Book Review: The Importance of Being Earnest

Welcome to the third installment in my four-post series of books I’ve read over the break. This book is The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Check out my other review of an Oscar Wilde book here.

This is a play I actually read in school, but I re-read it just a few days ago. Unlike the brutality of Dorian Gray, the Importance of Being Earnest is a jovial comedy that veils criticisms of the shallowness of Victorian society behind witty one-liners and absurd situations. The play is focused around Jack Worthing, a wealthy young man who, unfortunately, has a penchant for deception. He lives a double life, going by the name “Ernest” in London while inventing a fictional brother named “Ernest” at his countryside home to whom he is frequently required to assist or bail out of trouble. His best friend Algernon discovers his deception and is thoroughly amused, calling him a “Bunburyist,” an allusion to a periodically ill friend that Algernon has invented to get out of social occasions. Jack is in love with Algernon’s cousin Gwendolyn and wants to kill off “Ernest” and end his duplicity. Unfortunately, Gwendolyn is in love with the name “Ernest” and hints that she would turn down the marriage if she finds out Jack’s real name. Jack hatches a plan to re-christen himself as Ernest and heads to his country estate where he goes by his real name. Unfortunately, as Jack is fabricating some wild story of his fictional brother’s death, Algernon intervenes and pretends to be Ernest to win the affection of Cecily, Jack’s ward. If you thought all that was chaotic, you’ll never believe the ending. I loved this play. Each line could be reasonably interpreted as a social critique of its own and nearly every line is amusing in its own way. From the morose yet loyal butler to the flighty and shallow governess, each character is done perfectly. There are so many quotes that I’d love to put here, but I simply can’t choose between them. I also think the book posits an important question: is being earnest important? It seems to conclude, rather pessimistically, that there is no value to being earnest, as the most egregious liars end up with exactly what they wanted. If you’re looking for a laugh and an interesting story, I’d definitely recommend this book.

 

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