Assigned: The Importance of Being Earnest (1761-1805).
The Importance of Being Earnest
A General Approach: Follow out the play's exploration of key terms, mainly "sincerity" and "marriage." Read as many events and situations as possible in light of what you know about commodification. Is everything a commodity in this play? What might Wilde be suggesting about Victorian values?
1. Why do Jack and Algernon need Ernest and Bunbury, respectively?
2. Keep your eye on the status of the females in this play. What do you think of the fact that Cecily Cardew is Jack's ward and that Gwendolen Fairfax is the closely guarded, yet salable, daughter of Lady Bracknell? Consider Miss Prism and Lady Bracknell, too.
3. Why does Gwendolen want to marry an "Ernest?"
4. Put Gwendolen's "ideals" together with Lady Bracknell's requirements for her suitor and try to explain the importance of marriage in this play.
5. Consider the account Jack gives of his birth. What is significant about his having been discovered in an ordinary handbag lost in the cloakroom of a railroad car?
6. Jack claims at one point that he is tired of living in a society of wits. What do you think is the function of all the witty paradoxes and epigrams in this play?
7. Notice that the play's setting has now been switched to the country. Is there a legitimate opposition between town and country in Earnest?
8. Miss Prism's Law of Fiction is that the good should end happily, and the bad unhappily. Can one apply Prism's Law to Wilde's play as a whole?
9. Dr. Chasuble asks Jack when he wants to be christened, and Jack seems anxious to avoid mixing with "the lower orders" during this ceremony. This is a good time to ask, what is the use of 'the lower orders' in this piece?"
10. While we are on the subject of christening, what is the significance of such an event? Why, that is, are people christened at birth?
11. Just as Gwendolen does, Cecily has a striking way of falling in love. How did she fall in love with "Ernest" and then develop the affair?
12. Lady Bracknell's requirements will now be brought to bear on Cecily. What does Jack give her by way of introduction to Cecily's qualities? Consider Lady Bracknell's response to this list; on what authority does she formulate her judgment of Cecily?
13. Miss Prism is recognized by Lady Bracknell and forced to cough up the secret of Jack's birth, and it turns out that she mixed him up with the manuscript of her three-volume novel. What sort of novel was it? Why does the peculiar character of this mix-up matter?
14. What is it to "be Earnest," and what is the importance of doing so? Now that we know Jack was always Ernest, what are we supposed to think as we walk out the playhouse door?
Edition: Abrams, M. H. et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vols. 2A-C. 7th ed. New York: Norton, 2000. ISBN 2A = 0393975681, 2B = 039397569X, 2C = 0393975703.