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The Importance of Being Earnest By Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde was an extraordinary character, a coveted party guest whose witty, urbane, irreverent, wise, generous, and kind presence was sought by many.

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The Importance of Being Earnest By Oscar Wilde

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The Importance of

Being Earnest

By Oscar Wilde


Oscar Wilde was an extraordinary character, a coveted party guest whose witty, urbane, irreverent, wise, generous, and kind presence was sought by many.

  • W.B. Yeats said, “…the dinner table was Wilde’s event and made him the greatest talker of his time, and his plays and dialogues have what merit they possess from being an initiation, now a record, of his talk.”

About Wilde

Wilde was more than just a posturing aesthete. His nature was governed by an irreconcilable duality. He was the most of men yet frequently destitute, graceful while unusually muscular, whimsical though keenly observant, no one’s fool and society’s whipping boy.

What do you think the word duality means based off of the quote? Can you predict and explain how one person can have these characteristics?


Wilde Biography

Oscar FingalO’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854 to notable parents. His father, Robert Wills Wilde, was a well-established surgeon (and womanizer) and his mother, Jane Francesca Elgee, wrote poetry under the name “Speranza.”

In this learned, if somewhat eccentric environment, Wilde was exposed to culture, drama and aesthetics.

Aesthetics = The study of beauty and art.


Wilde Biography

An accomplished student, Wilde attended some of Dublin’s finest educational institutions—the Protestant public school Portora Royal (1864) and Trinity College, to which he won a scholarship in 1871.

Young Wilde


Wilde Biography

Under the tutelage of such eminent fine arts scholars as John Ruskin and Walter Pater, Wilde developed his particular sense of aestheticism, which he refined to an art. He affected a languishing air, wore eccentric clothes, grew his hair long, and often carried lilies or sunflowers.

How do you think Wilde was received by the public?

Can you think of any other famous people that act this way?


Early Career

“It’s extraordinary how soon one gets known in London,”

---After leaving Oxford.

  • His first published works, the play Vera; or, The Nihilists and a collection of poetry, called Poems received mixed reviews.
  • In 1882, due to the growing popularity of Patience, he was invited to visit the United States on a lecture tour of the “decorative arts,” which was very successful.

Major Influence of the time

(The Decadent art movement in Paris)

“When good Americans die, they go to Paris; when bad Americans die, they stay in America.” --- Wilde

  • Upon Wilde’s return to Europe he went straight to Paris where he met with decadent artists and writers while drafting poems and plays.

What do you think are some characteristics of Decadent art based upon the paintings below?


Decadence in Literature

“As a method, Realism is a complete failure and the two things that every artist should avoid are modernity of form and modernity of subject matter.” ---- Wild

Why the opposition to Realism?

Answer: Wilde believed modernity is quickly outdated and ultimately precludes the reader’s ability to associate with or find meaning in the story.


Wilde Gets Married!

Wilde’s income was meager and always short of his extravagant spending.

In 1884 he married Constance Lloyd, the beautiful young daughter of Dublin barrister, whose small fortune helped to rectify his financial difficulties.


Later in his career

  • In 1887 Wilde became editor of The Woman’s World, a progressive magazine, and held that position for two years.
  • Leading up to the final years of his life, Wilde prolifically wrote: The Happy Prince and Other Tales, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories, The Picture of Dorian Gray, A Woman of No Importance and An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest.

A Scandalous Affair

----Total ruin nipped at the heels of his most lauded success, The Importance of Being Earnest.

The father of Alfred Douglas, the Marquess of Queensbury, outraged by his son’s relationship with Wilde, went to the theater on opening night. Denied entrance, he left a bouquet of vegetables and four days later followed it with an insulting card, sent to his club: “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic].”

How do you think this effected Wilde’s career?


Wilde’s Response!

Wilde is then advised by friends to be prudent, and leave the country. How do you think he responded?

  • “Prudent? How can I be that? It would mean going backward. I must go as far as possible.”
  • Wilde sued the Marquess for libel, but when his own homosexual activity came under scrutiny during the rigorous cross-examination, he was arrested on the lesser charge for committing indecent acts.

The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest is “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.” The brilliance and wit of the play lie in the dialogue, however, and not the plot.



The Importance of Being Earnest takes place in London and the countryside in 1895, the last few years of the period that would be termed Victorian England.

The English aristocracy flourished during this time.

It is this group on which Wilde’s

satire focuses, along with their

view that marriage has nothing to

do with love, but is rather a means

for achieving social status.

Summarize the ideas above in

1 to 2 sentences.


The Aesthetic Movement

  • Wilde was a leader of the Aesthetic Movement, which professed a belief in "art for art’s sake." Art shouldn’t merely look to life or nature for inspiration, for art that too closely imitates life is a failure, according to Wilde.
  • Plays with characters who spoke and acted just like they would in real life were utterly boring to followers of Wilde’s philosophy.

Aesthetes and Non-Aesthete Characters

  • Characters in the play can be divided into two categories, aesthetes and non-aesthetes.
  • You will be tested on distinguishing which characters fall into which categories on the final test.

Aesthete – One having or affecting sensitivity to the beautiful

  • Wilde’s aesthetes are brilliantly witty, avoid work at all costs, and prize appearance above all else.
  • These are characters who can pull a perfectly phrased line right out of the air at a moment’s notice and can do the same with a more material thing: a diary, for example.

Non-aesthetes are the

opposites of Aesthetes

  • They have no sense of the delicate beauty of life and it takes a lot of hard work for them to get what they want. There is none of the easy wit or graceful appearance that is characteristic of an Aesthete.
  • Even their dress reflects their toils: the colors are earthy and mundane in contrast to the jewel-toned Aesthetes.

Terms to Know

Satire—using humor to expose something or someone to ridicule.

Farce—a broad comedy, dependent on overblown speech, unbelievable situations, exaggerated characters, and, frequently, sexual innuendoes.

Epigram—a short statement or poem with a witty turn of thought or a wittily condensed expression.

Refresh: What is Wilde mocking in this play?

“I can resist anything, but temptation.”


Terms to Know

Comedy of Manners — a popular form of satirical drama during the English Restoration (approximately 1660-1700). Satire was often directed at peculiar social behavior. The dialogue was witty and polished, and the plot frequently involved illicit lovers and cases of mistaken identity.

Pun — an expression that achieves emphasis or humor by utilizing:-- two distinctly different meanings for the same word or two similar sounding words.

Observe the examples of puns below.

Share examples you have heard.

Two fish are in a tank. One says to the other, “ how do you drive this thing?”

I've been to the dentist many times so I know the drill.

Being struck by lightning is a shocking experience!


Terms to Know

Dramatic Irony – When the audience know something a character does not.

Situational Irony – When the opposite happens of what is expected.


A punny title

Meet Algernon Moncrieff and Jack Worthing.

Both characters are a type of character Wilde created called the “Dandy.”

Like Wilde, Algernon and Jack are

witty, educated, effeminate, avid followers

of the latest fashion and represent

The Victorian upper class.

They both use the excuse of visiting

A fictional brother Ernest to shirk

their duties at home and escape

to go on vacation in the country.

Ironically, it just so happens that the word earnest means “serious” and “sincere.” Earnest is used as a pun for one of the lessons of the play.

Neither the audience, nor the other fictional characters of the play can compliment either character as being honest, serious or sincere.


Themes to Identify

  • Manners and Sincerity
  • Idleness of the Leisure Class
  • Dual Identities
  • Critique of Marriage as a Social Tool
  • Love
  • Foolishness and Folly

The Nature of Humor

The contribution made to the comic from the realm of the unconscious is always either exposing or obscene; aggressive or hostile; cynical, critical, or blasphemous; or skeptical.

Every joke contains an element of seriousness; a joke is never just a joke.

-Sigmund Freud


Act I

ALGERNON. Did you hear what I was playing, Lane?

LANE. I didn't think it polite to listen, sir.

ALGERNON. I'm sorry for that, for your sake. I don't play accurately - any one can play accurately - but I play with wonderful expression.

Sometimes humor arises when we expect to hear conventional wisdom but then hear something quite different. Why are Lane’s lines humorous?


Act I

What is humorous & ironic about both of the statements in red?

LANE. No, sir; it is not a very interesting subject. I never think of it myself.

ALGERNON. Very natural, I am sure. That will do, Lane, thank you.

LANE. Thank you, sir. [LANE goes out.]

ALGERNON. Lanes views on marriage seem somewhat lax. Really, if the lower orders don't set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them? They seem, as a class, to have absolutely no sense of moral responsibility.


The epigram

Jack :“When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people.”

How is this true?


Act I

ALGERNON. And who are the people you amuse?

JACK. [Airily.] Oh, neighbours, neighbours.

ALGERNON. Got nice neighbours in your part of Shropshire?

JACK. Perfectly horrid! Never speak to one of them.

ALGERNON. How immensely you must amuse them!

Where is the humor in the lines above?

Jack flip-flops about talking to neighbors. First he amuses them, and then never speaks to them.

Algernon doesn’t seem to care either way. He is being sarcastic when he says, “How immensely you must amuse them!”


Act I - Themes

What themes are implied in the following lines?

JACK. I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her.

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


Identify the literary device & theme

ALGERNON. You have always told me it was Ernest. I have introduced you to every one as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life. It is perfectly absurd your saying that your name isn't Ernest. It's on your cards. Here is one of them. [Taking it from case.] 'Mr. Ernest Worthing, B. 4, The Albany.' I'll keep this as a proof that your name is Ernest if ever you attempt to deny it to me, or to Gwendolen, or to any one else.

“Earnest-looking” involves a pun with the name Ernest.

Themes – Dual identities and lies



Who is Cecily?

Cecily is Jack’s Ward


What is a Bunburyist?

What is a Bunburyist? Who is a Bunburyist? How does the concept relate to the themes of the play?

Both Jack and Algy are Bunburyists. They both create fictional excuses to get them away from home. The concept relates to themes of idleness and leisure and having dual identities.


Identify the highlighted literary device. Who is Wilde criticizing through Algernon?

ALGERNON. The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!

JACK. That wouldn't be at all a bad thing.

ALGERNON. Literary criticism is not your forte, my dear fellow. Don't try it. You should leave that to people who haven't been at a University. They do it so well in the daily papers.


Wilde aims a satiric barb at uneducated people who believe themselves to be good critics.


Lady Bracknell & Gwendolen

How are both of these characters related to Algernon?

Lady Bracknell = Algernon’s aunt

Gwendolen = Lady Bracknell’s her daughter.


The Happy English Home

There are several jokes about English home life. Can you find them? Do you think there is some truth to them or perhaps that Wilde means what he says?

3 LADY BRACKNELL. I'm sorry if we are a little late, Algernon, but I was obliged to call on dear Lady Harbury. I hadn't been there since her poor husband's death. I never saw a woman so altered; she looks quite twenty years younger.

2) ALGERNON. Then your wife will. You don't seem to realize, that in married life three is company and two is none.

JACK. [Sententiously.] That, my dear young friend, is the theory that the corrupt French Drama has been propounding for the last fifty years.

ALGERNON. Yes; and that the happy English home has proved in half the time.

1) Algernon: …She will place me next Mary Farquhar, who always flirts with her own husband across the dinner-table. That is not very pleasant. Indeed, it is not even decent . . . and that sort of thing is enormously on the increase. The amount of women in London who flirt with their own husbands is perfectly scandalous. It looks so bad. It in simply washing one's clean linen in public.


What are your first impressions about Gwendolen? How do you think Wilde might be using her character to mock society?

GWENDOLEN. Yes, I am quite well aware of the fact. And I often wish that in public, at any rate, you had been more demonstrative. For me you have always had an irresistible fascination. Even before I met you I was far from indifferent to you. We live, as I hope you know, Mr Worthing, in an age of ideals. The fact is constantly mentioned in the more expensive monthly magazines, and has reached the provincial pulpits, I am told; and my ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest. There is something in that name that inspires absolute confidence. The moment Algernon first mentioned to me that he had a friend called Ernest, I knew I was destined to love you.

Gwendolen is indeed as frivolous and silly as both Algy and Jack. Through Gwendolen, Wilde is mocking the ideals of modern Victorian women and how they are influenced by pop culture magazines rather than credible institutions.


Thoughts on Engagement

Identify the humor and the theme in Lady Bracknell’s lines.

LADY BRACKNELL. Pardon me, you are not engaged to any one. When you do become engaged to some one, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself . . . And now I have a few questions to put to you, Mr. Worthing. While I am making these inquiries, you, Gwendolen, will wait for me below in the carriage.


Thoughts on Engagement

Why does Lady Bracknell forbid Jack to marry Gwendolen?

Jack does not know his parents. To Lady Bracknell, class and status are of the utmost importance. Jack, unfortunately, was found in a hand back.


Secrets among Friends

Why do you think Jack keeps his life in the country a secret from Algernon? How does Algernon find the address to Jack’s house?

Jack does not fully Algernon, especially with his ward Cecily. Algernon overhears Jack giving his address to Gwendolen.


Act II – Types of Irony

MISS PRISM. Your guardian enjoys the best of health, and his gravity of demeanour is especially to be commanded in one so comparatively young as he is. I know no one who has a higher sense of duty and responsibility.

CECILY. I suppose that is why he often looks a little bored when we three are together.

MISS PRISM. Cecily! I am surprised at you. Mr. Worthing has many troubles in his life. Idle merriment and triviality would be out of place in his conversation. You must remember his constant anxiety about that unfortunate young man his brother.

What type of irony is present in the lines above?



Act II

Irony and Theme

ALGERNON. Oh! I am not really wicked at all, cousin Cecily. You mustn't think that I am wicked.

CECILY. If you are not, then you have certainly been deceiving us all in a very inexcusable manner. I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.


Jokes on Marriage and Celibacy

CHASUBLE. Believe me, I do not deserve so neologistic a phrase. The precept as well as the practice of the Primitive Church was distinctly against matrimony.

MISS PRISM. [Sententiously.] That is obviously the reason why the Primitive Church has not lasted up to the present day. And you do not seem to realise, dear Doctor, that by persistently remaining single, a man converts himself into a permanent public temptation. Men should be more careful; this very celibacy leads weaker vessels astray.

CHASUBLE. But is a man not equally attractive when married?

MISS PRISM. No married man is ever attractive except to his wife.

CHASUBLE. And often, I've been told, not even to her.


Act II

Jack has asked Chasuble to change his name to Ernest for Gwendolen. Algernon has told Cecily that his name is also Ernest. List at least three problems that might arise as a result.





Act II

What has Jack told Cecily and Miss Prism about Earnest?

Why has Jack planned to have Earnest die?

They believe that Earnest is Jack’s wicked brother, an invalid who needs to be taken care of by Jack. Once Jack marries Gwendolen he will not need to go to the city anymore. Cecily is ironically becoming too interested in Earnest which is also becoming an inconvenience.


Act II Jack vs. Algernon Debate

In your opinion, is one character more immoral than the other?

First list what lies they tell, and how the lies effect other characters in the play.

When Jack fabricates his brother Ernest’s death, he imposes that fantasy on his loved ones, and though we are aware of the deception, they, of course, are not. He rounds out the deception with costumes and props, and he does his best to convince the family he’s in mourning. He is acting hypocritically. In contrast, Algernon and Cecily make up elaborate stories that don’t really assault the truth in any serious way or try to alter anyone else’s perception of reality.


Act II

Explain the dramatic and situational irony in the context of this scene.

ALGERNON. Brother John, I have come down from town to tell you that I am very sorry for all the trouble I have given you, and that I intend to lead a better life in the future.

CECILY. Uncle Jack, you are not going to refuse

your own brother's hand?

JACK. Nothing will induce me to take his hand.

I think his coming down here disgraceful. He

knows perfectly well why.

CECILY. Uncle Jack, do be nice. There is some good in every one. Ernest has just been telling me about his poor invalid friend Mr. Bunbury whom he goes to visit so often. And surely there must be much good in one who is kind to an invalid, and leaves the pleasures of London to sit by a bed of pain.


Act II

Explain the irony within the highlighted statement. How is Wilde satirizing Victorian society through Cecily’s diary?

CECILY. I think your frankness does you great credit, Ernest. If you will allow me, I will copy your remarks into my diary.

ALGERNON. Do you really keep a diary? I'd give anything to look at it. May I?

CECILY. Oh no. You see, it is simply a very young girl's record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication. When it appears in volume form I hope you will order a copy.


Act II

What is funny about the disagreement between

Gwendolen and Cecily?

They both believe they are in love with Ernest; the reality is neither of the men are actually Ernest.


Act III – satire

Gwendolen: In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing. Mr. Worthing, what explanation can you offer to me for pretending to have a brother? Was it in order that you might have an opportunity of coming up to town to see me as often as possible?

How does this statement further characterize Gwendolen?

In consideration that she was just lied to, what does this response say about her character? If Gwendolen in some ways represents, the modern Victorian, how is Wilde satirizing them?

Gwendolen is empty-headed and does not understand what is truly important. Her ideal of(finding a man named Ernest) - a symbol for the ideal Victorian pomp and circumstance-- a life of appearances and wealth is presented to the audience as silly.


Identify the theme

Gwendolen: In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing. Mr. Worthing, what explanation can you offer to me for pretending to have a brother? Was it in order that you might have an opportunity of coming up to town to see me as often as possible?


Act II

Why does Algernon get rid of Bunbury?

ALGERNON. My dear Aunt Augusta, I mean he was found out! The doctors found out that Bunbury could not live, that is what I mean - so Bunbury died.

LADY BRACKNELL. He seems to have had great confidence in the opinion of his physicians. I am glad, however, that he made up his mind at the last to some definite course of action, and acted under proper medical advice


Act III - Refresh

What problem does Lady Bracknell have with Jack marrying Gwendolen? What themes are implied?

Mr. Worthing, is Miss Cardew at all connected with any of the larger railway stations in London? I merely desire information. Until yesterday I had no idea that there were any families or persons whose origin was a Terminus.

JACK. Miss Cardew is the grand-daughter of the late Mr. Thomas Cardew of 149 Belgrave Square, S.W.; Gervase Park, Dorking, Surrey; and the Sporran, Fifeshire, N.B.

LADY BRACKNELL. That sounds not unsatisfactory. Three addresses always inspire confidence, even in tradesmen. But what proof have I of their authenticity?

JACK. I have carefully preserved the Court Guides of the period. They are open to your inspection, Lady Bracknell.



Who or what is Wilde satirizing through Lady Bracknell’s lines?

LADY BRACKNELL. [Sitting down again.] A moment, Mr. Worthing. A hundred and thirty thousand pounds! And in the Funds! Miss Cardew seems to me a most attractive young lady, now that I look at her. Few girls of the present day have any really solid qualities, any of the qualities that last, and improve with time.

LADY BRACKNELL. Never speak disrespectfully of Society, Algernon. Only people who can't get into it do that. [To CECILY.] Dear child, of course you know that Algernon has nothing but his debts to depend upon. But I do not approve of mercenary marriages. When I married Lord Bracknell I had no fortune of any kind. But I never dreamed for a moment of allowing that to stand in my way.

Lady Bracknell only approves of Cecily when finding out about her money. She is a hypocrite, because she married into a rich family without having any.



What does it turn out is Jack’s real identity? What is his real name?

Jack is Lady Bracknell's nephew and Algy’s older brother. He has the same name as his father, Ernest Moncrieff.

“I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest.”


Essay Questions

  • Be sure to give at least 3 examples per question!
  • Discuss the central pun of the play (Ernest/earnest) and its significance.
  • What character in the play is the most shallow and reprehensible?
  • What and who does Wilde target for satire in his play.
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