1. Manners and Sincerity
    The major target of Wilde's scathing social criticism is the hypocrisy
    that society creates. Frequently in Victorian society, its participants
    comported themselves in overly sincere, polite ways while they harbored
    conversely manipulative, cruel attitudes. Wilde exposes this divide in
    scenes such as when Gwendolen and Cecily behave themselves in front of
    the servants or when Lady Bracknell warms to Cecily upon discovering she
    is rich. However, the play truly pivots around the word "earnest."
    Both women want to marry someone named "Ernest," as the name inspires
    "absolute confidence"; in other words, the name implies that its bearer
    truly is earnest, honest, and responsible. However, Jack and Algernon
    have lied about their names, so they are not really "earnest." But it
    also turns out that (at least in Jack's case) he was inadvertently
    telling the truth. The rapid flip-flopping of truths and lies, of
    earnestness and duplicity, shows how truly muddled the Victorian values
    of honesty and responsibility were.

  2. Critique of Marriage as a Social Tool
    Wilde's most concrete critique in the play is of the manipulative
    desires revolving around marriage. Gwendolen and Cecily are interested
    in their mates, it appears, only because they have disreputable
    backgrounds (Gwendolen is pleased to learn that Jack was an orphan;
    Cecily is excited by Algernon's "wicked" reputation). Their shared
    desire to marry someone named Ernest demonstrates that their romantic
    dreams hinge upon titles, not character. The men are not much less
    shallow-Algernon proposes to the young, pretty Cecily within minutes of
    meeting her. Only Jack seems to have earnest romantic desires, though
    why he would love the self-absorbed Gwendolen is questionable. However,
    the sordidness of the lovers' ulterior motives is dwarfed by the
    priorities of Lady Bracknell, who epitomizes the Victorian tendency to
    view marriage as a financial arrangement. She does not consent to
    Gwendolen's marriage to Jack on the basis of his being an orphan, and
    she snubs Cecily until she discovers she has a large personal fortune.
  3. Dual Identities
    As a subset of the sincerity theme (see above), Wilde explores in depth
    what it means to have a dual identity in Victorian society. This duality
    is most apparent in Algernon and Jack's "Bunburying" (their creation of
    an alter ego to allow them to evade responsibility). Wilde hints that
    Bunburying may cover for homosexual liaisons, or at the very least serve
    as an escape from oppressive marriages. Other characters also create
    alternate identities. For example, Cecily writes correspondence between
    herself and Ernest before she has ever met him. Unlike real men, who
    are free to come and go as they please, she is able to control this
    version of Ernest. Finally, the fact that Jack has been unwittingly
    leading a life of dual identities shows that our alter egos are not as
    far from our "real" identities as we would think.
  4. Idleness of the Leisure Class and the Aesthete
    Wilde good-naturedly exposes the empty, trivial lives of the
    aristocracy-good-naturedly, for Wilde also indulged in this type of
    lifestyle. Algernon is a hedonist who likes nothing better than to eat,
    gamble, and gossip without consequence. Wilde has described the play as
    about characters who trivialize serious matters and solemnize trivial
    matters; Algernon seems more worried by the absence of cucumber
    sandwiches (which he ate) than by the serious class conflicts that he
    quickly smoothes over with wit. But Wilde has a more serious intent: he
    subscribes to the late-19th-century philosophy of aestheticism, espoused
    by Walter Pater, which argues for the necessity of art's primary
    relationship with beauty, not with reality. Art should not mirror
    reality; rather, Wilde has said, it should be "useless" (in the sense of
    not serving a social purpose; it is useful for our appreciation of
    beauty). Therefore, Algernon's idleness is not merely laziness, but the
    product of someone who has cultivated an esteemed sense of aesthetic
  5. Farce
    The most famous aspect of Oscar Wilde's literature is his epigrams:
    compact, witty maxims that often expose the absurdities of society using
    paradox. Frequently, he takes an established cliché and alters it to
    make its illogic somehow more logical ("in married life three is company
    and two is none"). While these zingers serve as sophisticated critiques
    of society, Wilde also employs several comic tools of "low" comedy,
    specifically those of farce. He echoes dialogue and actions, uses comic
    reversals, and explodes a fast-paced, absurd ending whose implausibility
    we overlook because it is so ridiculous. This tone of wit and farce is
    distinctively Wildean; only someone so skilled in both genres could
    combine them so successfully.
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