This is Oscar Wilde’s attack of Victorian high society and their false sense of morality and ethics back in the late nineteenth century. He does this at a time when it was very easy for a writer to become entangled with the authorities—Wilde was imprisoned to two years hard labour for being a homosexual. And so, whilst the play caused the audience of the St James’s Theatre in London to rollick with laughter, the gentry amongst the audience would have, at least on a subconscious level, felt that the pun was on them. As for the proletariat, they would have laughed at their hearts’ content at being given this opportunity to reveal the falsehood of the upper classes.
In his play, Wilde ensured his actors played out their roles seriously: this had the dual effect of showing Victorian society in a clear unbiased light, and also protected the writer from being prosecuted, since he was not directly ridiculing the upper classes.
The theme of the play involves two gentlemen and their lady friends and how they meet, frolic with words, and eventually accept ‘marriage contracts’, and the word ‘contract’ is used because none of the interested parties knew of the others’ existence long enough to form bonds of true friendship that would justify leading to marriage. Wilde brings the play to a close by wrapping up loose ends with regards to Earnest’s identity, and does this in a way that the title adopts several meanings:
- It was important for one of the protagonists to be called Earnest, because it was a shallow precondition his future wife set upon him.
- Initially found as an orphan, and named Jack, his discovery of his identity reveals how it is important for him to be called Earnest because it gives him an identity, a family background beyond being an orphan discovered in a bag.
- Earnest is the name he uses for an invented brother.
- Earnest is the quality he supposedly needs to have to be able to earn the hand of his lady—by lying about his identity, at least initially, he proves that he is not.
- Wilde, by use of the title, shows that to Victorian upper class society, when it comes to morality, ethics, and marriage contracts, being earnest is the least important of qualities: money, status, position, inheritance being of the utmost importance.