The Importance of Being Earnest is Wilde's most famous play and is frequently revived for theater productions. The work is a farce and comedy of manners that satirizes Victorian society. Before starting the play, students should know what those terms mean. A lesson on Victorian society, including basic etiquette, courtship, tea, and moral standards, will help students better understand Wilde's satire. Some background on Wilde and the school of Aestheticism, which encourages art for art's sake, will further contextualize the play and can prompt discussion on how this work deviates from typical Victorian literature.

Students will have a fuller experience if they see the play performed. Consider showing your class a movie adaptation of the play or clips from theater productions so that they may experience The Importance of Being Earnest in its truest form. You can also assign students roles and have them read the work aloud in class. By acting out the play or at least reciting it verbally, they will be more engaged.

Summary

Set in the Victorian era, The Importance of Being Earnest focuses on the lives of two wealthy gentlemen, Algernon and Jack. Both men maintain fictitious personas to avoid unappealing social obligations. While the characters court their love interests, their deceptions are uncovered and their true identities revealed.

Objectives for Teaching
The Importance of Being Earnest

  • Identify targets of Wilde's satire and analyze the treatment of these targets.
  • Discuss the idea of art for art's sake.
  • Identify the pun central to the play and analyze its meaning.
  • Comment on the irony between the elegant demeanor of the characters and their absurd conversations and behavior.
  • Discuss the meaning of the play's subtitle "a trivial play for serious people."
  • Determine the importance of being trivial within the play.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Comedy of Manners
  • Epigram
  • Farce
  • Inversion
  • Irony
  • Pun
  • Satire

Themes and Motifs

  • Marriage — Courtship and marriage are the driving forces of the play as characters discuss the nature of marriage and have their engagements impeded by trivial obstacles.
  • Morality — The play includes ideas of Victorian morality and reveals how these strict moral rules constrain society. Wilde also unearths the hypocrisy and paradox of Victorian moral standards.
  • Deception —  Jack and Algernon both invent fictional people so they can escape their lives in the country and city respectively. Cecily also creates a fictional engagement to Ernest. As the characters' deceptions collide, the line between fact and fiction becomes muddled.

Related Works

Theme of Marriage

 

Theme of Morality

 

Theme of Deception

Key Facts

  • Length: 80 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 1390
  • Publication Date: 1895
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11 – 12

Movies

The Importance of Being Earnest has a number of film adaptations. The 2002 film directed by Oliver Parker is probably the best-known adaptation and stars Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, and Judi Dench. The movie version stays true to the play and uses only the original dialogue.

Your students will love:

  • The humor of the characters' serious but absurd dialogue
  • The amusing commentary on Victorian society

Students may have problems with:

  • Understanding all the ways Wilde satirizes Victorian society
  • Keeping track of Jack's identities and the characters' love interests

More Teacher's Guides to Literature:

See all our Teacher's Guides to Literature here.