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The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde Essay

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Updated: Feb 21st, 2019


Realism in the visual arts emphasizes on the objective representation of reality and accuracy, where theater and drama are important components. To achieve realism in plays, playwrights strive to present real people experiencing confrontations with the physical and philosophical difficulties where they tend to become victims of forces beyond their control.

Like the average person, the characters in realist plays hardly arrive at solutions to their respective predicaments. However, people consider realism a dead practice in the arts since, as most playwrights argue, it interferes with the aesthetic quality of the work with people like Vivian declaring it a complete failure. In fact, the claim is true and to the point as Oscar Wilde reveals.

Realism: A Complete Failure

Oscar Wilde does not recognize realism, as a method worth holding dear as done by most of the writers of his times, because according to him, it is no more than a total failure. In his comedy, “The Importance of being Earnest”, he explores considerably serious themes such as marriage in a considerably exaggerated way.

Most critics of this work therefore consider the play as utterly frivolous and superficial. The critics argue that, based on the manner in which Wilde explores the complex aspect marriage, one can only reach it upon handling the work in a realistic manner.

This makes the audience to distance themselves from the happenings in the play in that they consider it as mere entertainment. There are several instances in the play where Wilde deliberately ignores realism in the manner he depicts the interaction between the characters, their dialogue, and their actions since it does not work according to him.

The opening scene of the play ‘The Importance of Being Earnest”, the reader is introduced to highly stylized, exaggerated and unrealistic world .The characters in this scene as well a s others throughout the play are not real characters in that they seem to worriless about what they say. They are there literal constructs created to deliver the lines. Firstly, there seems to raise a contradiction in the event where Earnest Worthing wants to take a cucumber though his host Algernon reprimands it.

Algernon continuously claims that he has ordered the cucumbers expressly for Lady Blacknell at the same time eating them. He has the excuse that he is in a position to eat the sandwiches since they belong to his aunt. Algernon suggests that Jack eat the bread and butter ordered for Gwendolen. When he embarks on it with enthusiasm, Algernon stops him again accusing him of now behaving as if already married to Gwendolen. This creates the idea that is most contested by critics of food being a cause of social conflicts.

The fact that Algernon claims to have gotten his evidence about jack having been leading a double life by looking at a cigarette case is quite irrational as far as realism is concerned. The portrayal of Cecily is that of a young innocent girl in the country farm whom jack is patronizing, the question here arises on how the girl had to write to his uncle on a cigarette case.

This is a deliberate creation formed by Wilde to engage the aspect of jack being leading a double life. In fact, considering that Algernon has known jack as Earnest for years, it beats logic to express it in realism how jack admits so easily and confesses his real identity. The idea of a man not knowing where his best friend resides after years of having known him is absurd and unrealistic. In order to make the play interesting Wilde has to sacrifice the aspect of realism.

The whole idea of the name of a partner being an important determinant in choosing a marriage partner is completely silly in the manner that it coincidentally matters to two different women in different circumstances who fall for a man just because of his name. For a realist, this is a merely constructed coincidence to have the plot of the play moving.

The two women with their differences associate the name ‘Earnest’ with confidence by saying that, “it inspires absolute confidence”. In the scene where woman Blacknel is interviewing Jack to rate his eligibility as a potential son in law, the questions that the woman ask are completely unrelated to the context at hand. Oscar Wilde seems to have this character to allude to the British upper class’s domineering nature.

The woman seems in excessive control of who should marry her daughter than the girl herself. Her language is satirical and unconcerned, which is characteristic of the unrealism contained in the whole play. Wilde poses that being more concerned about realism ties the playwrights’ hands in expressing serious issues in the society in an interesting way.

Lady Blacknel is full of contradictions, which seem mostly deliberate to create humor. She tells jack, “To lose one parent, Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” This remark draws its funniness from the fact that it is simply absurd and unconventional.

One cannot consider this the case as far as realistic representation of life stands in that only the truth about the events stand a chance to appear in records. For instance, she tells Jack, “Land has ceased to be either a profit or a pleasure”. Later she contradicts herself and acclaims when he reveals to her that he has a country house. She says, “A country house!” this reveals that she is a changeable character created by Wilde to satirize the upper class.

It is through coincidences that shape the manner, in which the characters in this play interact with each other. This makes the flow of the play so predictable that the audience can guess with ease what will follow next. In fact, every encounter in the play is a constructed coincidence by the writer to move the plot further.

This falls short of the representation of reality that is the major inspiration to the realists. The scene where Jack proposes to Gwendolen reveals the deliberate contradictory of the realism held during the times when this play’s composition. Jack stammers while the woman Gwendolen takes charge courageously. Wilde wants to deliberately alter and provoke the rethinking of the assumptions that shaped the reality of gender roles in the Victorian era.

The idea of wickedness fascinates Cecily and it is through this that she falls head over heels in love with the character Earnest whom jack creates and never exists in the real sense. She even looks forward to meeting a wicked person. This is a mere construct considering all the bad attributes link with wickedness. The attributes are characteristic of the villains in the realistic performances.

Wilde expresses failure of realism in this particular play in the manner of playing some issues that considered as weighty unlike other cases in “The importance of Being Earnest”. For instance, the issue of death in the play stands out as a simple thing that has no weight whatsoever. This stands out first through woman Blacknel’s remark that having lost two parents amounts to carelessness on the part of the victim.

In another scene jack comes in to announce to Cecily that the fictitious character Earnest is dead. This casualness fails in realism in that a person cannot lie about the death of another without the fear of providing proof on the matter. Jack has only his Victorian mourning regalia as his only proof of the death of his brother. This portrays the shallowness represented by Wilde in the play.


In as much as realism is a method believed and applied by many, Wilde declares it a total failure based on his illustrations. It interferes with the quality of works in the literary works as proposed artists who claim that realism does not hold but rather interferes with the logic behind the importance of the arts in the society.

Depiction of real characters dealing with real issues makes the audience identify themselves with the characters presented as well as the issues addressed in the performances. Oscar Wilde and others in his school of thought advocates for the enjoyment of plays and literary works for what they are, but not based on their effect in the society. This is the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ where people need to view realism, not as a means to an end but as an end in itself.

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