The Importance of Being Ernest is one of the finest humorous plays to have premiered at the turn of twentieth century. Reviewers of the play, then and now, have universally classified as a ‘farce’ and a ‘social satire’. And this assessment is quite accurate. The focus of the play on street-smart humor was so pronounced that critics objected to its lack of seriousness and social message. This was unusual at the time, for plays were expected to carry some seriousness. For example, in Worthing states in a pretentious and jocular manner “I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing.” In this respect, the play can said to belong in the periphery (‘farce’) within the established ‘social satire’ genre.
The title of the play gives it an air of seriousness, which the plot and narrative go on to disprove. For example, there is high pretence in another famous quote from the book: “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” (Act 1) But this was made mostly for comic effect without any real insight into real life. There is a subtle pun implied in the title, for the unfolding action mocks the manners and norms of late Victorian England. The rechristened name of ‘Ernest’ for the central character John Worthing is a euphemism, for lying and deception are integral to how he goes about life. Irony and self-aggrandizement are other strategies for humor adopted by Wilde. For example, “Gwendolen, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?” (Act 3) At times, the humor is based on self-deprication as well: “Oh, I don’t think I would care to catch a sensible man. I shouldn’t know what to talk to him about.” (Act 2)
The action in the play is a long sequence of puns, nonsense dialogue, farcical events and comical twists. The action reveals the simple mindedness, lack of moral fortitude and lack of seriousness of most of the lead characters, as they go about to achieve their own petty self-interests. This is especially applicable to John Worthing (Ernest), Algernon Moncrieff, Gwendolen Fairfax, Lady Bracknell and Merriman. The deceptive second identities assumed by both Worthing and Moncrieff illustrate the lack of integrity in their thoughts, actions and characters. But instead of being malicious, their deceptions are playful, trivial or nonsensical. This classic quote from the play illustrates the point: “I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” (Act 2)
Oscar Wilde uses his pen as a sword against bringing down cherished Victorian virtues and values. In what constitute a social commentary, Wilde points to flaws inherent in the late Victorian society through the medium of humor. Even the overboard respect in the names he assigns to characters – The Honorary Gwendolen Fairfax, The Reverend Canon Chasuble, Mr. Algernon Moncrieff (with a deliberate choice of aristocratic sounding surnames) – is a comment and criticism both at once.