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Marriage in The Importance of Being Earnest: Theme & Quotes

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  • 0:04 Marriage
  • 1:19 Marriage & Love
  • 2:35 Marriage & the Upper Classes
  • 4:04 Choosing a Partner
  • 5:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

Oscar Wilde's 'The Importance of Being Earnest' explores the themes of love and marriage among the English upper classes. This lesson looks at the theme of marriage and analyzes quotes that address this theme.

Marriage

The Importance of Being Earnest is a comic play by Oscar Wilde that engages themes such as marriage, class, social expectations, and the lifestyles of the English upper class. The play focuses on two men, Algernon and Jack, who are both leading double lives. Algernon and Jack are both members of England's upper class and are therefore under social pressure to behave themselves in public. In order to escape this pressure from time to time, each has created another identity in another community. Things become complicated when both Jack and Algernon fall in love; Jack with Algernon's cousin, Gwendolen; and Algernon with Jack's ward, Cecily. Gwendolen believes Jack is named Ernest, and Cecily believes Algernon is named Ernest. Predictably, hilarity ensues.

Marriage obviously plays a central role in The Importance of Being Earnest, since both Jack and Algernon are trying to marry their respective love interests. Over the course of the three acts, Wilde explores the idea of marriage in three broad ways: how it relates to love, how it is viewed among the upper classes, and how people choose their mates. This lesson will take a look at these three themes.

Marriage & Love

As early as Act I, it is clear that Wilde is suggesting that love and marriage do not necessarily go together. In fact, Algernon argues that, if anything, love and marriage work against one another. This point is first made subtly in a conversation Algernon has with his servant, Lane. Algernon asks why servants drink the champagne when they are in the homes of bachelors. Lane answers:

''I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.''

Algernon notes that this observation does not speak well of marriage. When Jack arrives, Algernon goes further in his critique of marriage. Jack explains to Algernon that he has come to town to propose to Algernon's cousin, Gwendolen. Algernon replies:

''I thought you had come up for pleasure. . . I call that business.''

Algernon goes on from there to argue that flirting and courtship is romantic, but marriage is not. This theme continues throughout the play, even as the characters move closer and closer to their own marriages. The point appears to be that romance leads inexorably to marriage, even if all are aware that it might not be sustained there.

Marriage & the Upper Classes

Since most of the major characters in The Importance of Being Earnest are of the upper class, and certainly the two couples are aristocratic, much of the commentary on marriage concerns the elite. We get the idea marriage considerations among this group of people are focused on issues such as family background, wealth, and social standing rather than issues like romantic love.

For example, when Jack is asking Gwendolen's mother, Lady Bracknell, for Gwendolen's hand in marriage, she asks him a series of questions about his background to determine his suitability for marriage. When Lady Bracknell learns that he does not know the identity of his parents, she is horrified and suggests to him:

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