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Importance of Being Earnest and Literary Theory

Learning Goals:
Analyze the drama according to a literary theory lens.
Share and evaluate your group members responses and draw conclusions about the
comedy based on your literary lens.
Create a thesis that analyses The Importance of Being Earnest through your literary lens.
Present your key points and thesis to the class.
Judge the validity of each groups thesis.

Directions: In groups of four, answer the following questions that focus on a specific literary
lens. Then, create a thesis from your responses that support your findings.

New Historicism
1. Is the plays title a mockery or reflection of the social attitudes of the Victorian era?
Why?
2. What is the importance of being earnest in the Victorian culture?
3. How does the play shape the cultural, social and economic situation in Victorian
England?
4. How does Lady Bracknell exemplify the decaying rigid social class structure?
5. Are there sections of British society that would have found certain elements of the play
objectionable in England during the Victorian era? What about in the modern world?

Feminism
1. According to Algernon, what is the connection between marriage and business? What
does Algernon consider the most alluring aspect of romance?
2. How does Algernon view the typical relationship between the husband and wife in
marriage? What does his view reveal about his expectations of married life and married
people?
3. What is the role of parental choice in marriage?
4. Why does Algernon consider Bunbury an essential part of any martial union? How
does this tie to womens role in society?
5. Compare Jack and Gwendolens expectation on love and on marriage. How does
Gwendolen want to be treated by Jack in public? What does her wish reveal about her?
Copyright@2014 Kristie-Anne Opaleski-DiMeo
All rights reserved by author.
Permission to copy for single classroom use only.
Electronic distribution limited to single classroom use only.
Not for public display.
6. Consider all the female characters in the play. Does Wilde accurately portray the
Victorian woman? Defend your response.

Psychoanalytic
1. To what extent does Algernon embody the qualities of the quintessential Aesthete and
dandy as Wilde did?
2. What is the significance of the male-male friendship in the play?
3. What is Gwendolens definition of the effeminate man?
4. What is the social and psychological effect of Jacks leading a double life?
5. How does Algernons attitude toward marriage highlight or parallel Wildes own attitude
toward marriage?
6. How might the writing of the play have functioned as a vehicle to express Wildes own
secret desires?

Copyright@2014 Kristie-Anne Opaleski-DiMeo


All rights reserved by author.
Permission to copy for single classroom use only.
Electronic distribution limited to single classroom use only.
Not for public display.
Suggested Answer Key:

New Historicism

1) The plays title is a mockery of the social attitudes of the era. Those who were insincere
and shallow (the opposite of earnest) were the most successful monetarily and were
members of a high social class. In the Victorian Era, people lived for pleasure, not
morality. Being earnest was not valued, how much money you had and what you looked
like was.
2) Victorian society expected people to act morally and respectably; however the
importance of being earnest in Victorian culture was not to be genuinely sincere, but to
make yourself appear to be genuinely sincere. Reputation was more important than
character.
3) The Importance of Being Earnest shapes English Victorian culture to be one that strongly
values appearance. The idea of aestheticism revolves around a value of art and trends.
Algernon goes into debt to keep up with decorative, social, and fashion trends. Culturally,
the Importance of Being Earnest shapes English Victorian culture to be one of materialism
and pleasure. Economically, the play exemplifies the clear distinction between economic
classes. Lady Bracknell specifically asks jack is his money is in land or investments, and she
is pleased with his answer. There is also a lack of mixing between social classes. For
example, Lady Bracknell will not allow Gwendolen to marry Jack because he has no family
line. Jacks personal success means nothing to Lady Bracknell because he was not born
into it.
4) Lady Bracknell is older and strictly follows the silent rule that the rich marry the rich and
the average marry the average. She interviews Jack to make sure he meets all of the
requirements for Gwendolen, and she does not approve of Algernon and Cecilys
engagement until she discovers Cecily has 150,000 pounds in the bank. The decaying
social class structure is exemplified most by Jack, Algernon, Cecily, and Gwendolen. They
want to marry each other despite each others past and social/economic class. The
younger characters in the play feel less strict about the social class structure, while older
Lady Bracknell follows it.
5) The wealthy class of British Victorian society likely would have objected to the play. They
would probably have argued that they marry for love, not for economic and social gains.
The upper class would likely have been angered by how the play makes them seem

Copyright@2014 Kristie-Anne Opaleski-DiMeo


All rights reserved by author.
Permission to copy for single classroom use only.
Electronic distribution limited to single classroom use only.
Not for public display.
shallow. The wealthy of the modern world likely have the same criticism. The rest of the
modern world generally agrees with the satire in the play.

Sample Thesis: In The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde skillfully employs satirical devices to
mock shallow and materialistic values of the Victorian era.

Feminism

1. According to Algernon, marriage was similar to a business exchange. The most alluring
aspect of romance in his eyes is money. This is shown by his interest in Cecily, the pretty
young ward with a deceased father and a large sum of money in the bank.
2. Algernon views the typical relationship between husband and wife to be business-like,
as shown by his mild disgust at the married couple flirting in public. His view reveals that
he believes married people to have little interaction with one another and should often
Bunbury to escape marriage/family.
3. Parents have complete control over who their daughters marry, as shown by Lady
Bracknell forbidding Gwendolen to marry Jack. This is also shown in the form of a
guardian when Jack prohibits Cecily from marrying Algernon.
4. Bunbury is necessary to Algernon when he gets married so he can escape marriage and
live a bachelors life on occasion, despite that him being married. This ties to womens
role in society in that it shows that women were used as a status tool. While Algernon
would be married, it would merely be for money. Their union would be more of a
business venture, and he would betray, ignore, or lie to her to live his hedonistic lifestyle.
5. Jack views marriage to be a serious union of love, whereas Gwendolen sees it as a
simple union she would enjoy. Gwendolen wants to be treated very formally, she has a
very idealistic (blowing kisses, formal proposal) and showy (get on his knees) view of
love. She expects her romance to be similar to that of a romance novel. Her focus on
being showy reveals that while she breaks away from her aristocratic roots in her yearn
to marry Jack, there is still a part of her that craves the attention and reverence of being
in the upper class.
6. Wilde portrays the attitudes of women correctly, however he often misplaces their
status. For example, Lady Bracknell acted as the man of the household would, she was
the one who was known outside the house, she was the one who interviewed Jack, and
she was the one who chased her daughter down when she fled to the country to see her
fiance. Her maternal and snobbish attitude perfectly exemplifies the attitudes of the
Victorian upper class. Additionally, the way that Cecily and Gwendolen spoke to
Algernon and Jack was a bit out of place for that time period. In that era, they would not
Copyright@2014 Kristie-Anne Opaleski-DiMeo
All rights reserved by author.
Permission to copy for single classroom use only.
Electronic distribution limited to single classroom use only.
Not for public display.
have been able to just decide that they didnt like a name and not marry someone
because of it, they did not have that much say in their personal matters. Their attitudes
are correct, their idealistic view on love and marriage is exactly what is to be expected of
young women of that era.
Sample Thesis: Wildes satirical commentary on a Victorian womans status in society acts
as a criticism of the social hierarchy as a whole.

Psychoanalytic

1. Algernon lives a hedonic life for pleasure - he makes his life a work of art. This parallels
Wilde and his flamboyant lifestyle and the financial ruin it caused him.

2. He shows character contrast. Male relationships (Jack and Algernon) are more genuine than
the female friendships (Cecily and Gwen) of the play, almost brotherly. The banter and
fighting is quite sibling like, showing a playful and competitive bond between men.

3. Gwendolen believes the effeminate man is undesirable. She believes those of a weak name
are not noble or manly. This is a reflection of Victorian society, one that Wilde does not appear
with which to agree.

4. Jack lies to loved ones to go off for pleasure and courtship. He gains social status in London
and psychologically believes "Jack" is not worthy of higher social standings. Jack is a
Bunburyist with the motivation of escaping the country to come into the city in order to escape
his responsibilities and have the same kind of life and act the same was as his "brother." On
the other hand, Algernon is a Bunburyist with the motivation of escaping the city to come into
the country in order to feel a sense of responsibility (from taking care of his invalid friend) and
to escape social events he did not feel like being a part of. They are both Bunburyists, but Jack
wants to feel less responsibility, while Algernon wants to feel more responsibility.

5. Algernon feels marriage should be impulsive and passionate. Similar to Wilde, neither
believe marriage must be for money. Algy proposed to Cecily before he knew of her great
fortune.

6. Wilde desires to have a second persona. He wishes he could escape and Bunbury like
Algernon to create his own life.

Copyright@2014 Kristie-Anne Opaleski-DiMeo


All rights reserved by author.
Permission to copy for single classroom use only.
Electronic distribution limited to single classroom use only.
Not for public display.
Sample Thesis : Wilde uses his characterization of Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest
to display his own inner desires of living a hedonic lifestyle while Jack represents the persona
he must portray to society.

Copyright@2014 Kristie-Anne Opaleski-DiMeo


All rights reserved by author.
Permission to copy for single classroom use only.
Electronic distribution limited to single classroom use only.
Not for public display.