging from parody to satire. In his critique of Wilde, Foster argues that the play creates a world where “real values are inverted [and], reason and unreason are interchanged".[83] Similarly, Wilde's use of dialogue mocks the upper classes of Victorian England lending the play a satirical tone.[84] Reinhart further stipulates that the use of farcical humour to mock the upper classes "merits the play both as satire and as drama".[85]


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