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Answer: Oscar Wilde is an incredibly funny and witty writer. His humor in The Importance of Being Earnest relies on creating absurd situations and characters whose lack of insight causes them to respond to these situations in inappropriate ways.
Earnest is also a satire because it makes fun of its characters – most of whom are members of the aristocratic class. Think about how proud Lady Bracknell is, and how fond she is of scandal. When she arrives late at Algernon’s place, she explains that she was visiting Lady Harbury, who "looks quite twenty years younger" since "her poor husband’s death" (I.111). Wilde constantly exaggerates the upper class’s shallowness and frivolity to show the corrupt morals they provide as examples. When Lady Bracknell interrogates Jack, we learn that all she cares about is his money, his trendiness, and his family name.
Most of us recognize that death by illness isn’t a matter of conscious choice and would take pity on the dying Bunbury. Not Lady Bracknell. She’s more concerned with the propriety of her music arrangements. She’s frivolous, worrying about style over the life-and-death struggle of Bunbury. The entire play runs similarly – with characters responding to situations in ways that are inappropriate give the situation, either too serious or too flippant. Such exaggeration gives Earnest its distinctive brand of Wildean humor.
Keep an eye out, too, for Wilde’s patented epigrams – succinct, witty, paradoxical sayings. They are often general reflections on life, and can be lifted straight out of the text and used on your friends. For example: "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his" (I.228). Wilde’s ability to craft these sayings is what made him famous, and his true source of inspiration for the play. In a letter to an actor-producer friend with the scenario (hoping to get an advance, as he was in dire straits for money) Wilde admitted as much – "The real charm of the play, if it is to have charm, must be in the dialogue".
Wilde, through the skeptical Algernon, makes an immediate critique of marriage as "demoralising," and throughout the scene the best bon mots are reserved for mocking that most traditional romantic covenant. Wilde is the master of the epigram, a concise, typically witty or paradoxical saying. His skill lies not only in coining wholly new epigrams, but in subverting established ones. For instance "in married life, three is company and two is none" captures the monotony of monogamy by playing it against the commonplace "two is company, three's a crowd."
Another staple of the play is its humorous depiction of class tensions. Lane, the butler, is given his fair share of droll sayings, and even Algernon seems to recognize that the lower class has more power than they seem to: "If the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?"
The sofa is the center of the leisure class's idleness, a comfortable place to while away the afternoon without work. Wilde himself would spend hours in deep thought upon his sofa, but in this play he makes the sofa a place for social chatter. The cucumber sandwiches also become a motif for the hedonism of rich. Algernon supposedly saves them for Lady Bracknell, but he cannot resist devouring them himself.
Lady Bracknell is a remarkable comic creation, the paragon of the Victorian lady who stresses good breeding above all else. But she is far from a flat stereotype. Wilde gives her some of his wittiest lines to bring out her quirky way of seeing the world, for example one of her most famous pronouncements: "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness." But these lines are always linked to her character; when Jack informs her that he was found in a handbag on the Brighton line, she replies "The line is immaterial." That he was found in a handbag on a train is enough of a black mark on his record, and even the word "immaterial" reminds us that it is Jack's very lack of a material (substantial, or money-related) background that disturbs her so greatly.
The Importance of Being Earnest is an enlightening example of comedy of manners as it makes fun of the behavior of Victorian aristocracy which attaches great value to hypocrisy, frivolity, superficiality, artificiality and money mindedness. The Victorian upper class society judged things by appearance and the present play makes us laugh at those values by turning them upside-down through a language which is satirical, funny and witty.
Different characters in the play embody those values and provide us insight into the upper-class society of the Victorian period. The play centers on the questions of identity, love, marriage and money.
Wilde’s basic purpose in writing the play was to expose and prove as a sham the norms and values of the Victorian aristocracy. That society stressed respectability, seriousness and decency, but it was very different from what it appeared to be. What needed to qualify for marriage was wealth and good family background. Lady Bracknell rejected Jack as the candidate for Gewendolin after she knew that he was a foundling. While asking him questions she gave last priority to his abilities and education and gave importance to family background. When she came to know that there is a handsome amount of money in Cecily’s account she is ready to get her married to Algernon. The two female characters Cecily and Gewendolin love their respective boys just for the beauty of their name ‘Earnest’. They find everything in the name and love for the name. The boys prefer the name Earnest but they lack seriousness. It is a satire on the society that gives priority to appearances and surfaces. It is hypocrisy of the concerned people. The dialogue used in the play is funny and witty. The clever exchange between the characters are beautiful on the surface and hollow inside. The artificiality and paradox embedded in the dialogue well matches the sham and hypocritical values and pretensions of the people targeted by satire.
Thus, The Importance of Being Earnest is a comedy of manners as it uses light hearted language to evoke laughter at the false values of the Victorian upper society.
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