This week I read The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde for the Read 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge. This three-act play, written in the late 1800s and set in 1890,was a refreshing change from the books (fiction and non-fiction) that I recently have been reading.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a satirical social comedy that focuses on a young gentleman named John Worthing who invented a fictitious brother he called “Ernest.” Ernest's wicked ways provide John with an excuse to leave his country home from time to time and journey to London. While he is in London, John stays with his close friend, Algernon Moncrieff.
Algernon has a cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax, with whom John is deeply in love. During his stays in London, John, under the name Ernest, has won Gwendolen’s love, for she strongly desires to marry someone with the confidence-inspiring name of Ernest. However, when he asks for Gwendolen’s hand in marriage from Lady Bracknell, John must reveal that he is an orphan who was left in a handbag at Victoria Station.
This information is very disturbing to Lady Bracknell who insists that he produce at least one parent before she consents to the marriage.
So, John returned to the country home where he lives with his ward Cecily Cardew and her governess Miss Prism to find that Algernon also arrived under the identity of the non-existent brother Ernest. Algernon falls madly in love with the beautiful Cecily, who has long been enamored of the fascinating and mysterious brother Ernest.
With the arrival of Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen, chaos erupts. It is discovered that Miss Prism is the absent-minded nurse who 20 years ago misplaced the baby of Lady Bracknell’s brother in Victoria Station. Thus John, whose name is indeed Ernest, is Algernon’s elder brother, and the play ends with the two couples in a happy embrace.
The play initially begins slowly and is a bit confusing. However, by the middle of the second act the story picks up and becomes much more engaging. At that point, I didn't want to put the book down.
Because the play was published in the late 1800s, the vocabulary is, at times, different than what is commonly heard today. Although dated, it was delightful to be challenged to read and comprehend words that aren't used in everyday language.
I enjoyed seeing how the name of the play tied into the story. In addition to being a pun on the chosen name of Jack's alter ego, "earnest" means "characterized by a firm, humorless belief in one's opinions" (which describes Jack as he explains the reason for his two names), "devout, heartfelt" (which describes Jack's feelings for Gwendolen), and "not distracted by anything unrelated to the goal" (which can describe Jack's decisions about being christened).
The Importance of Being Earnest is a play that would be interesting to both read and watch. There are two readily-available movie versions of the play: one done in 1952 and the other in 2002. I would like to watch both of them and see the difference in how the play was interpreted.