Victorian Values in the Play The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde’s, “The Importance of Being Earnest” is a Victorian era play dealing with many themes and values that were often prevalent in Victorian artists work at the time. One of the themes that was ultra-prevalent throughout Wilde’s play was the element of duality in man. We as humans are dualistic in our nature, leading our lives as upstanding citizens for the public to witness, while also possessing seedy truths behind closed doors. These characters within Wilde’s play are no exception to this rule, playing with the notion that we as humans are all beautifully flawed because of this element of duality that we possess.

In Oscar Wilde’s, “The Importance of Being Earnest” many of his characters present aspects of a dualistic nature, but Earnest seems to be the physical embodiment of this Victorian era theme. Earnest’s dualistic nature is unearthed in a conversation between him and Algernon when they are discussing the idea of Earnest proposing to Algernon’s cousin. During this conversation, Algernon is pressing his friend for information on whom gave him his cigarette case and why it is addressed to someone named Jack. After much hesitation Earnest relinquishes a potentially damaging truth about his personal life. Earnest states, “Well my name is Ernest in town and Jack in the country, and the cigarette case was given to me in the country” (Wilde 890). To much surprise, Algernon is taken aback by the fact that his long time friend has been leading a life with two persona’s. Algernon has only known his friend as Earnest throughout the duration of their friendship and has never even heard the name “Jack” mentioned before. He appears to have a family, backstory, and name while away from the city that Algernon knew nothing about. Though he is taken aback by this reality, Algernon states, “I may mention that I have always suspected you of being a confirmed and secret Bunburyist” (Wilde 890). Algernon may have picked up on hints to his friends secrets, but close friends and family may only truly know a person at surface value. Humans possess dark truths because of their dualistic nature and Earnest is no exception to this. Humans are complex beings and cannot be evaluated at a surface level, rather a psychological one in order to appreciate the reality of one’s life.

Though Earnest’s dualistic nature is revealed in this conversation, it is interesting to note that he alludes to the appeal of dualism in one’s life earlier on in the conversation. Earlier in the conversation Earnest states, “When one is in town one amuses oneself, When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring” (Wilde 888). Society requires humans to adapt to their surroundings and Earnest has presented himself as an upstanding and proper English gentleman in front of those that expect a man of his status to appear as such. He presents himself as such to people like Algernon, but he obviously has hidden secrets and taboos of his life because he disguises himself with multiple monikers. These monikers are presumably used by Earnest to help detach him from obligations that he holds in the country, so that he can delve into a sort of excess in the city. The city is a place of taboo with the likes of prostitutes, homosexuals, and pornogrpahers where one indulges in excess. The city is viewed as cesspool for sin and desire, while the country is for wholesome and proper people with morals and values.

Earnest presumably possesses these morals and values that he does in the country in front of Algernon, but that is because people in society present the best version of themselves for the people that we associate with. For example, Earnest states that the people he amuses this persona with in the country are his “neighbors” (Wilde 888). People such as, “neighbors” are whom most of us try to appear as nice or wholesome in front of, but in reality we possess many secrets behind closed doors. We as people blend both our internal desires and societal expectations into what society knows as ourselves, but if given the chance, we would indulge in based desires if that meant not tarnishing our status in society. This element of duality is prevalent not only within Earnest, but also regular people in society, which is why Victorian era writers were so fascinated with this fact of human nature.

This Victorian theme of the duality of human nature is prevalent within Wilde’s work, but one cannot escape the feeling that this theme holds relevance in our society today. We as humans present ourselves as the best possible version of ourselves to others in society, but truthfully we all possess dark truths. We all possess secrets and have vices that we indulge in, but prefer others not to know about. These pleasures that we indulge in, according to Earnest, are for “oneself” (Wilde 888). Life can be dull at times and humans tend to indulge in the pleasures that life has to offer in order to break the monotony that life tends to offer. This indulgence doesn’t make one disgusting, but rather it makes one human. This dualistic element of human nature appears to instinctive because humans all throughout history have possessed elements of it. The Victorian era artists may have highlighted the reality of dualism within humans, but it seems that it was and still is a common occurrence in society.

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Victorian Values in the Play The Importance of Being Earnest. (2022, Nov 30). Retrieved February 23, 2024 , from
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