The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays

The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays

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A universal favorite, The Importance of Being Earnest displays Oscar Wilde's theatrical genius at its brilliant best. Subtitled "A Trivial Comedy for Serious People", this hilarious attack on Victorian manners and morals turns a pompous world on its head, lets duplicity lead to happiness, and makes riposte the highest form of art. Also included in this special collection are Wilde's first comedy success, Lady Windermere's Fan, and his richly sensual melodrama, Salome.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780451531896
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/07/2012
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 91,675
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was an Irish writer, poet, and playwright. His novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, brought him lasting recognition, and he became one of the most successful playwrights of the late Victorian era with a series of witty social satires, including his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest.

Date of Birth:

October 16, 1854

Date of Death:

November 30, 1900

Place of Birth:

Dublin, Ireland

Place of Death:

Paris, France


The Royal School in Enniskillen, Dublin, 1864; Trinity College, Dublin, 1871; Magdalen College, Oxford, England, 1874

Read an Excerpt


The Triumph of Artifice

Oscar Wilde's short run of success with his brilliant social comedies was one of the most remarkable episodes in literary history. In a span of just three years, from 1892 to 1895, Wilde established himself, alongside George Bernard Shaw, as the premier playwright of England. Then, just as quickly and brilliantly as he had ascended, Wilde plunged into obscurity. After three scandalous trials centering on the issue of Wilde's homosexuality, The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband were shut down in the middle of their lucrative runs, and Wilde's career as a playwright was over. His writing was obscured by prurient rumor, homophobia, and hypocritical shock and condemnation.

It took decades for Wilde's work to reemerge as worthy of study. When it did, his readers found that the plays that had delighted Wilde's contemporary audiences had a doubled life on the page. What seemed on the surface to be merely ridiculous situations and nonsensical paradoxes designed to get a laugh revealed themselves to be subtle experiments in social critique and philosophy. Wilde's plays move expertly from the subject of faith in marriage to political power to motherhood and back to romance, desire, and identity. When scholars have returned to Wilde's life to mine its fascinating contradictions for insight into the quicksilver genius of the plays, they have found parables of identity, codes of gay life, and commentary on truth and art. Looking at Salomé, the only play presented in this volume that was banned from production in England, they found further evidence of Wilde's bold imagination, complexity, and tolerance for endless paradox.

For more than one hundred years, Wilde's comedies have retained their fresh laughter and their delicate grace, and Hollywood, whose worship of style and glamour could have been invented by Wilde himself, turns out new productions of them on a regular basis. Salomé's weird sensuality and chilling perversity still shock and enthrall theatergoers in an age when it sometimes seems there are no taboos left. Wilde's epigrams, which have turned ever more from nonsense to truth as the years have progressed, are regularly quoted (and misquoted) by those who have no idea that they were written by Wilde, let alone which play they come from. To enter the world of these plays is to be lifted into Wilde's strange and surprising world and to realize how thoroughly his sensibility has become our own.

Life and Work of Oscar Wilde

Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on October 16, 1854, to the Irish nationalist and writer Speranza Wilde and eye-and-ear doctor William Wilde. Young Oscar did exceptionally well at school, earning scholarships and taking high honors at both Trinity College Dublin and Oxford. While at Oxford, he met his teacher and mentor, Walter Pater, and became an enthusiastic follower of the aesthetic movement Pater championed.

After graduating from Oxford in 1874, Wilde moved to London. He quickly gained notoriety for his sharp wit and flamboyant style of dress — he was especially famous for wearing a dyed-green carnation, a French symbol of decadence and homosexuality, in his lapel. In addition to writing plays and criticism, Wilde traveled in London's most brilliant social circles, becoming a local celebrity. When he traveled to America to speak on aestheticism in 1882, he thrilled audiences from New York City socialites to western miners. By the time he returned to London, he was a transatlantic sensation.

In the early 1880s, Wilde was regularly publishing plays and poems, but they were received badly. It wasn't until the late 1880s and early 1890s that he published some of his best-loved works, including The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888), as well as a number of influential critical volumes, including Intentions (1891) and The Soul of Man under Socialism (1891).

Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884. They had two sons, Cyril (1885) and Vyvyan (1886). Wilde had been married only two years when he met Robert Ross, who claimed to have initiated him into physical homosexuality. Whether or not he did, Ross became a close and loyal friend to Wilde and later was his literary executor.

In 1891, the thirty-seven-year-old Wilde was captivated by handsome, spoiled, twenty-year-old playboy Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas and began the major affair of his life, one whose volatility soon would endanger him. The same year, Wilde's greatly expanded version of the "Dorian Gray" story was published as the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian's sensual life caused enormous controversy — almost as much as Wilde's life itself. Together, Dorian and Bosie spelled disaster for Wilde.

Wilde's relationship with Douglas infuriated the latter's father, the Marquess of Queensberry. When Queensberry left a card for Wilde at his club, addressed to "Oscar Wilde, Somdomite [sic]," Wilde foolishly sued for libel. He lost, and Queensberry retaliated by instituting proceedings against Wilde for homosexuality. Waving aside opportunities to flee England, Wilde stood two trials. The first ended without a verdict. At the end of the second trial, Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. Because Queensberry forced him into bankruptcy, all his possessions were auctioned. Tragically, Wilde's downfall came at the height of his career. An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest had been playing to full houses in London.

Although he was allowed only one sheet of paper at a time while in prison, Wilde managed to compose De Profundis, a chronicle of his spiritual quest. During his years in prison, his mother died, and his wife, Constance, moved abroad and took the name of Holland for herself and their sons. After her death in 1898, Wilde was denied access to his sons. When he had served his sentence, a greatly weakened Wilde moved to Paris and took the name Sebastian Melmoth, after the protaganist of Melmoth the Wanderer, a novel about a man who sells his soul to the devil, written by Wilde's relative Reverend Charles Maturin. In the final years of his life, Wilde wrote little besides "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," which he signed only as "C.3.3," the number of his cell. Wilde died in a hotel room, either of syphilis or of complications from an ear infection and meningitis, in Paris on November 30, 1900.

Historical and Literary Context

The late Victorian era

Wilde's life and work belong to the late Victorian era, a period marked by both genteel country house parties and growing political unrest. The complicated tangle of political matters known as the "Irish Question" was particularly urgent. Home Rule, the idea that the Irish could and should rule themselves, was one of the great controversies of the day. The great wave of the Industrial Revolution had swelled England's cities with underpaid, exploited workers who lived in teeming slums. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had published their famous works — The Communist Manifesto and Capital — and the question of the laborer and his role in society was fiercely debated, especially as some workers gained the vote and the labor movement became an important force in politics. The "New Woman" was growing increasingly vocal in her demands for freedom, education, political power, and clothes that allowed her to move and breathe easily while she campaigned for equality. Abroad, the great British Empire, ever more important to the "luster of the crown" in the popular imagination, drifted in and out of crisis.

Fin de siècle, Decadence, and Symbolism

In addition to being a part of this tumultuous era, Wilde's plays also responded to the mood special to the 1890s, or the fin de siècle ("end of the century"), as it was known in France. Exhausted by nearly a century of cultural, economic, political, technological, and religious change, Victorians on the brink of the century's turn affected a jaded weariness and searched out fresh sensations and spectacles to relieve their ennui. In France, the fin de siècle expressed itself in the Decadence movement, which sought beauty in that which mainstream society rejected as gruesome, immoral, and perverse, and in the experiments of the Symbolist poets and playwrights, who rejected the tenets of Realism and sought instead to provide a link to the inexpressible. Rather than emphasizing meaning and plot, the Symbolists experimented with patterns of color, sound, and synesthesia. The experimental, color-coded lyricism of Salomé owes much to the Symbolists — Wilde conceived of the play while in Paris and originally wrote it in French. The father of the Decadence movement was Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire, author of Les fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857), which provided the Symbolists with their pattern. Joris-Karl Huysmans's 1884 novel A rebours (Against the Grain), referred to as "the little yellow book," was a virtual textbook for Decadence and profoundly influenced Wilde. Other poets associated with the Decadence movement include Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, and Stéphane Mallarmé.


While Decadence reigned in France, Aestheticism flourished in England. Wilde's teacher and friend at Oxford, Walter Pater, was regarded as the founder of the movement. In Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), Pater had explored in intimate, seductive detail the pleasures of a life devoted to the appreciation of beauty and had called for his readers to fan the "hard, gem-like flame" of self-fulfillment through a devotion to their senses. In the context of a Victorian culture devoted to efficiency, the bottom line, and the suppression of sensuality in all its forms, this was a radical idea. Pitting themselves directly against the moralizing sentimentality of didactic Victorian art and literature (such as the "three volume novels" mentioned in The Importance of Being Earnest), the Aestheticists argued that art's role was not to be moral or useful or to teach "lessons" but to be an object of beauty that transcended humans and human questions. The Aestheticists strove to make their lives works of art, an idea typified by Wilde's devotion to the artful dress and speech of the dandy.

"Well-made plays" and the new social realism

In the mid-Victorian age, the theater had fallen into disrepute and had been replaced by that enchanting new literary genre, the novel. But by the late Victorian age, the respectable middle class had been wooed back to the theater by pleasant entertainments such as Gilbert and Sullivan's musicals and the "well-made plays" patterned after French playwright Eugene Scribe's template. These fashionable, lavishly produced, technically adroit, but insubstantial comedies and melodramas were the Hollywood films of their day. They provided thrills, chills, spills, and happy endings (or a good, moral cry). Although these works often dabbled in immorality — adultery was a common subject — transgressors were always punished, villains and heroes were easily identified, and the more dangerous subjects were set safely in ancient history. In the early 1890s, the new Social Realism of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen arrived to baffle and scandalize the fans of well-made plays with thrillingly intense examinations of the dark side of middle-class life. Wilde admired Ibsen's daring critique, but, like the Symbolists, he rejected the tenets of Realism, choosing instead to subvert the well-made plays to his own end in the same ways in which his dandies subvert their social worlds without ever leaving them.

Supplementary materials copyright © 2005 Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Table of Contents



Chronology of Oscar Wilde's Life and Work

Historical Context of The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays

The Importance of Being Earnest

Lady Windermere's Fan

An Ideal Husband



Interpretive Notes

Critical Excerpts

Questions for Discussion

Suggestions for the Interested Reader

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The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Plays are, as a rule, hard to read. It is hard to keep characters straight and stay interested. Wilde is a master of the genre, but you might find the characters continue to be confusing, especially as they become confused also. But it is worth the read. Stick with it. You will be amazed how funny and timely the play is. Wilde's insight into human nature and the nature of friendship (between two men or women) is uncanny. The play is also very short, around 70 pages, so you can read it without needing a nap. Times haven't changed that much, men and women still can't figure each other out. If you just hate to read plays, than see this one played out (that is how it was meant to be enjoyed) at you local playhouse, or in the movie form that recently was released.
puckrobin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Quite possibly one of my favourite pieces of text of all time. Wilde's lampooning of the society of which he was a part and parcel is dead on. There is virtually no line in this script that is a throw-away - each word and direction is directly relevant to establishing the characters, the setting and shining a light on the superficiality and bombast of Victorian England. Delightful.
NativeRoses on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Wilde is the master of comic irony in verbal and dramatic forms. Non-stop wonderful, ironic wit permeates these plays. For example, in Earnest, a character remarks about a recent widow, "her hair has gone quite gold from grief." Very highly recommended.
Skylinesend More than 1 year ago
A very funny play about 2 men who are using the pseudonym Earnest. Hilarity ensues when 2 different women both state that they could only marry a man who's name was Earnest.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
The Importance Of Being Earnest was a very good book. I'm not a big reader because usually books do not interest me. After I finnished reading each part of the play I didn't want to put it down. Each character in the play had their own personality trate witch was good. If I had time to just sit and read a book, I would choose this book. It is also a short book, so it you dont have time to just sit and read. This would also be the book for you. It's only 66 pages long I loved it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'The Importance of Being Earnest' fits the title perfectly. I have found this book to one of the more enjoyable Restoration Comedies that I have read. The mere fact that the main character thought he was telling a lie to everyone when in reality he was only being 'earnest' and truthful with everyone. The author pokes fun at society and the mannerisms of the people of that time period and if you were to see it on a stage, you would understand as to why so many people love this play. The characters are so three-dimensional, you learn to care for them. Oscar Wilde holds you in suspense until the very last of why it is important to be earnest. He also waits til the very last page to find out if Jack really does have any parents or relatives. This story has plots of love, society, money, misleadings of other characters, marriage, and so much more. My favorite characters were Gwendolen and Cecily only because they kind of reminded me of myself. The minute the see each other, they assume they are going to become the best of friends, and in the end they do. For a while there, they did not like each other because they were marrying the same man. Cecily is one of the funnier characters to me and I feel resembles me the most because she only heard of Earnest and already she is in love with him and has been engaged to him and broken off the engagement. She has never even met him up until the day Jack's friend Algernon pretends to be Earnest. If you like Restoration Comedies, and a comedy of manners you are sure to love this book. Especially if you think it is important to be earnest.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Oscar Wild's satire to aristocrats and mannerism best describes his play titled The Importance of Being Earnest. From it's dialog and plot your forced to ask if he was making fun of himself or people in general from it's off the top characters. Wilde himself called his play 'A trivial comedy for serious people' could it always have been a a serious play for trivial people that is for the reader to decide. I personally adored the play and found myself laughing at the characters not for how they acted but how much I saw myself in one or most of them. The idea of female characters loving a man not for who he and what he is but for his name. Yet the name in itself holds a double meaning for earnest is to be serious and honest. John who at the end of the play learns his name really is Earnest the whole time and with great satire adds that 'it is a terrible thing to find out that a man all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth' the humor in him is a better reason to enjoy this play along with the rest of the cast. Although one of Wildes last plays it is one of his best and most critiqued and I can't see why not. Earnest is truly a masterpiece and I advise those who have not read it yet to do so and those who have ... why not read it again.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Importance of Being Earnest is by far one of the most brilliant plays I have read. Oscar Wilde has such amazing writing skills. Usually I have a hard time when it comes to reading plays but with this one I was able to immediately comprehend what I was reading and have fun with at the same time. Sometimes plays are so overdramatically written that I get bored with them easily but not with this one. I could not put this play down. Every time I finished a page I wanted to know more about what was going on. The characters were described so well that it helped me to visualize what each of them looked like. I became attached to these characters and wanted to learn more about them everytime I found out something new. I have never laughed so hard while reading a play like I did with this one. The characters are hilarious. Just when you think that you have their 'game' understood they turn around and play something else. Wilde's writing keeps you alert and makes you keep guessing what is going to happen next. The romantic story that is involved in this play is very sweet. You are able to understand that people who truly love one another will tell each other anything they can to win each other's heart, no matter what the risk. Throughout the play I really routed for both of the couples to work out. I would highly recommend this play to anyone who enjoys reading plays and even to the ones who have difficulty with plays. You will enjoy this play and it will be fun to read. This is one that will keep your interest and make you keep turning the pages even when you think you cannot read anymore. Be prepared for laughter because you will get a lot of laughs reading this play! Enjoy!
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Importance of being Earnest is a great book, I enjoyed reading every minute of it. I think it is funny, interesting and very creative. In addition, it has a wonderful storyline, significant characters, and a unique title. Oscar Wilde did a wonderful job writing it. The book is easy to read and very entertaining. I honestly could not put the book down because form the beginning it grabbed my attention and held on to it until the very end. Wilde is a master of surprises; the book is a delight to read because it was filled with a lot of unexpected twists and turns. The storyline is very easy to follow however in keeps the readers guessing because it is filled with a lot of unforeseen situations, as the story unfolds the readers gain more knowledge about the characters. The storyline was well written from start to finish, there is absolutely no boring moments in the book. By the end of the book, all questions are answered and an enlightening discovery is unveiled. All of the characters in the book have a significant role. They have well developed personalities and lot of sarcasm. Wilde gave each character a significant role in addition to making them witty and humorous. I found all of the characters to be amusing during the course of the play. As the play moves along most of the characters discover that they are connected to each other in a significant way. I think the title of the book is very unique and very attractive to readers, when I glanced at it for the first time I became very curious about what is so important about being earnest and I am sure other people said the same thing. Wilde selected a title that captured the essence of the entire book and I think that is magnificent. In conclusion, I think the book is a masterpiece, I like everything about it. I look forward to reading more books by Oscar Wilde in the future. I gave this book a four star rating and I am going to recommend it to my close friends and family.
Guest More than 1 year ago
this book was ok i was not all that interested in it. When i started to read it i would just daze off but as it got toward the end it started getting a little intersting.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Importance Of Being Earnest is a very good play. It is confusing at first trying to keep the characters straight. Once you figue out who is with whom then the play is over. It did keep my attention trying to figue out what was going to happen next. I did relate very well to Jack being left in a handbag as a baby. That touched me.