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Assigned: Oscar Wilde. "The Decay of Lying" (E-Text); The Importance of Being Earnest (1698-1740).

"The Decay of Lying"

1. On 35-36, what does Vivian have against nature? What does he insist nature lacks -- why isn't it the great source of moral intelligibility and renewer of human community that the Romantic poets claimed it was?

2. On 36, what criticism does Vivian make of politicians? Why are their lies so unsuccessful? And by contrast, what exactly constitutes a "a fine lie"? Why is such an excellent lie a good thing, in Vivian's outlook?

3. On 39, why, according to Vivian, is the realism of the French novelist Émile Zola a failure? And on 43, on what grounds does Vivian further accuse realism of failure?

4. On 39-40, what are "masks," and why, according to Vivian, do they lead to more interesting discoveries about people than anything we could learn from them in their ordinary, everyday, undisguised capacity?

5. On 41, Vivian argues that "The only beautiful things, as somebody once said, are the things that do not concern us." To what extent do you think Wilde, in this essay, follows Matthew Arnold's doctrine of "disinterestedness" in matters of art and criticism?

6. On 45-46, what version of human society's origins does Vivian set forth -- in what way did the first genuine liar serve as a founder of civilization? How does he define "decadence," and how does his definition differ from the commonly accepted social narrative attached to such a term?

7. On 47, Vivian says that "life imitates art far more than art imitates life." How does he go on to explain the purpose of art? What critical doctrine is he rejecting here? Moreover, how does he characterize the power of imagination, and how does art serve imagination?

8. On 50, how does Vivian define "the basis of life"? How does he enlist Aristotle's Poetics to make his case about the centrality of imagination to human happiness? Is his enlistment of Aristotle based on an accurate reading of the ancient philosopher's ideas? Why or why not?

9. On 51 to the essay's conclusion, Vivian insists on the autonomy or independence of art as a realm distinct from the ordinary concerns of life. Why is it important to him that art be considered a realm all its own, separate from other kinds of endeavor? What power attaches to art precisely because it "never expresses anything but itself" and "rejects the burden of the human spirit" (51)?

10. General question: to what extent does Wilde agree with Walter Pater on key issues such as the value of expression and art's autonomy? Does Wilde differ from Pater on any significant issue or in his general approach to the relation between art and the individual, art and life?

11. General question: what advantages does Wilde's use of a Socratic form of dialog confer upon his essay in making the case that lying is a vital element of human society and that the demand for "truth-telling" is vulgar and misguided?

Edition: Wilde, Oscar. "The Decay of Lying" (E-Text). For a hard-copy edition, refer to Richard Ellmann's The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde. Chicago, U of Chicago Press, 1982. 290-320.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Act I

12. Why do Jack and Algernon need Ernest and Bunbury, respectively: how do these alter-egos differ from the characters who invented them, and what purpose do they serve? What occasion leads Jack and Ernest to reveal to each other the deception they are practicing by means of their alternate identities?

13. Describe Gwendolen's sensibilities: what seems to be important to her? Why does she want to marry an "Ernest" -- where did that desire come from? What does it suggest about Gwendolen and about the circle of society in which she moves?

14. In any comedy of manners, the female characters' status bears examination. What is Cecily Cardew's position with respect to Jack? And with regard to Gwendolen, what are Lady Bracknell's requirements for any suitor who seeks her hand -- what kind of a man does she believe would be appropriate for Gwendolen?

15. Consider the account Jack offers Lady Bracknell regarding his lineage and upbringing. Aside from just being worth a laugh, what is the thematic significance of Jack's having been discovered in an ordinary handbag lost in a railroad-car cloakroom? For example, how does it relate to the play's broader concerns with "names," good birth, respectability, and so forth?

16. While bantering with Algernon, Jack claims that he is tired of living in a society of wits. But sharp, clever exchanges are the lifeblood of comedy of manners: assess the nature of the "wittiness" in the exchanges between Algernon, Jack, and other characters. What social, political, sexual or other matters serve as the subjects of the characters' witty remarks, and what attitudes and sensibilities underlie those remarks?

Act II

17. The play's setting has now switched to the countryside. What are the similarities and differences between town and country in The Importance of Being Earnest? Is there a legitimate opposition between them? If you're familiar with other instances of the genre (some Shakespearian comedies, for example, or C18 Restoration comedies, or, amongst the Victorians, Boucicault or Bulwer-Lytton), is Wilde's handling of the town/country split typical or unusual? Explain.

18. What characterizes the outlook of Miss Prism, the aging governess? How, for example, does she regard Cecily -- what concern for the girl and her education does she show? And how does her courtship with Canon Chasuble compare with the other courtships in the play?

19. 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? What does this manner of proceeding (along with some of her other comments about sundry matters) suggest about Cecily's outlook and the manner in which she has grown up?

20. How does Algernon (i.e. "Ernest") react to the news that he has been in a passionate relationship with a woman he's never actually met and that he is quite "wicked"? How does he manage his stay in the countryside so as to maximize his own advantages and cause the greatest possible inconvenience for Jack?

21. How do Gwendolen and Cecily get along when they first meet? What confusion soon sets in, and how does their regard for each other change at that point? How does their temporary dislike for each other get expressed? Does their treatment of each other differ from the way Algernon and Jack treat each other? Explain.

22. What is the state of affairs towards the end of the second act? How are Algernon and Jack's deceptions uncovered, and what is the result? How do they respond to the dire straits they find themselves in as suitors to Gwendolen and Cecily?


23. Jack, Gwendolen, Algernon and Cecily patch up their differences easily, but new troubles arise when Lady Bracknell arrives: what obstacle does she pose to Jack? And how does she at first regard Cecily when she finds out that her nephew Algernon intends to marry the girl? What changes her mind, and what contradictions have by now come to light concerning Lady Bracknell's views on respectability?

24. Describe the stalemate that occurs when Jack asserts his guardianship over Cecily. What revelation does Miss Prism (whose name is recognized by Lady Bracknell) grudgingly make? How does it help to resolve the stalemate and allow the comedy to conclude with the promise of happy marriages all around?

25. The play ends with Jack realizing "the vital Importance of Being Earnest." Now that we know Jack was always Ernest, what lesson has been imparted about this Victorian keyword? Moreover, what other Victorian virtues has this popular 1895 play been sending up throughout? How would you formulate the basic critique of late Victorianism Wilde's play might be said to constitute?

Edition: Greenblatt, Stephen et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Vol. E. New York: Norton, 2006. ISBN Package 2 (Vols. DEF) 0-393-92834-9.