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Algernon Moncrieff in The Importance of Being Earnest

Instructor: Catherine Riccio-Berry

Catherine is a college instructor. She has an M.A. in Comparative Literature and is currently completing her Ph.D.

Algernon Moncrieff says the silliest things in 'The Importance of Being Earnest'! In this lesson, we'll review some of his remarks and talk about how they help us to understand exactly why 'being earnest' is really so important.

Earnestness and Bunburyists

In Oscar Wilde's play The Importance of Being Earnest, the way that Algernon Moncrieff behaves gives us some insight into the title's meaning. Algernon and his close friend Jack both decide to pretend that their real name is 'Ernest' when they find out that the women they love both want to marry someone by that name. The silly reason for this is that someone named Ernest would have to act earnestly simply because of his name.

What is so important about being earnest, then? In his writings, Wilde showed that to be earnest was to be a person who stuck closely to the culture and moral boundaries of Victorian society. The Victorian period in England lasted throughout the reign of Queen Victoria from 1837 to 1901, and it was defined largely by its rigid views about having a proper family structure, avoiding any kind of sexuality, and - in short - always acting respectably. (The Importance of Being Earnest was written in 1895, toward the end of Victoria's lengthy reign.)

Wilde didn't really think that these 'earnest' Victorian values were correct or even healthy. He believed that to be earnest was to be an uptight, smug hypocrite living a very boring life. Therefore, the title The Importance of Being Earnest is actually a joke. In truth, it's more important to avoid being earnest, to see through Victorian cultural values and recognize that they are actually harmful to a person's well-being.

Algernon helps us to understand the problem with earnestness, because he is the most UN-earnest person in the entire play. Algernon lives in the city, where it's easier to have a carefree life. Whenever there is a boring obligation that he wants to avoid, he gets out of it by saying that he has to go visit his sick friend Bunbury.

Bunbury doesn't really exist. Algernon invented Bunbury to help him enjoy life the way he chooses. 'Bunbury is perfectly invaluable,' explains Algernon to Jack. 'If it wasn't for Bunbury's extraordinary bad health, for instance, I wouldn't be able to dine with you at Willis's to-night, for I have been really engaged to Aunt Augusta for more than a week.' Algernon calls himself a Bunburyist, which is a person who avoids responsibility and never acts earnestly.

Dandyism and Inversion

Algernon is also a dandy. A dandy is a man who pays excessive attention to his appearance. The most dandy-like character in any of Wilde's works usually represented Wilde himself, so you can likely count on the dandy to be speaking Wilde's own opinion.

The dandy in Wilde's works also typically appears to be shallow and immoral, but in fact he is often quite moral and speaks the 'truth' (albeit a truth that is very different from Victorian standards). We can see this type of 'truth' in many of Algernon's comments. Algernon says a lot that sounds flippant and silly, but if you look harder at the context of his words, you'll realize that there's a lot of wisdom there.

Take, for example, Algernon's off-the-cuff statement, 'Divorces are made in Heaven.' At first, this seems like it's just a meaningless comment made by a guy who doesn't want to get tied down in marriage - and in one way, that is true. However, this is also a great example of inversion. An inversion takes a common saying and inverts it to be its opposite. This forces us to rethink the original statement and reconsider its truth.

'Divorces are made in Heaven' is the inversion of the cliché phrase 'a marriage made in Heaven.' In the Victorian era, a married couple represented an upright, moral family life, and the love in a marriage was supposed to be the epitome of happiness. In contrast, who would ever think of divorce as being something happy or heavenly? In the Victorian era, it was an extremely shameful event.

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