The Importance of Being Earnest
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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, save 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. 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 much as the disconcerting opinions therein. In contrast, the speech of Dr Chasuble and Miss Prism is distinguished by "pedantic precept" and "idiosyncratic diversion". Furthermore the play is chock 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.
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, bourgeois society in the play. 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.
- Critical reception
- Dramatic analysis
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